Ghosts of Patton's Third Army

WWIIThe following is from a two page article printed in Warweek, dated Saturday, November 11, 1944.

Hitler, you never stopped them…Here are

THE GHOSTS OF PATTON’S THIRD ARMY

By France Herron
Warweek Combat Correspondent

An infantry colonel called the men who do patrol work “the tough guys of the war.” He also referred to them as “the loneliest men in the Army” because they operate behind enemy lines, surrounded by enemy guns. Some do reconnaissance work on foot, some do it in vehicles – but all of them draw rugged assignments.

They become the eyes and ears of an outfit; on them depends the answer to the question of what has the enemy got in store for us. Here is a view of the “tough guys” – these “loneliest men.”

This story is typical of all reconnaissance units.

Phantom Cavalry Raiders Spring from Hill and Dale to Haunt Enemy Communications

“You’re the Ghosts, aren’t you? The Ghosts of Patton’s Army.” The SS officer spoke pretty fair English. He stood on the road side, far behind his own lines, while a young American lieutenant disarmed him and his four companions as they poked their hands toward the sky. Their staff car had been halted by one of our M8 recon jobs, and a 37mm gun on its turret stood ready to blow the Germans off the earth.

Around the prisoners were some mud-streaked Yanks; hard-bitten guys whose helmeted faces bore two days’ growth of beard. They stood silently with their carbines leveled at the Germans.

“Yeah, Herman,” said the lieutenant. “Since you put it that way, we are the Ghosts.”

Cracked Superman Myth

Not long before this the German radio – accustomed to making “slight errors – had announced that the “Ghosts have been wiped out.” But the five SS elites, now fresh captives, had their doubts.

But that is how it has been ever since the tough and rugged days of Cherbourg and Brittany. The Germans have been fooled many times. These Ghosts – in reality the 2nd Cavalry Group – have tacked up a remarkable record, and have had the Germans referring to them as a “crack armored division, sent behind the lines on suicide missions.”

The Ghosts have ridden roughshod over the flat lands and hilly regions of France with complete disregard for the “superman” myth. They’ve bucked tough jobs and easy jobs – and they make them all look alike. Operating way out in front of their own Army – and behind the German front lines – they strike with deadly accuracy at supply trains and moving columns of enemy vehicles. They ride out of the night like roving highwaymen, pounce on the Germans with incredible speed, and then make a clean getaway faster than a couple of Notre Dame halfbacks.

During General Patton’s sweep through France the 2nd Cavalry clicked off more than 3,000 miles laying down reconnaissance screens – and most of the route was strewn with dead Germans and kayoed German equipment.

By all rules of logic, these unsung Ghost guys should have been annihilated on numerous occasions because they are light and small, and no match for some of the Nazi big stuff. However, rules don’t count any more with them; they’ve used up all the tricks and are inventing new ones each day.

“Speed, teamwork and fast, straight shooting does it,” said Lt. Raymond J. Kraatz, tank man from Chicago. “Those are our bywords. There can be no SNAFU when the noise starts. We make our hits – then we get out.”

These ghostly road agents – who wear the “Always Ready” insignia on their helmets – manage to get into more stiff scrapes than a pack of school kids in a farmer’s orchard – and their specialty is getting out of these scrapes with few or no casualties. Their job, basically, is to get information about the enemy while keeping the enemy from getting information about the Americans. They call this a “reconnaissance screen,” and the idea is to get hold of vital dope and shoot it back to HQ, either by courier or radio.

But to get information from the Germans is no goldbrick assignment, therefore the Ghosts usually find themselves in some crazy trap with less than a rat’s chance of getting out half alive. It is in these spots that they turn on the heat and commence shooting up the works.

“Smell” Traps Now

“On one occasion,” said a high ranking officer, “we took 500 prisoners in one week, killed I don’t know how many, shot more than 30 vehicles to pieces – and nine-tenths of the fighting came as a result of stumbling into it.”

The 2nd has been in and out of traps so many times that the boys think they can actually smell one coming up. Probably the toughest trap of all came when the Germans were retreating before Patton’s onslaught. The Ghosts, as usual, were behind the Germans, and were threatened to be caught by the retreating forces. One Ghost unit, in fact, found itself surrounded by the enemy and cut off from its main units.

