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HQ 55th AIB
We carried our own GI belongings in barracks bags on our backs as we trudged, single file, up the gangplank. In my barracks bag I packed my own baseball glove, an Agfa Memo camera, and in my pocket I had my army pay book inside of which I tucked Betty’s picture, taken on the roof of the Georgiana Hotel, during our honeymoon. As we got out to sea, I could see ships our ships as far as the horizon. We shipped out in one of the largest convoys in military history. A converted luxury liner, reportedly originally Italian, it had been captured and confiscated from our Axis enemy. This ship carried the entire 11th Armored Division, 15,000 men, and much of our equipment. We were informed that this convoy was a prize target for the enemy. U.S. Navy battleships, cruisers and submarines guarded us. White lights at night, in or on the ship, were not allowed. Smoking on or above deck was prohibited. Throwing anything in the water was not allowed. It could leave a “trail”.
We participated in periodic “abandon ship drills” on a deck about 40 feet above the surface of the water. That did not bother me; I had dived that far (but in bathing trunks) at a YMCA in Kalamazoo, Michigan and been trained at A.S.T P. to jump feet first from a 20-foot platform, remove my pants and make “water wings” from them. However, we did wear Army boots; they were about 16 inches high and laced to the top. That water looked cold and was deep.
I slept in a bunk about 2 feet by 6 feet, spaced about 2 feet vertically. One did not sit up, but rolled out. Until I ran out of money, I played poker in the galley below decks but probably not the water line; the only lights at night were red, which made seeing the heart and diamond suits very difficult.
We ate only two meals a day. Quite a change from the “three a day” to which I had become accustomed to in camp. After I gambled away my money, which took a day or so, I borrowed enough to buy semi sweet (Bakers) chocolate bars at the ships store, but they began to sicken me.
I observed the craps games and found out why I lost so often. Benny D (he shall remain anonymous) clued me in. He shot percentage dice, and when he could, shot loaded dice. When we got to England, he mailed fifty $100 mail orders to his mom, and went AWOL, which constituted desertion in the face of the enemy.
One night, I went to the ship’s mess deck and observed Navy personnel as they ate. Each swabby had a feeding assignment but unassigned men were pronounced supernumeraries, and allowed in. So, I became one for a few nights and then got caught. Hungry time began for me. I learned later that I merely experienced appetite; hunger is a more drastic experience.
I did not get, as did many of our troops, seasick. The boat pitched and rocked, I suppose, but I was fascinated by all the new philosophies, sight, sounds, and smells. I had been on a boat before, the ferry on the Detroit River, from Detroit, Michigan to Belle Island, twice. Two or three weeks later that changed overnight. After the ship pulled in to Southampton and anchored, the boat stopped rocking, but not me. I got so sick I was afraid I would live. The ship’s pharmacy mate pulled me through after what seemed like hours of having me inside my stomach and trying to get out. But, as usual, I survived.
Next day we disembarked. We took buses to a camp about 90 miles southwesterly from London. The nearest town, Hindon was 10 miles away and the nearest train station, Warminster, was 25 miles away as we were to find out. The famous City of Bath was in the vicinity, as I would find out many years later.
During aircraft recognition training I learned how to distinguish between the types of rockets the German Army launched at England. It was the end of September and security was very tight. We were warned to keep it that way and perhaps we would not become targets for rockets like the V 1 or V2 and the German Army’s Luftwaffe. The V1, a Ramjet rocket, was nicknamed the buzz bomb. It sounded like a large buzzer with hiccups. I heard more than a few. The V2 was silent and if not seen in time, would hit without warning.
We slept on cots in Quonset huts. A Quonset hut looks like half of a large corrugated sheet metal barrel, on its side; the sides set in concrete. The end walls were made of wood and contained the doors. Our cots were made of wooden frames and slats and had straw mattresses. The rest of our bed included a khaki colored (GI) blanket. In our machine gun section was a Pvt. Neilsen, the burly looking son of a minister. He stood more than six feet tall and spoke softly. When he saw his cot, it was the first time I heard him swear.
We trained, took our 25-mile hikes, played games and got a pass now and then. My first pass in England got me to Hindon and a dance at the town hall. At a ping-pong table there winners played until they lost. I did not lose hence did not dance once; I gave up my paddle when it was time to go back to camp. I had one pass to London. A bus drove us to Warminster’s train station that morning, where we entrained for Paddington Station in London. We were told what time that night to catch both the train and the bus back to camp.
Wild Bill Hayek and I teamed up. He had all the ideas and we took in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Baker Street, and the main London Red Cross Serviceman’s Center. We had just appeared in front of the Red Cross reception desk when I heard a loud crash and the building shook. I looked at the lady behind the desk who correctly assumed I was frightened. She calmed me down with a few assuring words something like “This happens all the time, don’t be alarmed, love”. She quickly ascertained that a German V2 rocket had hit and destroyed a number of buildings within two blocks. I stayed for a while, looking for free donuts and coffee. I got a clue to the fact that I was headed for a real war when I met an infantry soldier who had been in combat. His left eye socket had a patch of skin over it. He lost his eye in combat. When I asked him if he had killed a German he replied, “I don’t know” and “I just got started when I got hit”. He would be going home soon, after more plastic surgery and a glass eye implant.
Bill Hayek went off somewhere. I took a long walk and found a small bookstore. (Many years later I found and purchased a framed picture that reminded me of that bookstore.) I had less than hardly any money. I took a walk, found a beer joint and had one or two; the only other booze there was gin but I could not afford it. I had only little more than enough money to pay for a cab ride. The train and bus were free to GIs.
The train at Paddington Station was due to leave at 1700 hours so I dutifully got into a taxicab at 1600 hours and we set off for Paddington. Within a few minutes the driver pulled to the side of the road in response to an air raid siren. Between the Luftwaffe, buzz bombs and V 2 rockets by the time I got to the train station the train had left. None was scheduled until next morning. I reckoned I might as well make the best of it and see the town.
I had heard Word War one songs about Piccadilly Circus so it was the next stop, by bus. The sun began to set and nightlife was beginning. Ladies of the evening were drumming up business and one street corners vendor had a humorous pitch “Newspapers, flashlights, condoms, condoms, condoms!” I became an entranced observer, due to a combination of lack of interest, fear, and financial necessity. I wandered, tired and inquired about lodgings for the night. The cheapest were in Soho so I walked there and found a room with a chair and bed. The toilet and bathroom were down the hall .The skeleton key and keyhole looked like a simple lock picker would not be challenged. I took off my boots, locked the door, left the key in the lock on the room side, propped the chair under the doorknob and flopped. In the middle of the night, the chair jiggled. It woke me up; I spoke up and went back to sleep. In the morning I went back to Paddington Station and boarded the train for Warminster.
When the train arrived at Warminster, no bus or Army vehicles could be seen. I started to hike and had made about 15 miles when I thumbed a ride at a jeep driver. A U. S. Army Major from G 2 (Intelligence) gave me a ride to Company Headquarters and promptly turned me in. After a Summary Court Marshall and 7 days of “Company Punishment” sentence for being “Absent without Leave” for 5 days I pulled weeds and watered the flowers around the Company Headquarters hut.
A Quonset hut housed an enlisted man’s recreation hall, equipped with a jukebox, pool table, and a ping-pong table. One day as I played ping-pong, a trooper came in and warned me that First Sergeant Wolfe was looking for me and I was in big trouble. Seconds later, Billy Campbell walked in and began to berate our security. Stationed miles away, just by asking a few questions, he found our camp, my company and me. He had ridden a civilian motorcycle he had bought, acquired some gasoline and came to see me. When I asked, “Where is the motorcycle?” he divulged that he had stored it in Company Headquarters for safekeeping. Sergeant Wolfe knew him as he we had all gone to L .A. together once. So we moved the motorcycle to the rec hall. We had a chat, drank some Southern Comfort whiskey that he had stashed and he went back to his camp. I did not see him again until after the war ended in 1945.
