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A "LIBERATING" EXPERIENCE
By Jules Levin
B Company 41st Tank Battalion
When individuals of varied backgrounds are integrated into a common group and share similar experiences unusual friendships are often formed that in "ordinary" life may never have developed. Though we were together in Co. B 41st Tank Battalion for less than a year and a half a bond developed between T-5 Patrick F. Needham of Scranton, PA and myself. We were not what you might call bosom buddies but we did share a few harmless albeit somewhat less than wholesome experiences.
Needham was what is commonly referred to as a "character", but in my opinion an "original" one. It might be said of him that when he was born God threw away the mold. There would never be another. He was possessed with a devil may care fun loving nature that was accompanied by a cynicism that added spice to his taste for mischief. In our current vernacular he would not hesitate to "push the envelope" to the edge. I think he had been with the Division since its inception and at one time held a higher rank than the T-5 he held when I knew him. He certainly had the intelligence for promotion but because of his proclivity for mischief and lackadaisical actions his opportunities for advancement were inhibited.
Prior to the Germans surrender our division had linked with the Russians. The link was near Czechoslovakia where tens of thousands of the Wehrmacht had been in battle on the eastern front. The Red Army would not go easy on kraut prisoners, and they knew it. When word came to the German soldiers that all was lost, thousands began a desperate trek westward to surrender to the American forces. As far as the eye could see countless enemy soldiers dejectedly trudged down the road toward us, to what they knew would be a better fate than the one awaiting their comrades imprisoned by the Russians.
When Needham viewed the immense line of Germans coming our way to surrender, his calculating mind began to conceive a plan for personal gain. He and I were not kindred spirits, and he knew that I was not wont to push the envelope to the edge like he was prone to do but he also knew that I was not disinclined to nudge it a bit. "Levin," he said. "Those krauts have got to be carrying a bunch of goodies. "Let's 'liberate' some of them." He didn't have to ask me twice. We slung our carbines across our shoulder and went forward to confront the mass of prisoners approaching the area.
I must confess that for many years I have not been particularly proud of the escapade I'm about to relate but when you have just taken part in liberating a continent and conquering the insidious enemy one might forgive a 21 year old G.I.'s desire to share the spoils of victory.
The Germans approaching us were being led by a tank driven very slowly. The tank turret was turned 180 degrees so that the guns were facing to the rear of the tank and directly at the surrendering P.O.W.'s following it. The line of prisoners extended back as far as the eye could see. Patrick and I walked toward the approaching Germans and proceeded to liberate desirable items, mainly watches and binoculars but also a few pistols, including a P-38 and a Luger. Most willingly gave us whatever we asked for, but there was one obdurate soldier who refused to surrender his watch. How dare he! He was completely at our mercy and we could have done anything to him with impunity. At first I admired the man for his courage, but as an afterthought I realized how incredibly stupid his actions were. His bravado could have easily cost him his life. How could he know that he was dealing with a couple of “softies.”
It didn’t take long before Needham and I were wearing watches on both arms from wrists to elbows. We were so absorbed in our nefarious activity we failed to notice that the tank leading the procession had rounded a bend in the road and was nowhere in sight. All we could see were German soldiers – not an American in sight! We looked at each other – words were not necessary – we read it in each other’s eyes. “To the REARR MARCH!” We beat a very hasty retreat!!
Most of the loot was sold or traded. Among the souvenirs that I brought back to the states were the aforementioned pistols and a ten-power binocular that I still own and continue to enjoy using at all of the Minnesota Viking home football games.
The 11th Armored Division was deactivated in August, 1945. Needham and I were among those sent back to the States for reassignment and training for the forthcoming invasion of Japan. We traveled by train in a box car to Le Havre in France and after a few days there we boarded a ship for the return to the U.S. We envied the soft duty those left behind would inherit as part of the Army of Occupation but as fate would have it we were the ones that ended up with the best deal. While crossing the Atlantic the Air Force dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was over and we would be in the States while the rest of the guys had to stay n Europe until their point count was high enough to qualify them for discharge. When we got the news of surrender those on the boat might have expressed their sentiments for those left behind in Europe more kindly but when asked, invariably the response was one that was typically offered to most requests for sympathy – T.S.
All the returning vets had been reassigned to the relocation camp closest to their home. I liked Needham and regret that I never saw or communicate with him again.
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