Its only hope of ever getting back intact involved a wild scheme of racing through a German bivouac area. This, they figured, was better than tossing in the sponge and becoming prisoners.

They assembled their vehicles for a discussion of the touchy matter, then – like the Dalton Boys at Coffeeville – they moved in. Drivers kept the gas pedals pressed against the floor, MG’s blazed from both sides of their cars, and they thundered through the bivouac while a lot of surprised Germans looked up to see their area being shot to bits by some Americans – who should have been some twenty miles to the west.

Adding insult to surprise one of the drivers pulled over to the side. A GI in his car reached out and yanked a shaving German into the jeep – and they kept on going.

It was their old elements again – surprise, quick, straight shooting and lots of fast movement. With these advantages, Lt. Marvin J. Heffner, Racine, Wis., CO of the unit, led his men and vehicles to safety without suffering a casualty or a lost vehicle.

Said one of the men who was on the amazing ride: “Of course, we don’t go around looking for German bivouac areas so we can ride through them, but when you’re trapped like we were – you’ve got to do something. Good soldiering, believe it or not, can accomplish a lot.” [Editors note: The story of this amazing ride through the bivouac area can be read here: HIT THE LEATHER AND RIDE]

“We got stuck in a Jerry trap,” said S/Sgt. John F. Morano, Patterson, N.J. “And we had to wheel our jeep between two 88’s. We went through firing our carbines at the gun crews – and we made it. My pal was hit in the side and was pretty bad off. Then we ran into a roadblock, so we steered into an open field.”

“We left the car and crawled into a ditch. All hell was breaking loose. There were Germans all around us – shooting and shouting. We got into a stream. It was cold, so to keep our teeth from chattering we put sticks in our mouths. We had to stay in the water all day long.”

“About a quarter of a mile downstream we crawled out and lay under a willow tree – while American artillery broke around us. Then we walked through a field and saw some Doughboys. They looked awfully good. We got out of that trap because luck was with us and we kept our wits and didn’t give up. If you can stick it out, sometimes, you can make it.”

Lt. William C. Pridgen, a good looking kid from Cordele, Ga., was snooping around in the dark behind enemy lines. He was in charge of an M8 and two jeeps and was cut off from the rest of his outfit.

“I got out to read a signpost, by shining a light through my fingers,” says Pridgen. “Then I heard three vehicles draw up – about thirty yards apart. They didn’t see us and, frankly, I couldn’t tell if they were Yanks or Germans.”

“I sneaked up out of the ditch to see what was up. When I got right by the car I shone the light in – and found it full of Germans. I rolled into the ditch, after throwing my flashlight at the first face in the car – and my boys opened up. An M1 rifle was shooting up the first car, my armored car MG was getting the second, and the jeep’s MG was turned on the third. We wiped them out to the man.”

Lieutenant Pridgen described why this operation was a success.

“If we hadn’t placed our vehicles in strategic positions – even though it was only a simple little thing like reading a signpost – we might have been surprised and mopped up. But the breaks were with us – and at five in the morning we got five more enemy cars and an ammunition truck. A good haul – eight vehicles and their personnel. After that we got the hell out. Jerries were dead all over the place.”

Among other notches on the Ghost Cavalry’s record is the shooting up of a German horse-drawn artillery, which might have been maneuvered into position to raise Cain with Yank forces. Another assignment was to clear a route into a town, the entrance of which was mined for 300 yards. Between these 100-yard-long minefields were cleared spaces, then at the end was a roadblock and a tank trap.

The cavalrymen dismounted, probed the roads with bayonets and called in assault guns to help blast the mines. All the time German fire from the town – small arms and 88 – burst around them.

But they got into the town, cleared out the Germans and had it ready for the infantry when the Doughboys arrived. They attacked a trainload of equipment which was heavily guarded by German troops. To carry out this operation they decided it was a good idea to shoot up the engine with a couple of rounds of HE, and then spray the cars with MG fire. When the train was knocked out, the Ghosts took a prize in concrete-mixers, bulldozers and small weapons – plus 27 prisoners. [Editors note: The train mission can be read here: THE TRAIN]

In the Toul sector the 2nd Cavalry received word that the Germans were sending a column of 15 vehicles over a certain highway – and it was important that this column be “detained.”