One day I walked into the rec hall and three guys had corralled a medic. One held one leg, a second held his other. They spread-eagled him and a third was tormenting his crotch. When I asked why they were doing that their response was “He’s a queer”. I had not noticed either him or his squeaky voice previously and although I thought I knew what it meant, had never heard that word applied.
Our recreation included playing football. We played in a nearby pasture, which had been recently decorated in cow pies. That gave open field running a different dimension. I was a pretty good tumbler, runner and passer. As a quarterback, one day I decided to run up the middle. Buddy Young tackled me at the line of scrimmage and put his head into my solar plexus. When I woke up I had been knocked way back on my butt, down, and out. Private Young was 5 feet 6 inches tall but he weighed 200 pounds and had played varsity college football.
Late in October we were ready to ship across the channel when all our weapons and equipment was taken from us and shipped to the 14th Armored Division, an all Negro outfit, which had suffered heavy equipment losses in combat.
We got new weapons and spent a week as we cleaned off Cosmoline; sticky greasy metals preservative, from our weapons and test fired them. Our training include indoctrination lectures like do not shake hands with strange ladies without wearing gloves. We were also informed that the most likely way we would get home would be to defeat the Germans, then the Russians, and then the Japanese. It looked like a long almost impossible war ahead.
Me and a Heavy cal. 30
A cal. 30 heavy machine gun crew consists of a gunner, assistant gunner and two ammo handlers. Our squad was armed with water-cooled .30 caliber machine guns, M1 carbines, Bazookas, and Westinghouse submachine guns.
A Westinghouse “grease gun” has a lid which when closed prevented the bolt from actuating by sliding back and forth, loading and firing. Like the Thompson Sub-machine gun, the barrel rises when fired in lengthy automatic bursts. Our machine guns fired at a rate of 300 rounds per minute; like a rat at tat tat sound. German machine guns and Schmeisser Machine Pistols fired at 1100 rounds per minute. Their sound was more like a brrrrp; hence their names, burp guns. One of my favorite jokes later became, “He is a good kid but the woods are full of them, with Burp guns.”
Headquarters Company’s armament included a .75-millimeter cannon, a relic from World War 1. The Company Commander traveled in an M8; a topless tank around which is an oval opening and a gear toothed track in a full circle. A .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the track can be placed into position and fired in any azimuth (horizontal direction) and almost any vertical position.
After readying for combat, one morning we got up and headed for the “Chunnel”. Headquarters Company crossed the English Channel on a LCI, Landing Craft Infantry. While en route I got into a craps game but the ship pitched and bucked so much the dice took unlucky rolls for me. We went ashore in Le Havre, loaded into our vehicles and headed to the City of Rennes, in southern France. The scuttlebutt was that a division of German troops had been surrounded and we were to relieve our troops there. When we arrived at Rennes we were almost promptly allowed to go into the city. Several of us found a bar. It was quaint and had brick walls. We sat down inside and had a drink or two. Bolted to the wall was a metal sign that contained the menu and wine list. Betty collected menus. It took me two drinks and almost ten minutes to get that sign off the wall. I had it shipped to her. Our next stop in town was a campfire around which we sat and sang.
The war, for me, seemed to start the next day. The German Army penetrated American lines to the north; the Battle of the Bulge began. We departed Rennes in convoy and headed north with me in the assistant half-track driver’s position, behind the machine gun. Pryor drove and I relieved him part of the time.
All American planes were reportedly grounded. During a night on the trek, two unidentified fighter planes flew over the convoy and swiftly descended. We jumped to the ground, I dove behind a tree with a three foot trunk, pointed my rifle at the planes, and our M8 .50 caliber opened up. One plane fell and the other chose to depart, but made that decision too late. It too, was shot down. We saw no parachutes. I still hope those planes were theirs.
At the Ardennes Forest in France, still famous from WW 1, we set up a base, dug in, and suffered our first casualty. A gunner while arming a .30 caliber machine gun, fired accidentally. The bullet penetrated a 2-inch thick steel half-track wall and killed a troop. This is where I dug the first of many foxholes. Our squad leader, Sergeant Pepe, also chewed me out there. He was one of the original cadres who survived the desert training and the onslaught from the influx of ASTP troops. Among other things, he ordered me to stop talking about going back to college to get my engineering degree.
We moved and dug foxholes in a small valley, lined by trees on either side. We received enemy fire. Lt. Levin heard his first incoming shot at about this time. A smaller soldier, Minton was issued a truck and informed that he would be picking up our fatalities (KIA’s). A troop moving forward managed to drop into my foxhole. When he said, “Could you go for a Coke”? I thought that was strange, it was cold and snow was everywhere but I thought, “If he has one, it sure will be different.” I agreed and he said, “Well, go for one”.
Our platoon leader decided that wearing our heavy woolen overcoats and gas masks was too cumbersome and that the likelihood of a poison gas attack was small. We dumped them and I donned an extra pair of battle fatigues. The two layers of clothing seemed warm enough and did not hinder my movement as much as that despicable overcoat.
We moved out in our half-tracks and passed a battle in which we did not engage. Dozens of German soldiers were surrounded in a small enclave looking down at and firing point blank at American troops also firing at point blank range. It was absolutely gruesome. Our half-track was less than 200 yards, yet it looked like as unreal as a scene from a movie.
We moved into a new position and as we entered a wooded area saw a gruesome, unforgettable scene. Two American and German soldiers had apparently just shot each other to death. They lay on the ground in an opening the woods. Another American lay dead next to them.
We moved into a clearing and as we moved forward, received intense small arms and machine gun fire. We took cover. A clean cut, and clean, lieutenant strolled upright and past me. I looked up and suggested he, too, take cover. He looked down disdainfully, commented not to worry, and proceeded. Within minutes two men dragged his corpse back from whence he had emerged. We soon took our objective and I dug in. From my foxhole I could see a castle, which one I never found out. It looked like it could have been Castle Keep, but it seems to me that most castles look alike. Rumor had it that our top officers billeted there.
After a few days we were informed that we had been in the 1st Army, were headed north and would become part of General Patton’s 3rd Army. Ours, the 55th Armored Infantry Battalion, was designated as Combat Command Reserve. We moved out and toward a location I knew as St. Ceour but later found out was Recogne, Belgium north of Bastogne where the 101st Airborne Division was trapped. The German 1st and 15th Panzer Divisions were trying to flank Bastogne, Belgium and we were to stop them and beat them back. We proceeded to a small enclave, had a meal and trudged over to a small farming community. Several of us wandered into the houses that had been abandoned. I sadly observed that the occupants had fled, leaving their belongings, framed photos, pots, pans, and all. We went back to our half -tracks we started to eat and immediately received incoming artillery fire. Within minutes, eighteen battalions of U.S. Army Artillery opened up signaling the beginning of our attack.
We mounted up in our half-tracks and drove to a position at the bottom of a snow-covered hill. We dismounted, mobilized on foot, and attacked. American and German troops, many clad in white for camouflage fired at each other from the ground and in trees as we moved forward. The dead and wounded included Germans and Americans. An ammunition handler in that advance, I carried six boxes of .30 cal. machine gun ammo, 4 hooked onto an over the shoulder sling and one in each hand. My carbine, light field pack, which included “K” rations, and gas mask, were slung on my back. My body weighed 185 pounds. On my belt I carried a canteen, shovel, trench knife, personal throwing knife, and first aid pack; six ammo boxes weighed 150 pounds. I made deep footprints in the snow.
