A Metal Wallet
If you or I were to stand outside the village of Kesternich in the winter of 1944-45, we might not notice anything unusual, outside of the presence of machines and men of war. However, the village’s unassuming appearance is quite misleading: the village of Kesternich was not only of vital importance to both the American and German armies, but it was also the site of vicious fighting. One Reading man, William James Curran, who would settle in town after the war and raise his family at 157 High Street, would be caught upright in the middle of this fighting.
Similar to Joseph Warren Keenan, William was also a company commander of Company F, 311th Infantry Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division. The fighting in Kesternich actually began on January 30, 1945. The importance of the village was not exactly common knowledge among the American troops. Still, those higher up (perhaps William, as well) understood that if the Germans were allowed to hold Kesternich along with other nearby villages, they might have the opportunity to flood the Roer River by manipulating multiple dams that were currently holding back water from the river, making a crossing by American forces next to impossible.
The approach to the village was one of the first obstacles that William and the men of the entire 311th Infantry Regiment would face: there was almost no cover, just open field after open field. The snow was deep in some places, and the weather was exceedingly cold. But the men would go forward anyway at 5:30 AM on January 30, with William’s company in the lead. Around 6:00 AM, the sun started to come up slowly, allowing about 150 yards of visibility. As William’s Company F moved up, they hit the first line of German defense, which was made up almost exclusively of anti-personnel mines and barbed wire. Thankfully, though, this was something that the men were prepared for, and they quickly began blowing gaps in the wire. It was then that William likely heard that dull hissing sound that so often accompanies a falling mortar round (this time, an enemy one). All hell broke loose. Enemy troops opened up on the men struggling through the barbed wire and minefields. Friendly tanks attached to the company were beginning to move up to engage the enemy gun emplacements but ended up losing contact with the infantry and just sat there, doing nothing but blocking a path. Finally, a squad leader from Company F’s third platoon mounted one of the tanks and began to direct their fire as the men moved into the village.
The operation wasn’t going well. Not long after the squad leader had mounted the friendly tank, it hit a mine, knocking him off, seriously wounding a sergeant nearby, and causing the men to stop their advance. Another friendly tank took a hit to its turret, making it inoperable. When the men of the 311th Infantry Regiment’s 2nd Battalion laid down to sleep that night, lookouts noted that the Germans had placed new anti-tank mines in the fields surrounding the village. At 8:30 AM on January 31, when the attack on Kesternich was supposed to be renewed, William Curran’s company was sent forward across an open and snow-covered field to flank around one of the battalion’s objectives. His unit met such withering fire that they were forced not just to stop but to fall back briefly. Still, the company had barely even made it into Kesternich.
On January 31, 1945, a young man by the name of Jonah Edward Kelly of West Virginia would earn the Medal of Honor while serving in Company E, 311th Infantry Regiment, 78th Infantry Division for fearlessly leading his men toward an enemy-held building. I imagine that when William heard the news of the poor fellow, who was killed sacrificing himself so that his men could cross some street in the middle of nowhere, at a village whose importance was seemingly naught, he probably shook his head. He had died for a noble cause, but the context of his death was probably rather heart-breaking. As the sun rose over Kesternich on February 1, William was likely readying his men to go forward once more. Company F seized their objective with relative ease. The attack on Kesternich had cost 190 casualties.
While the rest of the 78th Infantry Division was resting, William’s 2nd Battalion had been chosen to lead yet another assault. Around 2:00 AM on the morning of February 4, William and his men trudged forward yet again, leaving Kesternich and heading for Ruhrberg. Somehow, the crazy gamble that was sending a group of exhausted and battle-weary men into combat again actually worked. By 4:00 PM on February 4, the town of Ruhrberg was in American hands. This same pattern of sending in the battered 2nd Battalion continued for the next few days. Perhaps William had realized that his luck was probably running out because on February 8, in the area of Schmidt, a bullet penetrated the fleshy area of his forearm and hit his chest.
In the terrifying moments that followed, I wonder if William realized his luck. I imagine he probably didn’t. I imagine he may have laid there calling for a medic, knowing with certainty that he was breathing his last. A bullet to the chest is no joke. As the medics came, they probably bandaged his arm and asked him repeatedly, “Where does it hurt, Bill? Did they get you in the chest?” William probably wouldn’t know what to say; there was probably blood from his arm on his chest. The medics likely would have begun to cut open his jacket, only to find a bruise on his chest where the bullet should have entered his body. Perhaps morphine was issued to him, and he was out of it by the time the medics reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the metal wallet that had saved William’s life. There it was: a bloody hole torn through the front plating of the wallet…inside, a series of pictures of family with a perfect hole with bloody edges through them. And there it was: the bullet, sitting, crumpled up, on the backplate of the wallet. William would live to see the streets of his hometown again, and he would live to see the streets of Reading as an adult, moving in for a new start with his family. William was sent to a hospital where he spent time recovering before returning to his unit on an unknown date.
