History of A Company 81st Medical Battalion
I. HAIL AND FAREWELL
The sound of our singing carried into the heavy night lusty cadences describing the love affair of the Yankee Soldier and his English soul-mate. "Oh this is number ten and she said ...." Oh yes she said it and to almost all at one time or other, so there was some nostalgia mixed with the beery melodies. It seemed an appropriate way to spend our last night on the "tight little isle", singing a song that would be England and the dripping Bristol streets and crowded tram cars each time we heard it over again. Tomorrow we were leaving Warminster Barracks, the pride of the Royal Tank Corps, leaving far behind the draughty U. S. A. F. I. building and it's drab bucktoothed waitresses, watery beer and fat-sodden "chips", mists and pubs, dreary piles of grey stone pointed to with such reverence, everything that is and has been England. So we sang away the last hours of that twelfth night of December, 1944 with gusto, with anticipation, with regret.
Any picture of this island nation after 6 years of war must be sombre-toned and subdued. We have many pleasant memories of England. It's a lovely land of eternal green, quaint old cities and surprisingly unphlegmatic people. Nevertheless we were not always at ease there. The dampness bothered most of us and there was a subtle persistent feeling we were living in a kind of twilight world. The English were tired, a bit irritable, on the defensive with the Americans. We all know the jaunty Yank: well-fed, easy going; inclined to be critical with situations not measuring to his usual standards. Britons have not been eating too well and there was much criticism of the lack of food and absence of skill In preparing it. There were a host of differences apparent: manners, customs, ideas, expressions. All in all the English did bend over backwards to make our stay an enjoyable one and their success can be gauged in the thousands of marriages that have taken place in the last five years. A sure sign of Anglo-American solidarity.
As we tumbled out of the barracks with loggy feet. poked our way to waiting vehicles, there was much confusion. Companies were assembled in darkness, briefings given against the moan of racing motors, orders shouted to scurrying figures. Finally: "Mount up." The shadows melted into the two and a halts, ambulances, C and R's, peeps and half tracks. Restrained and impatient murmurs of engines mounted to a steady roar: we were off, the future as unknown and unfathomable as the night ahead of us.
Late that afternoon the convoy arrived at the staging area outside Weymouth on the channel. Mud clung to wheels of vehicles, eddied in a thousand pools between barracks, made mere walking a torture. We ate C rations and huddled around the pot-bellied stoves for warmth and a bit of cheer. The Camp wasn't very model, but then it was only intended for temporary stays. We were grateful when orders came through on the 16th to pull out. The weather had cleared, the unpredictable Channel currents seemed in our favor.
Late afternoon of the 16th we boarded LST. 529, men and vehicles, up the runway, into the dark belly. The ship was like a huge iron whale swallowing a hundred O. D. clad Jonahs. 529 was a trim craft, nothing like the S. S. Hermitage of unhappy memory. Equipment was chained to the decks, quarters assigned and we started to sweat out the sailing. Orders came on the 19th, the next day, at dawn. We crowded the decks for a farewell glimpse of England. The morning surprisingly, was clear. Docks and church steeple, waterfront taverns and hotels faded into the distance as 529 ploughed ahead into choppy mid-channel tides. Soon all we could see was a dim outline of coast. Finally nothing but water meeting sky on the horizon.
II. FORTRESS EUROPE
Our journey to continental Europe was peaceful and uneventful. There was a scare when the crew started gunnery practice. For a moment it sounded like the real thing and there were varied reactions to his sound soon to become so familiar to all of us: some headed for cover, others scrambled up the ladders on deck to see the show.
We beached at Cherbourg. The LST lumbered to the sandy fringe on the waters' edge and we watched small pilot boats hopping around our clumsily moving craft like Dervishes in the path of an Eastern Prince. Hundreds of eyes strained into the gloom ahead. We approached this once embattled shore almost with reverence. The scene was prosaic enough: derricks creaking and straining under steel loads lifted from shipboard to shore, piles of boxes strewn in great heaps along the docks, machinery, equipment, all the impressive paraphernalia of modern warfare scattered as carelessly as if hurled from some giant hand. But there was a time not too long before when these sands knew the mingling of warm blood and bitter salt water, when desperate death struggled with dearly-loved life for possession as the whole world trembled on the outcome. Now the War had moved on across the great Paris Plain, fanning out north and south into Belgium and mountain regions of Southern France. And it beckoned to us to the untried but ready men of the Eleventh Armored Division. At last, we thought, it begins: the real excitement, the hunt, fulfillment, the pay-off.
On board ship, for the first time, we heard of the German forces sweeping through fir -tangled precincts of the Ardennes in a gigantic counter offensive designed to push the Anglo-American violators of Fortress Europe back into the sea. We didn't know then that our first rendezvous with the Master Race would bring us against these picked and tried troops, the vaunted of the Wehrmacht and last hope of von Rundstedt's daring thrust.
We assembled as a Battalion outside the city of Cherbourg. The first of many long marches began shortly after hitting the Continent. On and on the convoys sped through towns and villages reduced to powder, each new habitation a name in the bitterness of the summer conflict that saw the German Army pounded back toward the core of the Fortress. Wreckage of War littered the fields, the highways. The Nazis fought fiercely and well those days.