The snow-covered ground was frozen. On the way up the hill I passed our armorer as he lay moaning on the ground. His weapon was a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun with which he shot himself through the knee. I heard the call “Medic” many times that day.
From our position next to a railroad track at the top of a hill, we looked down at small town about 800 yards away. Between the town and the track our troops engaged the enemy in close fighting and hand to hand combat. We opened fire and directed an almost continuous stream of bullets at enemy targets. Within minutes an enemy mortar shell dropped the three-man crew of the 75-mm. gun 10 yards to the right of us.
Sergeant Pepe sent me for more ammunition. I had been taught to hurry, not in a straight line and keep my head down. Holding my carbine so as to keep snow from entering its barrel I ran dodged and rolled down the hill to our half-track. When I got back with more ammo Company “A” withdrew under fire from both sides, to our line which became our “Line of Departure”; referring to enemy counter attack or our next attack. Wounded and dead lay all around us. One German lay three feet in front of the machine gun. One of our riflemen killed and or wounded 17 enemies. When he ran out of ammo he captured two with a trench knife. The Army awarded him a Silver Star that week. (Two weeks later they hauled him out on a stretcher; non-compis mentis or battle fatigue). A little later, two troops marched a soldier in an American uniform who loudly claimed to be Lt. Austin, an American pilot, who had been shot down. He was escorted to the rear, both hands on top of his head. We had been warned about infiltrators.
I learned later that the Battalion Commander, Colonel Hearn had taken the railhead with “A” and “C” companies, as ordered. But he then overran his objective and both companies were forced to retreat when the enemy counterattacked. Mike Baboff had been shot down and wounded and they left him behind. Two men later tried to rescue Mike but were shot and killed. During the next attack they found his frozen body. After the war his family had him interred at Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
Artillery, mortar and machine gun fire came in from three sides. I found a corner, below a small knoll and dug in. Machine gun tracers came in a foot above my head. I heard a strange buzz and noticed that non-tracer bullets came in several inches below the tracers. I dug hurriedly into the frozen ground and I broke my GI shovel. The next morning to get another shovel I had to argue very hard and finally threatens the Supply Sergeant. I got a new shovel. After the battle, I saw Sergeant Farber. They packed him out on a stretcher. He had trench foot.
On December 24 Sergeant Johnny Moore came to my foxhole and ordered me to shave and spruce up the camouflage on my helmet. We expected a visit from a General. We considered that typical Army chicken-shit. The Battalion kitchen came up and fed us a hot meal. They had been in a rear area and had not even shaved.
On December 25 two enemy “Tiger” tanks slowly probed our left flank. Sergeant Johnny Moore handed me a bazooka, loaded it. I aimed and prepared to fire. The only vulnerable area was the tracks of the Tigers. We had to wait until they got closer. Of course, we would then be in range of their forward mounted machine guns. Just before they got into bazooka range, eight of our tanks rolled up, into a defilade position (behind the crest of the hill). Four of our General Sherman tanks rolled forward fired and rolled back. Four more did the same. The Tiger tanks retreated without returning fire.
That evening, as I munched on a K ration, I looked up to see two enemy soldiers walking along the railroad tracks toward our position. Each had his hands on his heads, a position of surrender. Sgt. Pepe jumped up immediately, pointed a rifle and took them prisoner and marched them to the rear. Our Lieutenant, the Platoon Leader, was informed within minutes and became enraged. He went on a hunt of his own. When he returned he reported that had killed two enemy soldiers to make up for those that “got away”. It turned out the ones who “got away” were Scandinavians; Pioneer troops pressed into service as labor by the German Army. Later, I passed one dead, frozen German soldier three times. Each time it appeared that he had either been rolled over or his pockets having been turned out.
Our attack had been in V formation, two columns converging to a point, or spearhead. Foot infantry troops, fought for the space between rear and the point. This is called mopping up. We had enemy troops on both flanks, to the rear, and in front of our position.
On the 26th Sergeant Johnny Moore ordered me out of my foxhole and put me on guard duty at the rear of our column. Our shift was 4 hours on and 4 hours off, for 24 hours. We stood off to the side and guarded the road. We took turns with a bazooka and a .45 cal. grease gun (an all metal Westinghouse .45 cal. machine gun.) On one of my watches, a jeep with a driver and passenger came toward my position. I halted it and gave the password. The passenger, Colonel Hearn, refused to state the countersign, loudly and obstinately postulating that any nearby enemy in the woods would hear it. I allowed him to advance and be recognized. I should have shot him, anyhow.
Paratroopers utilized as ground troops relieved us and we pulled out of the line. We moved back a mile or more, cleaned up and got some mail. Betty had not heard from me, nor had I from her, in 57 days. Betty had written a letter almost if not every day. I got more than 50 letters. She later wrote that Mike Baboff’s mother had been notified. Betty worried about me. It was still very cold and our outfit ran out of fences to scrounge for firewood. We got some hot food, even pancakes. We expected hot showers, shoepacks, new socks, and some rest. But, our paratroopers attacked the little town, and fought their way to the other side as the Germans retreated. With our boy’s backs to the town, enemy artillery in the town’s basements opened up, the Germans attacked and 400 paratroops were killed. The krauts then counterattacked up the hill. We moved back into our previous positions and repelled the German counter attack.
I went on guard duty in the company commander’s M8, our company HQ. I manned the.50 caliber machine gun in the event of an enemy attack or infiltration. The previous night the M 8 the Krauts attacked and the company clerk, Ostrov, gunned down at least six. Two nights before, 8 of our troops who had been captured were shot on the spot and each was found with a boot stuck in his mouth. I remained vigilant and alert that night. The Wehrmacht was equipped with and used loud speakers to attempt to demoralize us. No attack came but the enemy loudspeakers blared propaganda loud enough to keep many of our troops awake. I learned early that morning that the enemy knew the names of the officers in our unit. Rumor was it that they also knew the names of all of the enlisted men.
The 11th Armored Division had secured the northern flank of the 3rd Army. In a couple of days, we loaded into our vehicles and headed south toward Bastogne. As we turned to get on a road I saw an unforgettable sculpture. On a snow bank on the side of a hill was a young blonde German soldier stuck in the middle, his shirt torn off from the blast that blew him into the snow bank. His eyes were wide open, his mouth agape and his arms were flung out; a model of pure astonishment.
The 4th Armored Division had relieved the 101st Airborne in Bastogne. As our convoy rolled along a road we could see that the town in shambles. Ruins of buildings lined the road on both sides. Civilians were not to be seen.
We proceeded into Houffalize, Belgium. We stopped for the night and received enthusiastic greetings. A boy of about 10 gave me a silver colored Saint Christopher medal, about 2 inches long. I put it into my pay book. I also carried a mezuzah with a scroll inside the tube given to me by Betty. I rested and wrote a letter. One of our guys did a little too much socializing and drank from a bottle of cleaning solvent. He died screaming, but it took him all night. We went on the move the next day. We had plenty of food, cigarettes, water and supplies. We were low on manpower.
Heavily supported by artillery, tanks, and later, P-47 airplanes, we attacked the next town, Longchamps. We dug into an enfilade position on a high hill (enfilade is in front of the peak) with a very broad field of fire and plenty of targets upon which to fire. We looked down on a valley, probably about a square mile in area, encircled by three ridges. I saw spectacular scenes and close combat. About 800 yards in front of me one of our riflemen troops got hit by a shell or stepped on a mine and literally disappeared.
