Hurtgen Forest – A Hike Through the Green Hell

If you ask me, the whole thing started off on the wrong foot. We had intended to beat the heat with an early start, but typical travel snares in a foreign country got in the way. By the time we arrived in the small town of Vossenack just inside the German border, it already pushed the lunch hour. The sun walloped on us without mercy. We walked through the quiet streets in search of the trail head. And we noticed not a single building older than 1950.  An ominous sign…

We had come to this tiny town for the Kall Trail – a winding foot path leading us through the formidable Hurtgen Forest. The map described the trail as “strenuous,” but we didn’t bat an eye. My husband and I are both very avid, experienced hikers. So, even though the heat pressed in, and we only had one small bottle of water, we threw the dice. We started down the Kall Trail and entered “the Green Hell.”


We weren’t the first Americans to give that trail a whirl. In September of 1944, multiple divisions of the United States Army moved into the woods to secure the nearby town of Schmidt and capture the Roer River Dams. They also wanted to keep the Germans busy while other American troops attacked at Aachen near the Siegfried Line. Command predicted it would be a quick mission that would last a few weeks. Instead, it became the longest battle fought on German soil during World War II.

Just like with our hike, myriads of things went wrong for the US Army from the start. US Generals had badly underestimated German strength in the area and their tenacity to fight. They also underestimated the rugged, forested terrain. Thick pine trees blocked all the light. Steep, muddy trails proved impossible to navigate. In the cooling autumn weather that fast turned to winter, a steaming mist hung in the air at all times. Constant rainstorms soiled ammunition and radio equipment. Tanks and troops wound up hopelessly bogged down in the mud.

And the Germans showed no mercy. The towns of Schmidt and Vossenack were wiped off the map in the months of fighting. In the forest, soldiers fought a gritty, hostile battle even by World War II standards. “Tree Huggers,” a shelling in which German gunners fired into the thick tree tops, peppered GIs not only with lethal shrapnel, but also with burning limbs and shards of bark that couldn’t be detected on x-rays. Mines were buried everywhere in the six-inch layer of pine needles on the forest floor. Countless GIs lost legs, limbs, and their lives by stepping on them. The merciless fire of the well-entrenched snipers mounted up piles of casualties. Entire divisions got wiped out, only to have their replacements shot up as well. As the battle grew in intensity, the forest earned a slew of formidable nicknames including “the Green Hell” and “the Meat Grinder.”

Although the fiercest of the fighting petered out by December of 1944, Allied troops didn’t completely secure the Hurtgen Forest until February of 1945. By then, as many as 55,000 casualties had paid for it in blood. The forest was blown to atoms, and two towns completely obliterated.

Such a terrible price tag, yet this battle remains largely unheard of today. Even Germans living in the area don’t really know of it. When we asked after the trail head and where to find it, our questions often garnered confused looks. Unawareness is also prevalent in America. When I told people we would visit Hurtgen Forest during our Europe trip, many had no idea what I was talking about.

On the German side, it’s largely due to the lasting effects of Nazi Propaganda. Because according to them, this battle didn’t exist. They didn’t want anyone knowing Americans had breached German soil, and they fought like hell to make sure word didn’t get out. They also didn’t want to tip their hand, as the Hurtgen Forest provided a major staging ground for their December 1944 offensive in the Ardennes.

As for the US, the grotesque number of casualties for such a small piece of land didn’t exactly boost morale at home or in the front lines.  So, Generals quietly swept the battle under the rug, and the fierce fighting in the Battle of the Bulge soon overshadowed it and kept it there.


There’s a bunker hiding up there… can you see it?

I first heard the story of Hurtgen Forest about ten years ago. I have never had a story affect me the way this one did. It took firm root deep inside of me, more like a calling than an interest. I felt like it was my job to tell this story. It took a lot of reading, research, talking to veterans, and writing. And more writing. And then the rewrites. And more rewrites. Yet my fight to tell this story isn’t over. The book is complete, but typing “the end” in that manuscript was in fact just the beginning.

After all that work over many years, I now stood on the very same trail the GIs took in 1944. And the past has not faded – not in those woods. The looming trees look the same as they did then. There are still several intact (and not so much) bunkers from the German defenses. There are tank treads stuck in the mud, now a permanent part of the trail. Blasted out rocks remain scattered all over the mud.