We slept in the fields in the bitterness of the Winter nights, in the Cold, in the terrible cold. On the 23rd of December, our convoy halted at the Sissone Barracks outside the Medieval City of Rheims. All of us were exhausted by the pace. The prospect of sleep under a roof was appealing. It was midnight. The buildings loomed grimly forbidding in the half-light of the moonless Winter night. Coffee, anything warm, was foremost in our minds. Then sleep: But there was to be no coffee, nothing. No matter. We tumbled into our sacks. Just before losing consciousness, through a haze of warmth and drowsiness, one of us looked up on the wall. Not too long ago Germans had slept in this very room and some artistic soul among them had decorated it with symbols and mumbo-jumbo of The Movement. Beneath a fierce and screaming Imperial eagle with Swastika in its talons he had painted in big blood-red letters: “He who will not fight forfeits the right to live. A. Hitler.”
III. NOEL, NOEL
At a quarter to 5 in the morning, Christmas Eve, the first Soldier awakened us. Everyone was deep in coma-like sleep. The world came back to us painfully. Our muscles ached, our burning eyes struggled to bring things into focus. In a tense voice he told us: “A Company pulls out in an hour. We support CCA. You all know what it means.” We do, yes indeed, of course we know. More confusion and rushing around in the darkness. Will it ever be light in the world again?
We got a good breakfast. Good-byes were said. We were the first of the Battalion to move forward and the other Companies looked on with interest, awe and a bit of envy. Need it be said we didn't move out at the appointed time though we were ready?
In hours that followed we moved fast, once underway but our destination seemed vague and the general uncertainty was marked that day by much back-tracking and maneuverings on narrow roads. The front was fluctuating we knew. Early that morning the CO had oriented us on the situation. Immediate objective of the German offensive seemed to be Liege. Its advance was a continuous one. Thinly deployed American troops through the Ardennes had been taken care of early in the thrust. The breakthrough had been halted, whether or not permanently no one knew, at a Belgium town called Bastogne We won't forget that name.
It was dark when we pushed into our bivouac area on the River Meuse. The scene was eerie: vehicles and men spread across frozen meadow. Cruel cold and the painful brightness of the moon and stars threw things into another dimension perspective. Units of Division Headquarters and the 575 A. A. A. were with us. men moving restlessly trying to keep warm. There were new sights and sounds. The flash of long Toms behind the hills and muted reports of explosions in the distance motors in the sky. We got to know that last noise quite well. It was a local character called "bed-check Charlie" that managed to pay us a visit Just before we went to sleep no matter where we were at. None of us had anything but a vague idea of what was happening.
Christmas Eve. From somewhere a couple of bottles of wine appeared and downed in the shadow of the kitchen truck. Somebody started to hum a Carol but he didn't get very far; there were too many strikes against that simple Chanson de Noel. It lay still-born in his throat, killed by cold night and memories of Christmas Past. "Merry Christmas" said the Corporal to the T 5. "Go to hell" was his mumbled retort. Peace, Peace on earth to all you men of Good Will walking slowly around the bivouac, those of you shaking on the cement floor of the burnt out barracks seeking sleep or watching the skies beside your Ack-ack guns.
Christmas Day we set out, back from the River, to a field near Roicroi. We remained here three days. The clearing station set up for the first time. Stragglers from the front. God knows where they came from, some of them on foot started to arrive. Tired, hungry and bedraggled they were dawning faint echoes of conflict ahead.
Our stay at Roicroi we call the "Turkey Days" because Battalion kept us well supplied during this period with frozen Canadian Toms. We slept in an old foundry at night. It was near a MSR and approaching vehicles in the distance sounded for a few seconds like planes. One night Jerry came over very low his insignia gleaming brightly in the moonlight. We all thought of the huge Red Cross and hoped the pilot had been told of the Geneva Convention. He evidently had.
December 30th found us in Tronquoi. We were coming closer, closer. The Station set up in a schoolroom. CCA made its first contact with the enemy and before the day grew very old the small black-board rimmed place proved too inadequate for the stream of casualties coming from ahead.. Tents were erected to take care of the overflow. It was new to all of us. A station Hospital, Louisiana, the Desert, Fitzsimmons were never like this. Doctors and Technicians worked for the first of countless times on mangled, pathetic bodies of men caught and damaged in the tolls of modern Warfare. And there were the strengthless dead.
DECEMBER 31 — FEB. 6 1945
All roads of the Western Front were leading to Bastogne as 1944 died before us in the ice and cold of central Belgium. We too were swinging toward this embattled city. Immediate target of von Runstedt's vanquished and fanatic thrust.
New Year's Eve we turned off the Neufchateau-Bastogne highway down a bumpy dirt road to the place we will never forget. Even in peacetime petite Rosiere Is not a very imposing little place; a handful of houses, a store and school huddling around the Church. But it will always be associated in our memories with the most cruel of experiences.
At Rosiere our role in the War began in earnest. We mourned our dead and fought against death. It was a lime of grimness and darkness, of alarms and weariness. We developed a horror of the 88, the mortar, every weapon in the ingenious arsenal of the enemy. We saw what they could do. saw it in terms of broken bodies and mangled flesh, tortured faces and voices speaking low, on and on, of the terror up ahead, of-desperate smashing of a frenzied foe against living defenses refusing to yield.