Sgt. Pepe ordered me take a message to a position two ridges to our right, a distance of about a mile. As I neared the top of the first ridge, I encountered three American officers. One appeared to be a General. I tossed a quick salute and proceeded about 20 yards and heard a shell come in and dropped; the shell burst overhead and a fragment or more hit a troop in a fox hole, 20 feet to my right. He stood up, looked at me, his face turned bluish gray and he keeled over, dead. Two troops quickly hauled him out of that foxhole. I proceeded to my contact, delivered the message and started back. I decided to eat, reached into my pack and removed a frozen can of “C” rations; I had no “K”. The cans were designed to be eaten after heating on a portable Sterno type stove. I had no stove nor fuel but I opened it anyway. After digging out a couple of bites, the scene sank in and my appetite departed. So did I and crouching, weaving and running so as to be a poor target, got back to my squad.
As the enemy began to zero in on our position we received concentrated enemy mortar and artillery fire. We moved forward down the hill into an exposed position. We began to receive heavy artillery and mortar fire. An ammo handler, Ettinger, and I found a ready-made foxhole. I dove into it. He stood next to it for just long enough to draw fire; a second after I dragged him in an enemy shell hit, but we were OK except that our whole advance could not move forward without very heavy casualties. They had us pinned down. Within minutes, a squadron of P-47s zoomed down into the valley about 200 feet over our heads and into the enemy artillery. It shut down. We advanced and passed one of the planes that had been shot down took the town of Longchamps. I lost track of Ettinger either during that battle or the next one. Private Herschberger got hit during this one. It left him crippled in one wrist; he had planned to become an accountant. Our battalion at full strength had 750 men. When we took it we were down to 250; it was a bloody battle. But, we captured 750 enemy soldiers.
In 1984 I met a pilot, Mr. Orr, who had flown a P 47 Fighter plane in that attack on Longchamps. A Prudential Life Insurance representative, he sold me a Life Insurance policy. We had a business lunch and I bought lunch, too.
After the battle we loaded into our half-tracks and proceeded east on the road. As we traveled we opened our mail, which for me included cookies. Ironically, Sergeant Johnny Moore got a box full of cigarettes. We had more than we needed and some one in his family saved their ration to send to him. Betty sent me cookies, letters, and a bedroll.
We stopped at a farm that had just been liberated by our rifle troops. Dead Germans lay outside and in the barns. As we set up our position one of our tanks backed into one of men pinning him next to a barn. He died.
The farmer and his wife invited us into the house. She set the table for seven of us and one for the man of the house. In each place she placed a clean glass filled with fresh water. We enjoyed each sip and the smiles. It sure beat what we usually drank; melted snow to which we added our “Halogen” capsules. We left the people blankets, boots and cigarettes, which we had stored in the half-track. The troops for which they were intended had no further need for them.
We moved on and stopped at another Belgium farmhouse where we laid up for a few days. The owner went into the woods and retrieved a live pig, which had been hidden. He broke out a bottle of Raspberry brandy. I was too sick too eat or drink, perhaps a touch of the flue, which the lady of the house cured with two days of a chicken soup diet. Two of our men drank the brandy almost right down. They were still sick when we left there.
Our unit returned to the railhead above Recogne. We assembled 50 yards down hill from the railroad tracks and I received the Combat Infantry Badge. We were informed that the 11th Armored Division had suffered 10,000 casualties in six weeks. The villagers congregated along the railroad tracks. We were fully exposed to view, when a Sergeant had an urgent call to nature when his diarrhea dialed in. He retreated to a near bush and relieved himself, caught as it was, with his pants down. A German soldier shot Pvt. Strauss when as an interpreter, he coaxed some German troops out of a bunker. I was told he probably would recover.
As our replacements arrived we went on the foxhole buddy system. My foxhole buddy Private Marin, complained perpetually. We got to eat heated “C” rations. Two Browning automatic rifles (BARs) and troops to fire them replaced our .75 caliber cannon crew. We scrounged around some burnt out tanks and scavenged a light .30 cal machine gun. Light .30 cal machine guns are air-cooled. They could not freeze. The heavies are water-cooled. During winter weather we used PrestoneTM anti-freeze. The heavy .30 s tended to heat up and we worried that they might boil but did not.
In a few days, we mounted up and headed in the direction of Luxembourg. The unpaved snow covered roads wound through numerous forests with snow-laden trees. I stood in the assistant driver position behind the heavy .30 part of the route. As we approached a likely active area I moved to the heavy .30 in the rear, centered in the box in which the squad rode. I did not know the route or where we were.
About this time, my judgment became questionable .We stopped along the road and a couple of us went into a railroad line shack, looking for souvenirs. Our previous opportunities were limited. By the time we had a chance to get at an enemy corpse, his frozen carcass had been rolled over at least once, as evidenced by his pockets having been turned inside out. In spite of knowing that some potential treasures were often booby-trapped, I picked up a tobacco can; mistake number one. Then I held it behind my back because I did not want my testicles blown off, I opened it; mistake number two. It was empty, I felt relieved that it did not explode, but also I felt like an idiot. I, the booby trap man for our platoon, took a stupid, unnecessary risk. But, the memory of that probably saved my life, or limbs, later, in the Siegfried Line.
We proceeded for hours, dismounted and began an all night march. We had no food rations and as usual no water. I picked up snow, jammed it into my canteen and added a G .I. Halozone tablet to “sterilize” the water. Sergeant Pepe gave me one chocolate bar and instructed me that when he wanted to feed our squad, he would ask for it. We soon clambered onto tanks. Enemy fire began to target the tanks. We dismounted and followed them until they attracted too much artillery. We spread out, received and returned small arms fire. After a short battle we continued. After 18 miles we came to a town that in flames. A German machine gun sprayed a stream of tracer bullets in our direction. It looked like a colorful hose. Then a parachute with a phosphorous flare lit up our position. We froze. When the flare died we moved forward, took the town, and dug in on the other side. We had not eaten for two days and Pepe called for the chocolate. By the third day we were supplied with”K”rations. Each package contained enough provisions for at least one day with 5,000 calories including a chocolate bar. Each package fitted into a standard 4-pocket battle jacket that I wore over a pair of fatigues, woolen uniform and GI long johns. All that put a new dimension to crapping in a foxhole.
We loaded into our vehicles, moved into a wooded area and went on patrol, which I considered strange for a heavy weapons company. As we trudged up a hill, we were waved to a stop and redirected. Within less than a minute, enemy shellfire hit were we would have been. This happened three times, during which I learned that our platoon leader had been well trained in these matters and properly equipped with maps. The Lieutenant was a graduate of R.O.T.C. training and the National Guard. I do not recall how this patrol ended.
On a subsequent march we moved as part of a long column of troops when we heard a German field radio reporting, within a hundred yards or less, off to our right. A squad of riflemen went over and took him out. As we resumed we broke up into smaller groups. It was a pretty day, and quiet. I reminisced and remembered a movie in which Victor McLaughlin carried a heavy .30 cal. machine gun, with a belt of ammo loaded in and ready to fire. The gunner on our squad this day was Nielsen, the quiet spoken son of a preacher, who probably weighed 220 and had very large hands. I suggested that he could do this. He agreed, we loaded him up, proceeded in this fashion for a while, and heard a noise behind us. As we turned a squad of German soldiers came quietly down the hill behind us, within less than 50 yards. When they saw Neilsen turn with that heavy .30 pointing at them they threw their hands the air, in surrender, before we fired a shot. Without that machine gun at the ready we would have had real trouble.
