James D. Newton
We were getting away from the hallucination that we lived in for twenty-one days. Away from the wet and cold. Away from the sleepless nights of artillery pounding. Most importantly, we were getting away from the fear of death. We know we would be back, either here or somewhere else, but for the time we were leaving it.
No explaination was ever given for this extended stay on the line, but if we had just had a couple days in a rest area once or twice, a hot shower, a cooked meal, clean underwear, clean socks; maybe the mind-numbness would have eased.
We continued on to where our vehicles were parked. We rode through the artillery positions where guns were lined axle to axle. We rode through the black night and, once at our vehicles, ignition switches turned and the comforting sound of engines warming came as solace to tortured souls. The sweet smell of carbon monoxide helped clear our minds as we warmed our hands near exhaust pipes.
We didn’t know at the time that we were going into Ninth Army reserve. That was unusual for a unit such as ours. Ordinarily we would go into our own group reserve, or the reserve of a division we might be working with or even XIX Corps reserve. It was rumored that this action came about because we were no so far under strength from dead, wounded, battle-fatigue and trench-foot. I never saw that verified.
After we mounted, we started back toward Holland. Those who were not driving slept, awakening now and then to the pleasant jouncing and the opportunity to savor the comfort of safety. Living was a brand new experience.
We drove through the blackness of a cold, winter night and, reaching the higher ground of Holland, found snow, where there had been none before we left.
Returning to the rear under cover of darkness was probably good for morale; not ours, the morale of rear echelon soldiers and replacements who might think we were losing the war if they saw us.
We were not returning to the familiar towns of Heerlen and Sittard, but near the town of Gulpen in that country’s farthermost south-east corner.
Just before arriving at the two-story building that had been taken over for our use, we heard what sounded like a gigantic artillery shell. It was louder than the sound of our engines, We later learned it was one of Germany’s first jet-powered planes. The Battle of the Bulge had just started several miles to the south.
We never heard it called the Bulge or anything else. It was a German attack and the attack would make our new rest short-lived. We would immediately start running patrols into the battle zone.
Our new home not only gave us the exquisite luxury of sleeping indoors, on wood floors to be exact, but our Headquarters Platoon moved in with us which meant we would have hot meals. When we awoke the first morning, we were told there was a quartermaster shower unit set up in Gulpen. We must have smelled rotten to anybody but ourselves.
After a hot breakfast, we all climbed into jeeps and drove down to the shower. The unit consisted of a maze of pipes with shower-heads, surrounded by a canvas fly. The fly provided modesty, but little warmth in the snow. The facility was under the supreme command of a crusty master sergeant.
With a bred tone, the old master sergeant drones out the rules for use of his shower: “One minute to wet-down, one minute to soap-up, one minute to rinse-off,”
Uh, uh. We had a change of socks, no change of underwear and had been performing toilet functions in K-Ration boxes for three weeks. His rules weren’t going to apply to us, today. One man held the sergeant at rifle-point while we used up all the hot water his unit could produce.
Someone asked, “Are you really going to tell your grandchildren you ran a shower unit during the big war?” The sergeant didn’t reply, but as we left he threatened to send the M.P.’s for the whole lot of us. We never heard from the M.P.’s and we never went back to his shower.
We found a substitute bathing facility in a Catholic home, or institution, where the nuns let us use the baths of the inmates. These baths were huge wooden tubs filled with tepid water and large enough for four or five of us to get into at one time. We soaked ourselves for long periods, letting the accumulated dirt work its way out of clogged pores and letting sanity return to clogged minds.
The inmates of this institution appeared strange to us, I don’t know if they were mental patients or just aged, but somebody said they looked like lepers so we found ourselves another place to bath some miles away.
On our return from a bath one day, one of the doctors came in to examine our feet because there had been so much trench-foot in the army, including our own squadron. He told us we should massage each others feet when we were confined to foxhole positions. The advise was probably correct, but I think we were all wondering the same thing; would he massage our feet after three weeks without a bath?
Much has been written to praise doctors and chaplains during World War Two and many of them probably deserved the praise, but I couldn’t find a doctor when I needed one and I didn’t know we had chaplains until Memorial Day after the war. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough.
Our base position in Slenaken was close to the German-Dutch-Belgium borders. At that place, with three steps, you could enter three countries. Our patrols brought us into Aachen, Germany, Maastricht, Holland and south past Eupen, Belgium.
