Tribute to Colonel (then LTC) Benjamin H. VANDERVOORT. Commanding Officer, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.
Liberation of Goronne.
By Colonel (then 1LT) James J. MEYERS, commanding Company D, 505th PIR, 82nd A/B Div.
While I was creating this webpage honoring Colonel VANDERVOORT. I got an e-mail from Colonel MEYERS family informing me that Colonel James J. MEYERS died on the 17th of December 2002. I want to dedicate this page in memory of Colonel James J. MEYERS, Co D, 505th, 82nd A/B, WWII veteran.
In the early 1990s the United States Army Center for Leadership at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas selected one or two colonels or lieutenant colonels from every American War from the Revolution through Vietnam. Two officers were named for the Civil War (one North, the other South) and World War II (one Army ground forces, the other Army Air Forces). Colonel Benjamin H. VANDERVOORT was selected as the outstanding ground battle commander for World War II. He is honored by a brief biography and several photographs in what is known as "Leadership Hallway" located on the second floor of Bell Hall. VANDERVOORT was a truly outstanding battle commander who deserved this honor.
In the morning of 5 January 1945, we advanced into Arbrefontaine. The regiment had outrun a flank unit and after we advanced about a thousand yards we were ordered to go on the defensive. D company moved into a position along a line of four houses that extended up the side of a hill from the main road. We remained in this position from the afternoon of the 5th until the early morning hours of 7 January.
The evening of 6 January, I reported to battalion headquarters to receive the attack order for the following day. The battalion, reinforced by tanks and tank destroyers, would attack with E and F along the Arbrefontaine – Goronne road that lay in a valley. D company would make a secondary attack to seize the high ground north of Goronne. The success of the main attack, moving down the valley, depended upon the secondary attack seizing the high ground overlooking Goronne. Moreover, we were jumping off about two hours before dawn. In the initial phase, it was a night attack – a difficult operation to control over a distance of several thousand yards.
I returned to the company and I issued the attack order to my platoon leaders. We had a large open area of about three hundred yards to negotiate before reaching the base of our objective, a very large heavily wooded hill. I anticipated the Germans would defend along the wood line but I could not be sure. We would advance in column of platoons with patrols to the front for security. I closed by instructing both platoon leaders to send runners to company headquarters.
On the morning of the 7th of January, I sent the runners to make certain both platoon leaders were awake. At the appointed time, company headquarters and the 1st platoon saddled up and moved to the 2nd platoon’s position. I crossed the LD on time with the 1st platoon. We advanced under cover of darkness over open snow covered fields for several hundred yards. Patrols check out the edge of the wood line and reported the area was clear of enemy. We moved into a heavily wooded cultivated pine forest with aligned trees tightly spaced in rows that ran at a tangent to our direction of advance. The darkness and the tree alignment made it extremely difficult to maintain an accurate compass heading through the dense woods. I abandoned the use of the compass in favor of moving uphill toward the high ground that was our objective. As we advanced uphill, we came upon a firebreak where I found German communication wire and I followed the wire up hill some five or six hundred yards. As we neared the top of the hill, we left the cultivated forest and entered a naturally wooded area. The point signaled a halt and a messenger returned to tell me the point heard sounds of men snoring. I joined the point, only a few yards ahead, and listened. I could hear men snoring to our front, flanks and left rear.
Using the men on the point, we organized two teams, one to work each side of the firebreak. The teams went from foxhole to foxhole awakening the sleeping German soldiers, disarming them and bringing them to the column where we passed them to the rear. It was a slow work but all was going well. We had disarmed and captured about six or eight prisoners in this manner when a shot rang out at the rear of the column. One of our men was about half asleep on his feet. He looked up, saw a German POW and in his confusion shot him. All hell broke loose. We came under heavy small arms fire from what appeared to me to be all directions. We managed to form what amounted to an elongated perimeter The Germans to our rear must have panicked for they withdrew, permitting the 2nd platoon under 1SGT ROGERS to join us as first light broke. With ROGERS on the left and PRICE on the right, we pressed forward clearing the area of enemy until we reached a second firebreak that ran at right angles to our direction of attack. At this firebreak we came under heavy machine gun and rifle fire and the fires of supporting mortars and artillery. Both ROGERS and PRICE reported they were pinned down at the edge of the firebreak, a few yards from the defenders. I was only ten or twenty yards to their rear. By inspection, I was able to determine I was on my objective. The topographical crest lay only a few yards beyond the German position to our front.