Then there are the mines. During the battle for Hurtgen Forest, “box mines” put the fear of God in all who fought there. These mines were made of wood instead of metal, which made them virtually undetectable. Unless of course, you stepped on one. Even today, warning signs caution you to stay on the trail, for fear not all the mines were cleared out. And mines, bunkers, and treads aren’t the only ghosts on those trails. Every year, about a half-dozen bodies are still pulled out the woods.


A German Tank Tread

As it turned out, I had my own struggle in the trees of the Hurtgen Forest, although mine didn’t involve getting shot at.  As I said before, the heat that day was atrocious. As I slugged through it, I thought of those GIs. When they fought in here, the cold killed as many as bullets did. They would have loved to complain about being hot. So, I put a smile on my face and pushed through.  Even when we ran low on water, I tried to keep my worries at bay. We had been hiking for quite a while now. The end of the trail had to be near.

But then my husband turned to me with a very sheepish look on his face.  “Um… dear?”


He scratched his head in thought.  “I think we overshot the trail.”

“What do you mean?”

According to the map he held in his shaking hands, we had indeed taken the wrong loop.  We would have to backtrack if we wanted to see the most historic parts of the hike. He examined both the paper map and the google map on his phone (what those GIs would have given for a google map!) He calculated that the back track wouldn’t take long.

I looked at our dwindling water supply and then at the map. “Are you sure?  That looks like a pretty big backtrack.”

“But think how fast we made it this far,” he said.  “It won’t take long.  Besides, we’re such good hikers.”

Indeed. So, back on the trail we went. Deep in the tall pine trees, the heat turned up by about ten degrees. It felt damp and sticky, hard to breathe. Flies buzzed around our heads. The water bottle dropped below the half way mark. Yet we hiked, and we hiked, and we hiked… as it turned out, our minor back track melted into a forty-five-minute detour.  “Strenuous” now seemed like the perfect description of this trail.

“No biggie,” my husband assured me. “The map says there’s a restaurant coming up here. We can refill our water bottle at least.”

It sounded good to me. We stumbled down the trail for several more yards. Our feet grew tired and the water drained lower, but soon we found the restaurant. In a twist that neither of us could have anticipated, it was closed.

My hands balled into fists as my frustration (and concern) mounted. Then I again thought of those GIs.  They did this in circumstances a hell of a lot worse. If they could do it, I could do it too. So, I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, and I followed my husband back down the trail.


A German Bunker

You might wonder why I didn’t question him a little more at this point. Well, to put it simply, my husband rarely gets lost, always steering us through the tough times. He stays calm in any crisis, and he digs his way out of anything with just his smarts. Who better to trust on a “strenuous” hike through foreign territory?  Besides, I’ve always been more of a follower if I’m honest. I have a bit of a confidence problem when I’m put in charge, which is rare. I’m not much of a soldier.

So, I happily played the part of shadow… until my husband turned to me for the second time and said, “oh dear, we overshot the trail again.”

“How bad?”  I asked through clenched teeth.

The poor guy. I think he saw my frustration. “It’s not as bad as the last one. And you know, this trail is very poorly marked. I can’t see the tiny little markers in the dark woods with all these weeds.”

He had a valid point. The markers to keep us on the right trail were indeed tiny. Tinier than they should have been with a caution of active mines hanging over our heads.

Even so, it didn’t sooth me much. In fact, a very overwhelming feeling cropped up inside me. I pictured those GIs lost and alone in these very woods where I stood now. Evidence of their struggle lay all around me. What they had needed was a strong leader, and seventy-five years later, it looked like my husband might need one too. Those ghosts of the past whispered. Perhaps it was time for someone else to take the reins.

“That’s it,” I said to him in a firm voice that surprised even me. “Give me that map.”


“You’re busted to private,” I shrieked at him. “I’m the captain now, and I’m getting us out of here! Now give me that map.” 

With wide eyes and no words, my husband handed me the map. I took it from him and charged ahead. Any confidence problems I’ve had with leadership vanished like the water in our bottle. Instead, I had a newfound energy and vigor pumping through me. I would get us out of these woods, damn it, come hell or high water. And I could only hope it was high water, because we were both dangerously dehydrated.