The reason for this patrol activity was to intercept any enemy infiltrators who might have landed by parachute. This infiltration had actually occurred in the opening days of the ‘Bulge’, but on a minor scale. The rumors of German troops dressed in American uniforms, like most rumors, became greatly exaggerated. Civilians and the rear-echelon were getting jumpy. We were just happy to be off the line.
It was cold on patrols. The European winter of 1944-1945 was reported to be the worst in fifty years. Our best piece of clothing was German. An enemy warehouse had been overrun during the last drive to the Siegfried Line and a huge supply of rabbit skin jackets were liberated.
The jackets fit comfortably inside our G.I. field jackets. We had been issued the jackets before we went to Beeck and they probably saved many of us from pneumonia. Fortunately, someone of authority had the good sense to issue them to combat troops. If they had gone through ’channels’ they might have ended up back in the States to have an “M” number designated for issue. The real army has its manuals for everything and every situation. If it isn’t in a manual – it doesn’t exist. Rabbit skin jackets were not in U.S. Army manuals.
The patrols at night were especially cold. We always drove without the canvas top and the windshield always lay over the hood of jeeps. This was a precautionary measure to avoid flying shards if the glass was hit by bullets or shrapnel. Without the windshield in its upright position, the top could not be put up. It was a safety measure, but added the wind chill factor time to the already freezing weather. After a short time of driving, the intense cold brought on a dull, lasting pain behind the eyes that lasted until we got under shelter for a few minutes. Te eye-pain was similar to holding a big bit of ice cream in your mouth that you can’t swallow.
On leaving the building at night, we walked the short distance to our vehicles. New snow, chilled by night air, squeeked under our boots and tires. Older snow that had softened during the day refroze at night and made a crunching sound. We had to brush away newly fallen snow from the canvas seats of the jeeps, Our body heat melted what snow remained and then it froze again. Trousers or overcoats stuck to the seats.
Exposed weapons had to be kept oil-free or the mechanisms would freeze. Engines, even through radiators were filled with anti-freeze, had to be thoroughly warmed to avoid stalling. Before we started it was almost a pleasant feeling to stand in the cold, night air surrounded by great clouds of vapor. We were free of the confinement of a hole in the earth.
We dressed with every bit of clothing we could get on our bodies. For myself, I wore civilian shorts and tee-shirt under the G.I. long-john top and bottom. Then came the issue wool uniform trousers and shirt. “Rain” pants went over the trousers and the field jacket with the “Bunny-jacket” inside it. The heavy overcoat went on everything. A wool-knit cap under the helmet. I wore a muffler and lined, leather gloves inside G.I. mittens. Feet were encased in two pair of heavy socks, combat boots and overshoes. There was no way to protect eyes.
On night patrols, after we all dressed, we rolled Gangley in two blankets and carried him out to the back seat of the jeep. He squirmed around until he was comfortable and then we propped his rifle against him. He stayed that way until we returned or stopped someplace where we unload him.
One of our check-points was a bank in Aachen. A Combat Engineer unit had taken over the bank for their quarters. Unlike the rear-echelon outfits, they always invited us in for coffee. They had set up living in the basement. Coleman lanterns lighted the interior. After living in wrecked buildings and foxholes for so long, we were in awe of the marble floors and walls of the bank. We carried Gerry in for coffee and unrolled him from his blankets to the delight of the engineers.
The rear-echelon outfits we had to check in with were never quite friendly. They never said, “Come on in and have a cup of coffee”, or much of anything. The accepted method of identifying a “real” American was to ask questions to which only Americans would know the answer. One typical such question was; “Who won the World Series last year?” (They played a World Series while all this was going on?) We usually didn’t know the answer so we would point our weapons at them and ask, “Who cares?” I don’t think we ever quite entered into the spirit of the thing.
This scare of paratroopers and infiltraters in the rear areas was as close as most of those soldiers would get to war. In a small town which I never saw in daylight because we always passed through about three or four in the morning, some G.I. would step out of a doorway and hesitatingly call, “Halt.” We were always on the last leg of our patrol and anxious to get back so we just hollored back, “Aw shut up.”