They situated themselves into the wooded hills that overlooked the highway, mapped out their plan of attack – and then waited.

Word was passed along to let all of the vehicles come over the rise and get into the valley below before any shots were fired. Without this caution, there was fear that the rear vehicles would make a break and escape.

Up came the column, led by a motorcycle. Without warning the lead vehicle was stopped cold when a 37mm shell ripped through it. This stopped the rest of the column – and the fireworks began in earnest.

When the last shot died away, all 15 vehicles lay destroyed; 135 Germans were dead and 150 were wounded – while 68 were taken prisoner.

“We have many advantages in these actions,” said Lt. Burton W. Mitchell, Glen Ellyn, Ill. “You see, we are so far behind the German lines that they never expect to see us. Then when we open up on them they are so surprised and frustrated that we manage to beat them to the punch. By this surprise process we are able to play havoc with forces larger than ours. Our slogan is to hit hard and fast. No hesitation allowed.”

“We can’t afford to loaf around and sweat out these jobs,” says S/Sgt. Raymond Gaynor, of Philadelphia. “These Germans are pretty good scrappers, and if you don’t beat them to the punch your sunk. We hit and run – hit and run, but mostly hit.”

At Bainville the Ghosts moved in during early evening and surprised some German paratroopers and got them into a wild fight. The paratroopers beat it out of town to the high ground beyond. At least 30 of the enemy were killed.

“But you can’t always consider the German out of the picture just because you beat him once,” said 1/Sgt. Elmer C. George, Junction City, Kan. “We got in a beautiful ambush on account of that kind of thinking. After we had declared a road clear, some of us went up to draw supplies. This same road had been used by our men at least four times after we drove the Jerries out.”

“Yet, on our way back we ran into an 88, which was set up so it could command a curve in the road. We suffered very slight casualties – but it was a lesson learned. From now on we don’t get caught off-guard by ‘cleared’ roads.”

Another headache which confronts the rambling Ghosts is that of planes – which swoop down to strafe them on the highways.

At one time American planes – having been told to “hit anything that moves on the roads back there” came across a Ghost unit. Somehow, the airmen didn’t spot the identification panels, so they came down to give them the works. Miraculously the cavalrymen got away without casualties. [Editors note: Read the entire story here: CHAOURCE STRAFING] Here is how one of them – Capt. Henry J. Ebrey, Lansdown, Pa. – puts it:

“The best thing is not to get caught in a ditch or alongside the road when planes come after you. Don’t pull up and stop your vehicles – keep them moving. Zig-zag, if you can. If possible, get into a wooded sector where the trees offer protective camouflage. But above all, don’t stall around.”

Traps always threaten the cavalryman. Men who do their type of work become the greatest trap-breakers of all – and they learn, too, a whale of a lot about avoiding traps.

Says Sgt. John Kelly, Ogden, Utah:

“To avoid traps you’ve got to watch everything. Trust nobody and nothing. Don’t jump eagerly to attack a lone motorcycle or other lone vehicles. Many times they are decoys – used purposely to draw your fire. Remember, every man is a potential enemy. Every hill, shrub or curve is a potential trap. Think it over – make sure you’re right!”

Sometimes the Ghost raiders learn more about the Germans than the Germans themselves know or realize. One of these instances was the case of the enemy attempting to use the cavalrymen as artillery spotters – a wonderful trick – if it works.

German artillery was coming in and hitting – but it still was considered anything but close. Then a voice came over the radio:

“Hello, this is Tom. We are trying to hit the Germans behind you, but we’re afraid our shells are landing near you. Where are you? Are we right? Are they hitting near you?”

The voice on the air sounded American enough – legitimate enough, yet those cavalrymen had to be sure. The Yank CO said back:

“Tom? Tom who?”

“Just call me Tom,” said the voice. “You know, Tom. Hell, man, I gotta know if our shells are landing too close.”

Again the CO demanded:

“Tom who?”

“Just Tom – that’s all.”

The American commander told him to blow it out his duffle bag and then turned off the radio. Later it was confirmed that the man “Tom” was a speculating Jerry. He was hoping to talk the Americans into giving away their positions.

