Chapter 4: Starting the Research.
During these eleven years I ordered lots of documents: After Action Reports, Morning Reports, S-3 journals, battalion journals, IDPF’s, maps, etc, etc. I had some interviews with veterans, civilians, other researchers and….. I found relatives and a neighbour of the sole survivor, Harry E. Shoemaker. Well, actually the neighbour found me.
One of the more important items in this battle that stayed vague was the exact location of the massacre. According to my source the massacre took place on the left side of the road, leading out of Ottré to Langlire. My source was André Hubert (1926-2020), former President of the CRIBA (Centre de recherches et d’ informations sur la bataille des Ardennes) and highly respected in the world of Battle of the Bulge researchers.
This location corresponds with the coordinates, written down in the S-3 journals. André told me on the location that a nephew of his witnessed the dead bodies and he searched those bodies, hoping to find some food.
Fellow researcher Eddy Monfort however, who did the same research, was told by veterans the spot where the massacre occured was on the other side of the road, close to the partially hardened crossroads. With team member Marco Eradus we scanned that area with metal detectors, only finding a few items. We did find fired ammo of an MG42 machine gun at the bridge where an old shed used to be; some fired bullets, a lid of a 88 cannister, a large piece of a M43A1 US mortar and Germans gas mask pieces.
Although we did not find much, we found several foxholes. According to the veterans, the terrain did not have any trees in January 1945. From the position of the foxholes in this terrain you have a very good view on the open fields. When 83rdID/ 331st regiment/ F company veteran (and photographer) Tony Vaccaro was interviewed on that spot he was surprised that the terrain was covered with fir trees/ Christmas trees, referring to the German word Tannenbaum and the name of the soldier and his friend, Henry Irving Tannenbaum, pictured in Vaccaro’s world famous photo “White Death”, who was killed on that day.
The first report I checked was the After Action Report (AAR) of January 10th 1945.
“10 January 1945, 1st battalion remained in reserve in assembly area vicinity of P618890. 2nd and 3rd battalions jumped off at 0700 from positions occupied the night before. Attack was met by small arms, mortar, tank and artillery fire and stubbornly resisted. In the 2nd battalion area the enemy counterattacked at 12.10, but the attack was beaten off and the 2nd battalion advanced to the line P639846–645845. The 3rd battalion attack was halted by enemy strongpoint located at P645845. Attack was resumed with tanks at 1500. Tanks envelopment from northeast. Attack was not successful, two of our tanks being knocked out and one enemy tank destroyed. At end of period, 3rd battalion held the line P647844//650843 to 653844. Regimental command post moved to P647865 at 0700. No prisoners. Casualties: KIA-Five (5); WIA – Eighty two (82)”
As you can see: The massacre is not mentioned in it.
But there is an official statement, made by Major John F. Staples
331st Infantry Regiment. On 31 January 1945 Staples was interviewed by 1st LT. G. Tuttle, 2nd Info and Hist Sv, VII Corps Team and by T3 William Henderson from the same unit.
“At 091130 jan 1945 (January 9th 1945, 11.30hrs; BK), per schedule, the 3rd Bn jumped off in the attack, but the 2nd Bn did not move out until 1330 because of the difficulty in getting its supporting weapons up to it in time (Each Bn had one platoon, co B, 774 tank Bn and one platoon, Co C, 629 TD (SP Bn Atchd). It had been intended that the LD (Line of departure; BK) would be the ridge line south of Ottré, but this had not been cleared of the enemy by the 3rd armored division, so the jump off was from the town of Ottré itself. Moving uphill, … Bn advanced approximately 500 yards against south east and very heavy arty fire passing over the ridge and reaching grid line 84.5, they became subjected to heavy tank, small arms and 20mm gun fires located at a strongpoint RJ (646845). This stopped their advance. It was estimated that the enemy had 3 tanks and one company of infantry (100 men) dug in there. As was true throughout the whole operation, deep snow, with heavy drifts as deep as seven feet, made progress very difficult for both vehicles and men. On this day, we were unable to get our supporting TD’s or tanks into position to fire because of the snow on the roads.
