By: Helen Mooradkanian – August, 2013
Nineteen-year old Corporal William T. Poulios, of Chelmsford, 87th Infantry Division, 347th Regiment, swept across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, central Germany, to Czechoslovakia—in 154 days of combat! From December 6, 1944, to May 8, 1945 (when Germany unconditionally surrendered), the 87th drove relentlessly from Metz, France, to Plauen on the Czech border in the liberation of Europe.
They captured fortress-like cities…crashed the Siegfried Line with its “dragon’s teeth”…crossed rivers at flood stage, including the treacherous Rhine…slogged through knee-deep mud, heavy snow, sleet, and fog in the Ardennes Forest…survived sub-zero temperatures during record cold waves that winter of 1944–1945…endured pneumonia and frostbite…escaped the deadly accurate 88mm artillery, which swiveled and fired in any direction. Bill Poulios called it “the finest in the world.”
For the Lowell-born youth who had never traveled beyond Dracut, it was a baptism of fire. “My parents, who came here from Greece, gave full allegiance to America. My mother told the judge, when applying for U.S. citizenship, ‘If Greece and America were at war, I would fight for America!’ ” All four brothers fought for the U.S. in Europe, Guadalcanal, and Korea.
Fortresses of Metz
When he enlisted in 1943, Bill Poulios trained for the U.S. Army Air Force but was transferred to the 87th Infantry Division when General Eisenhower called for more ground troops in Europe. He landed in France on Dec. 1-3, 1944. The 87th, barely tested in combat, was rushed into mop-up operations at the Battle of Metz, France, eliminating the last pockets of Nazi resistance.
Metz was highly fortified, surrounded by two perimeters of 18 forts and observation posts, interconnected by tunnels. Two weeks earlier it had fallen to U.S. forces, yet the Nazis clung stubbornly to the remaining isolated forts, surrendering them one by one. One of the last, Fort Driant, fell to the 87th on December 8, 1944.
Bill was leading a night patrol outside Metz when a German general, with 150 of his men, surrendered to Bill and gave Bill his saber.
On December 10, 1944, the 87th Division moved near the Saar–German border, at Gross Rederching. In quick succession, they captured Rimling, Obergailbach, and Guiderkirch despite fierce resistance.
The Bulge, race across Europe
Then followed a 300-mile road march in open trucks from Germany’s Saar Valley to the vicinity of Bastogne, Belgium. When Hitler launched the Ardennes Offensive in mid-December, the 87th Infantry was plunged into defending Bastogne and its environs on December 29, against Hitler’s advance.
It was a long, brutally cold winter. “We nearly froze to death as we raced across Belgium to the Siegfried Line—with hardly a chance to clean up or rest,” Bill recalls.
The 87th captured the Belgium towns of Moircy on December 30 and Remagne on December 31. On New Year’s Day, 1945, they withstood the bloodiest German counterattack of the Ardennes Salient or Battle of the Bulge. They broke through the impregnable German defense around the main supply route connecting Bastogne and St. Hubert.
On January 2, 1945, they freed Gerimont, Belgium. On January 10, they flushed out the enemy, house by house in Tillet.
On January 13, they reached the Ourthe River in the Ardennes. On January 15, they moved to the Luxembourg-Germany border on the steep banks of the Sauer River. Through constant night patrols, they broke through the German side’s elaborate warning system of trip wires rigged up to flares and explosives.
On January 23, they seized Wasserbillig, Luxembourg, and then advanced toward the Siegfried Line.
On January 28, 1945, outside St. Vith, Belgium, near the Schnee Eifel Mountains, the 87th Division secured the high ground west of the Our River. By the end of January, they captured three more towns: Schlierbach, Selz, and Hogden.
By February 5, 1945, they seized the last town near the Siegfried Line, Roth. By February 9, they captured the key city of Neuendorf. In two days, they had advanced so rapidly that food and ammunition had to be hand-carried to the front over miles of snow-covered trails.
Siegfried Line’s “dragon’s teeth”
The Siegfried Line was a formidable barrier built by Hitler to protect Germany. Multiple fronts blocked infantry and tanks. The first line of defense consisted of landmines and barbed wire laid between “dragon’s teeth” – pyramid-shaped, reinforced concrete blocks 3 to 4 feet tall that could rip treads off the heaviest tanks. Between the “dragon’s teeth” were diagonally-placed steel beams. Behind them rose a series of massive steel and concrete pillboxes, heavily fortified, with interlocking fields of fire. Connecting the whole were wire communications and tunnels.
Yet it fell! American forces cleared the landmines, smoked the pillboxes, cut the communications cable—and our infantry and tank destroyers rolled through!
Moving on roads loaded with landmines, booby-traps, and pillboxes, the 347th Regiment, in night attacks, captured Ormont (in 20 minutes) on February 26, and Hallschlagg, then crashed through the Siegfried Line’s highest point, “Gold Brick Hill.”
On March 6, 1945, they crossed the Kyll River and advanced rapidly to the Ahr River, 25 miles inside Germany. On March 8, they seized Dollendorf.
On March 16 they began crossing the Moselle River in assault boats and established a beachhead, under a barrage of heavy fire.
By nightfall, they had successfully crossed the Moselle, gained control of the ground between the Moselle and the Rhine, and captured more than 200 German prisoners. Then they pushed toward the Rhine.
On March 18-19, the Division captured Koblenz, Germany, at the junction of the Moselle and Rhine Rivers.
On March 25-26, they successfully crossed the Rhine in assault waves—fighting the treacherous, swift-moving current, dodging heavy enemy fire all along the riverbanks and bluffs, including the deadly accurate 88mm artillery. “It was pure hell!” Yet they did it—totally defeating the surprised Germans, who withdrew rapidly, completely disorganized. They secured the east bank, cleared the towns of Oberlahnstein and Braubach, and advanced east.
In one month, March 1945, the 87th Infantry had advanced nearly 103 miles inside Germany, captured 225 pillboxes, taken some 10,300 prisoners, and cut off the German Army’s main withdrawal route! They had crashed through the Siegfried Line, crossed the Kyll and Ahr Rivers, assaulted the Moselle and Rhine Rivers, captured Koblenz, and spearheaded the Division’s race 45 miles into Germany that last week. On March 31, the 87th set up its command post deep inside Germany.
Bill recalls one poignant story about POWs liberated in Plauen—20 Greek nationals who had spent two years in slave labor, manufacturing airplane parts in an underground factory. “They couldn’t speak English so I served as their interpreter. The men, all skin and bones, had not eaten for days. As our guests, I took them to our mess hall where we fed them until they could eat no more. When they tearfully pleaded with me to take them to America, I was very sad, very sad, I could not do this.”
Amazing stories beyond human endurance and strength, physical and emotional. Bill Poulios, a man of prayer raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, knows where his strength lies. The cross he has worn around his neck all his life witnesses to the everlasting God who “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:29-31).