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Last Respects

Retracing the final wartime steps
of the uncle he never knew

By Ken Stephens

On the rolling fields outside the tiny East German village of Lauenhain, a German sniper fired two shots across the Zschopau River, killing an American private.

It happened on April 16, 1945, four days after FDR died, a couple of weeks before Hitler would kill himself, the very day the Soviet Red Army jumped across the Oder River to start its push across the last 50 miles to Berlin.

It was at the point of the American Army's easternmost penetration, where Patton's 3rd Army was ordered to halt and wait for the Russians to link up and cut Germany in half.

For weeks, the German army, short on ammunition, equipment and soldiers, had been collapsing in an uncontrolled retreat. Only three weeks later, the exhausted remnants of that army would formally surrender.

It was the 304th Infantry regiment's last day on the front line; the American private was Company B's last casualty.

He was my uncle, Cleo Simoneau

.

Cleo died more than eight years before I was born. Growing up, I vaguely knew that one of my mother's brothers had been killed during the war, that he was buried somewhere in Europe and that he had a son, whom I had never met, somewhere in the United States.

To me, Cleo had been a couple of yellowed V Mail letters, a forever young face looking out from a family photo album, his head cocked slightly to one side, his arms folded'across his chest, a broad, self-confident grin.

For years, all that my family knew of Cleo's death were a few details provided in a letter from Robert Fisher, Company B's first sergeant.

Forty-three years later, my curiosity was aroused while I was reading a book about Eisenhower's war years. I went looking through the family album and found Sgt. Fisher's letter. As I read it, Cleo's death began to fall into place with history, and I was struck by the irony of the time and place of his death.

I wanted to know more, so I began a journey through the worn pages of out-of-print books, microfilmed Army records and the hazy memories of aging soldiers.

The journey would take me to a farm village in Luxembourg where Cleo had shivered in a slush-filled foxhole and perhaps learned that his son had been born back home. The journey also took me through Germany's vine-covered hills along the Moselle River, across the Rhine and on to what is now East Germany and the small town along the Zschopau River, where Cleo's war ended. And, finally, it took me to a cemetery in the Netherlands.

I tracked down Mr. Fisher, now a retired school superintendent in Montauk, N.Y. Through him, I found 'William Hoffman, Cleo's platoon sergeant, now living in Richmond Hill, N.Y. I found Eli Riggle, one of the squad leaders in Cleo's platoon, now living in Canton, Ohio.

But after four decades, their memories of my uncle were few. And so I settled for their story, knowing he shared much of it with them.

Cleo joined the Army right after graduating from high school in Damar, Kan., in 1939. Most of his early years were with a coast artillery unit stationed at the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. But by mid-1944 Cleo was anxious to join his younger brother Edmund, who had gone ashore with the second wave at Normandy on D-day.

"He wanted to come over because I was there in France," Edmund recalls. "I told him, we don't need you. You've done your part already .... But he volunteered for the infantry so he could come over," First, however, Cleo was sent to Camp McCoy, Wis., and the 304th Infantry, one of three regiments in the 76th Infantry Division. While training, Cleo returned home to Beatrice, Neb., in the summer of 1944 to marry Leah Winslow. The honeymoon cost him his corporal's stripes, though, when he was late returning to Camp McCoy from leave.

In November 1944, the 76th finally got its overseas assignment. Dozens of troop trains carried the division, some 15,000 men, to Camp Miles Standish, not far from Boston. On Thanksgiving Day, they boarded ships in Boston Harbor, then slipped out to sea under cover of darkness shortly after midnight on Nov. 24.

Eleven days after they put to sea, they spotted England and sailed past the Isle of Wight to Southampton. They spent the next month resting, training and checking out their equipment in Bournemouth, a coastal resort town that had been evacuated to make room for the soldiers.

Cleo and the other soldiers resumed their journey Jan. 10, 1945, aboard Landing Ship-Tanks, flat-bottomed ships with one huge hold that normally carried tanks and trucks. On that day, with the English Channel roiling, each LST held a battalion of 700 to 800 seasick men.