Those were nightmare days and hated nights when ambulances threaded cautious ways from Bastogne to the blessed relief of light and heat at Rosiere, to create comforts too many would never see or hear or feel again. Stumble in from darkness, blink your eyes, let the room swim in to focus. Two ambulances have just disgorged their loads. There is the old hospital smell mingled with the aroma of boiling coffee. And every where, cringing, dazed, hollow-eyed, tattered, men of the 42nd, the 63rd, the 17th Airborne, sitting, standing, or lying still and shock-scourged on litters and cots. There is scarcely room for the Doctors and technicians to work. Bloody dressing, empty plasma bottles, cut off clothing mounded in a small heap beside, the stove.
You hear the murmur of voices, manage to pick a phrase here and there from the general incoherencles: ".... cut us to pieces.... a whole platoon.... they had us in a barn.:., an 88 hit the kitchen truck.... do you think I'll be able to use it again Doc?.... oh those miserable bastards...." You see one, he can't be more than 18, trembling and crying. His shirt is in ribbons although the patch of the 17th is untouched, its silky texture gleaming in the light from the bare electric bulb. A mortar shell exploded near him, killed three of his buddies. You see where the shrapnel peppered his chest and thin adolescent arms and marvel at the miracle that saved him from death.
The Germans paid heavily. At Rosiere we encountered the first of the Supermen. They were a staunch lot, veterans of North Africa, Italy, in campaigns in France and Russia, air students pulled out of training to serve as infantrymen. These were the worst. Hitler Youth 17 and 18 years old. One night a young German was carried in, his left arm blown to shreds. He lay without expression, stoically enduring what must have been intense pain: in his burning eyes and bored studiously bored, answers to questions he revealed the heart of the Fuhrer fanaticism. One of the men in the Company still has his servicebook and the picture shows a clean looking, healthy adolescent, who, had he been born on Kedzie Ave. in Chicago, would have spent his spare moments at Andes, eating ice cream and shooting the breeze instead of marching in black-clad columns past a bemustached paper hanger from the Vienna slums.
After our days at Rosiere, indeed through the whole of the long winter, we longed for heat and warmth. Many were the frozen feet and fingers during, this time. The cold was intense and cruel almost as mortal an enemy as the Nazi. There was suffering, misery, violence and sudden death in-the hours of this gloomy period but it was endured because ahead American men had stood fast at Bastogne had defied the desperate enemy to smash through, and had won the day. The War was lost forever to the Grey and Blue draped Warriors of National Sozialism, lost on the approaches to Bastogne. The proud proclaimers of the "Thousand Years", arrogant conquerors of Western Europe,, had met their match, and more, in the men assembled from all parts of the American Union to defend modern civilization in these streets of the Old World.
It was already late afternoon of the 8th when we were told one Clearing Section was to move into Bastogne. At last we were to see the City of World War II. Its epic defense by the men of the 101st Airborne had become a glorious page in American history. Three weeks after the beginning of the Rundstedt attack the offensive was decisively broken here in this ancient cross-road of Central Europe.
Long before we crept into the city, darkness had fallen. We could barely make out jagged outlines of the shells of buildings still standing, thin walls rising perpendicularly out of white snow. We assembled in the market place and even as vehicles were edging into place a terrific artillery barrage started pounding the city. It lasted throughout the night. The ambulances went back to Rosiere, the Section remained. There was much stumbling about and falling in our attempts to locate the Convent School that earlier in the day had been picked as a likely station. Once there, some of the men started to prowl around with flashlights and candles, scouting for the least damaged rooms. The shelling outside mounted in intensity. An old priest suddenly appeared. He gesticulated wildly, indicated we were in great danger remaining above ground. He beckoned us to follow him. Down below, the Convent was honey-combed with passages. There was an enormous kitchen with huge gleaming boilers and stoves. We spent a cold, dreary-night in one of these tunnels.
The following day brought more heart-breaking work. Jerry had become frenzied again, was trying to beat us back. The situation had developed into a great phase of attrition. The flow of wounded and dead seemed endless. The 36 hours we were set up at Bastogne were probably the busiest of the War for us. It was ironic: our greatest service, at best a tragic business, was rendered in the free city responsible for cracking the German strength in the West.
On the morning of the 9th we passed beyond Bastogne to Rolle where the other Clearing Section was already operating in the courtyard of an ancient Chateau. That night we sent back to the hospital some of our own men wounded at the Front while serving as aid men. We had to send for more ambulances. They were desperately needed.
The 13th saw us hit the road again. We set up for a short time in a barn in the vicinity of Houffalize and after a few hours moved on to Rachamps. We took over the Priest's house for our station.
The Germans had been in Rachamps only a matter of hours before our arrival. We had many booby-trap scares: The civilians were frightened and silent. They seemed convinced the Nazis would be back as they had promised. There were dead Jerries all over the place. One of the Nuns led us to a tragic scene on a hillside a short distance from town. There we saw charred skeletons of 9th Armored Infantry half-tracks and beside them, covered by heavy snow remains of men who rode to their death in them. They had, evidently rolled into a trap Christmas Day. Machine guns had been mounted, but scarcely fired. They had tried to withdraw, dig in, but failed in all attempts. A small group of us watched in silence as the Colonel searched the frozen bodies for identification. There was none. For miles around this pitiful wreckage the countryside gleamed with virginal snow. The sun shone for the first time in weeks. We the living, even as we stood there could detect first faint vestiges of a warmer world that, lay ahead, promising Spring, the New Life. And we could know such things because these men had one fateful hour, met cold steel and burning fire of the enemy. O bitter Death!