One particular night he didn’t challenge us, probably inside a doorway to keep warm, but after we had passed he fired a shot in the air. It probably scared him more than us, but it made me mad. It’s bad enough to be shot at by Germans, but just too much when somebody on your own side shoots. Before Zwer could stop me, I stopped the jeep and fired a round back down the street toward the sentry. He never challenged us again.
German equipment was falling apart as the war continued, mostly from lack of parts. Our own equipment was in good shape most of the time. However, during the German’s Ardennes Offensive, we did start running short of tires. They weren’t wearing out, they were being ruined in an unusual manner. Entire divisions were on the move to relieve and reinforce the divisions involved in the Ardennes.
These thousands of men were transported in trucks and they were eating K and C Rations enroute. The C Rations were the main problem. The men threw the empty cans out the rear of trucks and the can tops acted in the same manner as cookie-cutter. The sharp edges cut out circular pieces of tire tread down to the cord. Once the rubber tread was off, the cord puntered or blew out.
It became so bad in our squadron that all the drivers of wheeled-vehicles had to report to squadron headquarters for a pep-talk. It was one of the few times I saw headquarters and the first time I saw the Motor Officer. He was a large man of captains grade.
When we were all assembled, he told us, “at ease”. Which meant quiet, and “Smoke if you’ve got ‘em.” We were already ‘at ease’ and anyone who wanted to smoke was already smoking, but it was a nice gesture on his part.
He started his lecture: “Men, I’ve called all you wheeled-vehicle drivers here to let you know we can’t keep on ruining tires.” Did he think we were doing it on purpose? If there were no other reason, I never met anyone who enjoyed changing a wheel; especially in the snow. Driving our patrols at night without lights it was impossible to see the can tops in the snow.
He continued: “Aside from spares carried on jeeps, we have four extra spares. We have on spare for the armored cars.” Armored cars didn’t carry spares on the vehicle so the situation was serious. The captain concluded with standard army procedure – a threat. “So, if you don’t stop ruining tires, you’re going to end up fighting as infantry.”
Now ‘line’ captains commanded respect because they commanded line-troops, but in the combat enlisted man’s manner of sorting things out, a headquarters captain was about equal to a line outfit lieutenant, or below. It was not intentional disrespect, just a matter of values, so the unanimous response from the assembled drivers was, “What the hell you think we’ve been doing for the last three months?”
We had just come off the line at Beeck and we had been in foxholes since the end of September. There isn’t too much difference between a dismounted cavalryman and an infantrymen in the holes.
The captain smiled and said, “I know, I know.”
Somehow, we managed to keep the outfit on the road.
Coincidental to the threat of “ending up as infantry”, we always did have misgivings about going into the line ‘dismounted’. Thinking about it was usually worse than doing it because we felt we were out of our element. We were mounted troops and felt more capable when in our vehicles. Maybe infantrymen would feel the same if they were put in jeeps and armored cars to drive down enemy controlled roads. There’s not too much protection from a jeep.
Sometime between D-Day and this time, some congressman back in Washington introduced legislation, and rightfully so, recognizing infantrymen in combat areas with the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. The award also carried an extra ten dollars per month pay, At that time, ten dollars was a 20% raise. Apparently nobody ever heard of ‘combat cavalrymen’. Or maybe there weren’t enough of our kin back home to swing enough votes for politicians to bother.
Once in a while, when relieving or being relieved, by infantry, we would see a soldier wearing the blue badge on his shirt inside his field jacket and we would ask, “What’s that?” We usually got a strange look in return while he explained. The victim would finally realize he was being set up and say, “What are you guys pulling? You’ve got the dame thing.” We would reply, “Maw. We’re only cavalry.”
Combat soldiers got along well, in spite of organization pride – each knowing he was in the very best outfit. But there were times when an infantry soldier would look at a tanker and think, “That’s pretty soft, sitting there with all that steel around you.” The tanker looked back and thought, “Those guys can dive into a ditch while I sit in this thing while the Krauts punch holes through it.” Neither one would probably trade places with the other.
We were hassled from time to time when relieving infantry. Because our platoons were so much smaller that infantry, we usually carried machine guns as well as personal weapons into foxhole positions. More than once they remarked that we looked like a “heavy weapons platoon.” We got tired of hearing that so we seldom replied, but sometimes one of them would ask, “Where’s the rest of your outfit?” The kidding stopped when we answered, “This is the outfit.”