At 100700 (January 10th; 07’00 hrs; BK), with Co F on the flank of Co’s G and E in column, an attempt was made to eliminate the enemy strongpoint by moving in from the west. The attack was unsuccessful. Two squads were permitted to move in close to the position and were then ambushed. All of these men were wounded or killed, but the platoon sergeant, who observed the enemy killing and robbing our wounded, succeeded in escaping at midnight and returning to our lines where he told his story (See newspaper TTF, vol1, no 8, jan 27, 1945, page 1; col 4*). Other enemy positions, consisting of automatic weapons and infantry, were located at woods (639841) and (635839).
An enemy counterattack at 12.10 with 50 infantry against the 2nd Bn was repulsed. The 2nd Bn was unable to make appreciable progress, but the 3rd Bn managed to advance to the south edge of the woods at (650842). At 1500, the enemy strongpoint position was attacked by 3 medium tanks from the northwest, while Co L attempted to flank the position from the northeast. This was unsuccessful; we lost two tanks. One enemy tank was knocked out by another of our tanks which was on reconnaissance and suddenly found itself in a position to fire. Plans were changed that day for the continuation of the attack.”
* Thanks to Thijs Hodiamont we could take a look at the statement. A copy is added to Appendix number 2: Media articles.
We will place the mentioned coordinates on a map. Please do realise the coordinates are not completely accurate. But they give a very good indication about the troops and terrain.
Let’s take a look at the official documents of the 83rd Infantry Division.
The following excerpt is from “Battalion History, month of January 1945, second battalion 331st Infantry APO 83”:
“10 jan 1945 – At 0600 the Battalion attacked with Fox on the left, George on the right and Easy in reserve. It attacked south with the objective of gaining the woods about 200 yards south of Ottré. The companies had to cross wide open terrain with no cover available. Shortly after the jump off, a platoon of Fox, bypassing a strongpoint to get to another, suffered heavy casualties from the crossfire of these two strongpoints. Almost every man was wounded. Enemy troops circulated among the members of the cut-up platoon and systematically robbed and murdered all men who showed a sign of life. One man, T/sgt Shoemaker, escaped by playing possum. The battalion advance was stopped due to intense mortar, artillery fire and dug in tanks. At noon enemy tanks were reported on our left flank moving toward Ottré. Artillery fire was brought to bear repulsing the tank attack. The attack was resumed at 1330. This time with three tanks supporting the attacking companies. In short order the attack stalled when the three tanks were knocked out by a direct fire weapon. The companies were halted by a heavy volume of fire coming from the woods. Orders were received to hold and heavy artillery concentrations were placed on the woods to our front.”
The statement of Staples apparently is an addition to the 331st regiment AAR of January 1945. With the coordinates I can get a better picture of the situation. The Battalion History gives us an extra clue where the troops were: Company F on the left, G on the right and E in reserve. In later documents I found the exact coordinates.
In a morning report, dated 10 January 1945, I found this: “Company attacked in the vicinity South of Ottré, Belgium, a German strongpoint on Co G’s left. Mortar and Artillery barrages frequent. Casualties light. Morale good. Weather cold and clear.”
The exact starting time of the attack was unclear. The journals of the 83rd, 3rdAD and personal statement of Bob Kauffman helped me with that. More on this later.
Around 13.30hrs three tanks who tried to advance the pinned down troops in order to get the two platoons of the field, were knocked out killing several crewmembers. We have several IDPF’s of these crewmembers and several statements to confirm this.
Our research now focused on the following subjects:
– The statements and the documents.
– The personal statement of Harry Shoemaker that he made to the War Crime Office/ Judge Advocate General’s Office.
– The IDPF’s: our goal was to retrieve as many IDPF’s of the men who were killed on the field. With the IDPF’s we could check the type of wounds they had.
– The attack with the tanks and tank destroyer.
– The terrain and woods.
Our main question was: Did the Ottré massacre occur, or was there something else going on?
In the next chapters I will explain what I researched and all the findings I did.
© Bob Konings