The next morning the LSTs entered the French port of LeHavre. The harbor was strewn with sunken ships, and the town itself was a wreck, As the men marched through the city in a bitter snowstorm, Sgt. Fisher thought the destruction so complete that not one building seemed habitable.

Their eight-to lO-mile march carried them into an open field, where they spent the night in the slush and ice. As tired as they were, sleep was impossible because of the cold.

Over the next few days, they slept in barns or houses and shivered on trucks or in railroad boxcars as they made their way across France and Belgium, past the snow-covered wreckage left in the past month by the Battle of the Bulge, Germany's last great war offensive.

Then the 304th turned south for Luxembourg, where on Jan. 24, along what had been the southern flank of the Bulge, they replaced the 87th Division in positions facing the Sauer River and, across the river, Germany's fortified frontier, the Siegfried Line. For much of the next few weeks, Company B, about 140 infantrymen, occupied Osweiler, a little farming village whose residents had fled in December as the German and American lines surged back and forth.

On Feb. 6, the move into Germany began. The 304th and other units pounded the opposite riverbank with artillery and mortars for several hours before the 417th Regiment threw the first troops across. "The air was literally filled with shells going in every direction," Mr. Fisher says. "It was frightening just to bear them."

While the 304th awaited its turn at the front, Cleo wrote home to my mother, his older sister, Lucille Simoneau, on Feb. 9. He did not mention what lay ahead, perhaps because he didn't want to worry his family.

Instead there was small talk: Cleo's hope that next Christmas he and his 10 brothers and sisters could all be together for the first time in nine years; his request that my mother make a fruitcake and send it to him, and his guess at how soon his child would be born.

Stephen Cleo Simoneau was born the next day in Beatrice, Neb., while the 76th Division's engineers were still dodging enemy fire and struggling against the swiftness of the Sauer - swollen by snow melt - to put a footbridge across the river. Two and a half weeks after the first Americans crossed the river, Company B and the 304th moved two miles up the road from Osweiler, through the shattered town of Echtemach and across the bridge.

Forty-three years later, I found Echtemach a festive little tourist town. It was hard, to believe what happened here, and throughout Europe, during World War II. But reminders were everywhere - monuments at the river crossing site and scattered elsewhere throughout the town, nearby military bases and low-flying fighter jets screaming across the hills with regularity.

But in February 1945, as the men of Company B crossed the river, "it was pitch-black, and all we could do was follow the leader," Mr. Riggle, one of the squad leaders, recalls.

By this time, the men of B Company had gotten "field smart," says Mr. Fisher. "They carried only the bare essentials, which meant a light field pack with mess gear, changes of socks, a blanket, shelter half or poncho and plenty of ammunition. Most men had their regular cartridge belt and at least two bandoleers of ammo along with several grenades .... Many of the men just cut a hole in the center of their blanket and wore it over everything like a Mexican serape. Ponchos were either worm or looped under the ammo belt. Pockets were stuffed with K and C rations. Many men wore a scarf over their head and tied under their chin with the helmet perched on top.

"Believe me, it was cold, and fires were not allowed, and the going was kind of rough."

Early on the morning of Feb. 25, Company B began its first attack, against the small German town of Holsthum. Three hours later, they had taken the town. One American had been killed and 60 German soldiers taken prisoner.

There was no rest those first few days after crossing the Sauer, Mr. Riggle says. "We walked in our sleep. I myself am positive I walked half a mile or three quarters in my sleep. I was not very big then or now, but somehow I kept going."

"It was mostly night fighting," says Mr. Riggle. "We'd go into a town after dark and have to clean out a town before daybreak. You didn't know what you were in for. (Cleo) was very gutty. He wouldn't back off from any assignment."

Not far from Holsthum is Helenenberg, a crossroads town set in a small valley and surrounded by broad, plowed farm fields rising slowly from the town.

But when Cleo and Company B walked 1,000 yards across those fields, the scene was not pastoral.