My breathing got heavy and my face turned beet red with the heat. I began having alarming blackouts. The steep gradient wore on me and my legs felt like lead. I suddenly understood the nickname “the Green Hell” a lot more. Still, I pushed through and kept my eyes on the trail and the map.

I soon found the correct trail markers and got us back on the right path. About an hour later, my husband and I crawled out of the Hurtgen Forest. We had drank every last drop of water.  I felt on the brink of collapse and my husband was in no better shape. But my God, we had made it.

In the end, I promoted him back to first lieutenant, because that trail made his mission a lot harder than it had to be. He was also so supportive when things got really ugly.  “Come on, my captain,” he whispered every time I wanted to faint. “You got this.”

And I truly did. Somehow, in the middle of the Green Hell, I stepped up and took the lead for once, and I got us out of the woods. It taught me that perhaps I am a lot stronger than I think I am, and maybe there’s a little soldier in all of us. It also taught me that when you get lost in the woods, maybe you find yourself.



“The Battle of Hurtgen Forest” – C. Whiting

“The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest” – C.B. MacDonald

“Citizen Soldiers” – S.E. Ambrose

“If You Survive” – G. Wilson

“The Story of Company I in Hurtgen Forest” – F. Linse

“Road to Hurtgen: Forest in Hell” – P. Boesch

Hurtgenwald Visitor Center

All photos by M.B. Henry.  For more from Germany, click here

Are you visiting the Hurtgen Forest?  I highly recommend stopping at their visitor center before hitting the trails, and pay the extra three euro for the maps.  They give in depth information about each trail, and they guide you through all of the sites.  

85 Comments on “Hurtgen Forest – A Hike Through the Green Hell

    • At least we weren’t getting shot at! And we didn’t accidentally find a mine haha. Glad you enjoyed it Dave.

      • Assuming the closed restaurant was Mestrenger Muehl ? I have actually been there when it was open. I used to do a lot of work at NATO Hqs in Brussels and would often drive over and spend a day or so wandering around that trail on both sides of the Kall River, more like a creek! The restaurant had the typical German fare with good beer as well. My wife accompanied me on one of these trips but we drove down the long dirt road that enters the forest on the East side of Vossenach. She was doubtful there was a restaurant down that road but I had assured her there was. Fortunately, it was open that day!

      • Yes!!! That was the one! Ooooh how I wish it would have been open when we were there .Not just for the relief but I think I would have enjoyed dining there! 🙂

    • Thanks! We certainly are as well. Probably one of our most memorable hikes for both the history and the misadventures!

    • Ah, yes. We have had many adventures together 🙂 Thanks for coming by, wishing you and your wife well!

      • I have walked this trail dozens of times since 1982. My father was wounded here in November 1944. He just passed away on 30 January 2021 at the age of 96. The memories of the battle there were still fresh in his mind!

      • I’m very, very sorry to hear about your father. 🙁 🙁 I hope you are doing as well as can be, and thank you for sharing his history here! I always love it when I get responses like this, reminds me how personal the history really is!

  1. This story was certainly captivating….and very scary! I would have been a basket case! Indeed you are stronger than you thought. It must have been awful for the soldiers who fought in that Hell. I would have been a terrible soldier, because I can’t read maps very well! I am glad you and Joel navigated your way successfully! Third time is a charm so they say!

    • Well thank you for coming by to check it out 🙂 I’m so glad to share the story for everyone.

  2. Wow! So much to comment on here. Glad you found your way out of hell, for starters. Amazing that you have uncovered this largely unknown history and written a novel about it. I wish you well in your quest for a publisher.
    You had me with you all along on this hike. Sometimes you just have to take the reins, no matter how much you trust your teammates. Good job all around!!

    • Hahaha you made me giggle, I’m glad we’re not still in there too! And thanks for the well wishes, I could use all the help I can get! So glad you came along with us.

  3. Fabulous post! What an incredible experience for you and your husband, too. Sometimes when we least expect it, we rise to an occasion. You did that. You stepped up and forward.
    Bless both of your hearts, but what an amazing story – thanks so much for sharing with us.

    • Thank you so much Sheila. I’m so glad you enjoyed coming along with us! Sometimes all we can do is breathe in, breathe out, and move on!

