By: Grant Jones
Location: Kansas, United States
In 1947 Charles MacDonald published Company Commander. It is his story of leadership under fire from the Siegfried Line to Czechoslovakia. In September 1944 Captain MacDonald was given command of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. The lives of nearly two-hundred men were his responsibility; MacDonald was twenty-one years old.
MacDonald received his baptism of fire in a squalid, captured German pill-box part of the captured Siegfried Line his men were ordered to hold. Five days before the massive German attack in the Ardennes, MacDonald’s 2nd Division was relieved by the 106th Infantry Division. As a result of the German offensive that began on 16 December 1945, two of the three infantry regiments of the 106th Division would be surrounded and captured.
MacDonald’s unit was moved north for an attack into, and through, the Siegfried Line aimed at taking the Roer Dams. The jumping off point for this attack was along the north flank of what was to become “The Bulge.” On the evening of 16 December, MacDonald was ordered to quickly deploy with the other companies of 3rd Battalion to hold a vital crossroads “at all costs.” Nobody knew it at the time but elements of two German Divisions, the 277th Volksgrenadier and the 12th SS Panzer, were headed for that crossroads.
The 17th would witness concentrated hell in the forest in front of the crossroads. MacDonald’s men held off six successive attacks by German infantry. The Germans got closer to the American foxholes with each successive attack. MacDonald’s men were getting low on ammunition and had received no artillery support. Except for two M4 Shermans somewhere behind their position, I Company had no anti-tank defenses. At that moment five Tiger Tanks rumbled up the road. The German tanks began to systematically blast the Americans in their foxholes. After approximately thirty minutes of that I Company broke for the rear. The Shermans got two of the German tanks before being destroyed.
MacDonald arrived at the battalion headquarters only knowing where a handful of his men were. As he states he was disgusted with himself feeling he had failed to hold the crossroads and by allowing many of his men to be killed or captured. He wondered if he would be court-martialed and if it would not have been better to have been killed in the battle. The first thing his battalion commander said to him was, “nice work, Mac.” The 3rd Battalion had held the crossroads under impossible conditions just long enough for the 2nd Division’s other regiments to get into position. MacDonald received the Silver Star.
Richard E. Cowan was a machine gunner from M Company assigned to MacDonald’s unit during the battle. For staying at his gun and covering the other men in their retreat, Cowan became the subject of both German infantry and tanks. Nevertheless, Cowan held his position and was the last man to pull back. He was killed the next day. For his efforts on 17th December he received the Medal of Honor.
Jose Lopez, another machine gunner who was attached to the neighboring K Company, also received the Medal of Honor for his courage on 17th December. Fortunately, Lopez survived the war and lived to a ripe old age. Reading the award citations gives some indication of the ferocity of the German attack.
A month later leading his company in a counterattack MacDonald was wounded. After two months of recuperating, MacDonald was given command of G Company of the 2nd Battalion of his old regiment. MacDonald led this company from the Rhine to Leipzig and into Czechoslovakia by the war’s end.
The book isn’t all blood and gore there are moments of humor and dialogue right out of a movie. For example, MacDonald reports the following comments by his troops who had just witnessed a P-47 fighter-bomber attack on German positions:
“Well, their work’s done for the day,” someone said. “Yeah,” a mortarman answered, reaching for a shovel, “they’ll go home now and have a short Scotch and a hot bath and shack up with some mademoiselle or some Limey wench. What a life!” “Yeah, and draw a double salary for it,” a headquarters man put in. “That’s the life for me.” Willie Hagan said, “Oh, dry up. You never had it so good.”
In passing MacDonald notes that the 3rd Battalion surgeon was Edward T. Matsuoka of Honolulu. Matsuoka received his medical degree in 1941 and was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts during the Battle of the Bulge.
MacDonald was wounded on 17 January 1945. The final volume of the Green Series on the European Theater, The Last Offensive, takes off from around that time and concludes with the war’s ending. This volume of the series was written by Charles B. MacDonald who retired as Deputy Chief Historian, U.S. Army in 1979. MacDonald also wrote or co-wrote two other books of the Green Series, The Siegfried Line Campaign and Three Battles: Arnaville, Altuzzo, and Schmidt. He also contributed to Command Decisions.
After retiring, MacDonald wrote A Time for Trumpets (note the title). This, I believe, was his last book. It is the history of the Ardennes Offensive and concentrates on the first two weeks of the struggle. Needless to say, this was a deeply personal work for him:
I approached the work with a kind of messianic zeal, for I wanted to tell the story to my own satisfaction (the battle had shaped my life, and I have always felt that I left a little something of me in the Ardennes).
This leads to the question, can someone with such an intense personal involvement write an objective history? I believe he did. It is the best work I’ve read on the battle (not that I have read them all). Perhaps, MacDonald had a personal need to understand what had happened and therefore, he wrote an honest account because of his personal involvement.
The title of the work is of interest because of the ongoing debate about “Drums and Trumpets” military history that focuses on battles, leaders, weapons and campaigns and the future and direction of the field. This may be what MacDonald had in mind when he penned the closing paragraph of A Time for Trumpets:
Hitler saw the American soldier as the weak component (the “Italians”) of the Western alliance, the product of a society too heterogeneous to field a capable fighting force. Bouck, Crawford, Tsakanikas, Umanoff, Moore, Reid, Descheneaux, O’Brien, Jones, Erlenbusch, Goldstein, McKinley, Mandichak, Spigelman, Garcia, Russamano, Wieszcyk, Nawrocki, Campbell, Barcellona, Leinbaugh. Black men, too, although their color was hardly reflected in their names. The heterogeneity was indeed there, but at many a place – at Krinkelt-Rocherath, at Dom. Butgenbach, in the Losheim Gap, behind the Schnee Eifel, at St. Vith, atop Skyline Drive, at the Parc Hotel, Echternach, Malmedy, Stavelot, Stoumont, Bastogne, Verdenne, Baraque de Fraiture, Hotton, Noville – the American soldier put the lie to Hitler’s theory. His was a story to be told to the sound of trumpets.