Seventy-five years ago this week, the longest battle in the history of the United States Army ground to a close. It was preceded by the afterglow of the Normandy operations; it was followed by the climactic struggle of the Battle of the Bulge. Lost in the middle was this awful fight, in which at least six Wood Countians died.
In retrospect, the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest is seen as a waste; even at the time, some subordinate commanders seriously questioned the judgment of their commanding general, Courtney Hodges.
But to understand why it even marginally made sense at the time, you have to understand a little about the region called the Hurtgenwald. It’s just inside Germany’s border with Belgium, east-southeast of Charlemagne’s cathedral city of Aachen.
The forest itself is the kind of deep, dark forest kids are exposed to in the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, the kind of forests where light is lost throughout the day, almost like a northern jungle.
By September 1944, Allied forces had pushed through France, liberated parts of Belgium and the Netherlands, and were gathering strength for a push toward the Ruhr and Rhine rivers. Several divisions were attacking toward Aachen, and the German defenses had slowed their advance to a crawl.
Hodges decided an attack through the Hurtgen could relieve pressure on the forces near Aachen. And rather than going around the forest or surrounding it, Hodges chose to go straight into it.
The interior of the forest — being used as a staging area for a planned German offensive we’d later call the Battle of the Bulge — bristled with defenses both natural and manmade. Impassable roads. Foliage so thick the enemy could infiltrate behind your units undetected. Reinforced concrete bunkers. Some of the thickest minefields in Europe. Timber fortifications that blended into the forest.
There almost couldn’t have been a worse place to launch an attack, and yet that’s what the U.S. Army did, over and over again, gaining little or no territory as the Germans made us pay a price too high for what we gained.
Of the 120,000 Americans committed to the battle over 90 days, about 45% were killed or injured. And in the end, nothing was gained — the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest only ended because the Battle of the Bulge started a little further to the north, committing both sides to a different battle.
Among the Wood County men killed in the Hurtgen was Forest Lee Dickes, a graduate of Grand Rapids High School. Born in 1924, Dickes joined the Army in April 1943, and became a replacement soldier the 9th Infantry Division. He joined the unit in Europe.
Dickes was one of dozens killed in the push toward the village of Schmidt, hit in the head by an artillery shell fragment, according to a comrade’s diary account. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for his actions.
Staff Sgt. John Folcik, a Rossford High School graduate, was with the 9th Division from the beginning. He’d fought in North Africa and Sicily, and was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in the Mediterranean. Folcik survived Normandy, survived the hedgerows, survived the push through the Seine, but fell in the Hurtgen in late October.
Robert Eckert, of Bowling Green, was a sergeant in the 9th Infantry Division. He, too, fell in the Hurtgen in November.
Two Wood County men died near the very end of the battle, both on Dec. 2, 1944. Pvt. Jesse Bloomfield, of Portage, was in the 4th Infantry Division. Pvt. Gerold Wymer was from North Baltimore, and served in the 736th Field Artillery Battalion.
Seventy-five years ago this week, their battle was forgotten when the Bulge overshadowed everything else. Let’s make sure their sacrifice isn’t.