V. FLOODS OF SPRING: BEHO, BELGIUM
FEBRUARY 6 - 25:
Remember the story "A DOG OF FLANDERS?" Through its pages one meets the pleasant, cheerful, wooden-shoed peasant of Belgium, never very wealthy but always willing to share what he has with the next man? And if worldly goods are lacking, there is a compensation in richness of the spirit. Such were the natives of the little village of Beho where we went after leaving Rachamps.
Everyone was tired, irritable. The company needed a rest badly. Events of the proceeding weeks had put us into a kind of stupor a depression. Even the most callous of men will break after watching the unmitigated misery it had been our lot to deal with. We needed to be reminded that somewhere on God's earth human beings were functioning in normal existence, experiencing emotions and cherishing values that should be man's common heritage.
CC A entered a rest; phase about this time. The men in the Sections had very little to do. The various units were sending Dental Patients, and ordinary Sick-Call cases. Relaxation became the order of the day. The weather cleared, the sun came out more regularly and began to dry up the muddy, impassable roads. Each one of us “adopted” a family in the neighborhood. An old Wehrmacht theatre was turned into a mess hall. Chow was excellent. We put on weight lost by a C and K ration diet. Movies came to us regularly and were excellent. We saw "None But The Lonely Heart" and "Saratoga Trunk, both in one afternoon.
Our 19 days at Beho were among the most pleasant we've had in Europe. Even now many of the men vow they would rather have a Pass to Beho than Paris. But as February grew old the War started to leave us behind and we had to catch up with it.
VI. WATCH ON THE RHINE
FEBRUARY 25 - MARCH 28:
The whole front, from the Baltic to the foothills of the Swiss Alps was being stabilized. The Battle of the Bulge was finished, the Jerries driven back beyond their original positions into fortifications of the Siegfried Line. We prepared to follow them, hunted becoming the hunter. We left Beho on the 25th of Feb. and turned toward Manderfeld on the German-Belgium border. The convoy passed the pulverized city of St. Vith, an ugly and desolate pile of dirt and rubble. Its destruction was the most thorough we had yet seen.
Manderfeld was an anchor of the Siegfried Line, and all the time we were there pillboxes and fortifications beyond the city received an incessant pounding by our artillery. One could set his watch each morning at 3 o'clock when the 105's let loose.
The 4th of March we passed into the Line itself. We spent the night in the field and the next morning continued on to Wallersheim. After 24 hours in a little school house in Wallersheim we moved to Kelberg. We arrived there the 8th.
While at Kelberg we received dozens of wounded and dying Nazis. Where they came from no one knows. It was like a small Rosiere in reverse. The station was In a house on top of a steep incline and it was a brutal task carrying wounded up the endless flights of stairs. To make matters worse it was impossible to get a litter in the door in a normal manner. Many a wounded Jerry must have thought his time had come that night as he was almost dumped off the litter coming through the door.
We stayed at Mayen, Germany, our next stop 4 days. It's a good-sized town and received special consideration from our Air Force. C. C. A. was sweeping into Andernach on the Rhine. Things were plenty hot for a while. The advancing tankers were met by fanatical Volkssturmers and 16 year old kids. Armed with a Bazooka, even the most inexperienced, can do great damage. The Division liberated its first Prisoner of War Camp and the roads were choked with French and Belgian soldiers heading for the West. This was the time too of the first wave of mass German surrender. The stockade in Mayen was filled to overflowing with complete companies of Nazis who decided evidently that the game was not worth the candle.
Some of the released prisoners had not fared so well in German captivity, especially Slavic people. The condition of the Russians and Yugoslavs was pitiful to behold. The Germans, some weeks before, had just stopped feeding them. They were starving when they reached Mayen. Many of them had to be carried from the vehicles into the station; feet and tongue swollen, covered with sores, skin like old parchment. These men were perfect text-book examples of malnutrition and dietary deficiency. For the first time we were seeing the result of the treatment of so called 'inferior races" by the Master Race.
On the 12th of March the company-moved to Kruft. There we were told that we were to join headquarters and take the place of C Company which had been running a Division hospital set-up. Everyone was pretty unhappy about the whole thing but there didn't seem much we could do about it.
Headquarters was at Obermending and we joined them there on the 15th of March. Then began a series of moves. Our course was taking us through lovely resort country: Bad Bertrich on the 18th, Zell the 19th, Kirn the 20th. Units of C. C. A. and C. C. B. were spread out through this territory and by some mix-up we at Kirn were swamped with casualties, German as well as American, giving them regular Treatment Station care. One of the Surgeons performed three leg amputations on Jerry wounded. They were in horrible condition, gangrenous and smelling. As nearly as we could gather German medical service was in a state of collapse. The Doctors would abandon patients leaving only aid-men, without supplies, to care for the wounded. The latter were exceedingly bitter and railed at great length against these practices.