As the month of February opened, Harry Beeth, yet another man who moved to Reading after the war was resting. Through special permission from some of the higher-ups, the 1st of February was to be a battalion holiday. However, the rest period wasn’t to last since the men would be back up and moving the very next day. The men of Harry Beeth’s unit, Company B, 23rd Tank Battalion, 12th Armored Division, were on the hunt.
February 4 saw the men of Harry Beeth’s company back in Herrlisheim, that same damned village they had fought so bitterly over not more than a month back. The fighting was fierce, and the Germans were unwilling to give back the village, but eventually, American tanks of the 12th Armored Division overran the enemy positions and forced them back. The rest of the month of February was relatively uneventful, and nothing really noteworthy happened until March.
On the morning of March 17, Harry was probably woken up rather early to help remove the distinctive unit markings off of the tanks in his platoon. This next operation that the 23rd Tank Battalion would undertake would be of much more importance than all of their previous actions.
After being given a hot meal for the first time in God knows how long, Harry and the rest of the entire 12th Armored Division would hit the road for an all-night drive, using only the tank’s small headlights to see the way. Throughout the next day, no resistance was met: it seemed as though the German Army had just disappeared. March 19 saw the 23rd Tank Battalion advancing even more, again, without resistance. The next town in the men’s path was that of Lohnsfeld. Right as the tanks of the Headquarters Company, 23rd Tank Battalion, pulled up to Lohnsfeld, German anti-tank guns opened up. This was an ambush. The tanks were completely surrounded. It is likely that it was on this day that Harry Beeth obtained his only battle wound of the war: a bullet to the forearm, for which he was hospitalized and then quickly returned to his unit. Thankfully, the rest of the month of March did not hold much danger.
Thanks to the Reading Public Library and the incredible preservation of the old editions of The Reading Chronicle, I now know that it is likely that Robert Jones, who I had previously believed to be involved in the Battle of Wingen-sur-Moder, didn’t reach Europe and his unit until mid-February. Joining Company A, 276th Infantry Regiment, 70th Infantry Division still was quite a heavy task, though, for it was around this time that the regiment began their next big push…
As the morning of February 17 dawned Robert Jones entered combat for the very first time. Trained back in the United States with medical equipment, I have come to wonder if it is possible that Robert Jones doubled as a medic and an infantryman. If my belief is correct, it is likely that the fighting that he would see in the coming weeks would be even more embedded in his memories than they would have been if he were solely an infantryman. The assault on the high ground overlooking a small mountain community called Oeting would be the assignment of Robert’s unit.
Although much of the snow in the area had begun to melt, this only made moving harder. The ground was wet, slippery, and muddy. There was also a low fog that morning, making forward progress next to impossible. Company A was shelled heavily by the enemy. It is quite likely that at one point or another, Robert found himself temporarily deafened from the sound of a shell. At first, casualties were light. Company A continued making advances, ending up overlooking the city of Forbach.
On the morning of February 19, the men of Company A began to head into Forbach, clinging to a cedar thicket at the edge of town. One of the buildings in the path of the company’s advance happened to be a hospital. Although the Germans did not occupy the hospital and did not make any real attempts to push the Americans out, they did try to keep them from getting in by setting up a machine gun overlooking one of the hospital’s primary entrances. More than once, an unlucky man standing near a door or a window was killed by a German armor-piercing round that would cover his body and the walls around him with blood. In fact, there was a story included in a company history book about a man who literally walked two feet over to a medic covered in blood and then collapsed and died right there. Not long after the men entered the hospital, the nuns and nurses had begun moving their patients away from the windows.
A nurse approached one of the officers of Robert’s company and explained to him that the Germans were going to come back. The man told her in his bad German, “Let them come.” That night, each man covered an entrance to the hospital, and many times, the sound of gunshots echoed through the halls. Despite all of the enemy fire, the men of Robert’s Company A held the hospital. And not long after that evening, the men were given the order to attempt to seize Forbach regardless of enemy resistance…without supporting artillery. It seemed like suicide. Somehow, though, with heavy losses, Forbach was taken on March 5. Six men from Robert’s company were killed there, and many more wounded. The month of March, though filled with combat, was something I struggled to find a lot of clear information on.
Robert Dexter Jones went on to live a very long and fulfilling life. He also spent his entire life in Reading, working as a car mechanic before retiring. Although he had no children, he had many nieces and nephews to give his love to. Robert passed away on April 18, 2010.
Credit to the booklet “Operations of the 2d Battalion, 311th Infantry (78th Infantry Division) in the Attack on Kesternich, Germany.”
Thanks to the family of William James Curran for providing me with materials as well as the story of William’s metal wallet.
Credit to A History of the 23rd Tank Battalion.
Photo credit to the Army Signal Corps.