Our battalion headed east. We moved into a forested area and went on a special patrol or a probe. Our group consisted of 21 men and three tanks. As we proceeded through one path in the woods and then another, we encountered enemy shell and mortar fire. Two tanks were hit and disabled as well as personnel from resulting fragments and tree bursts. We got into a firefight and a machine gun duel. We suffered casualties from tree bursts; artillery shells which hit trees and exploded. I learned later that they had no proximity fuses, as did the American artillery. Proximity fuses detonated the shells at predetermined heights above ground. We advanced and came to a clearing. The area had been occupied and there were empty foxholes. I checked out one for booby traps. It was O.K. and became our command post.
We set up the machine gun, with the trees at our rear and the gun in an open position, with a field of fire into an opening from which we could be attacked by artillery, mortar, infantry, or any sniper in trees on either side of the opening. We received incoming fire and our machine gunner got hit. I became gunner and was informed that this was a chance for advancement in rank. The job carried a sergeant’s rating. As a buck ass private, no stripe, I respectfully declined for I deemed that to be the epitome of job insecurity. Thirteen men and one tank survived that leg of the patrol. We lost eight men and 2 tanks. I might have accepted a field commission but did not get that offer. The rating I really wanted was PFC, a “Poor F....ing (living) Civilian”.
Things got quiet and as daylight was waned we returned to our base camp. The return was uneventful but we had a horrible surprise. Dead and wounded GIs littered the place. A chaplain gave last rites to a number of our troops who had been surprised and overrun by a raiding German Armored Cavalry force. They suffered many casualties. After reorganizing we had surplus rations. We loaded our field jacket front pockets with “K” rations. I felt almost bulletproof, one package in each of the four pockets. We probably were in Luxembourg.
We proceeded east and got into Germany and heavy rain. The roads became muck. I dismounted into a greeting of reddish brown mud from which it I could barely lift my boot-clad feet. My leather boots leaked and I still had not received waterproof shoepacks. I managed to get my new home dug but as the rain continued I wound up in a hole almost four feet deep, with eight inches of miserable muddy water in the bottom. To add to that, it became necessary to relieve my viscera. I could not dry my feet that night and it did not pay to even try to change sox. I kept my spare pair wrapped around my waist, as trained, and usually tried to change them every evening. When we left that area, we slogged down a muddy road leaving three to six inch deep footprints in wet red mud. Hundreds of troops moved out in a long column, as far as I could see. An occasional incoming round picked off a few now and then but we kept on moving. My outfit mounted up and we moved out.
Our next action began in Germany, at the edge of a forest. With about six inches of snow on frozen ground we attacked. Our squad moved up behind some tanks. I followed one and one track ran over a mine. The explosion did no damage, but dug a depression into which I crawled into as the tank moved toward the edge of the trees. When the tanks peeled off to a flank we approached a line of trees and small clearing forward of the line of trees. We set up the machine gun, manned by Sergeant Pepe and Sgt. Sewell. Sewell was an older troop, in his thirties. They almost immediately got into a machine gun duel; rat a tat here and brrrrp there. I heard heavy mortar and rifle fire. Along with some of our troops, I started to dig in frozen ground at the edge of the clearing / tree line. The man to my right began to dig in about 3 feet from me. I got about 8 inches of hole dug and encountered suspicious looking hardware in the right side of the hole so did not try to dig it out but dug along side of it. At about 18 inches down I saw the side of three pieces of German ordnance, a fancy booby trap, one explosive device atop and to the side of the one below. Either of the top ones, if it had not fired when picked up, would have released a trigger on the next one below it. The frozen ground immobilized it. That is about as far as I dug, I could curl up in there, or kneel and fire. Our line came under small arms and mortar attack. I heard a mortar shell come in and explode within yards in front of me. I thought, oh oh, what do I do if the next one is behind me. It was. I could do nothing but wait and heard the next one coming. I knew, from our training, that it should land between the first and second. I could see the scene as if it was on a 35-millimeter slide film; this soldier is getting killed and it is me. I learned many years later that I had depersonalized. When my mind brought me back to reality I looked around. The tail of the mortar was sticking out of the snow bank within reach of my right hand. It had not exploded.
A man near me got hit. Someone called for a medic; Sergeant Pepe took a fragment in his cheek and died instantly. Sergeant Sewell took over the machine gun. A troop, 2 feet to my right went down. As a medic moved up and hovered over me, I told him to get down, just before a bullet hit him in the face. Those red crosses made good targets. Someone yelled medic, and he said, “Oh no, they are needed somewhere else”. Within a minute two of our men escorted him to the rear. Several months later I saw and greeted him and he greeted me. He was fine and explained, in a deep voice, that the bullet had knocked out some teeth, shocked his optic nerve and exited his neck. Further, he said that while he was on the operating table they had done something to, or trimmed his vocal chords.
Our riflemen started returning with prisoners. Five were brought to my location, for another troop and me to hold for a few minutes. These were said to be SS and acted like they were the captors. One even tried to spit on the man next to me. It was the closest I’d been to a living enemy, and to shooting a prisoner.
That night we were relieved and taken to a rest area. Tired and although hungry, I could not eat. I shook all night. Next morning I was O.K. as we moved out, in our half-tracks.
We moved into a different firefight as reinforcements. The Germans attacked with artillery, mortar and rifle fire. That and the firefight and machine gun duels occupied my attention until I turned around and a platoon, or more, of more reinforcements slid into position. It was a very different sight, all of them were visibly older and they were all Negroes. (“Captain: That man is colored. Yeah, What color”?) During and after the fight we talked. They appeared to be battle hardened and good-natured. The two men with whom I talked were old enough to have been excused from service. They were in the Army by choice.
Shortly after that we were treated to a rest. My squad moved back to a rear area (as far as we were concerned). I did not dig in. I spread my GI bedroll about 50 yards from a 155 mm. artillery piece, took off my boots, changed my socks, wrapped the old socks around my waist, put the boots inside the bedroll and crawled in. The artillery fired every few minutes and each time the nearest one did, the ground bounced. I got some rest but very little, much needed, sleep. I had time to think and began to realize that it was a matter of when, not if I was to be killed, maimed, or shot up a bit. I was getting dog tired. I attributed it to a conflict between two parts of my mind. One part was telling my “ Do your job, it is your duty to yourself and family to do it with honor. The other part was saying, “The best alternative is I am going to be killed and that is not acceptable”.
We next moved onto a ridge and hiked single file, about 10 feet apart, toward a small town about a mile away. As we arrived at the town the firing abated. We settled in, I went to a comfortable looking house, and started to settle in on the third floor. The ground vibrated and I could hear the sound of a “Screaming Meemie” fire, then seconds later it hit beyond the house I was in. This shell was a concussion type; actually a 360-mm. Nebelwerfer rocket and its concussion could reduce a troop to a vegetable without benefit of being hit by shrapnel. The next round hit short and I decided it was time to move. No sooner than I got to the first floor a round of artillery took out the top of the house where I had been. I kept moving and into a shack where there were three other squad members. We were then notified by radio where the mess was set up for chow. Our platoon leader said, “If we can hear that, so can the Germans” so we stayed put. Sure enough, the mess area was shelled and we took casualties. About that time, I had a brief hiatus when I contacted a bad case of dysentery and was put in a local field hospital. The medics gave me sulfa. Although I felt weak my temperature normalized and within a week returned to my unit.
We had new tanks. Our 75 mm. equipped General Sherman tanks were replaced by Priests, heavier tanks each with a 90-mm rifle and two banks of rockets, one on each side, in the front. Each bank held 36 rockets with range and punch. They were supposed to be able to penetrate enemy armor. It was nice to know that we had rockets, too.
