Friday, April 24, 2015

Pullam's Pillbox

The troop shelter was concrete, reinforced and 4 feet thick. The G.I. who blew it open picked up an unexpected decoration.

By Sgt. Earl Anderson

With the 102nd Division in Germany–what do you do while you are waiting to be court-martialed for an offense having to do with a bottle of Calvados (as the French call applejack) and rude words with a major? Well, when Pvt. Mark Pullam was in this unenviable position, he whiled away his time helping take a Nazi pillbox.

Watching from an advanced OP in the Roer River area, you could see the landscape of a village up ahead flatten out from hour to hour like a pat of butter on a hot summer day. Infantrymen moved up to surround pillboxes, one by one, and sometimes they were pinned down in their advance by machine gun fire that gave the ground a GI haircut. The infantry couldn’t move in force until the pillboxes were knocked out.

Pullam’s pillbox was a Nazi troop shelter, large enough to hold a company. It was a square, squat box of reinforced concrete four feet thick, surmounting a ridge where it could give plenty of trouble. It was up to Lieutenant William O’Brien of Arlington, Massachusetts to knock it out. Pullam, of Woonsocket, Rhode Island was a volunteer on the detail; so was PFC. Charles W. Kirk of Newell, South Dakota.

Their team had one advantage: a demolition man had reached the pillbox earlier and blown its outer door. He had run out of explosives before he could take a crack at the second door leading to the inner chamber. Then Pullam had a try.

Ten rifleman held the line for him on his first attempt, but they weren’t enough. Jerry was laying down so much fire that two of the rifleman were wounded and had to be pulled out. Pullam meanwhile moved into a trench that ran around the pillbox. He reconnoitered it and made his way to the outer chamber. At the end was a grilled door. Pullam thought he heard some movement. “Somebody’s in here,” he called back to a rifleman just outside the shelter.

“Ja,” came a guttural answer from inside. Pullam figured that Jerry was warning the others, but he still wanted a good look at the chamber. He stuck his head around the corner and almost into the bore of a German rifle. The German jumped back, then fired and missed. Pullam retreated fast to the open air.

He knew the pillbox layout now. Next try he tossed a charge into the chamber against the far door and touched it off with a hang grenade. Smoke kept pouring out until the sun went down, and by that time it was too dark to tell how much damage had been done.

Six Americans were left around the pillbox. They took refuge in the surrounding trench and built mud barricades. As a full moon swung up through the sky, it robbed them of their protective shadow. They could see vague shapes moving in on them. One man covering the communications trench was hit twice by sniper bullets. They knew the Germans were just around the corner.

The German attack started about 0200 hrs. A short time later a renter moved out of the mud with orders for the Americans to retreat if attacked. They didn’t lose any time getting out. Their attempt to blow up the shelter was temporarily halted.

Pullam went back to his platoon CP. Lieutenant O’Brien was there, and they decided the job should be tried again in the morning. Pullam dragged himself into a corner and tried to grab some sleep.
By 0830, O’Brien, Pullam and Kirk had run and crawled through timefire to the fox holes underneath a haystack from which they plan to launch their second try. They brought with them 12 charges of composition C2, dynamite caps, primacord, fuses, igniters, time fuses and TNT. There would be flamethrowers in the hands of the infantry.

Kirk and Pullam, together with a volunteer who had offered to help carry some of the stuff, crowded in one foxhole under the haystack. Lieutenant O’Brien was in another. The infantry moved in with Pullam and Kirk, crouching in their hole, talked over the layout of the shelter. The dough-feet were backed by six Sherman tanks, but one Sherman nosed into a shell crater and stuck there. When the infantry reached the pillbox, the three combat engineers took off on their stomachs Pullam leading, followed by kirk and O’Brien.

“The infantry did a damn good job of covering us,” Pullam said later. "We made it to the shelter okay, and the lieutenant and me followed the trench to the shelter door. Kirk sat in a corner covering us. Lieutenant O’Brien reached around to push open the outer door. Just then I saw some kind of movement inside and grab for him. He was kneeling forward, holding himself up by his hand. A shot zinged between his hand and my foot and missed us both.

“I could see the inner door was open and partly sprung, and I figured the Jerries were shooting through there. So we moved back and opened up with hand grenades and flamethrowers. We kept yelling at them to come out, us and the infantry guys. We were really giving them hell.”

The Germans yelled back in good English that the door was jammed, but the Americans didn’t bite. They knew someone had come out during the night to close the outer door.

“It didn’t look like they were going to be smoked out,” Pullam went on, “so I grabbed two bags of explosives and started off for the opening. I was scared stiff, but I knew if I didn’t do it, Kirk or the lieutenant would and I didn’t want them to. I poked my head around the door, the smoke helping to conceal me. I gave the bags a swing and heaved them in right next to the door. Somebody threw in hand grenades and-boom-out came the door sailing through the air like a maple leaf.”

“Pullam almost went nuts for a minute there,” Kirk said. "He must’ve been too close to the concussion. I had to grab him to keep him from going in after the Jerries.

And the Jerries came out. There were 22 of them – not old man this time, but younger Nazis. The first one through the door could talk English. Pullam started to walk the prisoners back to the US lines, all except one whom Kirk held back to help him inspect the shelter and to field strip some German weapons to show they weren’t booby-trapped. The shelter was packed with guns and ammunition.
Pullam had gotten his prisoners about 60 or 70 yards from the shelter when the Germans from other emplacements opened machine gun fire on their own men. None was hurt. Pullam dived into a shellhole on top of a dead G.I. Then he climbed out and rounded up his prisoners again.

That evening, Pullam and Kirk were fingering through a helmet full of trinkets in the basement of an army occupied farmhouse. They helmet held souvenirs they had picked up in the captured German shelter.

“Look at this,” said Private Pullam rummaging through the odds and ends. “Here’s an American good conduct ribbon. I never thought I’d get one of these.” And he went back to sweating out his court-martial.