What Happened to Lt. Eric Wood?
Many years ago I was reading Gerald Astor’s A Blood Dimmed Tide, an excellent oral history of the Battle of the Bulge. Astor was one of my favorite authors and I expected to gain some new insights into the battle. But when I came upon the story of Lt. Eric Wood, I was stunned. As a lifelong World War II buff, I thought I knew everything about the Bulge. Here was a story that should have been more widely known. It had everything a Hollywood thriller would want: a tough soldier tries to save the lives of his men, escapes the Germans and fights a lonely battle in the desolate woods of the Ardennes.
There are numerous reasons for Wood not being more celebrated: lack of American witnesses, accusations against one of the investigations and the reputation of his Division (106th), which was unfairly maligned after the war. However, when you speak with people who knew Wood and piece together the facts, one comes away with nothing but admiration for this man.
A Rough Start
When the Battle of the Bulge started on the morning of December 16, 1944, the men of the 106th Infantry Division were basically sitting ducks. Outflanked and taking heavy losses, their artillery units were ordered out the morning of the 17th. Battery A, 589th Field Artillery, of whom Eric Wood was the executive officer, had been taking fire since the 0530 the day before. Their battery CO, Captain Aloyisus Menke, was up at an observation post when the Germans struck, and cut off. So it was up to Wood to lead them out.
After disengaging from their original positions, they relocated near the village of Schonberg, Belgium. Within an hour, they were given another march order. The Germans were minutes away, surging through the woods and dirt tracks. Most of the battery got hooked up and onto the road, getting through the village just in time. But one gun remained stuck and Wood decided to stay and help. After several tense minutes, they extricated the gun and immediately sped towards the village. Intermittent shells began falling as they made their way down the long, winding macadam road, the spire of the Church tantalizingly close. Other units were now right behind them.
Unfortunately, the Germans had taken most of Schonberg by then. Their pincer movement had closed in from the north. Wood was hanging on the truck cab as they reached the stone bridge over the Our River. A panzer opened fire, killing the driver, Ken Knoll. Then it began pouring fire on the rest of the men. Sgt. John Scannapico tried to take out the tank with a bazooka, but was cut down as he ran for cover. Most of B Battery was stuck behind them and taking heavy casualties. Men began surrendering from the ditches along the side of the road. The firing halted. Germans were shouting, “Hande Hoch!” The dazed and confused survivors started to line up when suddenly the Germans starting yelling and pointing again. Small arms fire ripped the hill just above town. The GIs looked up and saw the bulky Wood charging towards the trees, bullets ripping the ground around him. He made it, disappearing into the dark labyrinth of the forest. The Germans did a cursory search, but came up with nothing. That was the last time his men would see him alive.
A Born Leader
Eric Wood was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Wood’s father, General Eric Fisher Wood Sr., was a member of Eisenhower’s staff and a World War I veteran. In civilian life, he was a prominent architect in the Pittsburgh area, although he was best known for helping to found the American Legion. He was also active in the Pennsylvania National Guard and wrote a book on ROTC programs. Raised with a sense of service, Eric Wood Jr. had gone through Valley Forge Military Academy and subsequently attended Princeton prior to the war. He was married with two kids when he arrived overseas. A hard charger by all accounts, he became A Battery’s executive just before deployment. The men of the battery respected him greatly and speak about him with reverence even today. Although there is a dispute on the exact nature of what happened, some facts are agreed upon.
In the late afternoon of the 17th, Peter Mariate, a local villager, was out looking for a suitable Christmas tree. That may seem strange now, but the war had been raging for four years. This was an area of dairy farmers and lumbermen, so even in the midst of war, traditions continued. He anxiously slogged around for some time in the desolate, yet still picturesque woods. The sounds of war still seemed far enough away. To his astonishment, he found two weary American soldiers standing in front of him. Speaking no English, the German-speaking Mariate tried to convince the wary Americans he was friendly. Facial expressions, hand signals, and bits of English words here and there finally convinced the freezing GIs to go home with their new found Teutonic rescuer.
It was nearly dark, so they had to hurry. Upon reaching the village, Mariate welcomed them into his large, stone house and sent for a friend to translate. Mariate later told Army investigators that the man he identified as Wood was “a big young man with confident, smiling face.” Wood apparently stated to the family that if he could not get back to American lines, he was going to fight the Germans behind the lines, conducting a war of his own.
The bold talk scared Mr. Mariate. He feared for his family’s safety and pressed the men to stay the night. His wife offered copious amounts of food and warm drinks. Mariate warned them that the Germans were already overrunning the area. Escape was unlikely. The next morning, Wood and his companion were awakened, fed a hearty breakfast by Mrs. Mariate, and sent on their way.
