The liberation of Zepperen by a U.S. reconnaissance patrol, September 1944,
and the 25th Field Artillery Battalion in billet, December 1944
After the landing in Normandy, 6th of June 1944, the Allied forces started the liberation of Belgium in September as quickly as possible in order to use the very important seaport of Antwerp. On September 4, 1944, the 113 “Red Horse” Cavalry Group Mechanized, which was bivouacked south of Tournai, received the mission of reconnoiter agressiveley east and northeast in the zone of action of the XIX “Tomahawk” Corps, 1th American Army. Strong opposition was to be by-passed. The German situation was to be determined and the condition of roads and bridges was to be reported. The 113th and the 125th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadrons were reinforced. No support could be expected from the main combat elements of the corps, for it was temporarily immobilized because of a gasoline shortage. On September 7, the 113th on the right fought its way to Saint-Trond, where strong resistance was encountered at Staaien as they were ambushed. In the meanwhile the 125th, reinforced by Troop C of the 113th advanced to the vicinity of Hasselt, which was captured before dark. By this time the 2d Armored Division “Hell on Wheels” had refueled and its reconaissance element, the 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, had overtaken the 113th. The A-Company received a very warm welcome by the people of Hasselt but suffered casualties by German fire on the road to Kortessem. By midafternoon September 8 it had been determined that all bridges over the Albert Canal and the Meuse river had been destroyed by the Germans.
A vehical, typical for the U.S.A. Army, was the M8 Ford “Greyhound” light armoured car, on six wheels.
It had a 37 mm.-gun and a Browning .50-gun on the open turret.
Edouard Bonneux, son of the town secretary, managed to take a snap shot of one of those M8-cars
in the street leading from the town center to the railway-station of Ordingen on Friday the 8th.
It probably was one of the reconnaissance vehicals returning from the front line and regrouping
The first American soldiers to stay for a while in Zepperen arrived on the Queen Elisabeth fresh from the States on September 30th in Scotland. The 25th Field Artillery Battalion in the 9th US Army counted three batteries, each equipped with four 105 mm.-guns, pulled by 6 x 6-trucks. After a detour via Cherbourg, France, where they guarded –awaiting their equipment- a pipeline, they left for Belgium.
1st Lieutenant and engineer Hans Buehler, executive officer of battery C wrote :
Finally late in the afternoon, we arrived at the little town of Zepperin, and were we glad, as the entire trip had been well over 600 miles, and that is a long way using a bunch of trucks for transportation. When we arrived, we were met as usual by the advanced party, and they had everything well in hand. We, that is Charlie battery, and Baker, were to be housed in the local school house. School had been closed, so that we would have a place to live, and not to be compelled to stay in tents in a field. Here again, we came in contact with some very hospitable people, and they treated us as kings. The whole town was ours to do as we saw fit.
Here the men found their beer and cognac plentiful, and their were girls, and there was fraternation, but not what the men expected, as the Belgian people are very religious, and tradition is the one thing that had not been counted on, and there may have been a little loving, but not a lot. Anyway, there were girls and the trying I guess at least satisfied some of their desires. The officers again stayed in individual homes, and were treated excellently, and it was really swell to sleep in a bed again. The people did our laundry, and were in turn to give soap, and told us of their trouble during the German occupation.
It was here that we heard and saw our first flying bomb, and I hope I never hear the darn things again, as it is frightful. One could hear them comingin the distance. They souned for all the world like a flighing freight train. They have a roar that you can hear for about a minute or two before they get to you. They are easily seen at night, but in the daytime, about all that you can do is hear the thing. At night one can see a ball of fire rapidly travelling through the air. By the time that the sounds gets tot the hearer, the thing is way past you, because of the speed at which it travels. The part that seems to get everyone to speak, is the time when the noise ceases, and you know that in a few minutes it will land, but where. One night while we were standing outside watching one of the darn things go over, the motor cut out, and it was just quiet as could be. We knew the thing was going to land, but where we didn’t know. We waited for quite some while, but there was never any sound of on explosion. There was an airfield near us, and when the flying bombs would pass over their field they would really cut loose with the anti aircraft fire. We watched that too, but never saw them hit any. I never actually saw the results of one of the boms, but the people of the community ware really scared of the darn things. The ones that went over us were on their way towards Brussels or Liege. Would hear about them in a day or two in the stars and stripes paper. It gave us a little feeling that we were at least near the war zone, and that didn’t make us feel to good. Some times, in the distance we could also see the sky light up when the big guns were letting the Gerry have a little steel. We really had a close feeling in those days.
During our stay here, I had the chance to go to a football game at Maastricht. It was between two tactical air forces and proved to be a pretty good game for the place. There were a few spectacular plays, and all in all I really enjoyed it. I also stopped there in Maastricht and did a little shopping in the oficers clothing store. They really had a classical store there with a heck of lot of clothing but I didn’t buy too much as I had most of the things that I needed.
We had a little more training at Zepperin, but it was rather short lived. We had a final training in gun drill, and the like, and also a little more in the line of physical conditioning.
Oh yes, while there, my birthday came around, and the mess sergeant baked me a swell chocolate cake for my birthday and the thing had 4 layers, and every night for about 3 the officers had cake for a snack in the evening. It seemed quite funny to have a birthday so far away from home, but it made it seem a little more like a birthday.