The rumor-mill at one time created the Combat Cavalry Badge. We could picture the yellow, rectangular badge with crossed-sabers superimposed in relief. Try to top that! It never came to be, but, fortunately, they did keep sending us K-Rations.
Christmas came while we were in Holland. We had no special celebration. No tree, no carols. Somebody was always on patrol and others were sleeping after night patrols. A few packages had arrived and a few more would get us after Christmas. The people I had worked with before the army sent hard candy in a vacuum-packed coffee can. Another package came for me that was crushed. I undid the paper wrapper and inside was a destroyed redwood box of chocolate candy. I studied the mess and called curses on everybody who had handled it. A few men gathered around, somebody asked if there were any that we could eat. We all started at the smashed, ruined mess.
Gerry and I went with a few others down to the Catholic church about a hundred yards down the road. We unloaded our rifles and stacked them outside while we went in to follow the Latin Mass. We sat among the poor Dutch parishioners in their war-poor church. I left about forty dollars in Dutch Guldens when mass was over. Little enough for the kindness of the people.
We were always paid in the currency of the country we happened to be in. There was no place to spend money for combat troops. At one time I carried about $ 400,00 in French and Belgian Francs, Dutch Guldens and German Marks. That was one reason we always went through the wallets of casualties; to make sure their money got home instead of some graves registration ghouls pocket.
There was one other thing that marked Christmas as not just another day. Our troop cooks were set up on the first floor and prepared Christmas dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings. We had to eat from mess-kits, but the food was hot and delicious. It made up for the Thanksgiving dinner we missed in Beeck.
Not too many miles to the south of us Germans were in the height of their Ardennes Offensive. Another cavalry unit, the 18th Squadron of the 14th cavalry Group, had caught the initial spearhead. The 30th Infantry Division, like us, had been pulled off the line into Ninth Army reserve. They were immediately sent south to help stop the attack. The 2nd Armored Division would also be pulled out of Ninth Army’s line and sent south. We went into mobile reserve, used to patrol into the Ardennes sector down to Eupen, Belgium.
Snow was heavy and we used tire-chains on all wheels; four on jeeps and six on armored cars. Even with chains on all six wheels and driving in six-wheel drive, the eight ton, combat-loaded cars lost control. On one occasion, we heard the siren on the M-8 behind and when we looked back, the car was fish-tailing. I speeded up to level ground to get away from it, while its drive brought it under control.
There was little to do when we weren’t on patrol, so, if we were rested, Gerry and I would go for a case of beer. I would go to him and ask, “You going to go to sleep?” “No. Not yet. It’s too early.” “Want to go for a case of beer?” “What do you want to go for beer for? You don’t even drink it.” “The other guys do – and it’s something to do beside just sit around here.” “Okay.” These were unauthorized trips, but nobody was going to check after dark in the cold.
After the engine was warm enough to drive we got in and started up the unplowed rural road toward the bar a mile and a half away in Belgium. “Skies up above me, never was as blue as here eyes.”
Once we met an oncoming 2 ½ ton truck. There wasn’t enough room to pass each other and I put the jeep into a snowdrift. After the truck got by the came back to help us man-handle the jeep back onto hard packed surface. “And she loves me. Who could want a sweeter surprise.” It was the only song whose words we both knew.
In the bar, we paid for the case of beer. There were usually two or three civilians sitting in the dim light. They didn’t speak. Maybe they thought the Germans going to make it back to this place.
Our patrols brought us into the combat zone, but it also went into the “rear-echelon” areas. On a cold, but sunny day while we were cruising the rear area in Holland, with two jeeps and armored car of our section, we came across a Red Cross truck. For some reason the truck was parked in the middle of a field. Maybe they were expecting some unit or group to arrive for reasons unknown to us.
The guys in back of us hollored that they wanted to stop. They said maybe we could get some doughnuts and coffee. Several of them dismounted and ran over to the truck. Zwer, Gangley and I waited to see if they had anything for us. Suddenly the side of the truck opened and propped in place as they did when serving. The loud-speakers over the cab started playing loudly; full blast, to be exact.
After a few bars of a popular tune, the speakers broadcast the tearing sound of the needle dragging across the record’s grooves. A Red Cross lady screamed and then all three were screaming. Records came sailing out of the truck. More screaming, followed by doughnuts arching after the records.
