Bergstein and the Hürtgen Forest

The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 517th PIR, along with the 460th PFAB and the 596th Airborne Engineer Company, were relieved from the front line on January 20, 1945. The 2nd Battalion rejoined the Combat Team on January 27 after four days in the woods north of St. Vith.

On February 2, 1945, the RCT was sent towards the border and Germany, into the Hürtgen Forest. Departing at 6:00 AM, the unit reached Hansfeld and arrived at 12:00 PM. The unit remained there for the rest of the day until the following day. On February 4, 1945, Colonel Rupert Graves received orders to move his Combat Team into Germany to operate with the 82nd Airborne Division. The advance elements of the 517th PRCT arrived at Kleinhau at 6:00 AM. The unit was temporarily attached to the 8th Infantry Division.

On February 5 at 6:00 AM, all units were assembled at Kleinhau. The men dispersed into the woods, sought refuge in abandoned bunkers, and awaited new orders. The Regimental Headquarters was set up at Brandenburg, and the 1st Battalion took positions in foxholes, caves, and basements previously occupied by the 13th Infantry Regiment.

On February 6, Colonel Graves entered Bergstein first with his reconnaissance group. The ruined village of Bergstein is located one kilometer west and slightly north of the confluence of the Kall and Roer rivers. The area is dominated by the steep peak of Hill 400 at the eastern end of the town, called "Burgberg" by the Germans and "Castle Hill" by the Americans. The regiment's advanced command post was established in Bergstein.

At 1:30 PM, the commanders of the 517th PIR gathered to receive their orders. The regiment was to attack that night from Bergstein towards the south, cross the Kall River, and seize the heights along the Schmidt-Nideggen road. The objective was approximately two and a half kilometers away. The area of the attack was littered with dense minefields and crossed by the steep ravine of the Kall. At the foot of the ravine flows the Kall, six meters wide and several meters deep. The attack was to be conducted in columns on each side of the trail leading south from Bergstein, with the 2nd Battalion of Lt. Col. Richard Seitz on the right and the 3rd Battalion of Lt. Col. Forrest Paxton on the left. Before the attack, the 1st Battalion of Major Robert McMahon would occupy Hill 400 with one company, leaving the rest of the 1st Battalion in regimental reserve. A platoon of engineers equipped with bridge equipment to cross the Kall was attached to each assault battalion. The 460th PFAB provided general support from positions near Kleinhau.

The Attack on February 6-7

As the cleared corridor through the minefield lengthens, more men are needed to protect it from German patrols attempting to rearm and replace neutralized mines. In the late afternoon of February 6, Company I is sent to take up position to the left of Company H, which had been in place since the initial attack. Company I is also to attempt to cross the Kall if possible.

At nightfall, under the command of Captain James Birder, Company I traverses the minefield by bypassing enemy positions, following compass bearings, and laying down adhesive tape as they progress. Light arms fire comes from the right, but the Germans shoot blindly, and no losses are suffered. The column halts at a clearing, and 1st Lt. Ludlow Gibbons goes on reconnaissance with a scout. Company I enters a clearing only to find itself under heavy fire from the front and flank, and retreats into the slight cover offered by the bushes. At dawn on February 7, the enemy opens fire with machine guns from two directions. The company is deep in enemy territory and loses men rapidly. Captain Birder deems the situation desperate and orders a withdrawal, leaving Gibbon's platoon to cover. Company H, on the right, sends a platoon to help clear Company I. While exploring a withdrawal route, the brave Jim Birder is severely wounded by a Teller mine and dies shortly after. The remnants of Companies I & H cling under heavy fire north of the Kall ravine for the remainder of the day.

In the early afternoon of February 7, Colonel Graves is summoned to report to General Ira Swift, the deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, at the command post of the 8th Infantry Division. The news is that the 517th is detached from the 78th Division and attached to the 82nd Airborne Division. Under General Swift's command, Task Force 'A' is formed, consisting of the 517th and 505th PIR. The 505th is en route to the area and will take up position the following day at Vossenack, on the far right of the 517th. The 517th is to continue its planned attack. To the west, the 78th Infantry Division is progressing slowly but steadily. Kommerscheidt has been captured, and elements of the 78th Division are on the outskirts of Schmidt.

L'attaque du 7 au 8 février

At nightfall, the 2nd and 1st Battalions prepare for the attack. The H-hour is set for 9:00 PM, then pushed back to 9:30 PM; the 1st Battalion is to leave Hill 400 at H+45. Major Hickman (Regtl. S-4) managed to obtain 25 anti-concrete hollow charges and four flamethrowers. These are handed over to the Demolition Platoon, which joins the 2nd Battalion.

Morale is low. The men are discouraged but determined to see it through. Over a hundred of them have been killed, wounded, or gone missing, including George Giuchici and Jim Birder. Captain Woodhull of the 460th PFAB was killed while directing his battalion's fire. Some men and officers simply cracked under pressure and had to be evacuated.

Despite the reduced strength of the battalions, barely that of a company, they courageously form up and set out at the appointed time. At 9:45 PM, the 2nd Battalion silently descends the trail through the minefields. Crossing the lines goes smoothly. Upon the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Seitz's men, Companies H and I fall back to Bergstein. By 1:00 AM on February 8, Company E and the remnants of Company F reach the edge of the Kall ravine. Company D, which has remained in position since the initial attack, moves northeast to join the 2nd Battalion's reserve below Bergstein. By 1:45 AM, the 1st Battalion is located 400 meters southeast of Hill 400.

At daybreak, the situation deteriorates once again. The Fallschirmjäger observed their American counterparts clearing the passage through the minefields. Any new attack would have to pass through there. The Germans wait and are ready when it comes. North of the Kall, soldiers of the 2nd Battalion come under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. To avoid these shots and hoping to find an unguarded passage, Company E heads east. They end up south of the 1st Battalion, and by 9:30 AM, they are hit by a powerful counterattack. The 1st Battalion is pushed back towards Hill 400. By 11:00 AM, Company E reports that they have only a third of their initial strength left. Company F has only "three radio operators and a machine gun team" remaining.

In response to a request from the 82nd Airborne Division HQ, the 517th indicates its intention to "hold the ground southeast of the town as much as possible."

At noon, a patrol from the 3rd Battalion is sent west to make contact with the 505th PIR at a predetermined point on the Kall. Three attempts to reach the point are repelled by machine gun fire. In the late afternoon, it is announced that the 517th will be relieved by the 508th PIR that night. Just before nightfall, soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, looking south, see American tanks advancing east along the Schmidt-Nideggen road, on or near what was the 517th's objective.

After nightfall, all units fall back to Bergstein except for Company A on Hill 400. At 11:00 PM, elements of the 508th begin to arrive, and by 3:00 AM on February 9, the relief is complete.