The 21st we reached Meisenheim. Wendelsheim on the 23rd was our next stop. After a four day stay at Wendelsheim we moved to Dorn Durkheim. Everyone was happy once more. We had been ordered to resume support of C. C. A. We knew the Division was poised for a dash across the Rhine. Exciting days lay ahead and all of us felt we had earned the right to share them with the Combat units: together we had passed through some of the most trying periods, of the War, through days of gloom and despair. Now. we would experience the thrill of the hunter: Jerry was in flight and the chase was on.
VII. THE DIRE SINK OF INIQUITY
MARCH 28 - MAY 1:
For many days-our journey had taken us-through the fertile pleasant country-sides of the Rhineland. Tanks and half-tracks sped down roads that had known the dusty passage of Roman phalanxes over 2,000 years before. So far we encountered people and cities who
could justly claim, with the French and English, exposure to the civilization of the West since the birth of Christ.
In the days of the Caesars the conquerors, from the south fought their way across this part of Europe and then remained hundreds of years to leave on it the imprint of that Attilic Culture they had taken for their own. They halted at the Rhine, built cities and erected fortifications. Cologne, Trier and hundreds of other habitations along the swiftly moving river still contain buildings and monuments placed there by the Romans. They halted at the Rhine and for ten centuries, till the Apostolate of Bonifice to the Teutons; what lay beyond the clear treacherous waters of the Rhine River was a mystery to the rest of Europe.
In the darkness beyond, Nomad Barbarians led their primitive tribal life warring on each other, wandering from place, to place, killing and plundering, without law, or authority save for the few crude dictates of their chiefs. Many centuries later history was to repeat itself except that the descendents of these ancient peoples were to break out from behind the great river barrier and engulf Europe in a tide of Barbarism and cruelty unparalleled since Attila and the Huns, ravaged the Western World There was to be, in our time, as in ages past the same silence, the, same black-out, the same savagery. The afternoon of March 28,1945 was bright and smiling as our convoys threaded their serpentine way to the frowning East. Shortly before we would roll across the pontooned waters at Oppenheim. Into the homeland of the Philosopher of Nihilism. Into what Winston Churchill was later to describe as the "dire sink of Iniquity.
Our Rhine crossing was like a scene from an H. G. Wells movie. The entire area was shrouded with heavy mist laid down by Chemical Warfare machines. The sun was obscured and it was hardly possible to see clearly the next vehicle ahead. Engineers had done their work well. Rubber boats, guarded at strategic points, held fast in the swift currents. The meadows and woods on both sides of the River were alive, with ack-ack units. Heaven help a Jerry plane misguided enough to blunder into these skies. P-47's: darted above the slowly moving convoys; sometimes at tree-top level then again climbing high above the low-flying. man-made, mists; defying the enemy to try and stop this violation of his "sacred soil".
As our-tanks thundered on to the Eastern bank of the Rhine the pace increased. We raced through towns and villages, past heavy-hung vines covering steep hillsides, fruit trees with promises of spring time blossoms and bewildered frightened civilians lining roads everywhere, silent pale-faced, sullen. Before their eyes was happening what the Fuhrer had vowed would never come about. On and on we came, citizen soldiers of the "decadent, weak democracy."
It was dark when we reached our. bivouac with C. C. A. We cursed the moonlit night because of ever present danger of air attack. It had been a tiring day. All of us looked, forward to the hours of sleep. About nine o'clock the area was quiet at last: Only here and there sentries walking their posts; breath sending small puffs of vapor into the frigid air and, above the silence; the subdued whine of radios from the half-tracks.
Shortly after midnight the Company was awakened. On the move again, off to the chase. We would soon know the true function of an Armored Division although as we roused ourselves that freezing morning of March 29th, heavy-headed from lack of sleep, no one thought it would be demonstrated in such scalp raising fashion.
Vehicles of all descriptions poured out of the field onto the darkened road. We were beginning a drive that was to carry us many miles into the heartland of the Reich, into the towns and cities devoted to making machines and tools of death for the Wehrmacht, the dreaded S. S Divisions, fumbling Volkssturmers. We sped through the night, now become dark and eerie, past sleeping habitations of men, great masses of woodland, smoldering ruins looking like the dying fires of some sinister celebration of witch-craft at which are invoked the power's of the eternally damned. Dawn came, yet we didn't stop.
Days and nights of movement. Occasionally we heard a B. B. C. broadcast: "Twin spearheads” of the Eleventh American Armored Division report a fifty mile advance across the plains of Thuringia. Advance elements are far ahead of any other" units on the Western Front."
We paused at Frankenheim a short while then pushed on. At Eichenberg on the 3rd of April we set up In the afternoon, the next morning were again on our way. April 4th we reached Suhl, home of the great Sauer small-arms manufacturing plant. Suhl had been bitterly defended. Even as we pulled in, the southern section of the city was still under fire: people had barricaded themselves in houses, were shooting at our troops with rifles and revolvers. The town was, as one Major expressed it, "very hot." Bands of liberated slave-laborers, Poles, Yugoslavs, Greeks, surged through the streets, terrorizing the German population, looting warehouses and stores, plundering private homes. No one attempted to stop them. It seemed only some kind of justice to see them carrying sides of beef and cartons of margarine after a five year starvation diet. Besides everyone was too busy taking care of himself, preparing for the worst.