    • That’s an excellent thing to think about. The Earth has an incredible way of healing itself. I wish we could learn more from the scars that are left behind.

    • Thank you very much! 🙂 Amazing is a good word to use for it. So glad you enjoyed our little adventure

    • It’s totally safe if you stay on the trail! (At least that’s the mantra I kept running in my head) 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by!

    • You are correct in that! Sometimes when trail guides say “strenuous,” we take the trail and find it more moderate given our experience level. So when we read that we weren’t concerned haha! 🙂 I guess we should have taken the 100 degree heat more into account.
      I hope to publish someday very soon! You can bet I will let everyone know when I do.

  4. I could not help thinking of Hansel and Gretel. Fortunately there wasn’t any witch at the end of trail 😉 Seriously, excellent post and certainly a little taste of what the GI’s went through in the fall of 1944. If memory serves me one of the first divisions that fought there and was badly damaged got withdrawn and transferred to the Ardennes “for rest.”

    • Haha Hansel and Gretel! It gave me a good laugh. If we had been smart enough to bring snacks, which we weren’t, we definitely would have left a bread trail! 🙂 And yes you are correct. Think it might have been the 4th division – 12th infantry I know was one of the regiments. Unbelievable luck!

  5. I enjoyed your Post. It was well written. I love seeing what is left over from WWII. It’s interesting to see what is still there after so many years have gone bye. Wish I could visit these places.

    • Well I always enjoy your posts about battlefield visits so I’m glad I could return the favor for ya! 🙂

    • It’s a historical fiction novel that opens with a teenage girl in the modern day. She meets a very bitter and aged veteran that lives in her small town, and he ends up telling her his story of growing up in the Great Depression and eventually fighting in the Hurtgen Forest and the Bulge. She realizes his bitterness comes from the past that still haunts him, and she befriends him. I really hope to get it published someday soon! 🙂

      • My father was at both Hurtgen Forest and the Bulge. Every year he read aloud the names of all his company who lost their lives in those battles.

      • That is very moving about your father. Im so glad you shared that here! My deepest thanks to him for his service, and I can’t imagine what that must have been like for him.

  6. I think when push comes to shove we are all stronger than we think, we all have it in us to survive. For such a terrible battle it is surprising it is hardly heard of!

    • I think you’re absolutely right. In some circumstances, we become capable of a lot more things than we think! Excellent point.

  7. what a scary experience! I’m glad you found your inner confidence though. and i got a question: you said every year? half a dozen bodies are dragged out of the wood…. are they lost hikers?

    • LOL!! No they aren’t thank goodness! I think we’re the only ones that manage to get that lost – they are from the battle, sadly, as many of them weren’t able to be recovered at the time.

  8. M.B. what a great story! I loved the parallels to WW2 and how you got inspiration from past soldiers. I got goosebumps all throughout – the ghosts, the box mines, the echoes of the past, the heat and the lack of water, I can’t imagine how emotional that must have been. You made it through Green Hell and came out even stronger! I avoid taking the lead too, but sometimes life forces us to step to the role.

    • You are right, sometimes we have to play the hand we are given! 😃 it was indeed an emotional journey, but I’m glad we did it and that we made it out

  9. That’s a fine piece of writing – and quite an adventure. Unbelievably, I have actually heard of the Hurtgen Forest – I think it featured in ‘Band of Brothers’? – but didn’t know the detail. Well done you!

    • Wow I’m glad! Band of Brothers… So. Good. Im always glad when someone brings that up 😃 we did see some of their foxholes outside Foy from the Battle of the Bulge. They are still there!

  10. > Every year, about a half-dozen bodies are pulled out the woods.

    Who is going to do this? Is it the German government?

    I searched for “Battle of Hürtgen Forest” and read it. 😀
    Recent People in Germany still do not know about this fight?

    In the Battle of Hürtgen Forest after the Normandy landing operation, the American army battled against the German army, and a lot of American soldiers died.
    Why did not Polish, British, French and Dutch troops etc..fight with American?

    • When I was reading variously about Battle of Hürtgen Forest,
      I found Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (November 30, 1918 – May 2, 2014).
      His birth is interesting, but he battled as an “American soldier”.