The poor ladies were now in fear of losing their chastity and screamed as much. Zwer finally had to go over and order all the guys out of the truck. I don’t think the army really had this in mind when they brought these nice young ladies over. We left amid some very unlady-like epithets and threats: Never to return again.
We continued patrolling through December, 1944. New Year’s came; again without festivity. I guess a lot of us wondered if we would see New Year’s, 1946. About half wouldn’t. Replacements arrived for the men we lost at Beeck. They were integrated into the platoon. We continued sleeping in the luxury of wood floors indoors. Once in a while we got over to Maasticht, Holland to look around. There was nothing to do there but look. We made our trips to Belgium at night to get a case of beer, when we weren’t on a patrol. This was the way to fight a war!
After supper one Sunday, I slipped on mashed potatoes someone had spilled on the stairs. I slid the entire length of the steps on my back and landed in a heap at the bottom. I was bruised, but otherwise felt fine.
A day or two later we lost our happy home. We mounted-up and moved to a new area to prepare to go back on the line. The memory of Beeck still haunted us, but we were told we were going to another position. My back was still a little stiff from the fall, but it didn’t seem anything to worry about.
We drove through the snow-covered roads for most of the day. As time passed, I developed a pain in my legs and it was difficult to raise them. Long before we arrived at our destination I had to lift my legs onto the brake and clutch pedals with my hand. When we stopped, I couldn’t get out of the jeep. Sharp pains hit my lower back when I moved. I stayed in the jeep until we were assigned a place to stay. Two men carried me into our new quarters, but we had a problem. If they took me to the medics, I would probably be sent to a hospital for treatment. If I didn’t go to the medics, I might not be able to function. One of the men went to see a medic he knew wouldn’t tell anyone unless I couldn’t make it. He came back wit a good-sized bottle of rubbing alcohol.
I stripped to my shorts and two or three men took turns massaging my back. After an hour or so of massage, I dressed warmly and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning the pain had almost disappeared.
We had not camouflaged our vehicles for winter because they had been out of action while we were in Beeck and there didn’t seem to be a need during the recent period of patrolling. Now we brought them down to a fire hydrant where someone had scrounged a hose and high-pressure nozzle. We stripped the vehicles of equipment and turned the hose on them, inside and out.
We were supplied with some kind of whitewash and soon everything was a nice white color, to blend into the snow-covered terrain. One problem; the whitewash was water-soluble and soon as the jeep engines heated the snow on the hoods melted and the olive-drab color reappeared. The armored cars weren’t quite so bad as the engine compartment was in the rear. Olive-drab was the normal color of vehicles and the armored cars had black camouflage to break the angular outline of the larger vehicles.
We spent a couple days in this town to resupply and get things in order. I spent most of my time resting my back which was healing well. The inevitable order came to “Mount up, we’re moving out.”
We crossed town and, upon leaving the last buildings a Red Cross unit. I don’t think any of us knew it was there. Nobody told us we could get coffee and donuts.
The Red Cross served a useful purpose and its volunteers must be commended, but like U.S.O. shows and movies, they catered to the rear-echelon. These ladies could write home tonight that they waved “goodbye to some kind of combat unit today that had lots of jeeps and funny tanks with wheels instead of tracks.” This probably added to the dram of their assignment. After all, the girls assigned to donut dugouts back in France didn’t get to see heroes like us.
The young ladies smiles and waved at us as we passed. This was probably for our morale. How could we help but be spurred on to victory after this? I don’t know if any of us waved back.
What the hell you so happy about? They’re sending us back to get killed, you idiots. Geez. The last time I saw a donut was in Cardiff, a year ago.
For miles before you reach the line, there is no one. Too far back for combat and too far forward for rear-echelon. Empty snow-scapes are a reminder of what you’re here for. As we got closer, we passed a row of darkened, two-story houses. The road curved down around the houses and behind them. I looked back up at them, they were even taller and more gaunt from the downhill side, reminding me of haunted houses.
The snow covered fields around us were unmarked by footprints or anything else. A lonely fence post stood about twenty yards from the road and held a bit of combat humor.
Atop the post sat an 81mm mortar shell, nose up, resting on its tail-fins. The humor of this was in how to remove it. If it wasn’t armed, there was no problem. But you had to get close to find out.