"I can remember quite vividly mortar shells hitting all around us until we got to the cover of the large hospital orphanage," Mr. Fisher says. "I also remember that one of my platoon sergeants, Sgt. Kenneth Abee from Hickory, N.C., was hit dead center in the helmet by a bullet. It penetrated, went around the other side and out the back and he never got a scratch. However, he did have a serious concussion and was evacuated."

In the next few days they scaled the steep gorge of the Kyll River, grabbing and pulling at trees and shrubs, and took 70 surprised German soldiers prisoner. They captured nondescript little towns called Auw, Priest and Arenrath, where Company B ran into unexpected resistance. "They came out waving a flag, and one of the infantrymen up and shot him, and the rest of them ran back into town," Mr. Riggle says. "We would have had that town with a silver spoon if that guy hadn't gone off his rocker. Nobody knows who it was, of course."

From there they swung south to Monzel, a wine town atop a hill overlooking the Moselle River, which Mr. Riggle's squad was ordered to cross on a reconnaissance mission.

"We were sitting high on a hill, and with field glasses we could see everything that was going on, the Germans moving up and down roads," he says. "They had the town zeroed in. Mortar shells fell on us. There were four killed and five wounded out of the 12 of us. We never did get across the river."

By then, casualties had reduced Company B to about half its normal strength of about 140 men. The company moved back from the front line to Osann, for rest and replacements.

On one night, however, the company had to rescue a platoon that had been surrounded while on a patrol to Minheim, an isolated town surrounded on three sides by the winding river. After a fierce firefight in which 25 Germans were killed or wounded, the company took 26 German prisoners.

"I remember trying to take them back to the rear and keep them quiet," Mr. Riggle says. "They'd get in step and sound like an alarm clock. It scared us to death 'cause the other Germans would know exactly who was there."

A few days later, the company moved by truck convoy to Daxweiler, in the hills above the Rhine River, the last major barrier to the heart of Germany. For the rest of the month, the company patrolled the back roads for German soldiers who were separated from their units as they retreated.

On March 30, they crossed the Rhine on a treadway bridge laid by American engineers at the scenic town of St. Goar. From there, the advance became a mechanized sprint, as the 76th Infantry Division and the 6th Armored Division chased the reeling German army to the north and east. On one day alone, they covered 109 miles.

From then until the end of the war, Mr. Riggle says, Company B was for the most part fighting "15- and 16-year old kids. Most of the regular army had been up on the Siegfried Line and taken prisoner, and all we were fighting was kids."

While the tanks ripped through the German lines, the infantry swept the woods, rounding up prisoners, clearing out a new town each day. Just to the north, another division was liberating Ohrdruf, the first of the concentration camps overrun by the American Army. A few kilometers to the 5outh, another division took Buchenwald.

On Friday, April 13, word reached the soldiers that President Franklin Roosevelt had died April 12. That day, Company B led the attack on Zeitz, site of a German officers candidate school and stiff resistance.

Snipers killed two and wounded seven other men in Company B during a day of house-to-house fighting. "For once, we hid tank support, which made a number of really tough spots easy as they just blasted whole buildings to rubble," Mr. Fisher says.

Two days later, Company B boarded trucks and raced-50 miles after the 6th Armored, catching up at Mittweida, along the Zschopau River, a tributary of the Mulde. "We had outpaced the whole Allied army," Mr. Riggle says. "We - I mean our company - was the farthest east of any Allied soldiers."

The morning of April 16, Company B was ordered to move just north of Mittweida, to Lauenhain, a farming village so small it doesn't appear on maps. Across the river was another village and a small factory. Besides three or four trucks on the road near the factory, they saw German soldiers moving from house to house across the river.

"it was just a fleeting glimpse," Mr. Riggle says. "They didn't walk from house to house, they flew. We were dug in along that road along the river. There was high ground behind us, but the high ground on their side of the river was far higher than on our side."

The company commander was planning on moving into the town, and William Hoffman, my uncle's platoon sergeant, knew he had to warn him of the German soldiers. When Sgt. Hoffman's walkie-talkie didn't work, he sent my uncle and another soldier back to the company command post.

A few minutes later, the rest of Sgt. Hoffman's squad came under heavy mortar fire. "We had to get out fast. What happened after that, I don't know."