The Mariates never saw them again. In the following days, small arms fire was heard erupting all over the forest east of the village. German wounded were seen being brought out of the woods. As the front line moved progressively west, Meyerode became a hub of German activity. The village hosted several notable figures, among them Generals Walter Model and Sepp Dietrich along with Belgian collaborator, Leon “Rex” Degrelle. Some villagers heard the Germans complaining about bandits harassing their supply convoys. Civilians were banned from the woods. German convoys inexplicably avoided the forest trails. Whispers among the townspeople grew louder with each day. And a legend was born.
During the first week of February, 1945, a patrol from the 99th Infantry Division approached Meyerode. They were immediately met by happy but still anxious villagers. The GIs were then escorted up a wooded trail to a small clearing. There lay the body of Eric Wood and many other dead.
After the war, not everyone believed the story. One prominent member of the 589th's HQ Battery strongly objected to the story and later wrote a history of the Battalion. The lack of any GI survivors was his key argument. No one who was part of this guerilla-like war ever came forward after the battle. Theories about who could have joined Wood abounded. Some felt they might have been infantry stragglers who had escaped encirclement on the Schnee. One officer thought it could have been members of a 106th ID Service Company who had been encamped near Meyerode on the 17th or escapees from the “Lost 500” on Hill 576. Adding to the mystery, the GI with Wood when he met Peter Mariate has never been identified by researchers, though he was reportedly an enlisted man. Apparently, there were no other GI dead near Wood. Many felt General Wood just used his influence to make his son appear in a better light. Regardless, Wood is still listed as KIA on December 17, 1944.
Although there is no doubt that the General wanted his son to be deemed a hero, in my opinion and that of many other researchers as well as many of the surviving members of A Battery, Wood did conduct harassing actions against the Germans while the battle raged west of him. The evidence supports that theory. Army doctors determined that he was killed sometime in late January. This would have given him almost a month of surviving behind enemy lines. There was also no reason for constant small arms fire to be heard so far behind German lines at that time. The area had been overrun and secured by the 21st of December. The supply-troubled Germans would not have wasted precious ammo on target practice.
After the battle, Graves Registration reported that almost 200 bodies of German soldiers were found in those same woods, some hastily buried in shallow graves. Additionally, the Mariates had no reason to make up stories, despite accusations that General Wood lavished “gifts” on them. Lastly, all those who knew Wood personally including his fellow officers, said that his actions would have been in keeping with his character.
Lt. Wood was a dedicated, driven man. Major Elliott Goldstein, the Battalion’s executive officer, attributed A Battery’s low casualty rate specifically to Wood's diligence. During their first few days on the line, he made the men dig deeper, well-protected shelters near the gun line in case of sustained counter battery fire. Sitting still was not in his blood. On the morning of the 16th, he led five men, all volunteers, across an open field to a house he thought was acting as an enemy CP. Wood went in alone and thoroughly searched it, finding it empty. During the first attack on A Battery’s positions by Germans Stug IIIs, it was Wood, and another one of his officers, Lt. Francis O’Toole*, who attempted to act as observers, helping to adjust fire on the assault guns. Some men are just driven to go above and beyond the call of their duty, no matter what the situation.
A small monument to the Lieutenant was erected by the local Belgians. It stands on the site where the bodies were found. The simple plaque is beautifully maintained by the villagers to this day. Lt. Wood was certainly not the only GI who fought a lonely war against impossible odds. Stories like this abound from every theater. There will always be doubters, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Men and women are capable of remarkable acts of courage and we still see them today. Wood's story and that of so many of others are examples of why history is important. These stories teach us so much. With preparation, courage and commitment, you can can make an impact on the world. I only hope in the future we can learn that without sacrificing so many lives.
*Lt. O’Toole was killed while a POW during an Allied bombing on December 23, 1944.
For further reference, see
1. St. Vith: Lion in the Way - Ernest Dupuy (Division History)
2. A Blood Dimmed Tide – Gerald Astor
3. A Time for Trumpets- Charles MacDonald
4. Report on the 589th Field Artillery Battalion by the War Department Special Staff, Historical Division. 23 January 1946. 106th Infantry Division Association. 2005. http://www.indianamilitary.org. (Note: This report was a collection of after action interviews with men of the Battalion which included Majors Goldstein and Parker as well as Barney Alford, Graham Cassibry and Earl Scott. It was also used as a chief source of information on the last days of Lt. Wood.).
5. Gatens, John. Author Interview. 22 October 2011 (Fair Lawn, NJ). John was the 1st section gunner for Battery A, 589th. He got through Schonberg early on the 17th, and fought with the Battery until December 23, when he was finally captured.