| Sgt. Herbert was a member of the 47th Tank Battalion of the 14th Armored Division, part of the U.S. Seventh Army. He was killed in action on January 13,1945 in an intensive battle to stop the German advances in Alsace. The 14th Amored Division was the last reserve deployed by General Patch in the Hagenau Forest. Though they suffered heavy losses, and Arenzville lost one of its brightest and most promising young men, the division stopped the German advance.
Authors Jeffery J. Clarke and Robert Ross Smith describe the desperate fighting in their book Riviera to the Rhine:
The battleground now began to resemble a general melee. Between 10 and 20 January General Smith's 14th Armored Division, which assumed operational control of assorted infantry units of the 242d and 315th Infantry above the Haguenau forest and was supported by most of its own artillery plus that of the 79th Division, fought a sustained action with Decker's panzers. The German commanders, in turn, reinforced the attacking troops on the night of 13-14 January with the 20th Parachute Regiment (7th Parachute Division), and on the 16th with the 104th Infantry Regiment (47th Volksgrenadier Division), thereby steadily raising the stakes of the contest. But along the entire front of the VI Corps, division and regimental commanders gradually lost control over the battle, and the struggle devolved into a fierce tactical conflict between opposing battalions, companies, platoons, and smaller combat units.
The heaviest fighting was concentrated in the two small Alsatian towns of Rittershoffen and Hatten, both just north of the Haguenau forest and a mile or so apart. Chance and circumstance had led the Germans to seize the eastern sections of both towns and the Americans to occupy the western parts, making the fields and roads in between a no-man's land of artillery, antitank, and small-arms fire. Efforts by each party to cut the resupply routes of the other by armored sweeps continually failed in the face of strong tank, antitank, and artillery fire from both sides. The battle thus boiled down to a desperate infantry fight within the towns, with dismounted panzer grenadiers and armored infantrymen fighting side by side with the more lowly foot infantry. Almost every structure was hotly contested, and at the end of every day each side totaled up the number of houses and buildings it controlled in an attempt to measure the progress of the battle. Often in the smoke, haze, and darkness, friendly troops found themselves firing at one another, and few ventured into the narrow but open streets, preferring to advance or withdraw through the blown-out interior walls of the gutted homes and businesses. Both sides employed armor inside the town, but the half-blind tank crews had to be protected by a moving perimeter of infantrymen and could only play a limited supporting role. In Hatten, even with strong infantry and artillery support, no German or American tanker dared push his vehicle around "the bend"- a slight turn in the town's marginally wider main street that was covered by several antitank weapons from both sides.
By 15 January, as the German commitment of infantry in the two towns escalated, the Americans found themselves increasingly on the defensive; resupply and the evacuation of casualties became major operations, as did the continual reorganization of their shrinking perimeters to consolidate the territory they were able to hold. As elsewhere the cold weather kept bodies from deteriorating, and the troops reached a consensus among themselves that no one would be evacuated for shock, since everyone who was left fell into that dubious category. Nevertheless, the American armored division and the attached infantry managed to hang on, completely stalling the Germans' main effort, but in the process they lost perhaps one-third of their combat strength in men and equipment.
A letter from Bob Ertl to friends back in the States recalls some of the details of John's loss:
I received your letter today and will answer immediately, although I am afraid what little information I have will not help very much. All I am able to tell you and you may be assured that I have hunted for every bit of information concerning him long ago, are only the conditions under which he was listed as missing in action. It all happened in the little town of Hatten in Alsace. It is about 100 miles north of Haguenau. The Germans were counter-attacking and fierce fighting took place. The tank was knocked out of action by a German anti-tank gun. I myself was not there, but I am relying on what those few friends of mine who were left have told me. The entire tank crew of Andres, Kruse and John Herbert, with the other three men were seen crawling out of the tank. No one knows any more than that, as there was so much confusion and as other tanks had been hit at the same time. No one knew exactly what happened. We never got to Hatten and at the time this letter is written it is still in German hands and no one goes to their tank to find out just what happened to it. I assure you that anything I am able to find out I will let you know immediately.I can readily understand the anxiety which all of you must have and my only wish is that I could tell you something more definite. I was unable to write for censorship reasons for 30 days after the battle of Hatten. And then I had nothing definite to write so I thought it best not to write you at all until I received your letter.Please let me know if there is anything which I can do to help you. Hoping to be able to give you more definite information shortly,
I remain an old friend,
A letter to the family informing them of John's death indicated that, when the American troops again regained the ground where John had been lost, it was determined that he had evidently been buried by "friendly hands." He was later reinterred in the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial near St. Avold, France, where another Arenzville solider, Virgil Hansmeier, also rests. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.Click here to see a map of the area encompassed by the Battle of Hatten. (Use the "back" button on your browser to return to this page after viewing the map.)
Read the "Battle of Alsace" chapter from Clarke and Smith's book, Riviera to the Rhine.