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Most decorated platoon of World War II
The Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon from the 394th Infantry Regiment of the 99th division was the most decorated platoon of World War II for action on the first morning of the Battle of the Bulge defending a key road in the vicinity of the Losheim Gap. Led by a 20-year old lieutenant named Lyle Bouck Jr., during a 20-hour long fight with an entire German battalion of over 600 men, the 18 men of the platoon inflicted between 400 and 500 casualties on the Germans. The platoon seriously disrupted the entire German Sixth Army's schedule of attack along the northern edge of the offensive. At dusk on 16 December, about 50 German paratroopers finally flanked the platoon and captured the remaining 15 soldiers. Two who had been sent on foot to regimental headquarters to seek reinforcements had been captured, and a third was killed.
Due to their capture and the general chaos of the Battle of the Bulge, the unit's story was not well known and their heroic stand undocumented until after the war ended. On October 25, 1981, after considerably lobbying and letter-writing by Bouck, every member of the unit was decorated. The platoon was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, and members were given four Distinguished Service Crosses, five Silver Stars, and ten Bronze Stars with V devices, all for their 20 hour struggle with an entire 500 strong German battalion.
In 2004, the book The Longest Winter was published documenting the defensive actions of the platoon. Bouck cooperated with the author, Alex Kershaw, but imposed one condition, "I told him that other authors never wrote about the other men in the platoon, just me. I said I wouldn't talk to him unless he promised that he'd also write about the other men."
Members of the platoon were:
- PFC William James Tsakanikas (DSC)
- Tech. Sgt. William L. Slape (DSC)
- PFC Risto Milsovech (DSC)
- First Lt. Lyle J. Bouck Jr. (DSC)
- Pvt. John B. Creger (Silver Star)
- Pvt. Louis J. Kalil (Silver Star)
- Cpl. Aubrey P. McGeehee (Silver Star)
- PFC Jordan H. Robinson (Silver Star)
- Pvt. James R. Silvola (Silver Star)
- Pvt. Robert D. Adams (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- Pvt. Robert D. Baasch (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- Sgt. William D. Dustman (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- Pvt. Clifford R. Fansher (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- T/3 James Fort (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- Cpl. Samuel L. Jenkins (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- Pvt. Joseph A. McConnell (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- Cpl. Robert M. Preston (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
- Sgt. George H. Redmond (Bronze Star Medal with V device for heroism)
Only one soldier in the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon died in the war or in POW camps. The remaining men all made it home safely after the war, and nearly all were alive when they were finally recognized for their stand in the Battle of the Bulge on October 25, 1981.
Robert Milton Preston, 83, who died September 12, 2006, of arrhythmia at his daughter's home in Monrovia, Maryland, spent most of his life as an electrician working for construction and electrical firms on numerous government buildings in Washington. But before that, he was a reluctant hero in World War II's fierce Battle of the Bulge and a prisoner of war for five months in Germany.
After being drafted into the Army at 20, Corporal Preston landed in England on October 13, 1944. He stayed there for three weeks before being posted across the channel in Butgenbach, Belgium.
Assigned to the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Division, the young soldier ran "sneak and peak" missions along the Ardennes front.
"It was on one such mission that Preston and Sergeant George Redmond observed German movement from his observation post along the Ardennes forest," the Montgomery Journal said in a 1981 article. "The two soldiers reported seeing the troops -- the beginning of the German buildup for the battle."
For their discovery, Corporal Preston and the Sergeant received the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Days later, Corporal Preston and the other members of his platoon positioned themselves in well-dug foxholes on the front near Lanzerath, Belgium, although the intelligence-gathering platoon was not supposed to be directly involved in the fighting.
However, it was. Corporal Preston recalled in the Journal article the early-morning start of the fighting. "The whole valley lit up," he said. "I've never seen anything like it."
Ordered to "hold at all costs," the platoon held off German troops after three attacks lasting 18 hours. In the end, two American soldiers were killed, and the others, including Corporal Preston, were captured.
Corporal Preston was detained in a German prison camp for five months. Food was scarce, the weather was bitterly old and living conditions were unsanitary. He suffered frostbite and many indignities, said his daughter, Pamela Richter of Pasadena, who said her father rarely spoke of his imprisonment and didn't consider himself a hero, as some had called him and the others.
"If you'd been there, you'd have done the same thing," Corporal Preston said in 1981. "You'd have no choice. But I'd tell you one thing, they'll never get me again. The indignities . . . no way."
Recognition for the small platoon came in October 1981, nearly 37 years after the start of the largest land battle in the Army's history. It followed the 1969 publication of a book, "The Bitter Woods," written by John S.D. Eisenhower, a participant in the campaign and the son of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. More interest came from Congress and the White House in the late 1970s.
The platoon received the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism, and Corporal Preston and nine other soldiers were awarded the Bronze Star for valor.
Corporal Preston was born in Denton, Maryland, and attended Woodrow Wilson High School in the District. After World War II, he returned to Washington and joined an apprenticeship program in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26.
A lifetime member of the union, he worked for 24 years with the Walter C. Doe Corp. He applied his skills to numerous government building projects, including the Library of Congress, L'Enfant Plaza, the Smithsonian Institution and Blair House.
He worked at R.M. Thornton Controls before retiring in 1987 from Venture Associates Inc., an electrical firm.
A former resident of Silver Spring, Corporal Preston had lived in Monrovia since January.
He enjoyed reading history and was a Civil War buff. Crossword puzzles also held his interest, as well as watching the Washington Redskins, win or lose.
A man with a tremendous sense of humor, Corporal Preston loved "Seinfeld" reruns. He also enjoyed quoting William Shakespeare, saying often, "Brevity is the soul of wit."
His wife, Margery Washabau Preston, whom he married in 1950, died in 1991.
Besides his daughter, survivors include four other children, Paula Preston of Monrovia, Priscilla Preston-Shoap of Taneytown, Maryland, Robert Preston of Owings and Rebecca Preston of Germantown; a sister; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.