Robert W. Gast
Robert W. Gast One Of First To Reach Seigfried Line
~By November 1943, as a desperate Adolf Hitler launched the Ardennes Offensive against the oncoming Allies, 21-year-old Army 2nd Lt. Bob Gast of Warsaw had endured two months of combat.
Surviving in foxholes, constantly wet, existing on K rations and ducking the German Army’s ruthless soldiers and artillery, Gast was present during one of the bloodiest land battles fought in World War II prior to the Battle of the Bulge.
By August 1943, the German Army had lost 3,360,000 men who were either killed, wounded or missing. One month later, the Allies had pushed into France, Belgium and Luxembourg and rolled toward the Seigfried Line on the highly defended German border.
The HŸertgen territory was a rolling forested area southeast of Aachen, Germany, cut with deep gorges, steep hills and icy streams. the Germans still held the area in fall 1943, installing mines, bunkers and artillery positions throughout the 20-mile-long woods.
Gast, a fledgling second lieutenant with the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division (12th Infantry Regiment, Co. B, 2nd Rifle Platoon), arrived at the Seigfried Line in mid-September.
As soon as the platoon arrived, he took one of the first U.S. patrols into enemy territory.
Gast, a 1940 Warsaw High School graduate, was enrolled in the enlisted reserve corps as a result of being in the ROTC program at Indiana University. In May 1943, he was called to active duty, having just completed his junior year in college.
That summer through April 1944 he completed training at various Infantry Replacement Centers and attended Officers Candidate School, receiving overseas orders as a second lieutenant. He arrived in England on July 8 and went to France as a replacement officer one week later.
Initially, Gast and his platoon were part of a combat team appointed by Gen. Eisenhower to further the liberation of Paris.
“We entered Paris Aug. 25. We were the first American troops there. The Free French had it pretty well under control.”
He and his men went into a part of Paris that hadn’t been entered by U.S. troops.
“I was riding in a jeep and most of my platoon was in a 2-1/2 ton truck, in a personnel carrier. As we got into the area, the windows were all boarded up. All of a sudden word got out that American troops were coming into this part of their city.
“And people just came from everywhere. Hundreds, just hundreds of them surrounded our vehicles and cheered. It was really something. They even brought their babies out for me to kiss. Here I was a second lieutenant.”
With Paris freed from German occupation, the platoon was ordered out three days later. They went on foot, like infantrymen do, hitching rides on trucks and tanks as they could, all the way to Germany.
Around the 15th or 16th of September, they arrived at the Seigfried Line to relieve the beleaguered 28th Division.
Gast took one of the first U.S. patrols into the Seigfried Line, into Germany.
“We suffered quite a few casualties, of course,” Gast said in an understated way.
“The 28th Infantry Division were being decimated by the Germans in the HŸertgen Forest,” he said. “They moved the 12th Infantry Regiment on Nov. 6 into that section to relieve the 28th.
“My platoon was at full strength.” Gast said, hesitating, and beginning again. “In 14 days É I don’t know how to explain it.”
The HŸertgen Forest was populated by 100-foot-tall pines. German artillery launched “88” shells shrieking into the treetops. The giant conifers exploded into thousands of deadly splinters and shrapnel.
“If I could hear it coming, and wasn’t in a hole, I would lean up against a trunk, they were that big around,” he said, holding his hands two feet apart. “The tree bursts are what killed so many people. There were dead bodies everywhere.
“The battle of HŸertgen Forest was really bad, worse than the battle for the Seigfried Line. The casualties were so bad they really couldn’t get replacements up to us.
“In two weeks I’d lost my whole platoon. At one point there were only two line officers left in our battalion. Our battalion was down to zilch.”
Gast and Company B pulled back and dug in.
“You had to be in a hole, always had to be dug in. You dug a hole every night, sometimes three or four a day. And you had to try to put something over the top of you because of the tree bursts.”
Gast was dug in with three or four enlisted men when a runner approached his position.
Messages were sent to and from headquarters by runners because the issue walkie-talkies were inefficient. Gast always had a runner by his side.
This particular runner carried orders for Gast to round up as many troops as he could and come to the aid of two companies surrounded by Germans. He found 50 men, 50 men remaining from three companies, and took off. The squad cleared a path to the others.
Gast was wounded during the charge. He was hit in the right arm by a German Lancer armed with a “burp” gun. The automatic weapons were so named because of the sound they made firing 750 rounds per minute – b-r-r-r-p.
Among his injuries were two broken bones near his right wrist. His carbine was blown to bits and he came away from the encounter with a couple holes in his gas mask.
“I was pretty lucky because the guy who shot me was about 15 feet away.”
In short order the rescuers discovered they were trapped, too.
At around 4 a.m., about 14 wounded, Gast among them, began to move out. They went single file, retracing their path in. The GIs walked straight into a German patrol “and all heck broke out.”
Instead of running, Gast tucked himself into heavy brush. He could hear the Germans walking around. When it quieted down, he ran back to where he came from.
The battalion did go out that way again, single file. During their flight there were two more casualties. Somebody stepped on a mine. From there, he went to an aid station, was put on a jeep with four other guys and was sent to a hospital filled with wounded soldiers in LiŽge, Belgium.
One ward housed men with “trench foot,” a rotting condition caused by constant moisture on the skin. The men there would be removed to France or England for more aggressive treatment, Gast learned.
“Trench foot was one of the worst casualties of the war,” he said. “Your feet were wet all the time. You never got any dry socks. You never got any dry clothes. I saw guys whose feet were black. A doctor told me they would have to have their feet amputated. A lot of people don’t know that. It was one of the worst problems. Our division had 3,400 casualties. I don’t know how many were killed or how many were wounded.”
It took 10 days to reach another hospital in Normandy, where he stayed for a month. He was the flown to England until he was discharged Jan. 30, 1945, and rejoined the 4th’s 12th Infantry regiment, this time with the 3rd Battalion. He stayed with that battalion until the end of the war.
Gast tells of days when U.S. aircraft filled the skies.
One time his battalion was strafed by a German jet, the first he had ever seen. He said the German air force was not a factor, though. It was the superiority of their tanks and soldiers that made the Germans such a threat.
His battalion returned to North Carolina to train for battle in the Pacific. While home on leave, the war with Japan ended.
Gast stayed in the reserves as a first lieutenant for eight years “until the Korean War came along. I chickened out and resigned my commission.
“It wasn’t all bad. There were funny, silly things that happened.”
When he went overseas, his footlocker and duffel bag held every item of clothing he owned. His contingent of 20 men, and their gear, were separated from the main group. By the time they reached the main battalion, the footlocker was gone.
“After I was discharged and at home, that footlocker came to me in the mail. It was completely empty except for a note that said, ‘Nothing has been removed.’”
Another mystery remains from Gast’s active service.
He was awarded the Silver Star – a medal given “for gallantry in action against an opposing armed force” – and his recommendation is unsigned. To this day, he does not know who recommended him.
Gast and his wife, Marge, were married in December 1946. The couple have seven children. After the war, he joined his father, uncle and brother in the Gast Construction Co., retiring from Gast Fuel and Service. He also served on the Warsaw City Council.
He marked his 94th birthday March 28, 2015.