We moved to an enfilade position, at a Line of Departure. Sergeant Workman directed a stream of machine gun fire at a silo, which we suspected, housed an enemy artillery spotter. Our section leader, Staff Sergeant Johnny Moore had shingles. Sergeant Nelson still limped about from a twisted ankle. My foxhole buddy, Marin, continued his interminable complaining. I felt miserable. Sergeant Workman and I chatted, which I thought somewhat unusual. He told me had already lost a brother during the war. He asked me how I was and if I felt like I could handle more of what we were into. I said I was O.K. I felt lousy but I liked him. As mortar rounds closed in on our position we moved out. I lost track of Marin and never saw him again.
In February or early March 1945 we dug in at a position on the Siegfried Line for which our rifle troops fought heavily. From our position on a ridge I could see 3 or 4 feet high concrete pyramids, several layers deep and a three-foot high concrete wall in front and back of each layer. Snow covered the ground. The Germans counter attacked. After a short machine gun duel and some incoming mortar rounds I dug in. I dug straight down alongside and behind a concrete wall, the concrete wall and pyramids in front of me. Then I dug forward and under the concrete wall; a round from in front would have to come straight down or make a U turn in the air to fall into my foxhole on me.
We got more replacements, many of them young and green, with very little training, some just six weeks from home. Others came in from non-combatant units. Less than 100 yards in front of me, at 11 o’clock, stood a large concrete blockhouse. It had no windows, just a vent on top and I could not see the door.
My new foxhole “buddy” a Sergeant had been transferred from the Quartermaster Corps. I said hello, gave him a brief talk on foxhole etiquette, and got ready for some sleep. I had a headache so I took two aspirins as night fell. I had just fallen asleep when the new guy jostled me and asked. “What was that?” I explained that it was incoming artillery. The next question was answered by “That was our artillery”. Then “Theirs”. The last time I said, “If you don’t shut up I’ll kill you” and went to sleep. The next morning I awoke covered with fresh snow. The Sergeant had left. For a while enemy mortars and artillery locked in on us. I ate a K ration, took a dump, and shoveled it out. One shell dug an annex to a hole less than 10 feet from me. We received enemy fire from a road to our rear; a track mounted 88-mm. rifle took a guy’s head right off. One of the new boys shot him self in the leg; the bullet went through his ankle and exited his instep. It made a mess of his foot and qualified him for a court martial but he limped from our scene on his own two feet; they made him walk.
The sun came out and I put some clothes out to dry on some of the concrete. It reminded me of the song, “We’re going to Hang Out the Washing On the Siegfried Line”. I felt pretty good as I sang it. One of the kids in the foxhole with the mortar blown annex remained in his hole for two days frozen in fear. A couple of us got him up and moving. I took a brief stroll down the line, trying for a little pleasure, a quiet walk, just to stretch out the kinks and chat. I saw a German Walther pistol as it lay on the ground. When I started to bend over to pick it up I had a thought. I had been taught in a Military Science class that I was subconsciously trying to bring a quicker conclusion to my combat service than the fates might otherwise ordain. I did not pick it up and made a note to report it as a probable booby trap. I went down the Line about 100 yards. I had to hurry back, firing started and a troop who picked up the pistol was on his way to the rear with serious injuries and minus one hand.
On the 4th or 5th day on the Siegfried Line, we called in artillery on the blockhouse; it had walls 12 feet thick; neither 90 nor 155-mm shells did any damage. Other measures were required. Jack Hardesty, under covering fire made his way to it, and then to the roof. He dropped an explosive charge down the vent. The occupants came streaming out, 12 Wehrmacht and one female. One of them shot and wounded Jack. On the fourth night I had to take a group of troops carrying some equipment from our line, back to company headquarters in a small house about a mile back. I went into the house to deliver a message and had not been there more than a minute when a shell exploded about a half mile or more away. I looked out the door, and then back inside and every officer had taken cover. Like, being under a table or desk was going to be a big help. (Later, one of those officers, our Company Commander had his leg blown off when he stepped on a mine, which killed his aide.) I was almost fully exhausted and when I left, sent the other men on ahead and took a nap. The troops got back to the Line without me and I caught up with them.
Things quieted down. Rumors indicated that we would not be relieved, there were no more replacements and General Patton said we would win if it he had to send home a boxcar full of dog tags. That did not help my morale. After six days we were relieved and taken to an area for a hot breakfast. In line, waiting for pancakes, adjacent to an open field, I was amazed to see one lone American rifleman charging one lone German soldier, across that field, zig zagging and firing as he ran forward. We just stood in a mess line without firing a shot. I could not eat. I wondered if I was hallucinating.
We moved to a rest area. By then I had received a brand new Sears and Roebuck bedroll which Betty had sent me and had shot two and 2 rolls of film with an Agfa Memo camera which I had carried from the states. We made camp and built a fire, I spread my bedroll and settled down to rest. I felt so tired I was afraid I would live. A Private threw a tire on the fire. It started burning and up went a thick plume of black smoke. A direct signal to German artillery could not have been more effective. After we pulled the tire from the fire, someone asked me how I was doing. I told the man that “everything I ate turned to shit”. He told me to report to the medic at the camp. He took my temperature and within minutes I they loaded me into a truck and headed for a field hospital. It happened so fast I left my camera and new bedroll in camp. I had the contents of my pockets and the clothes on my back.
That night at the field hospital the sound of supply trucks or a convoy produced a sound like an enemy aircraft diving directly at my tent. I got very little sleep. The next day I boarded a train to the 54th General Hospital in France. They had me swallow a rubber tube through which a nurse took samples from my stomach. A doctor informed that I had amoebic dysentery and viral pneumonia. He told me my stomach ate up all its acid which explained why food, when I did get and eat it, went right through me. My white blood count was very high and my red blood count too low. I weighed 140 pounds and had lost 45 pounds. They trashed my four-pocket fatigue jacket; it had bloodstains and bullet or shell fragment holes in it.
I was very happy to be in that hospital. At least for a while. During the first week or so they kept me in bed except for the necessaries and meals. One of the nurses, a lieutenant, made the bed with me in it, even if she had to crawl over me. By the time I was well enough to appreciate it I had to start saluting her when I walked to the mess hall. I was given a bottle of something to add to my water, for a month, during meals to beef up my stomach acid. My first walks down the corridors to the mess hall were very tiring. Almost all, if not all, of the other soldiers in the ward had bleeding ulcers. We had a poker game almost every evening. We played for cigarettes.
Near the end of my stay I received a commendation for having avoided trenchfoot (but probably suffered minor frostbite in my toes). Within days an officer informed me I qualified to leave the hospital and given a choice; go back to my outfit, which had advanced into Austria or to the Air Corps. I think this was a sanity test, which I passed; I opted for the Air Corps.
The Army shipped me to a Replacement Depot at Orlie Field, an airport near Paris. I shared a 3rd floor apartment with two other soldiers. One was a paratrooper named Corcoran who was quite a sophisticate. He had jumped into his first combat, hung up on a tree and was zapped with 7 bullets from a German, armed with a machine pistol. The Germans cut him down, took him to a hospital and patched him up. They relocated his belly button four inches to the right of its original position. He showed me his scars. Corcoran had been repatriated with the proviso that he not return to service. That did not suit him and he wanted to get back to action. While waiting he shacked up with a French whore. After she finished work they “dated” and she presented him with pair of matched Belgium pistols in a custom made wooden, velvet lined case. One gun was for him and the other for his wife. He was not so lucky in poker. One night I cleaned him out as well as the other guy in the room. Corcoran’s last money was $ 10 American, which I won. We were not permitted to possess American money. It was a court martial offense. We had to use script or French money. He promised me he could attend to that. The next day we took the Metro to Place’ Pigalle, went to a bar and I slid the tenner to a bartender he knew. I received my money in francs. As I shoved it into a pocket a burly looking whore stuck a pin in my hip. In a heavy French accent, she suggested I go upstairs and spend it with her. My instant reply, without thinking (not unusual for me) was “I never f--k anyone that can whip me”. This comment drew a crowd from which we hurriedly retreated.