Mr. Riggle, however, recalls seeing Cleo get picked off by a sniper as he crossed open ground.

"I think they were getting aggravated that we were taking potshots at them as they were going from building to building, and they decided that they would have a little fun, too. If I remember, he never knew what hit him."

The sniper's first shot, Mr. Fisher wrote in a letter to my Uncle Edmond a few weeks later, hit Cleo in the leg, knocking him down. The sniper immediately shot him again. "He died instantly and I know he did not suffer," Sgt. Fisher wrote.

"It is little consolation for you for me to tell you that not one German escaped from the town. But it was satisfying to me and his buddies to see the village leveled by artillery fire."

After Cleo's body had been recovered, Mr. Fisher took charge of his personal effects, some pictures and an unfinished letter home. In it, Cleo mentioned President Roosevelt's death and said it was too bad, coming as it did so near the end of the war.

In the last days of Cleo's life, Company B, out on the tip of the Allied spearhead in Germany, had been excited about the prospect of linking up with the Soviet army. By night they could see flares fired to signal the location of the Red Army so that American artillery fire did not land on them by accident.

On the day of Cleo's death, the 304th and other elements of Patton's 3rd Army were ordered to halt their advance and wait for the Russians to link up and cut Germany in half. Later that day, Company B moved into reserve.

After the war, Cleo, Company B's last casualty, was buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery just outside Margraten. I had always thought that someday, someone from our family ought to visit his grave. And so, having found where he died, I headed for Margraten. There, in the immaculately groomed field of white crosses, I found Cleo's grave, between those of an Ohio infantry private and an Oklahoma bombardier.

It wasn't an emotional moment - I had never known Cleo, and his death had been far too long ago. But somehow I had a sense of an obligation met.

Only one thing remained to be done.

After the war, Cleo's wife remarried. Her new husband gave his name to Cleo's son, and Stephen Simoneau became Stephen Seachord. They moved to Washington State, and my family eventually lost touch with them. In the early '80s, Cleo's son had looked up an aunt and uncle and my grandmother. At the time he was living in Quinlan, Texas.

But when I began looking for him after returning from Europe last year, there no longer was a Stephen Seachord in Quinlan. I went through a stack of telephone books from small nearby towns. Again no Stephen Seachord. I figured my last hope was that he had moved to one of the big cities in Texas.

Fort Worth, nothing. Austin, San Antonio, Houston. All nothing. Back at my desk, I picked up the Dallas phone book, a last hope. I found a Steve Seachord living in a suburb of Dallas.

Not knowing whether it was the right Stephen Seachord or if he would welcome my intrusion, I wrote him a letter. A few weeks later, after I had nearly given up, he called. We met a few days after Thanksgiving last year. I immediately recognized his father's gap-toothed smile from the old family photos.

It was, I thought, the naturally awkward meeting one might expect when, after 44 years, someone wants to talk about your father and his death.

I met his wife and three children. We talked about his mother - she had five more children after the war. We talked about my mother and father, now dead, and his other aunts and uncles.

He told me he had tried unsuccessfully to learn about his father's death from the Army. He also asked the Army if his father had earned any medals, and one day several months later, without explanation, a box arrived with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, Good Conduct medal, several campaign medals and the Combat Infantryman's badge.

I told him what I had learned and gave him a pencil etching of his father's grave marker. He showed me an album his mother kept, including the photos Cleo had been carrying when he was killed. On one, a tinted picture of an infant, his mother had written, "To daddy dear, from your son Steve," For the first time, I knew that Cleo had learned of his son's birth before he was killed.

In turn, I showed Steve photos I had pulled from family albums and others taken during my trip across Germany, including one of his father's grave.

"It's odd looking at this," he said. "I know this individual was my father, but I didn't know him. I wish I had been able to meet Dad. I'd like to know what he liked. But you can only know that by sitting and talking with them."

Eleven months after it began, my journey was over.

Ken Stephens is a sports writer for The Dallas Morning News.
The Dallas Morning News, Dallas Life Magazine, June 18, 1989

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