“Had we done that,” said the CO, “had we been fooled by ‘Tom’s’ American-sounding voice, we would have zeroed those shells right in on top of us. You can’t afford to give out any information concerning your position or anything else – unless you know for damned sure that the guy you give it to is on your side. Take no chances.”

Another thread-bare trick – which still works on occasions – is exposed by the 2nd Cavalry men. They’ll tell you that the Germans will place a captured jeep or other vehicle in front of their columns. This old trick always draws a sucker out into the open.

Thus far in their ramblings they have turned up trumps and aces on each play. They have topped the German hand on each occasion. They are elusive and lightning fast, and they have learned to melt into the shadows and hills before the enemy can lay anything on them but a nickname.

Queried as to what they would like to do next, an officer summed it up this way:

“We’re waiting for the old man to turn us loose. The boys are champing at the bits. Remember, the Germans first called us the Ghosts – so when we’re turned loose – we’re going out to do some more haunting!”

How Recon Men Trick Foe

Like so many other GI Joes the men of the 2nd Cavalry got their first glimpse of a “mighty” Nazi Army when they watched the newsreels back home. The Germans pulverized Europe and set up some sort of idea that they were unbeatable. On newsreels they looked just about like that.

But that was before Pearl Harbor Day, D-Day and lots of other days.

It is no longer newsreels for GI Joe. The war is a real McCoy business now, and Americans know quite a bit about this business because they’ve done a good deal of fighting. They know a lot of brand new fresh tricks which were trial and error stuff yesterday.

In the school of war they are graduates, and their diplomas are the flags of freedom that bedeck the streets of liberated France and other lands.

Through Warweek the students of yesterday – who are today’s teachers – pass on the lessons of battle. Many of them will tell you that they wished they could have learned simply by reading a book or a paper – but these combat lessons were just discovered recently – in the mud of France.

“Here’s an example of what fellows can do when they’re cut off and surrounded by Germans,” says Sgt. James M. Hart, of Frederick, Md.” The boys and I had an M8 recon car guarding a bridge. The Germans counter-attacked, and we were cut off and left alone. They were all around us.”

“We first maintained radio silence – so we wouldn’t give away our position. Then we got into a woods to hide, fight, sweat it out – or whatever came our way. We figured that we had to keep an eye on the Germans – yet keep them from seeing us. We watched their Tiger tanks and infantry prowling around us. We were tempted to make a break – but realized that was a dumb trick.”

“About fifty German infantrymen infiltrated the woods and were getting close so we opened up with some shots. They scattered and ran – because they didn’t know how strong we were. Then we moved to another place. A Tiger tank spotted us, but when it got close we threw eight shots at him with our 37mm gun and knocked out his turret 88.”

“The Tiger also ran away. We got out – without a casualty. I think the fellows with me did a great job. Remember, we were in that woods – surrounded by the enemy – for three days and three nights. Many Americans have been doing jobs similar to this.”

“Another boy and I got in a trap,” said Sgt. Robert Magner, Kearney, N.J., “and we had to wade through a wet, muddy field. We were going too slow, and it looked as if the Germans would catch us. We slipped off our shoes – in a hurry – and found that we could move a lot faster in our bare feet. We made it okay.”

Lt. Thomas W. Kelly, of New Orleans, was in some stiff going with a 2nd Cavalry unit in the Loire River sector. He says:

“Stress that a man shouldn’t expose himself while leaving and taking up positions. A lot of us know already that you don’t expose yourself while actually in position. But keep under cover while getting there and leaving.”

“Another thing is keeping clean. That’s awfully tough for frontline boys. But if a guy can sneak in a good washing or bath, he’ll feel much better and be more alert and, therefore, fight better.” [Editors note: Lt. Kelly was later killed in action]

Lt. George R. Lindoerfe, Elgin, Ill., says:

“Men have done everything and anything in combat. We had cooks rebuilding bridges at one point – and they did a grand job.” [Editors note: the bridge story can be read here: COOK’S BRIDGE]

Yanks up at the front see a lot of signs that read “Mines Cleared to Hedges” and it means just exactly that. It pays to be aware of small trails that lead from the main highway – trails that are marked with car tracks. The Germans might have made those trails themselves – but an unwary GI driver figures that any marked by vehicular tracks is safe. So in he goes – so in he stays.

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