One night one of the men got so drunk he stood on a balcony on the third floor and decided he could fly. He landed on some spiked ornamentation atop a block fence.
We were taken to a small town. As we assembled for a speech which was to precede our departure on one day passes a colonel with a Croix-de -Guerre and a chest full of medals informed us, among other things, that we should be careful, because “we were not civilized”. The resulting laughter broke up the assemblage as we all walked away and headed for our busses.
Within days I checked in at the United States Air Corps, 10th Air Force, 410th Bomb Group near Rheims, France. The planes in the group were light attack bombers. They flew missions almost every day. They had one B 17 at the airfield and I was graciously invited to step in and visit it. I rejected a chance to earn an Air Medal. All I would have to do was man a machine gun and fly 5 missions. After 25 missions I could even go home (if I survived). . Lt. Allen, my superior officer, gave me a book so I could learn to type; I learned the top row of a typewriter keyboard. They classified me as a Clerk-Typist.
I weighed about 150 pounds when I got there and started working out. We lived in tents and air raids by the Germans were not uncommon but few; the Allied Armies had control of the air. I remember only two air raids. Our bombers had runs that would return late at night. I found out that dinners were served near midnight. We had surplus rations because the flight crews did not like mutton. I learned to love hot mutton at first sight. I gained weight and up it went to 160 pounds. I worked out with weights and a “medicine ball” and got into reasonably good shape, albeit not the 185 I weighed when I crossed the English Channel. Betty continued to send me mail. She sent 2 new pipes, honey to use when breaking them in, a pair of red silk pajamas, and a 14-karat wedding ring that fit me.
Among the enlisted men I met or with whom I associated in camp were O’Brien, Greenwald, Penske and De Bianca. We had passes almost every week and I went to Rheims to see the sights, a few times, I got bored. One night I went to a dance. After a couple of dances or drinks I took off my Eisenhower jacket, in which I had stuck my pipe and tobacco packet. After a dance, I returned to find the pipe and tobacco stolen. I acquired a taste for champagne and went along on champagne runs, scouting and riding “shotgun”; with a borrowed pistol, at times. Champagne grapes in Rheims and Epernay were legendary. So were the drinks known as Calvados and eau de vie (V2 in honor of “rocket juice”).
Our unit moved to Beaumont sur Oise. A town named Beaumont on the Oise River, about 20 miles from Paris and also 20 miles from Le Isle Adam, a famous resort spot on the river. Formal party invitations were sent to our unit. Lt. Allen included me as a guest. I got into full dress; we rode to the party in a jeep, and were treated like royalty. The tables were set with linen, crystal, china and good manners abounded. A young lady, about my age, and her chaperone had been appointed my companions. The young lady explained to me that she was very correct. It was a very nice evening. We sat in seats from which we could view the River Oise and engaged in small talk; my first cocktail party. I learned the French pronunciation of the word “marriage” as in “Monsieur, vous et marr-iage?” “May oui, mamselle!!”
One day an airman and I found a small café on the river. We each drank a bottle of sauterne wine, as I bragged about how good I could swim. The river was several hundred yards wide, about a quarter of a mile. Just to prove my swimming skills, I stripped to my shorts and started across; a serious error. I huffed and puffed, floated and when I finally got across a long way down stream I hurt all over. I must have been a sight, walking the shore upstream far enough to re cross and finish near the café.
Aunt Besse wrote me a letter, explaining that Cousin Billy now lived in a small town in France with his grandmother. His father was Lionel (Bisco), the WW I Marine and his mother, Charlotte, was from that town. She had died during a trip going there with Billy. I asked for a pass and permission to go there, explaining my motive. Duly blessed, I borrowed a small semi-automatic pistol that fit nicely into my jacket pocket. After planning my itinerary, I hitched a ride to a train station and crawled into a boxcar. I had neglected to take food but found a raw turnip in one corner of the 40 and 8; this was my meal for the day. When I got to the town I went to the police station and searched for a record of William Nosanov. There was no record. I went back to camp disappointed. Thirty years later, I got the whole story from Billy. It had been reported that a dark, armed, American soldier sought him and that he had to be protected. Billy, as a member of the French Foreign Legion had served the Axis, temporarily our enemy before France re-joined the Allies.
Passes to Paris, usually with Davy O’Brien or DeBianca, were a frequent event. I carried that pistol often. The attractions included cognac, Calvados, V-2, nightclub entertainment and the Metro. One could go from one to the other on the Metro. On one pass I almost made a potentially fatal error. I had a severe case of too much cognac and as I went into a stall, I hurriedly draped my overcoat over a washbasin outside of the stall. A stall consisted of a hole in the floor, in a compartment behind a door. One straddled the hole, dropped pants, if necessary, and did business. As I emerged, a Frenchman held my coat. Out came that borrowed gat and the Frenchman wisely dropped the coat and ran out of the room. I grabbed the coat, shoved the gun in my pocket and headed for the front door. When the cold air hit me I realized I had almost committed an offense for which I would have suffered a General court-martial. The penalty would have been my execution or a very long sentence to breaking rocks at Leavenworth Penitentiary. I forthwith “tossed my cookies” in the gutter outside that bar.
Different liquors abounded. I drank, in order of potency, Eau de Vie (V2), Calvados, Cognac, Champagne, and wine. Eau de Vie had a kick like a rocket and was distilled from the dregs or bottom of the grape pulp. A mixture of Cognac and Champagne is called a French 75. The booze got more expensive. I switched to cognac which cost about $ 4 American in April 1945 and by the end of July went up to $ 20 a bottle. One day as I toddled down the street I saw a paratrooper on his back on the sidewalk. A Chaplain sat on his chest and a troop was holding the soldiers hands down. They were waiting for an MP. The paratrooper had drunk too much Eau de Vie and was out of his mind. A temporarily sobering experience. Presently, the MP s came for him and carted him away.
Davy O’Brien and I heard about the Syrian Quarter, a very nasty Parisian haunt, located near the Seine from which a dead American soldier was fished out almost daily. We just had to take a peek. We walked into a corner bar where some very tough looking older men rolled round cornered dice on a two foot square tiled table. There were no doors on the filthy looking place; it was open to the air, which it needed. Wads of money changed hands on almost every roll. No one smiled or looked at us, but almost all conversation, if any, may have ceased after we entered. I had seen dead men with better attributes and attitudes than those people and got very uncomfortable. There were no other Americans there. We stayed less than five minutes and very carefully eased our way out, almost backwards. We stuck to riding the subway for a while and got to know about every stop of the Metro, and some of each area at each stop, especially the public urinals. Money was always short so early on I rationed my smoking to 5 butts a day and sold my surplus. I also sold what chocolate I could get (and not eat), plus a couple of California dried fruit packs Betty sent me. The price of cognac and entertainment was going up. I was relearning the French language and beginning to stock up on French perfumes and a few gifts to bring home.