As we drove carefully by, so we wouldn’t jar it from its precarious perch, I could read some dog-soldier’s mind as he set it there. “Here you go, you rear-echelon bastards. All you have to do is walk up and take it down. But, if it’s armed and falls off while you’re walking up to it ….”
With any luck the shell would remain there until some time when a colonel, or maybe even a general, would ride down the road and see it. The engineer would shoot it off from safety. The general, who couldn’t remember this subject from his days at West Point, would flush and angrily mutter, “What’s wrong with these men, that they’d do something like that?” And the answer was so simple; They’re nuttier than hell, General.
As usual, we took positions by sections of the platoon. We, the point section, took the last house at the end of town. I don’t have the idea what purpose the town served since it wasn’t the usual farm town. At this point of the war, civilians had either left on their own, or had been evacuated. The houses were just dark silhouettes. None of the houses had been heavily damaged by bombing or artillery fire, but there must have been heavy infantry fighting because many of the windows were broken and walls scarred.
We passed whoever it was we were relieving without any talk. Our house, at the end of town, was two stories high with a cellar. We set up for sleeping and cooking in the cellar. We set up the 30 caliber machine gun on an over-stuffed chair on the first floor. We did that by placing the tripod legs on the arms and back of the chair. The gun pointed out a back window toward the river. During daylight hours we kept a man on the second floor for observation.
The road we had come in on ran through town and up the other side of the canyon over a bridge that had been blown and lay with its center dipping into the river. We had no idea where the German positions actually were. Whether they were down low, along the river, or up on the ridge. There were no houses on the other side, but German brass probably had their infantry stuffed in holes down low.
The house had been left completely furnished by its owners when they had left. But now, several windows were broken and curtains blew in the wind that moaned through the rooms. Pictures still hung on the walls, but askew. It looked like it may have been a comfortable home.
To take the strain off my eyes from staring across the back yard and river, I looked around the room where the machine gun was placed. I wondered what kind of people had lived here. Had children grown up here; with sons now off to war? Were they “good” Nazis or just working people who didn’t have much to say about politics? I’ll bet five years ago they never thought their house would become an American strong-point. Would they return some day when this was all over or had they escaped to some town where they were bombed by the air corps? Better your house than mine.
The Germans stayed on their side of the river and didn’t bother us. Their dog-soldiers were probably hoping we wouldn’t come to chase them out of their holes, or have to come over and try to chase us out of ours. Not until Spring, anyway. Let’s just try to keep warm for a couple months.
Other than standing guard on the machine gun. We spent most of our time sleeping, eating, smoking and talking. A field-phone line was strung to all positions.
The field wire connected our outposts to Platoon Headquarters down the street. The connection continued to Troop Headquarters and finally to Squadron Headquarters; wherever they were.
I was on the phone, talking to someone at Platoon Headquarters one night and the man on the other end asked, “How is it up there; pretty quiet, huh?” I thought I’d liven things up a little so I told him about a tank/infantry assault we had repulsed that day. He came back with a hair-raising story of his own. This was all in the form of entertainment for out own amusement, but unknown to us, the connection was hooked-up all the way to Squadron Headquarters. It must have been the communications officer listening in, but whoever he was, he didn’t find any humor in our conversation.
Shortly after we rang-off, the phone came alive. The officer wanted to know what had been going on down at the river. I told him everything was all right – we were just kidding. He said we shouldn’t be giving information like that over the phone in case the Germans had tapped our line. He also told me we were supposed to use codenames. I asked, “O.K., what’s your code-name?” He said he couldn’t tell me over the phone. He asked why I didn’t know the code-names and I told him, “Because nobody told us our codes.” He said, “You’d better find out!” I asked him if he wanted me to come back there to ask him and he replied, “No! Ask one of your officers.” I told him we didn’t have any officers so he got mad again because you’re not supposed to give information like that over the phone.
The first day we were here in this position, the mortar crew was told to set up the 60mm mortar for fire missions. We rarely used the little mortar because of its short range, but here, in this narrow valley, it was adequate. The men of the section selected the back yard of a house behind us and a field phone was strung to our outposts.
I was standing back from a window on the second floor, observing across the river, when I heard another man on the first floor giving directions to adjust their fire. They would select predetermined point which would be numbered so fire could be called by giving the numerical locations.