      Zimbalist was born in New York City, the son of Jewish parents. His parents were Russian-born violinist Efrem Zimbalist, Sr. [2] and Romanian-born operatic soprano Alma Gluck / wiki / Efrem_Zimbalist_Jr..html

      2014 Independent article↓

      If you are interested in ,pls 😀
      CIA Site;
      Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the US Army to Fight Hitler

      • Thanks for the great articles! I’m glad you were able to continue the story and provide more info! 😃 you are right in that many nationalities fought under the US flag in WWII. The deeper we dig into stories like this, the more we can shed light on the history from the many different angles that it unfolded from.

    • It is hard to believe, but yes the battle is still largely unknown today in both Germany and America. There were a few people in the direct vicinity of Vossenack who were able to tell us stories of their parents or grandparents in this battle, but that was rare. There is a lot of information out there now about the battle, but it comparison to other campaigns such as Normandy and the Bulge, it is quite low. As for the bodies, they didn’t really explain who retrieves them but I am guessing they are found by locals and then recovered by the police, and then reinterred elsewhere. As for the other allied troops, the ETO was a vast sector by late 1944 and Hurtgen was just a small slice of it. All allied forces chipped away at various sectors and so did work together even if they couldn’t be in the same place all at once. Although since Amercia is a nation of immigrants, I’m sure many nationalities fought in the Hurtgen in the end! 😃

  11. This is tragic and scary and fantastic. I am always so amazed by the stories of what soldiers suffer in battle. It’s terrifying, and their bravery is incredible. And you showed no little bravery in your perilous hiking adventure, too. That would have freaked me out–lost with dwindling water. Awesome job, Captain!

    • You are right, it is truly amazing what people can survive and make it through. I only wish they didn’t have to in the first place! But… if the occasion calls for it, we can truly rise above ourselves sometimes! 🙂

  12. Whoa! You go, girl! That would have been a horrible experience, but maybe it brings another dimension to your book…?

    And congrats on writing this book, by the way. That’s awesome! Best wishes with querying.

    Also, thanks for all the info on this battle. I had not heard of it, nor had I heard of the weapon called “tree huggers”. Great historical info, as always. 🙂

    • It certainly brings another dimension. Anything for the writing! And thanks for the best wishes, I’m going to need them!

    • Always glad to bring my friends along for the adventure 🙂 I’m glad it turned out well too! Our next hiking adventure, we were sure to bring lots of water and snacks 🙂

  13. Thanks for the history — of both the battle that was fought there and of your own personal battle to get through the hike. You and your husband make a good team.

    • We sure do! 🙂 I’m lucky to have him by my side for these adventures. Glad you stopped by and enjoyed the article!

    • Thank you! Me too! 🙂 Of course now we enjoy telling the story that we’re safe and sound. Glad you came along with us

    • Well I am always glad to share it with others and take everyone along for our wild adventures 🙂 Thanks for stopping by for a read, loved hearing from you!

  14. Very informative post, MBHenry. Interesting. I have read about this place before. I think this may be one of the places that Audie Murffe was, but not sure about that. Good read!

    • I don’t know about Audie actually, he came in at the South of France yes? It’s been awhile since I’ve read his memoir though, I’d have to double check that 🙂 Thanks for bringing him up though, he was an incredible man. Glad you liked the post!

      • No. Audie Murphy was with the 3rd Infantry Division. They did not fight in the Huertgen Forest. They were further much further south near Holtzwihr. Divisions that fought through the Huertgen were the US 28th, 4th, 8th and later the 82nd Airborne. Also elements of some armored units and various artillery. The brunt was born by the 28th, originally a Pennsylvania National Guard division that earned the nickname the “Bloody Bucket” because of the number of casualties they suffered here and the shape of their unit patch-it was a red keystone that looked like a bucket. The unit was pulled off the line and sent for R&R to the Ardennes where they were again mauled in the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge starting on 16 December 1944.

  15. My uncle (now deceased) was a medic in the Hurtgen Forest battle in WWII. He said it was a bloodbath, but beyond that would never speak further of it.

    • Thanks for sharing that piece of family history here! I know from all I’ve read and seen of Hurtgen, it was a dreadful place. I can’t imagine experiencing that first hand.

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