Practice Daily With the Guns: The Readiness Is All

I met my wife’s Uncle Gene only a few times before he passed, and though I knew he was a World War Two veteran and had been a prisoner of war, I never heard anything about his experience directly from him.  After spending a few hours looking at his service record and the history of his unit (principally in Rick Atkinson’s incomparable The Guns At Last Light), I can see why he was so eager to bury the past.

Plans called for the Army’s 106th Infantry Division to train together as a team before shipping out for the European Theater. However, American planners did not anticipate the high numbers of casualties suffered in battles from Normandy to the German border, and stateside units were cannibalized for replacements. By August 1944, sixty percent of the enlisted soldiers had been rotated out, their slots filled with brand new GIs, like Gene, who would go into combat alongside and under the command of men they did not know and who might not have been fully trained. There was little opportunity to build teams and the kind of unit cohesion the senior leaders, at least, should have known was critical.

When they reached the front after what one report called “a long, arduous, wet and freezing trek across France,” Gene’s division was among the most forward Allied units in Europe, their positions forming a bulge in the American line that reached into Germany. Commanders put this untested outfit in a quiet part of the front as a shakedown; the veterans they relieved told the new arrivals that they were in a “country-club” zone. Unfortunately, commanders took this assessment to heart and occupied the line without coordinating supporting fires or conducting aggressive patrolling.

During those first five cold, rainy days the division experienced shortages of winter clothing and waterproof overshoes. Every man evacuated to a hospital for trenchfoot left fewer to cover the front. Allied aerial reconnaissance had virtually ceased because of weather conditions. No one saw what the Germans were up to just a few miles to the east.

At 5:30 AM on Saturday, December 16, 1944, Hitler hurled some 200,000 men and 1400 tanks against the Allies. Their overall objective was the port of Antwerp, which the Allies needed to supply their vast armies. German assault troops poured through a gap in the line just north of Gene’s regiment, which was hammered by heavy artillery fire as the enemy surged past.

In the confusion, the 106th Division commander left his surrounded regiments in place until December 17. By then no American reinforcements could get through the west-flowing traffic. No help was on the way. 

On December 17, 1944, Gene Brady—inducted on St. Patrick’s Day that same year—had been in the Army exactly nine months.

When the order to retreat finally reached them, the men struggled through the snow, pounded by artillery and raked by tank fire. By daybreak on Tuesday, December 19, the two-thousand or so survivors of Gene’s unit were surrounded in a claustrophobic perimeter. The commander determined that he could save his men only by surrendering. While an officer fashioned a white flag from handkerchiefs, the exhausted commander wept. Some seven thousand GIs of the 106th Division became prisoners, the largest American capitulation of the war in Europe.

Tuesday, December 19, the day his unit surrendered somewhere in the fields and deep woods east of St. Vith, Belgium, was Gene Brady’s nineteenth birthday.

Thus Gene became a Kriegs Gefangenan, a prisoner of war, and along with the others faced starvation and continuous exposure to the weather as their captors hustled them eastward, where Gene spent the next four months struggling to survive. 

Uncle Gene’s regiment was not the first in military history forced to fight before they were prepared, or while facing supply or personnel shortages. His was not the first green unit overrun by veteran opponents. But as I think about Gene and those teenaged soldiers marching into captivity and the unknown, I wonder if any of their leaders thought, “I could have made better use of the time and resources I did have.”

The US Navy has an aphorism I’ve always appreciated: Practice daily with the guns. At first blush, I thought that it was about technical know-how in fighting skills. But after researching Gene Brady’s story, I see it can also mean, “practice today and tomorrow and the next day, not when it’s convenient or the conditions are ideal or when you’ve assembled the perfect team, because the enemy gets a vote as to when the battle starts. You don’t know when you’ll be called.”  

Readiness is just as important for the individual, as well. We must see to our mental and physical health and, as leaders, to our continuing education and intellectual development. We must read widely—history and biography, philosophy and science—so that we’re prepared to think through problems we did not anticipate. We debate and analyze and seek other points of view; we practice being informed consumers of information. We are skeptical and thoughtful, reflective and proactive. We must, as another Navy dictum says, “know our stuff.” More than that, we seek to expand what our “stuff” encompasses.

Liberated by American troops on April 24, 1945, Gene typed a letter home just days later. His anger at the Germans burns through the page.  “Every one of them is to blame, from the oldest to the youngest and if I had my way their postwar homes would be 6 feet under the sod.”

After writing in very general terms of the things he’s seen, he types, “Enough of this junk.”  And the very next paragraph talks about the joy of his restored freedom. “Everything is like a glorious dream and I’m afraid I might wake up.”

I wonder if that phrase, “Enough of this junk,” was a sign that he wanted to put the bad stuff behind him, a mental fork in the road. Veterans who can move away from those dark memories do so over years, with setbacks and nightmares along the way. I hope that when Gene wrote, “Enough of this junk,” he had at least determined a direction for his life, an azimuth he wanted to follow toward normalcy and decency and civilization, even if it was a long, long road.

Ed Ruggero had two ambitions from an early age: he wanted to be a soldier and he wanted to be a writer. Ruggero graduated from West Point in 1980, fulfilling one of those dreams.  He later used his Army experiences in his first novel, 38 North Yankee.  He has since written fiction, military history and several titles on leadership—for a total of eleven books so far—and has built a business running leadership retreats for business executives to Normandy and Gettysburg. 

While visiting Sicily to research his non-fiction Combat Jump, about the 1943 Allied invasion, Ruggero became intrigued by the question, ”What happens after the fighting moves on?”  That musing led Ruggero to create Blame the Dead, the first novel in a planned series set in Europe during World War Two.

Ruggero and his wife, Marcia Noa, divide their time between Media, Pennsylvania and Lewes, Delaware. 

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