Our position was none too tenable. Supply facilities were many miles behind. We were a steel ring set out in hostile territory many miles in advance of the nearest infantry. Trucks going after gasoline and food were ambushed and destroyed by Germans prowling, through the woods fringing the supply route. We lost some ambulances,, but no personnel was killed and a few days later liberated.
Most of us were quartered in the Sauer mansion. It was apparent that nothing had been too good for the old boy and that being a dealer in death was altogether profitable in Hitler's Germany. He was, of course, a member of the Party and on the wall of the entrance was a bas-relief of the Fuhrer with a loving inscription to the man who produced in quantity such fine 32's and machine pistols, for the Wehrmacht Corps placed a "restraining line" on .the" Division and for three days we waited in Suhl for the Infantry to sweep toward us through the hills and forests on the roads leading to the city from the West.
On the 7th of April we started to move, again, into Hildburghausen, one of the chief cities of the Movement. We arrived at night. Burning buildings all over town were a tribute to the accuracy and effectiveness of our artillery fire and provided enough light for free outdoor activity. The former "Kraft durch Freude" building, (Strength through Joy) what a ridiculous name, became our station. It was filled with propaganda of the "Labor Front". In the pages of these books and pamphlets we found ample evidence that German Labor in the last ten years had become completely subservient to the state, had no will of its own, was, in effect, slaves of the Party. This in a country where the Government claimed to be Socialistic and founded for the advancement of the Working Man. The good luck we had been having stayed with us at Hildburghausen. Casualties were light and of a minor
nature. We found, incidentally, German soil to be almost completely free of the dreaded and much feared mine and booby-trap. There is no more horrible sight than that of a man mangled by an exploded land mine.
New towns and villages followed in quick succession: Oberlauden on the 10th of April, Schmolz the 12th. Our drive was veering toward Bavaria. April 13th we reached Stadtsteinach, one of the largest sized places we had seen. Stadtsteinach had a kind of festive air as the Americans came. Refugees from Silesia, Konigsberg, from Pomerania, and East Prussia lined the streets waving white flags, smiling, calling greetings. We remained five days. The company had taken a huge U-shaped building for quarters and a station. While here, the Combat Command made an inspection of vehicles and men.
Neudisselndorf, Germany came next on the 18th of April, then Grafenwohr, the Fort Knox of the Wehrmacht, on the 19th. The Gasthaus at Grafenwohr had some excellent Bavarian beer which we enjoyed for three days. Then to Pfreimd on the 22nd of April.
The 23rd of April was fresh and clear. A group of us standing at the half-track watched the day splash out from beyond the rim of the Eastern hills. It was early morning and bright, even though it would be another hour before the sun rose. We waited for the Kitchen Crew to call us to breakfast, kept prancing around to keep warm. Many of us thought of the thousand sunrises of days past when we would be returning instead of setting forth. It was spring then too, but in another land far from this small farming community in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. The C. O. walked over to the vehicle, map case in hand.
"Good morning men."
"Good morning sir. What gives today, sir?"
"It looks like another long haul. Do you see this city", pointing to a large blotch of color on the map. "It's our objective. After a short spell on the usual hog trail we should hit a paved road most of the way in." The name of the city the captain pointed to in the lifting dusk of that April.23rd morning was Cham.
The first few hours of march were like a hundred others we made through the back-trails and cow paths of Europe. Then mid-morning the convoy spilled out onto a broad paved highway. Ah, this is what they had waited for so long, the impatient ones at the wheels, drivers who agonized in the snow and mud, guided slipping tracks through beat-up earth, crawled along winding mountain roads. "Where the hell is an Autobahn?"
Now on the concrete stretches rolling Into Cham, some 50 miles distant, they could let go, show the gawking Bavarian peasants dust of an American convoy. Thousands of liberated Russian War Prisoners crowded the road waved at the speeding vehicles, risked life and limb scrambling after K-Ration cigarettes tossed from tanks and peeps. The mood was holiday. This was the life: speed, movement.
Much later one of the ambulance drivers was to tell of the events of the following busy 36 hours. He was attached to the 55th Infantry and his vehicle was 10th in the column. "Around one o'clock that day the convoy stopped for ten minutes. A liaison peep came from front! I knew the driver and flagged him down. We were starved for news of some kind and I figured he should have some idea of what was going on. He told me that our men were liberating allied Prisoners of War, mostly British. Some of the liberated English spoke of a large group of American boys that had been marching down this very highway last night. C. C. A. had sent out a task force to free them before the day ended.”
We started roaring forward again at a steady clip for at least an hour and then the convoy slowed to a crawl. I peered ahead. Great masses of men were springing from the fields on either side, surrounding vehicles, waving, cheering and some just running back and forth as if dazed. A huge Union Jack was flying from a standard stuck by the roadside. Soldiers on horseback trotted by. I recognized them despite tattered uniforms as Aussies. We edged forward into the milling group, started to pass out cigarettes and D-Ration chocolate
bars. One of the Tommies saw a loaf of white bread and a little butter in the back of the ambulance, begged us for some. We gave it all away, with cheese taken from a food warehouse at Suhl, and all the C-Rations we had on hand. Hundreds of them crowded around hollow-eyed and gaunt, looking for a bite to eat. These men, from all parts
of the British Empire, had been in captivity over five years. They had seen their number dwindle from starvation and mistreatment. The Germans forced them to work during air raids and half the remaining men had been blown to bits the month before while working at a railroad marshalling yards during an Allied air attack. None of them recognized our vehicles at, first. They were amazed to see the might and power we had amassed with sad recollections of the hopeless struggle of '39 and '40 against the then invincible Wehrmacht. Many of them had difficulty speaking proper English and knew only German words for late innovations in the War.
