Fallen Heroes: Staff Sergeant Fred Schenk

I have used the phrase “fallen heroes” to describe all of the service individuals I have written about to date. Very rarely, if ever, do I find an eyewitness account of the individual’s heroic sacrifice. In researching the life of Tuscarawas County’s Staff Sergeant Fred Schenk (1915-1945), and his death during the Battle of the Bulge, I came across just that. I am very proud to be able to share it.

Leo Neal Schenk (1889-1956) immigrated from Switzerland in 1909 and first found employment in a brick works, and later as a boiler fireman in a Dover iron works. He married fellow Swiss immigrant Bertha Steiner (1890-1955), settled in the crossroads community of Columbia just north of Dover, and together they raised seven children. Fred Schenk, their second oldest son, was working at a local feed store when World War Two began.

Fred’s brother John (1917-1995), who operated Schenk’s Store in Columbia, enlisted in the United States Army in 1941. Fred, then married to Rita Weaver (1920-2020), continued to run the store during John’s service. That ended when Fred was drafted in the spring of 1943 and was soon on his way to training with the 291st Infantry Regiment, part of the 75th Infantry Division.

Soldier’s barracks at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, c. 1941.

The 291st Infantry was organized and trained at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri during the summer of 1943 and took part in large scale training maneuvers in Louisiana in the winter of 1944. The unit was sent to the European Theater of Operations, with the rest of the 75th Infantry Division, in October 1944. As the 291st fought it’s way across France and Belgium, Fred eventually rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant in Company I of the 291st.

The 291st Infantry was not alone when they were surprised by the German offensive through the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, at the end of December 1944. During the German attack, the unit relieved units of the 7th Armored Division and 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment that had been heavily engaged. The subsequent American counterattack, designed to eliminate the “bulge”, placed the 75th Infantry Division on the northern flank of the bulge.

291st Infantry Regiment troops in Salmchateau, Belgium, Jan 1945.

The 291st Infantry, along with the rest of the 75th Infantry Division, was ordered on January 6 to relieve the 82nd Airborne Division. Elements of the 82nd Airborne had advanced as far as just north and east of the towns of Salmchateau and Hourt, which is where the 291st found itself when arrived to relieve them. Fred Schenk could see the town, and a church steeple, from his position on a wooded hill east of town.

Click here to order a copy of the 1946 Combat Diary of the 291st Infantry Regiment U.S. Army.

The 291st Infantry, and remaining elements of the 82nd Airborne, received scattered artillery fire from the Germans for the next couple of days. Corporal Jack Graber kept a detailed diary of his service in Company I, 291st Infantry and it is in his entry for January 10, 1945 that we discover the details of Fred Schenk’s death. I’ll let Corporal Graber speak for himself:

During the day, our platoon needed water and there were no eager volunteers. We were located on top of a hill, in the woods, with a clearing between us and the town of Hourt. When Fred Shenk [sic] volunteered to go alone, I volunteered to go with him. The stream was located approximately 100-150 yards from our position. We needed to go through the clearing, down the hill to the stream. As we began through the clearing, we were shelled by 88’s artillery. After receiving two very close misses, only hitting approximately 15 feet away, Shenk said, ‘You’d think they were sniping at us with the 88’s’. The next round came in and hit very close. I happened to be about 10 feet ahead of Fred when it hit. At this time, I looked back for Fred and noticed he wasn’t moving When I came back, he was dead. A very large fragment went through his chest.” (Source)

Fred Schenk’s military headstone application, Dec 1947.

Staff Sergeant Fred Schenk volunteered to put himself in danger so that his fellow soldiers would have the water they needed. He knew, given the shelling they had been receiving, that it would be dangerous. He had to traverse an open field, in full view of the town, and any potential enemy eyes. He was not alone, Corporal Graber followed his sergeant and survived to tell the story of Fred’s bravery and sacrifice.

Images from the 291st Infantry Regiment’s Combat Dairy printed in 1946.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.

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