Finally on the morning of the 23th of December, we pulled out for the line as we were told. We pulled out about 9 in the morning, and the people really hated to see us go. The town was out in mass, and all the people were waving and wishing us the best of luck, and we were beginning to think that before too long we might need a little luck. It was amasing how green one can feel even though everyone had all the training that an outfit could possibly acquire, since the battalion had been together so long. We left Zepperin with a feeling that it was our town since it was the first town that we occupied in which there were no other troops, and in which no other troops except ourselves had ever been billeted.
Hans Buehler and his wife Helen visited Zepperen in June 1990 and they had a warm contact with “Boy Bill”, Guillaume Billen from Zepperen, who – as a lad – accompanied the American soldiers during their billet here and acted a bit as an interpreter and fresh food supplier. Hans passed away on the 9th of July 1996. In August 2002 Helen together with her daughter Joan and son in law Alex Maltman from Wales revisited Zepperen. Guillaume died on the 19th of February 2009.
Captain William M. Floyd, headquarters Battery commander en communications officer wrote :
We were in Zepperen. The townspeople were glad to see us as the Germans had only recently been driven out. We drew our ammunition and made any last minute changes before entering combat. The day we left, two Belgian boys approached me and asked if they could go with us and help fight the Germans. One, Theo, had been in the underground and the Germans had burned his house before they left. The other, Bill, lived near our Zepperin headquarters and just wanted to go along. We outfitted them with uniforms and even got fake dog tags so that if they were captured they would be prisoners of war and not spies. In 1969 Helen and I and one son, Brian, went back to Zepperen. I couldn’t remember where Bill lived but I had a picture of Bill, Theo, and I taken after the war. I went into a tavern and showed the picture and everyone in the place went out in front to point out Bill’s house which was close to the tavern. We saw Bill and his wife and two children. His wife served us some pie and coffee.
We finally went to war. Our first action was in the Hurtgen Forest. It had been a bloody battle for two or three weeks but when we arrived it was nearly over.
Fille Serdons (°1923), Guillaume Billen (°1927), colonel William Floyd and François Serdons (°1891), innkeeper and fertilizer salesman. Floyd was pharmacist in civil life and revisited Zepperen in better season short after the war
1st Lieutenant Antony Shookus, forward observer of C-battery, also wrote down some memories :
On December 7th, we travelled tot Leige (Liège), Tongres and Zepperen, Belgium. Here the men were billeted in a schoolhouse which the town turned over to us. The soldiers were welcomed very gladly by the civilians, they couldn’t seem to do enough for us. Here the officers roomed with private families. The people took very good care of us, we were the first American troops to come to this town. At night we could hear and see the German buzz bombs as they flew overhead, headed for England, Antwerp, Brussels and Saint-Trond. Some landed nearby and made a very loud noise. We could see the bombs in the daytime, our planes would not even try to chase them, they were too fast for them. These boms were bad on the nerves of the men, the windows in the schoolroom would tremble as the boms passed overhead.
An advance party, consisting of the Battery Commander and Reconnaissance O.-parties left Zepperen on the 21ste of December. We passed thru Maastricht, Holland, and Imendorf, Germany. Here the party came into the front lines being held by the 102nd Infantry Division. Some plans went wrong that day and later we returned to Zepperen. We were glad to get back. We had seen conditions under which the men lived at the front and decided that we had enough. It was a releaved feeling that we all had after our return.
The next day the same parties moved out again. Lieutenant Buehler was left in charge of the battery in the absence of the battery commander. This time we went to Aachen, Brand, Stolberg and Mausbach, Germany. We came to Mausbach late in the afternoon and camped there that night. The next morning we traveled to Grosshau, Germany, where we selected our first gun positions. At the position were 6 knocked out American tanks. This position was at the very edge of the Hurtgen forest. There had been terrific battles all around the position and dead American and German soldiers were all around the area. There were two graves in our position, kind of a gostly place to put in your guns. Later in the day the battalion left Zepperen and came into position late in the afternoon. The guns were placed in position that night and the men dug in for the night. Some enemy shell came in during the night. We all slept with our helmets on during the night. It was our first night in combat and all were rather jittery. All the bravery had seemed to leave ones system so quickly.
So, alerted for commitment in the XIX Corps sector, the battalion moved through the grim remains of Aachen and had its first baptism of fire when the battalion column was strafed in Stolberg. The battalion occupied its first combat positions in the Hurtgen Forest. 1st Lieutenant John M. C. Neilson wrote in 1984 from Fort Davis, Texas, to Henry Selis, Madeleine and their beautiful Nady, and to Mother Martens, Emma and family about his feelings when leaving Zepperen : It was 40 years ago, a few days before Christmas, that we left the warmth of Zepperen tot go into combat in the Hurtgen forest in Germany. The guns of the 25th Field Artillery fired their first rounds that Christmas Eve, but our hearts were on Dekkenstraat.
1st Lieutenant John M.C. Neilson, Service Battery 25th FAB
While the guns of the 25th Field Artillery Battalion assisted in driving the Germans east of the Roer, the 3225th Quartermaster Service Company arrived in Zepperen. But that is a new story !
– Zepperen in Twee grote Oorlogen, Zepperen : Remacluskring, 1994, p. 273-288.
– The 113th Cavalry Group. Reconnaissance of XIX Corps zone of action, L’Escaut Canal tot Albert Canal, September 5-8, 1944, in : Armored Cavalry Journal, July-August 1946, p. 3-4.