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.
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.
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.
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.