OCCUPATION – DEACTIVATION
By Colonel Hill Blalock
May 9, 1945, found the Thunderbolts with yet a considerable job to be done. Peace came not with great revelry to the war-weary men of the 11th Armored Division. The day of concord had been too long foreseen, and the knowledge of the exhausting mopping-up duty ahead quelled any cheering or celebration.
CC A felt the thrill of conquest when, on entering Linz, Austria, it rumbled along on flower-strewn streets lined on either side with joyous throngs of cheering Austrians and liberated slave workers of many nations. CC B found its sensation in the meeting with the Red Army.
CC R and CC A moved North of the Danube to the heights overlooking Linz. Ahead of them the remnants of the Wehrmacht crowded by the thousands into the neutral zone between the brooding, silent guns of the United States and Russian forces. The Allied Command had agreed that all German troops East of the U. S. lines were to be considered prisoners of war of the Red Army. The Germans, however, preferred the American zone and in order to prevent their sneaking into the American zone CC A and CC R were committed in patrols and outposts. Finally it was necessary to herd them at gunpoint into the vicinity of Freyung where they were delivered to the Russians. Long columns of German troops, guarded by tanks, flowed for hours into the fields around Freyung and the delivery was eventually accomplished without mishap.
CC B meantime was working in the nauseating filth and degradation of the Mauthausen and Gusen concentration camps. These filthy holes, emanating wretched human misery and rank with the stench of death, were thrown open to the cleansing air. The dead littering the grounds were buried and the wretched inmates who had miraculously escaped the slaughter were given medical care, food and clothing. Nurses of the 66th Field Hospital worked alongside CC B, tending the half-dead creatures too weak and helpless to move out of their own excrement. What joy this triumphant fighting unit had felt turned rapidly to violent hatred at the sight of the inhuman attempt at mass obliteration. Despite all however, the task was completed with customary Division thoroughness.
On completion of these jobs came the Division's last move before rolling piece-meal back to Lanf to stack arms for the last time. The Thunderbolts were relieved in and around Linz about June 4, 1945, by the 65th Infantry Division, and the Russians moved into the Division sector North of the Danube. Division Headquarters was established in the beautiful resort of Gmunden on the shores of the lovely Gmunden Sea. CC B climbed into a town at the foothills of the Alps and CC R into a nearby area. CC A headquarters were established at Styr and the unit found itself sharing border duties with the Russians along the Innes River.
Once closed in the new area the 11th Armored Division began the final phase of its occupational work. Division Trains continued maintenance and supply while the line troops plunged into a variety of tasks, the most complex of which was the handling of displaced persons. There were several D.P. camps in the Division area, the task of feeding and caring for the liberated inmates as well as transporting them to their homelands was by no means a light one.
Many Division men received the interesting, but not often easy or pleasant, detail of escorting DP's to various points inside the Russian occupied zone. This job was complicated by the refusal of many of these hopeless and homeless persons to return to villages ravaged by war. At least one man is known to have returned to the Division area five weeks after being delivered miles inside the Russian sector.
Another monotonous and seemingly endless task that fell to the Division was that of screening and discharging countless PW's, whose care was a serious drain on the meager supplies of food. Additional prisoners entered the camps almost daily as Division patrols scouring the area rounded them up. One group, around 15,000 SS troops, was returned to Germany, where their organization was later branded criminal at the Nuremberg War Trials.
The II Corps commander, Lieutenant General Geoffrey Keyes, inspected the SS camp at Steyr, which was supervised by the 42nd Tank Battalion. The tankers had the general's inspection route lined with SS troops in platoon formation and stripped to the waist for uniformity. The sight of those still sturdy men was additional proof of the valor and skill of the American soldiers who had reduced a once mighty war machine to a group of half-naked prisoners.
Probably the most exciting job in the Division during its stay in Austria was that of ferreting out Nazi die-hards who had taken refuge in the mountains. A glance at the map or just out of the CP window told the units assigned this mission that it was no job for armored vehicles. So the organized provisional Horse Cavalry platoons with captured mounts. Mounted platoons then combed the mountains in three-day forays, like Pershing chasing Pancho Villa on a smaller scale.
And while something new was added to the Division T/O, something was also added to the armored cowboys when saddle sores replaced flat tires and broken tracks as an occupational disease. Actually, few fanatic hold-outs were captured, but some souvenir weapons were located and the hunt relieved the monotony of more routine duties.