A lieutenant from the division AA battalion crawled up to me and reported he had a 57mm AT gun and crew with him. He reported his crew had attacked and destroyed a German machine gun to our rear on the way to our position. I was unable to reach the battalion on my radio so the AA officer filled me in on the situation. He reported the battalion was held up in the valley by German infantry supported by two Tiger tanks. If we could seize the crest of the hill, he might be able to get a shot into the rear of one or both of the tanks. While all this was going on, we continued to exchange fires with the defenders at very close range. The AT officer returned to his crew and minutes later I saw the slim figure of my battalion commander, Ben VANDERVOORT, crawling up the firebreak to my position. I briefed him on the situation and I informed him I could muster a reserve of about ten men from my company headquarters, a mortar squad and the AT gun crew. He said he had about six men (I assumed his driver, staff, and security) with him. He said, “Give me about 5 minutes to get in position, then make a frontal assault with your platoons and company headquarters. I’ll flank them with the battalion staff.”
Lt. Colonel Benjamin H. VANDERVOORT (Picture courtesy by James J. MEYERS)
We carried out the assault as order. As we overran the position we received a heavy concentration of mortar fire. The AT officer was advancing a foot or two to my left and HARRIS, my runner, was immediately behind me. I saw an orange flash about five yards to my front. The AA officer threw his hand to his forehead and said, “Joe, I’m hit”. He was dead when he hit the ground. HARRIS was on the ground behind me, severely wounded in both legs; I stood there feeling my body to see if I still was in one piece. Except for a multitude of tiny needle like fragment that sprayed my exposed face and hands, I was unharmed. A messenger arrived within minutes to tell me VANDERVOORT was wounded. I assume the same volley of mortar fire that killed the AT officer hit him. By the time I reorganized the company to protect against a possible counterattack. VANDERVOORT was gone and I later learned he lost an eye. During my thirty years of service, I hope I was able to instill in the young troopers who served under me some of the outstanding traits of character and leadership I observed in Colonel VANDERVOORT. He was a true warrior.
The crest of the hill was in our possession and for the first time I gained radio contact with battalion. I reported the AT squad was moving the 57mm gun in position for a shot at one of the Tigers. I was instructed not to fire, a TD was en route to my position. The TD arrived about two hours later with a captain in command. I pointed out both Tigers.The nearest one was in a ditch at the side of the road. The tank’s hull was in defilade, its turret exposed. We were above the tank and to its right rear. The captain moved the TD into position. He placed the 57mm nearby and he ordered both guns to bore sight before firing at the target. This accomplished, he ordered both crews to take cover in foxholes while he and one 57mm crew member prepared to fire the two guns. As soon, as the guns fired, the captain and the crew member would take cover in nearby holes. The Tiger tank with its 88mm gun was a formidable opponent. If you missed a shot at a Tiger, you were in for big trouble. Earlier in the day, the regiment had lost several tanks and TDs to the two Tigers in the valley.
A few minutes before the TD was scheduled to fire, a platoon of M4 tanks rolled in and reported to me. If the TD successfully eliminated the Tiger, I was to attack down the hill and seize Goronne. After I issued the necessary orders, the two anti-tank guns fired. After a minute or two, the captain and I inched forward and took a look. Both weapons scored a clean hit and disabled the Tiger. We observed the other Tiger withdrawing into Goronne and heading up the Thier-du-Mont, a large hill mass across the valley in the 508’s sector.
With the tanks in support, we immediately launched an assault down the hill. As we broke the military crest, we came upon a battery of horse drawn artillery. The Germans were attempting to hitch up their teams to the howitzers and withdraw. At a range of about fifty yards, we engaged the battery with both tank and infantry weapons. It was a turkey shoot. The tanks engaged and disabled the howitzers and we directed out fire at the men and the animals. It was a wild scene, horses rearing and plunging, tanks firing and the men shouting as we overran the position, an aid station and a nearby CP. During this assault, I saw my first and only enemy soldier killed with cold steel. One of my men jumped in a foxhole and landed on a German hiding in the bottom of the hole. The German probably wanted to surrender, but the trooper’s blood was up. He pulled his trench knife and killed him with repeated blows. I estimated we took about fifty to seventy five prisoners, including one German female nurse, plus horses, howitzers, individual weapons, etc. We didn’t stop to count. We moved straight for Goronne. As we approached the town, the tank platoon leader got a report a Tiger was in town and he refused to accompany us. We secured the town without meeting enemy resistance.
The road into Goronne, a cobblestone street that branched off at right angles from the Arbrefontaine – Vielsalm road, climbed part way up the Thier-du-Mont. About a block off the main road, this street broadened to form a small plaza. Here a farmer and his two attractive young daughters greeted us and invited me to use their home as my CP. The house was a large two stories structure with a barn attached. I accepted the invitation and we moved in after we set up our defensive position. The following morning I received orders to assemble all civilians and move them to the rear where trucks would evacuate them to safety.
Copyright © 2001--2011 James J. MEYERS & Eddy LAMBERTY
Please send your comments, WWII accounts, WWII pictures to:
Eddy LAMBERTY - Avenue Joseph Lejeune 45