Over to the side, stolid-faced, eyes straight ahead, stood 25 or 30 Nazi officers and men. Their day was over. The Englishmen ignored them for the most part except to throw an occasional curse their way. This was the last of many groups of guards. For months they herded the prisoners over thousands of miles of Reich roads, abusing, beating.
starving them. And now the situation was reversed.
It was nearly three o'clock when the English reluctantly moved aside to let us continue. I kept wondering about the reports concerning the GI’s. We were soon to know.
A medical peep we recognized as that of CCA's Surgeon raced toward us, told us to pull out of the convoy. The Major was ahead with almost two hundred liberated American soldiers and needed help. We surged ahead of the lead vehicle. I was plenty scared. The highway was lined with woodland and for an hour the peep and ambulance were the only vehicles to be seen. The task force was well in front of us. probably in Cham.
At a turn in the road we met them; the first of many scattered at intervals, free American men for the first time since last December. We stopped of course. How pitiful they looked, how beaten and cringing. Over and over again we would tell them not to worry, that everything would be all right. Their anxiety, the brutal ordeal through which they had passed were etched in every line of each face. Many were crying, others shaking their heads in disbelief. This wasn't true. They would wake once more to the bleak German dawn, be herded under the earth into the stifling, filthy mine and wonder when it would all end even if only In merciful death...."
Shed your cleansing tears, men of the 106th, don't you be ashamed of them, for we're not embarrassed. This is all over for you forever in your lifetime, the clash by night, struggle and flight, indignity and torture. It was a brief hour but has become part of you till the day you die.
Orders had been passed that the liberated men were to be picked up by tanks, tracks, peeps and all available vehicles and carried into the city. Cham, when we arrived, was seething. Confusion and disorder prevailed in every section of the city. We set out looking for a hospital. We found one in the center of town, a modern spotlessly clean building. The old Doctor in charge was the soul of cooperation. Many times during the course of that day and night he was to apologize for his countrymen as he saw the emaciated forms of our men carried in on litters.
The original hospital was proving too small for our needs, It was decided to use another auxiliary unit and bring all the men under one roof. The flow began, a study in human misery. Every available space was used, beds, litters, cots, mattresses on the floor. No one in the SS Company had a place to sleep, but no matter: no one, was to get the chance.
....... It Is eleven o'clock at night. You feel your way slowly up the marble steps of the city of Cham’s "Hilfstelle", push, open the swinging doors. There is much activity in the long hallways. Somewhere to the left you hear the rapid tattoo of a typewriter. American
Medical soldiers move through the corridor carrying pans, blankets, mops. These men are tired, not only because of physical activity but because of the great emotional strain to which they seem to be subjected. Turning to the right, pass into the great dining hall: In the half-light the scene is startling. Lying on their backs staring unseeingly at the ceiling, propped on bare slim elbows are shadows of human beings. The blacked-out room is stifling with the odor of their months-long unwashed bodies, their protesting stomachs reaction to the richness of C-Ration stew. Some are standing dusting themselves with a grey powder, stark naked, and it is possible to see and count their ribs and the bones in their feet.
Where does life end and death begin? At what point does man, made in the image and likeness of God. cease to be human and assume the aspects of the half-way existence akin to animals? Look around these rooms, see the wasted forms of those who once ventured forth so confidently, rifle on shoulder, into the wooded paths of the Ardennes. Tonight, the 23rd of April 1945. five months after, they are travesties of those bold defenders of the Western Front. They are like children and in many respects like animals. They hide the little bits of candy from the C-Ration cans, the tiny boxes of sugar. They protest bitterly that they weren't fed when everyone knows they all received food. Many alternate from tears to hysterical joy. A 20 year old infantryman from Ohio is in great pain: his feet. You bandage them tenderly keep up a steady flow of words in a low soothing voice till he falls asleep. Your attention, the first individual kindness he has known in weeks, has more therapeutic value than a thousand drugs.
This first night of blessed release, of freedom. The Sergeant shows you his notebook, the itinerary of the march across the Third Reich. Listed are the names of the men who died along the way, the places where they lie buried. He tells of Nazi brutality: beating, starvation, no sleep, acts of torture on the weak unable to work in the mines The only sign of human compassion they saw in that cruel time was weeping of the old peasant women at sight of their tottering in the ice and snow before the sadistic guards.
This first night of new life is filled with the murmur of voices in all the rooms where they lie; into the early hours of the morning from weakened throats are spun a thousand tales of the past, are born countless hopes for the future.
But from this horror and cruelty, distress, hunger, perishing suffering, pain. inhumanity and barbarism, from the endless recital and stark evidence of privation, misery and affliction an act was witnessed that reaffirmed our faith in human values. A young G. I. lay shivering on the litter in the draughty hallway waiting to be taken to a room. He was in appalling shape, one of the worst. He was so weak he could hardly see. Across from him, back against a wall sullen and brooding stood a German soldier with a fractured arm. The American pulled out a pack of ten-in-one Chesterfields, lit a cigarette. He suddenly looked across at the Nazi, glared a moment and then, with trembling hand, extended the pack to the ex-Superman......