All during its Austrian occupation the Division had excellent relations with the adjacent Russian unit, a Paratroop Guards Division. Several parties as well as a few shots across the river were exchanged, with the parties being generally the more dangerous of the two gestures. Relations were so well cemented that the Russians, notoriously cold toward making concessions, were prevailed upon by CC A to withdraw from the Innes River to the eastern limit of Kreis Steyr so that the Kreis, as a geographical and political unit, could be administered by only one occupying power. This concession was especially pleasing to CC A troops because it reduced the number of border posts and opened for exploration that part of the town of Steyr east of the river.
With all the many jobs that had to be done for the proper supervision of the area, Division troops still found plenty of time for their own pleasure. Clubs sprang up in every village where troops were billeted. They provided cheerful gathering places for good fellowship with plenty of beer, even though it had to be ordered in a strictly non-committed voice to avoid fraternizing with the waitresses. Everyone will recall in his own fashion the burden of non-fraternization, but one of the best replies to an infraction of the rule was made by a doughboy of the 63rd A.I.B. When caught red-handed out horseback riding with a fraulein, he answered the general's query with, "What girl, sir?"
The troops situated near Gmunden were especially fortunate to have the beautiful Gmunden Sea as an added attraction, near 70 miles in circumference, its blue waters, sunk among the majestic mountains, were churned daily by Division men in all kinds of craft escaping the more hum-drum life ashore.
Gmunden was also the scene of many intra-division and inter-division sports events. The Division boxing matches clearly showed that the war had not taken all the fight out of 11th Armored Division men.
The Division baseball team, although handicapped in players by the wide dispersion of units, made a creditable showing in the Corps league. This was partly due to the excellent sideline support given by Division men from all units who trucked for miles to cheer the team.
There were several tennis courts throughout the area and two Division men took part in the Corps tennis tournament, with resulting success to themselves and the Division. Even ping-pong came into the organized limelight. The men of Special Services went all out to provide a wealth and variety of entertainment and recreation. In addition to organizing athletic events and tournaments, they supplied a great quantity of sport and games equipment, distributed movies, and booked that overseas phenomenon, the USO show, which always packed 'em in. Special Services also arranged for Division men to participate in the theater tours to Paris, the Riviera, and other places where rank meant nothing and a man could seek his pleasure with complete abandon.
With all those methods of relaxation and many others not here listed, it is probable that every Division soldier will acclaim the Austrian occupation as a very pleasant interlude. But since all pleasures have to be earned, in every town where the Thunderbolts billeted, they were found, during normal duty hours, soberly performing their various occupation tasks and trying to clean the dirt of five countries off themselves and their equipment. After starting its work in the new area, the Division finally had a chance to look in the mirror. What it saw was bewhiskered faces, dirty clothes and scarred vehicles. But in a surprising short time, the whiskers disappeared, the clothes were cleaned, and the vehicles were washed and painted. The old bogie, Saturday inspection, returned and the Division returned to parade ground condition.
The policing was not only for men and vehicles, but for the area also—including the hauling away to salvage dumps of a great quantity of abandoned Wehrmacht vehicles that littered the roads. So rapidly was the policing accomplished that within a month after the Division's arrival in Austria, the only signs that the men of the area had been through a war were a few damaged buildings, the campaign ribbons on men's shirts, and that extra swagger in men's walk that comes natural to a good combat unit. The occupation duties and the recreational facilities provided a pleasant balance of work and play that sped the time toward the great journey home. Officers and men started leaving the Division shortly after it arrived in Austria—the majority to go to other units in the ETO, some few to go home, and fewer to go to the Pacific. Most of those still in the Theater managed to get back for the final celebration of Division Activation Day, August 15 1945. Even men who had left the Division prior to its departure from the States returned on that day to salute the Thunderbolt.
After the celebration men and equipment flowed away with increasing speed. Deactivation was approaching. Unit after unit closed out, while vehicles rumbled off to Lauf, Germany, for final turn-in. An Infantry Division relieved the 11th Armored Division of its occupational duties in September, 1945, and by September 30, all that was left of the Thunderbolt was a patch on a soldier's sleeve.
That was all that showed. What didn't show was a path of glory, seared with blood and iron across the face of Europe, and a pride of accomplishment and a fellowship of spirit that will live forever in the hearts of men of the Thunderbolt—the 11th Armored Division.