When the Germans Broke Through
Around 11:00 PM on Friday, December 15, 1944, EST, the families of Joseph Warren Keenan, John Austin Cahill, William James Curran, Robert Dexter Jones, Arne Dahlquist, and Donald Wendell Davidson were probably sound asleep. Though it had not yet snowed in Reading or the surrounding towns, according to a nearby weather post, the temperature hit 17 degrees on the 15th. Perhaps Christmas decorations adorned the town square as people shut off their lights for the evening, and maybe their minds wandered to their boys far from home as they prayed, and by 11:00 PM in Reading, it was 5:00 AM the next morning in Belgium. Those Reading boys were eating up those prayers with a renewed desperation. The Germans had broken through the American lines in the Ardennes Forest. On the morning of December 16, the newspapers were plastered with news of American landings in Mindoro in the Pacific and the news of the units crossing the border into Germany. No one in Reading would have had any clue of the chaos.
John Austin Cahill was probably the first Reading boy to notice what was happening because, at precisely 5:00 AM, the world around him lit up with German artillery. German troops filled the once quiet forest before him, and the squeaking of tank tracks pulled from each and every one of these green GIs, the sudden urge to fight. And for three days, John Cahill’s Company C, 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, did just that. But with each passing hour, the company was living on borrowed time. By December 20 or so, the entire 1st Battalion of the 423rd Infantry Regiment had been eliminated in one way or another. On December 21, 1944, the Germans captured John Austin Cahill like many of his fellow 106th Infantry Division members. He would be held in Stalag IX-B. After the war, he would live at 110 Walnut Street in Reading. Of all the jobs he could have chosen to do following the war, he decided to become a teacher and taught for many years in the Winchester Public Schools. He passed away on June 23, 2011, at the age of 88.
For Joseph Warren Keenan, of the 329th Infantry Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division, who had just taken command of a company for the first time, the 16th of December passed without any real changes to the front line. The 83rd Infantry Division had been somewhat sheltered by the hard fighting going on around them merely due to their position on the lines. As the sun rose on that frigid December day, Joseph would be leading his company into battle. They were heading for the Roer River, and they were successful. Although Joseph probably didn’t have a lot of control over if the entire attack was successful, he was definitely part of why his battalion’s attack was successful. I can imagine it may have been difficult for him though. Company commanders often are asked to stay back from the fighting when possible so they don’t get shot. So he would have watched his men fall where they stood and would have been helpless to do anything. But they prevailed in the end despite heavy enemy counterattacks that tested them to their limits, and I’d like to think that left a warm, encouraging feeling in his heart. In the days leading up to Christmas, Joseph and his men would have been fortifying their positions on the Roer River banks before being relieved.
For Arne Dahlquist, who I theorize had probably been transferred to the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division at this point, the early days of the German offensive in the Ardennes region were not at the forefront of his mind. The generals up top still hadn’t realized how large the offensive really was. As is always the case, they finally did notice, and the orders came down to the 82nd Airborne Division: they were to defend Bastogne. But somehow, Arne Dahlquist and the rest of the division got lucky, and their orders were changed to protect Werbomont as the Germans threw themselves up against the American lines. Since I do not know what battalion of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment Arne was a member of, or if he had even been transferred to this unit yet, it is incredibly difficult for me to provide details of what he may have experienced during the Battle of the Bulge due to the chaotic nature of each battalion’s movements.
Donald Wendell Davidson was not born in Reading and did not grow up here. The man he would become and the man that would move here after the war was most certainly shaped in one way or another by the experiences he had in the Battle of the Bulge. As a member of Troop B, 90th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, 10th Armored Division, Donald would have been waiting for orders when the Germans broke through the American lines in the Ardennes. The orders he received on December 17 would be to proceed to the area around Bastogne with Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division. There had been rumors of small enemy forces threatening the Arlon-Bastogne Road, and Troop B was sent to investigate. On December 19, the 2nd Platoon of Troop B set out with a light tank to meet up with other vehicles on the road to report it was clear. If Donald had been a member of that platoon, I could imagine that patrol being quite an eerie experience for him. To walk down a road, snow gently crunching under his brown boots, and a tank engine filling the air with exhaust and sound. He would have been exposed to the cold and possibly the enemy, watching his breath flow out of his nose and fill the air in front of him with moisture. The platoon then returned to Bastogne but lost radio contact with the 90th Cavalry. A jeep was brought up to try to restore radio contact, but it received fire from five enemy vehicles. When the 2nd Platoon finally received orders to return back to the rest of the unit, it proceeded toward the road. On their way, the unit discovered a shot up ambulance, its driver dead, having been shot in the head, and wounded men in the back.
I can almost picture all of the men looking at each other. I can see the officer motioning for them to get down and get behind cover. I can see in my mind’s eye Donald getting down on his belly in the snow, feeling the warmth of his body melting it. The newly melted snow would coat his uniform with water and slush. The road was patrolled up and down, left to right for a mile. Nothing was found except for some odd-looking vehicle tracks. When the platoon returned to the command post, they carried the wounded men from the ambulance with them.
After receiving their new mission of maintaining contact between the 9th Armored Division and the 28th Infantry Division, the squadron immediately went back into action. It is explained in an interview with an officer after the Bulge that much of Troop B and Troop A was committed to holding a defensive position from Stegen to Scheren.
Back in the United States, the people of Boston gathered in Copley Square to sing carols. As a cluster of people began to sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” a woman with a young boy next to her reportedly said aloud, “Don’t let it come on Christmas Night, not to anyone, not a telegram.” On Christmas Eve, President Roosevelt spoke to the country, as he often did when reassurance was needed most: “The Christmas spirit lives tonight in the bitter cold of the front lines in Europe and the heat of the jungles and swamps of Burma and the Pacific Islands…The thoughts of these men tonight will turn to us here at home around our Christmas trees, surrounded by our children and grandchildren and their Christmas stockings and gifts–just as our own thoughts go out to them, tonight and every night, in their distant places.”