One day in May 1945, Lt. Allen issued me a Thompson .45 cal submachine gun and gave me a new assignment. I became support for a detachment of 20 men who, under a Captain Davis proceeded toward an airfield near Frankfurt, Germany. Our mission was to ascertain if it was secure for the 410th Bomb Group to relocate there. We traveled by jeep and truck and through Luxembourg. Just before we arrived in Luxembourg City we were informed of the death of President Roosevelt, our Commander In Chief. We billeted and went into the town in search of food and drink. De Bianca and I paired up and went sight seeing. I bought some post cards and at mealtime we went to a bistro. De Bianca, a warrant officer, had been a bombardier in the 8th Air Force when he took a piece of flak in his head. He seemed to know his way around. We sat down at a table next to a few troops including a paratrooper. De B. and I left soon after dinner but enjoyed an interesting evening. We went bar hopping. The next morning we loaded into our jeeps set out for Frankfurt.
We got to Frankfurt-on the Mainz and drove through the town. The place had been bombed to a shambles and reminded me of Bastogne and Caan, except that in Frankfurt there were many twisted skeletons of steel framed high-rise buildings that had been completely burned out. We drove on to the airport and settled in. There appeared to be no enemy troops with which to concern ourselves. Someone learned about a nearby-liberated personnel German Prisoner of War camp, went there and returned with a few Polish ladies and one young Italian man. The ladies were returned that evening or next morning. The young man stayed on as a helper. We nicknamed him “Umbriago” which means drunk in Italian.
Captain Baker command style annoyed the troops. The next day “Porky” La Flamme and a couple of others found 3500 gallons of wine in a cellar. Porky got stewed, walked into the billet where I lay snoozing and reached behind a door where I had stashed my Thompson sub-machine gun. He found the magazine and inserted it. He started down a hall muttering that he was going to shoot Captain Davis. There were a couple of dicey moments as I chased him down and disarmed him.
That morning we found among other things, a Powell motorcycle, a Mercedes-Benz 4 door sedan, and a German Walther 7mm. pistol, the latter in a case with a good supply of ammo. I drove the motorcycle up and down the road near the airport a few times and turned it over to another man. We had been warned that wires strung across a road could cut though a rider’s neck or trip a mined booby trap. The Mercedes had a blown head gasket. That afternoon, in the motor pool shop, we found a tool kit, some old newspapers, scissors, and some grease. We removed the head and the old head gasket. We laboriously cut and shaped a new head gasket from seven layers of newspaper, which we coated with axle grease. It took all morning but we still had plenty of wine left. After we reassembled the engine, we took the sedan for a spin on an airport runway. It lasted about a quarter of a mile before the new head gasket blew. I finished the day firing the Walther pistol and most of a case of ammo.
The next day I escorted a group of three of our men into town. After acquisition of whatever they went in for, they stopped at a three-story building that was fully intact and occupied. A young sergeant, wearing an Army issue Colt .45 announced that there was a whore’s nest on the 3rd floor. He decided to check it out and see what he could get for a pack of cigarettes. I worried out loud about him going up there armed and also about who might stick a gun out of the sidewalk level basement windows and toss a grenade or shoot at us. I poked at a few windows with the Tommy gun at the ready. Nothing seemed amiss. Suddenly, this idiot came roaring down the stairs, missed the 3 steps at the front porch and rolled into the gutter. With his pants half zipped, his pistol in one hand and a pack of cigarettes in the other he staggered to his feet and proudly proclaimed that he got laid at no cost. We skedaddled out of there at top speed for the jeep. He could have got us all court martialed and himself executed. I did not go back to Frankfurt after that.
As things quieted down at camp I showed Umbriago how to shoot the Thompson sub machine gun. He learned slowly but he knew where to get fresh foods. We were there about ten days and recalled to Beaumont-Sur-Oise. Shortly after that Germany capitulated and the war in Europe was over.
On a pass to Paris, Davy O’Brien and I went to Luna Park, an amusement park, and bummed around. I saw a startling sight, our potential enemies, Russian soldiers, wore sidearms. We had been informed that they were very primitive and some thought a bar of soap was a candy bar. Their dress uniforms were made of very coarse wool. About that time my C.O. gave me the option of staying in Germany in the Army of Occupation or going to Japan with 410th Bomb Group, via the states, on redeployment. The redeployment option included a 30-day furlough. I had not left anything in Germany for which I wanted to go back. I started to collect souvenirs, mostly perfume. I bought Chanel No. 5 for Betty and other perfumes for the ladies in my life. I bought a silver colored cigarette case for Dad and a Hanover Klunz bellows type-folding camera for me. The camera had both a 620-size roll film holder and a plate adapter.
Within weeks the 410th Bomb Group relocated to Camp Top Hat, a tent city, probably near Antwerp. I thought I was near or in Holland because of a Dutch windmill, in front of which I proudly posed for a photograph. I acquired a Hanover - Klunz folding camera, with both a roll film or plate film holder. Betty had sent me, among other things, a pair of red silk pajamas. The first time I walked down the row between tents wearing them, I heard a catcall, which I expected. When a loud-mouthed airman Sergeant put his hands on them, I tossed him. No one bothered me about those pajamas after that.
I got a pass to a small town, not far from this windmill. I went there with another Airman who took this picture of me. We had been warned, do not go alone and do not antagonize the Negro soldiers in the bars. Some of the local girls, who believed that those soldiers were American Indians, adored them. Some very vocal airmen resented this. Each girl had a Negro companion and they danced together as if they were professionals. Many of the blacks carried trench knives. I could feel tension and hard feelings. My partner and I left after one quick beer.
In late July we boarded a Liberty ship in Southampton and set forth to the Zone of the Interior, also known as the Promised Land and the United States of America. Liberty Ships were made of concrete in one of Henry Kaiser’s factories. Some of the days the seas were rough but I loved standing on the bow as it plowed through the water while spray and water came over the bow 30 feet above the sea.
Most of the men I knew were seasick, but not I. I was on my way home for a while, at least. I learned how to “ride the cannon”. We enjoyed relaxed and happy days. We had time to take pictures, play chess, and roam the ship. We enjoyed planned activities including boxing matches. I met a survivor of the D-Day invasion, Pvt. Fernandez. I saw him do a one-hand stand in the center of a boxing ring as the ship pitched and rolled in heavy seas. There was also at least part of a division of Negro troops who had seen ground combat; I presumed they were from the 14th Armored division. They stuck mostly to themselves but did not seem to mind spectators at their craps games.
While en route we heard of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That night in a nightmare, which included a vision of an atomic bomb exploding within a short distance from me while I watched every thing incinerate between the mushroom cloud and me; I woke up just before I would witness my “death by incineration”; with another unforgettable memory.
The Inmates kept dying
Despite the best efforts of our medical
teams that were inside the camp taking care of the former prisoners, a great
many of these inmates died each day that we were there.
The Austrian civilians that lived
nearby all claimed that they had no idea that these camps were places of inhuman
treatment and mass murder. We heard that this was the case in all the areas near
these German operated death camps. Our officers decided that these civilians
should be given a chance to see what these camps were like and what was
happening there at this time, plus we needed people to do the gruesome work of
burying so many bodies, so they came up with an ingenious idea.
Next to the small town of
Mauthausen, for which this camp system was named and of which Gusen was a
sub-camp, was the City of Linz, Austria. It was a short ride and so early every
morning a truck with two riflemen in the back drove to Linz to arrive at a time
that the business and professional men were walking to their offices and
businesses. When a well-dressed male was spotted, the truck stopped, the two
riflemen jumped out and ordered the civilian into the back of the truck. When
they had a dozen or so men they returned to the camp. The civilians were made to
help with the digging and then place the bodies into these common graves. I
never was assigned to the truck detail, but on several days I was one of the
American soldiers that greeted our new guests and stood guard over them during
the workday. At the end of the day the civilians were returned to Linz with an
experience I are sure they would never forget and that they would share with
everyone they knew.
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