American Heroes: The Keystone Boys

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As the temperature falls across the Northern Hemisphere with Mother Nature directing its course, we're reminded that the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are not immune. Yes, oppressive heat is widely chronicled in Middle East summers, but at higher elevations, the winter cold sets in much like it did in another war zone 64 years ago.

The Huertgen Forest — or Hurtgenwald — is a stretch of earth packed into 70 square miles just inside the German-Belgian border consisting of thousands of trees molding a dark, cold and hilly terrain, which became the scene for one of the bloodiest battles in all of World War II.

The Allied fight against the Nazis at the German border began in September 1944 and finished in February 1945. In the middle of the stalemate, the fight in the forest paused for a more notable offensive just to its south — the Battle of the Bulge — in mid-December 1944. That clash took four weeks to quell and the Allied win against the Germans in the Ardennes proved to be the impetus that broke the impasse back in the Huertgen Forest as reenergized forces reverted north pushing the Nazis back into Germany.

Six months earlier, Operation Overlord commenced with the landings at Normandy on D-Day June 6, 1944. The goal: Get to Berlin as fast as possible. But the Germans weren't going to go down without a fight. With heavily fortified defensive positions, thousands of Allied casualties — especially American ones — grew as the northeast assault toward Berlin commenced through France, Belgium, Luxembourg and into Deutschland across the Siegfried Line.

The Huertgen Forest was the final roadblock protecting the Third Reich and its all-important Ruhr River Valley –- the coal and manufacturing center of the country's war machine. And Adolf Hitler knew it had to be saved at all costs. He sent an ardent Nazi and formidable Field Marshal Walter Model into the area to "hold the forest or die."

Model's counterpart was Gen. Courtney Hodges, commanding officer of the 1st Army. Hodges' superior, Gen. Omar Bradley, in consultation with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, ordered Hodges' 1st Army to drive through the forest and into the valley to cut off Germany's war-making capabilities. If successful, Berlin would be in sight.

One of the Army's outfits that was part of that northeast trek from Paris to Berlin was the 28th Infantry Division -– better known as the "Keystone Boys" of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Gen. Norman Cota was the commanding officer and one of those who stood on the review stand as his boys paraded down Paris streets when the city was liberated from Nazi control in August 1944. But unbeknownst to Cota and the boys of the 28th I.D., they would be part of a pivotal, but not overly well known, confrontation taking them from the warm late summer celebration in France to the frigid mid-winter's fight for survival in the Hurtgenwald.

Arriving at the forest's edge in early November 1944, the 28th I.D. clearly saw firsthand what had taken place in the first weeks of the campaign. Beaten down with heavy casualties, the 9th Infantry Division was being replaced by the 28th, and according to tank commander Lt. Col. Ray Fleig (Ret.) they were, "a desolate looking group... the saddest human beings I ever saw in my life."

Unfortunately, the Keystone Boys would be in for a similar fate. After the guns had finally been silenced, the division took hundreds of casualties.

Both Model and Hodges commanded a combined 200,000 American and German troops. And of that 200,000, nearly 25 percent — almost 50,000 — would be killed or wounded as the echoes of war bounced off the trees and the forest floor after weeks and months of fierce attacks and counterattacks.

The Americans called it "the meat grinder." It was the deadliest toll for the United States Armed Forces in the European Theater. And two weeks before V-E Day, Model would be another part of the forest's bloody history when he shot himself in the head after he was indicted by the USSR for war crimes.

Part of the legacy of those Americans who fought and gave their lives a world away and a lifetime ago can be found today on the uniform of the current members of the 28th I.D. On the left shoulder of each soldier is a red patch. It looks like a bucket. That patch has been part of the division since 1917. And as the number of heavy casualties racked up in the Huertgen Forest during the winter of 1944-45, the Germans came to call it "the bloody bucket." And that tradition of "the bloody bucket" lives on to this very day as the 56th Striker Brigade — part of the current 28th I.D. — trains at Fort Polk preparing for its deployment to Iraq in February 2009.

Today's Keystone Boys carry the bloody bucket with honor and they will carry it through another winter and take it across another ocean to a foreign land defending freedom against those who wish to erase it.

— Greg Ebben co-produced "War Stories: Hell in the Huertgen Forest"