Voices of the Battle of the Bulge: 'We were surrounded'

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Joe W. McFadden
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the seventh installment of a 10-part series about asking the same five questions to 10 World War II veterans who served during the Battle of the Bulge Dec. 16, 1944, through Jan. 25, 1945. The veterans returned to Europe for 70th anniversary observances of the battle in Belgium and Luxembourg, Dec. 9-18, 2014. 

'The Greatest Victory'

Bernard Mayrsohn
Cannon Company, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Division

Mayrsohn was a wireman in the radio wire section, part of 2nd Platoon of Cannon Company of the 423rd Infantry, stationed in Bleialf, Germany. He was wounded in action on Dec. 16, 1944 in Bleialf, Germany, by shrapnel. He continued to fight with Cannon Company until the 423rd Regiment surrendered Dec. 19, 1944, near Schönberg, Belgium. He was a prisoner of war at Stalag IV-B in the town of Mühlberg an der Elbe for six months. The camp was liberated by the Russian Army May 1, 1945. Mayrsohn studied at Cornell University and owns a family produce trading business (import and export in perishable foods) 'Mayrsohn International Trading Co.' with offices in New York and Miami since 1947. He is the current president of the 106th Infantry Division Association.
Where were you during the Battle of the Bulge?

If you saw the outline of the troops before the Germans attacked, there was a salient of a bridge or bulge. We were seven miles from the Siegfried Line. The 106th Division and the 423rd Regiment were put up right front saying 'Nothing was going to happen.' The troops who we relieved said, we were told by them, 'Quiet front. No activity. You're going to get comfortable being in the front line.' This was three of four days before the Germans attacked. We hardly got comfortable where we were set up.

On the very first morning of December 16th, we all heard heavy shelling, and they said 'Barney, what the hell is happening?' I said, 'You heard. It's our own artillery playing games.' When the shelling stopped at daybreak, we saw German troops coming over to our area. There was a big field, and we saw them. We started shooting at them. I think I shot a couple. We captured a couple. This was December 16th. We didn't know why, but we got ourselves out of the bunkers, and all went back to our house which was our company headquarters: Cannon Company. We were there. We lined up a few German prisoners that we had there. The company commander, Captain Manning, was told to get all of our boys together and get out of this area and to meet up with the rest of the regiment because we were all cut off. We all want to fight our way out. Well, Captain Manning was the first one out of our building... he was shot and killed right there.

For four days, our company together with other surrounded and blocked-off companies tried to get together with our regiment, the 423rd Regiment. We were fighting hand-to-hand, infantry fighting, digging foxholes with hand grenades because the ground was solidly frozen. We couldn't break the subsoil unless we used a hand grenade. We fought the 16th, 17th and 18th. We finally got together with our division on the 19th, or what was left of that division. I don't know what area it was, but we were all dug-in, surrounded by German tanks. I should say that the very first day when the Germans attacked, the 106th Division had an enemy front of 27 miles. It should be only seven miles. The Germans knew this, and therefore the German tanks easily went around the little fortifications we had, and the whole Panzer Army went on either side of us. And the first 24 hours, we were 20 miles behind the German lines.

We didn't know it. All we knew was we were surrounded, and we couldn't get more ammunition, couldn't get more food. We fought for four days. We ran out of food and ammunition, all the time, being shelled by German tanks with no defense against them. Luckily, our smart colonel--Cavendish was his name - surrendered what was left of us. All around me, I was in my foxhole. Shells were blowing up boys all around me. Pieces of the boys were flying all around me. We had no defense. And they finally gave up, and their orders were 'Destroy your weapons, and put your arms up.' I think that was the 19th or the 20th, and we all did that.

We were put on line by the Germans to go back three days march to the German railheads to take us to the prisoner of war camps. In the process of going back to the German railcars, new, fresh German troops were coming in. They didn't have enough clothes themselves. So what did they do? Prisoners. They swiped my Eisenhower jacket. They swiped other men's clothes. My partner, they swiped his shoes. And we all went back in zero-degree weather without coats. I just had a shirt on. My partner, Hal Taylor - became a very famous American - they swiped his shoes, and we had to walk in the snow with no shoes to the cattle car. He got pneumonia, and I helped save his life by carrying him to different places. I saved his life. We get into the box cars, which was heaven, because it was better than the snow. But it turned out not to be heaven, because when we got into these 40-and-8's. Instead of eight horses or 40 men, they put 100 men in it. We were squeezed together, we couldn't lie down, but at least we got out of the cold. The American planes were waiting for the German weather to clear up. And by the time that we got into the rail car, the weather cleared.

'The Greatest Victory'

[On revisiting Captain Manning's grave] I've been here before, and I felt comfortable being here again. I remember Captain Manning quite well. He reprimanded me, once when he was my officer, in a very gentle way. I think kindly of him. I've since been in touch with his sisters many years ago after I visited them; they've been here as well. He was a man from the Citadel College, and he was the first man killed in my company. He went out in front of everybody, and he was killed, right as the first man.

Here's a fine gentleman. We lost a young man too soon, that's what comes to mind.

How does it feel to be back 70 years later?

It made me feel that I was appreciated for what I've done. To me, I feel that it was a duty that we all did. I didn't feel anything special about me. I wanted to serve the country -- most everybody did. I volunteered and wanted to make sure I was in the service.

What was the proudest moment of your military career?

When I landed on French soil.

What got you through some of the toughest of times?

There's no question about it: going through prisoner camp for six months and facing the enemy and seeing people killed all around me and being wounded gave me a feeling of praying self-confidence. The last 70 years I've lived well, but the self-confidence stayed with me. And there's nothing that's happened to me that really got me to the point of unhappiness or sadness. I really feel self-confidence.

[On asked after being captured] When I was captured by the Germans Dec. 20 [1944], they were not properly clothed, so they stole clothes from the American prisoners of war. They stole my Army field jacket, and they stole my friend's shoes. But I was with a shirt on in terrible weather 10 days before I got to prisoner camp. When I got to prison camp, there was a pile of clothes on the floor. I asked the attendant if I could pick a coat on because I was freezing. He said 'Take anything that fits.' So I put on an Eisenhower jacket that fit, and I (a private first class) became a sergeant for the next six months.

'The Greatest Victory'

What advice do you have for the men and women in uniform today?

I appreciate what you're doing, because we all do appreciate what you've done. You'll be plenty rewarded when you get back in reunion.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mayrsohn's biography provided by the 106th Infantry Division Association.
Video by Senior Airman Rusty Frank
Photos by Staff Sgt. Joe W. McFadden