FEATURE STORIES -
The Lonely War of Lieutenant Eric F. Wood, Jr. (589/A)
The Lonely War of Lieutenant Eric F. Wood, Jr. (589/A)
Eric Fisher Wood, Jr. was born on January 25th, 1919 in Los Angeles, California as youngest son of Eric F. Wood Sr. and Baroness Vera de Ropp.
His father Eric Sr. was a famous Pittsburgh architect and WWI veteran. He has been a staff officer and was wounded on the Meuse-Argonne front. Shortly after the war, Wood Sr. had been one of the founding members of the American Legion. During WWII served on Eisenhower’s SHAEF Staff as a Brigadier-General, responsible for the repatriation of displaced persons. General Wood had fthree other children - Alec and Peter and a daughter Eleanor. They all grew up in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
Eric Jr. graduated from the Valley Forge Military Academy as a member of the Class of 1937. He proved to be an outstanding cadet, as he graduated first of his class Summa Cum Laude and was a Gold-star student for his four years at the Academy. He was also a distinguished athlete. After graduating from VFMA, Eric Wood Jr. went to Princeton university, where his achievements were equally distinguished. He graduated in 1942. While studying at Princeton University, Eric enrolled in the Pennsylvania National Guard's Artillery Reserve. He refused a direct commission as an officer and started out as a regular enlisted man.
First Lieutenant Eric F. Wood,Jr. was killed in action around January 22nd, 1945 in the dark woods near the Belgian hamlet of Meyerode. He now lies buried at the American War Cemetery of Henri-Chapelle.This is his story...
In December 1944 the 106th Division took up positions in the Schnee Eifel area in Germany. The 589th Field Artillery supported the 422nd Infantry Regiment from positions near the town of Herzfenn, on the Auw-Bleialf road. Battery “A”, of which Lieutenant Wood was the executive officer, lay south of this road, some 200 yards from the Battalion headquarters. On December 14th, 1944 Brigadier-General Eric F. Wood Sr. and Captain Peter Wood, Eric Jr’s father and eldest brother, made a surprise visit to the Battalion. This was the last time the family members would see Eric Jr. alive.
That morning, three German Stürmgeschutze, assault guns on a tank chassis, rolled unopposed down the road to Auw and Herzfenn. At about 1400 PM the tanks came into sight of the 589th Field Artillery. Lieutenant Wood heard the tanks coming and ran to a small hill on the left side of A-Battery, where he had a clear view of the road. He shouted commands to his Nr. 1 piece, under command of Sgt. George Shook and with Cpl. John F Gatens Jr. manning the gunner's position.
Despite having a restricted view of the enemy tank on the road, Corporal John Gatens destroyed the lead tank by direct fire, using armor-piercing ammunition. Soon all four 105mm M1 Howitzers of Battery “A” opened up on the remaining tanks. Infantry support was broken up by sweeping the surrounding woods with shells. As it turned out, Lieutenant Wood's prompt handling of the situation broke up the enemy attack. But there was no time to waste.
On the morning of 17 December the Germans launched a massive attack. They were pushing through Andler from the north, coming down the Our valley. From the south, a big force was coming down the road from Bleialf. Major Arthur Parker III, by that time the acting battalion commander, did not hesitate and gave the order to move out. The men were ordered to push through Schönberg and move towards St Vith. Lieutenant Wood ordered his crews to move their pieces out on the double, but one was stuck in the muddy field. He stayed behind with the gun crew to help get the howitzer on the road. Time was running out fast. German troops appeared behind them and Battery “B” was being overrun. The guns were blown up and abandoned as the men hurried to their trucks and headed for Schönberg. Finally Wood and the crew got the howitzer moving again. The lead vehicles of the column were well through Schönberg by now. Wood and his men were far behind. Battery “B”, or what remained of it, was in hot persuit. When they came rumbling down the hill into Schönberg, they found that the Germans were all over the place. Three howitzers out of the original 12 were clear of the town and on their way to St Vith by now. But a German tank ambushed Wood and his eleven men in the truck as it appeared around a bend in the road. Wood and his men piled out and took to the ditch. Behind them other vehicles of the 589th were piling up. The Germans were all around with tanks and infantry. With capture imminent, Wood jumped up, crossed the road and ran up the steep snow covered hill with bullets whizzing by. He was last seen by his men as he disappeared in the treeline.
The next chapter in Lieutenant Wood's story became a legend. Whether it is all true or not, the men who served under his command believe that he could have done all that was attributed to him. He is remembered as a fine man and an excellent combat leader. His character and actions during the first two critical days of the Battle of the Bulge are well recorded. The villagers of Meyerode, Belgium remember this young American lieutenant as a legendary one man army.
