|After 3 months of combat in Nice, Cannes, and the Maritime Alps, the 551st, an
independent Parachute Infantry Battalion, was sent to Laon to join the 82nd Airborne
Division. On 18 December 1944, the 82nd and the 101st were called on to block the Germans
during the Battle of the Bulge. As an attached unit to the 82nd Airborne Division, the
551st was engaged in some of the most intense fighting during the Battle of the Bulge and
consequently sustained one of the highest causalities rates of any of the airborne units
-- 84 percent. Only its sister unit, the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion, took more
casualties during the Bulge.
On the morning of 4 January, A Company of the 551 was placed in Battalion reserve. A Company's brief respite would not last long -- around midday the 551's leading company ran into heavy sniper fire. The Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonial Wood Joerge, notified Lt. Donald Booth of A Company to send a platoon up the right flank of the Battalion to clear out the snipers. A Company's 2nd platoon was selected for the mission. The platoon was divided in two squads one squad lead by Lt. Gerald Quinn and the other lead by Lt. Richard Durkee.
Durkee describes the actions that lead up to the attack: "We had progressed about 200 yards into the woods when all hell broke loose. The Germans were dug in a wooded position about 50 yards to our right front and were laying down machine gun fire on our patrol." Meanwhile, Lt. Quinn was moving around the German's left flank unnoticed. "As they continued to fire upon us several of my men were wounded. The German's then spotted Quinn's squad and started to move their machine guns onto Quinn's patrol."
As the German's were starting to swing their machine guns around to deal with Quinn's patrol, Durkee shouted "fix bayonets!" Durkee realized that firing upon the dug-in German's would have resulted in killing many of Quinn's men. Joe Cicchinelli, a member of Durkee's squad, recalls the thoughts that raced through his mind when he heard the order: "I said to myself, who was the son-of-a-gun who gave that order." He quickly dispelled that thought and prepared to cross the field. The snow was falling as Durkee and his 30-man squad charged across the field of ankle deep snow screaming "Geronimo!" and the sounded like the "Rebel Yell".
|Some Germans tried to surrender but it was no
use. Yelling and screaming, the men seemed to go "berserk" as they continued to
bayonet the Germans. In the melee, the men often resorted to discharging their weapons to
remove their bayonets from the German bodies. The blood bath lasted approximately 30
minutes. Ultimately, about 60 Germans lay dead in their frozen foxholes. It was also
evident that many of the Germans were dead before the attack and according to Durkee were
probably victims of their own artillery, since the fir trees around the foxholes were
mangled and the ground was covered with tree limbs.
Durkee had to restrain the men at the macabre scene. After yelling, and pulling the men off the bodies he was able to establish order. Durkee's next task was to tend to the wounded who were being covered by the falling snow.
That evening, after tending to the wounded and advancing about half a kilometer the men camped for the night. According to Pat Casonova it was so dark that night that the men stretched out their arms and joined hands so the men could determine who they were next to.
For most of the men in Durkee's squad, and for the 551st as a whole, the worst was yet to come. The small town of Rochelinval lay only a few kilometers from their positions.
For Dick Durkee this was not the last time he used a bayonet in combat. He closed out his military career a highly decorated soldier being awarded the DSC and 2 Silver Stars. Click the hypertext to read Durkee's Korean War DSC citation.