April 24. Off to the wars again. We turned over the hospital to C company and hit the road to Viechtach. Our short stay was made memorable by the discovery of some fine Bavarian beer. We regretfully moved on to Grafenau on the 25th. The 26th saw us in two peasant houses in Furholz. During our four days here enemy air activity was heavy but always under control of our ack-ack. On the 30th we spent our last day of combat in German territory. Our next move carried us across the border into Austria, toward the much advertised and, we found out later, over-rated Redoubt.
VIII. BLESSED ARE THE DAYS OF PEACE
MAY 1 — 8 1945:
Our passage from Bavaria to Austria was not too apparent in the countryside around us. The peasants going about their ages-old task of cultivating the early spring fields seemed the same in both places, the trees were as green, the grain as high. Only in distant horizons could be seen the more towering promontories of the Austrian Alps, through rips in the eternally moving blue-gray haze. And although the people were more disposed to smile, to regard us with less hostility, the Division was meeting fierce S. S. resistance. Each day brought its share of dead and wounded.
Late evening the 1st of May the company arrived at Pielstein, Austria. Most of the men remained in the field a short distance from town, finding billets in a small barn. The section set up in what had been the 55th Aid Station. A few of the men arriving early at the Gasthaus, found it already filled with wounded and infantrymen suffering from exposure. Four of these had been pinned down in a river for 8 hours under enemy machine-gun fire. They were bitter. Just that morning the radio was filled with rumor and speculation of an impending end to the War. One of them, wrapped in a blanket by the fire said: "End of the War, hell! Go out and look in the back." We did. Stumbling into the blackness of an ancient cow-shed our flash-lights threw into grim relief the bodies of four men. The Capitols of the World hummed with talk of peace, diplomats flew across the rivers and seas of the hemisphere, conferences increased with the passing of every hour, and these four who survived so much, who so desperately sweated out the end, met death on an Austrian hillside.
But the evidence was no longer to be denied as the early days of May caught the earth in its spring-time glory. The struggle was coming to a close. We passed into Rohrbach on the 2nd and then to a field outside St. Veith the 3rd. C. C. A. was sweeping toward the Capitol of Upper Austria and the second largest city of the Ostmark, Linz. The night of the 4th of May was spent at Herzogsdorf. The next afternoon we arrived at Hellmonsodt. It was the 5th of May 1945; Linz fell to the Division on the same day. Some 28 kilometers from that Danube city was located the notorious Mauthausen Concentration Camp. Many of us visited it only a few hours after liberation by our troops. Oh yes, thousands, millions of words have been written about Dachau, Nordhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and other monuments to the Third Reich and the Millennium in Western Europe. But if the genius of the world, the greatest word artists of all time were to concentrate and labor for eternity to convey the horror of these places, its impact on the human spirit, they could not succeed. But to see — ah, that would be enough. The souls of the outraged bodies, now ashes in the good German earth or piled carelessly like logs by the prison walls cry to heaven for vengeance.
Collapse and chaos spread through Hitler's Germany like a prairie fire early in May of 1945. The fighting man was surrendering, the hierarchy of Nazidom was going down in violence and bloodshed or eking out a last few hours in the madness of dying Berlin. It was impossible to keep up with events. The Italian Front collapsed, the German Armies in the North surrendered to Montgomery and finally, the last bitter gesture, members of the General Staff came to Rheims to offer Unconditional Surrender to General Eisenhower. One minute after midnight, May 9th, victory and peace in Western Europe was officially proclaimed.
So it was over, the greatest conflict in the history of a planet never really free from strife since the beginning of its recorded time. Although the War had moved half-way across Europe and was 6 months old before the Eleventh reached the Continent we were to see almost 1600 tough combat miles before V-E Day. Those miles, that advance, was paid for in blood and pain and no one realizes it better that the men who cared for the wounded and dying, who sought to alleviate some of the misery and suffering. For us the conflict was resolved into elemental terms: that line on the map studied assiduously at headquarters, the colored, jagged, unmovable line pounded so frantically by the enemy, represented a stream of broken American bodies: the 13 pillboxes knocked out in 24 hours had for each a shattered leg, a gaping chest wound: every thrust, each new advance, the holding position, the attack, old with prosaic dullness in communiqué and tactical report, were translated into violent outrages on precious human beings …..
“Blessed are the days of Peace.” They lie full and free before all of us somewhere in the future. But as long as we live, through whatever scenes we may pass, in quiet evening solitude or brass-hued merriment, there will be a surging of memories, echoes from the past, persistent, not to be denied: cider served by clog-shoed peasants in Normandy, ruined cities scarring the fair French countryside, tired-looking Tiger Tanks in the ditches of Europe, the River Meuse, an American Cemetery in Belgium, the girls of Trowbridge, crossing the Rhine in an ambulance, the railroad station at Sossoins, Lucy of Beho, fox-hole serpentine meadows, mine fields and Dragon’s Teeth, the dead frozen Germans in the snow of Rachamps, artillery fire in the night, the cold blue face of the Christ in Rosiere.