On the afternoon of 18 December 1944, 68 year old Peter Maraite was roaming the woods outside his village for a suitable Christmas tree. Despite the ongoing fighting in the area and the recent breakthrough he is adamant to have a tree in his home for the holidays. Not too far from the village he encounters two frostbitten American soldiers, a tall officer and a short regular GI. They told Maraite to approach him and tried to talk to him. Maraite had only one problem - he can't speak a word of English. Living in the Eastern part of Belgium, Maraite only knows German. Through sign language he eventually convinces the two Americans to go home with him. They wouldn't stand a chance in the woods alone in their exhausted and freezing condition. Snow is falling and the Germans are advancing on St. Vith. The village of Meyerode was already in German hands. Peter Maraite was well aware of the danger if he and his family are caught harboring Americans. Despite the risk he brought the two men home with him. Finally, in the relative safety of the Maraite home, the lieutenant tells his story of escaping the Germans in Schönberg. Peter Maraite dispatched his daughter Eva to bring his trusted neighbour Jean Schröder as an interpreter.
Ja, was wir taten war wohl gafährlich, da deutsche Soldaten und SS-Leute unser Dorf besetzt hatten. Aber wir hätten doch nicht weniger für Freunde, die Hilfe brauchten, tun können.
Yes, it was very dangerous what we did, especially since German soldiers and SS troops had captured our village. But we did we did what we could for our friends, who needed help.
The American officer told the Maraites and Jean Schröder that they are trying to make their way to St. Vith to get help for their wounded in Schönberg. Maraite informed the two Americans that the road to St. Vith was hazardous and that there are Germans everywhere. But the officer was determined to go and not cause any further burden on the Maraite family. He said he would either fight his way back to friendly lines or start his own personal guerrilla war in the woods. Afterwards they all shared a meal and drank. The officer made jokes and was very optimistic. He also asked Schöder and Maraite about the German movements. Determined to leave after supper, Maraite persuaded the Americans to spend the night in his home. He did not want them to get lost in the woods. They consented. Both men cleaned their weapons and slept in the Maraite family bed while their wet clothes dried by the stove. They were sound asleep, as they didn't move an inch, even when in the night a buzz bomb crashed near Meyerode with a huge explosion.
A view from the Meyerode woods in the winter. It is in this landscape that Lieutenant Eric Wood supposedly fought his one-man guerilla war. until his death in January 1945.
Next morning, while it is still dark, Peter Maraite wakes up the two Americans. An hour later they begin their planned infiltration to St. Vith. It is the last time Maraite would see of either of them. A few days later, the people of Meyerode hear bursts rifle fire and explosions coming from the woods around the town. They are confused, as the frontlines have moved several miles to the west. Maraite suspects that the noises have something to do with the two men he took in his home. The villagers also notice that sounds of war only erupt when small groups of German soldiers enter the woods. They never occur when there are big troop columns. Wounded Germans return from the Meyerode woods and in town the villagers hear the Germans talk about "damned saboteurs and resistance fighters in the woods". German snow ploughs which have the important task of keeping the trails in the woods clear for supply convoys, are reinforced with heavily armed guards to protect them against attacks from their unknown assailants. The dreaded SS General Josef "Sepp" Dietrich, commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army had his headauarters at Meyerode for some time and referred to the events in the woods as the actions of "scoundrels and bandits". To Peter Maraite it is clear as day. The American lieutenant kept his promise. The isolated fighting in the woods goes on until mid January 1945 when it becomes quiet. A few days later the 424th Infantry Regiment of the 106th Division and elements of the 7th Armored and 82nd Airborne Division liberate the village and the surrounding forest.
Nach einziger Zeit des Uberlagens sagte er sehr ruhig dass er zich entweder zu seiner Einheit durchschlagen, oder falles das nich möglich sei, versprengte Amerikaner aufsammeln, er hatte viele in den Wäldern gesehen, und seinem eigenen Kleinkrieg führen würde.
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After some time he said calmly that he would try to make his way back to his unit, and if this wasn't possible, he was going to gather lost Americans, he had seen many in the woods, and wage his own small war.
The village of Meyerode, some 52 homes and 280 inhabitants was the scene of fighting from December 1944 till January 1945.
The drawing that was published with the Saturday Evening Post article in 1947, which further helped to immortalize the story of Lieutenant Eric Wood.
In the summer of 1945 the war in Europe was finally over and a special guest appeared at the Maraite house in Meyerode. The man introduced himself as Major-General Eric Fisher Wood Senior and he wished to ask the Maraites some questions. Around the dinner table he laid out a few pictures of young men and asked the Maraites if they recognised any of them. After a while they all picked out the same photograph as they recognise the man in the photo as the American officer who spent the night at their home on 18 December 1944. General Wood now finally had closure about the fate of his son.
In 1947 Colonel Ernest R. Dupuy published the article 'The incredible valor of Eric Wood' in the Saturday Evening Post. Although elaborated this article immortalized the story of lieutenant Wood and his one man guerilla war in the forest around Meyerode.
Updated 14 August 2016