I watched as the first rounds landed. There didn’t seem to be any pattern. The man directing the crews firing was getting mad because they couldn’t seem to put any two rounds close to each other. Sometimes this can be caused if the base plate of the mortar in not set solidly. But this was not the case here. Strong winds raced through the narrow valley and dispersed the light weight shells beyond any hope of accuracy.
As I continued watching, I heard a sound like a light tinkling of glass pass by the window followed by an explosion in the earth directly beneath the window.
The man directing the mortar crew shouted into the phone, “Cease fire, cease fire! That one almost hit the house. Forget the firing points!” You really could hear a mortar round – if you are high enough.
Platoon Headquarters is somewhat of a misnomer. Platoons are commanded by lieutenants; usually second lieutenants, but sometimes a first lieutenants gets stuck with a platoon. Lieutenants don’t have much administrative responsibility. They have to live with the men of the platoon in combat. Their casualty rate is much higher than that of other officer grades. Platoon headquarters consists of the lieutenant, maybe the platoon sergeant and some dog-soldier for communications. We didn’t have much luck keeping lieutenants in the First Platoon. They rarely said, “Goodbye”, they just disappeared.
Every night or two, each outpost had to send a couple men back to platoon headquarters for supplies; usually just water and C or K-Rations since we weren’t shooting at anybody and didn’t need ammo. We found a child’s sled and I usually pulled Gerry down the snow-covered street and we both pulled it back.
One night, as we started, Gerry asked, “Want a turn ridding?” I answered, “No thanks.” He asked, “Why not?”
“I don’t want to get shot riding on a sled.” “What’s the difference?” “How would it look? ‘Dear Mrs. Newton: We are sorry to inform you your husband was sort of killed-in-action while ridding a sled in Germany.’ Probably wouldn’t even get a Purple Heart.”
He thought about that ‘til we got to platoon H.Q.
Inside the house that was platoon H.Q., we exchanged gruff greetings and I noticed an unfamiliar lump under some blankets in a corner. I couldn’t make out who it might be in the dim light. I casually asked, “Who’s the sad sack of ---- in the corner?
The blankets exploded! Out came a figure that drew itself up to its full five feet six inches. “Lieutenant Strykawliski” (not his real name).
Another new lieutenant. Just what we needed. And this one is fresh from the States – more bad news. I thought for a minute that he was indignant about the way I had referred to him, but he just seemed to stand there. I couldn’t make out his face in the semi-darkness so I figured he couldn’t make me out either. I said, “At ease, Lieutenant. Go back to sleep.” He crawled back into his blankets in the corner and went to sleep.
Since we were back here, I asked what our code names were. Someone said, “Who knows?” I told them I had been chewed out for not using the codes. The man said, “Yeah. I heard it.” From then on, we made up code manes which made no sense, but apparently satisfied those whose job it was to monitor our calls.
After three or four days in this little town, a warm rain fell during the night. Snow, which had covered everything when we first arrived, melted completely away. We found the field between our house and the bridge littered with dead German soldiers. They must have been caught in the open while trying to cross the bridge.
One lay on our doorstep with his brains spilled out.
When things were slow, as they were in this place, someone usually started a rumor. Mostly it was the same one; we were going to Paris as M.P.’s. I think we were all bored with being M.P.’s in Paris and we needed something new. This time we were looking for the frozen, but otherwise beautiful body of a young German lady. Naturally she was nude or, even better, naked.
I don’t think anyone took the rumor seriously, but it was something to do. We did find the body of a young German soldier who must have died when the town was attacked. He was stretched across two kitchen chairs. He was nude, though. Maybe these guys are forgetting the difference!
One night it was announced that Big Six was coming down to our positions. We had been advised by phone. When the colonel arrives everyone tries to look alert and to be taking a personal interest in the war. When he arrived he naturally came to the house we were out-posting. The platoon sergeant assigned me to meet and escort him.
I didn’t challenge him when he arrived. If we hadn’t known he was coming I would have shot him, but I’m not going to stand out in the dark hollering, “Halt!” I did give him a smart West Point Cavalry salute that was probably wasted in the dark and he returned it. He said he wanted to go to the top floor so I led him up the stairs past empty, five-gallon jerry-cans. He asked where the bridge was located and I pointed through the darkness in its general direction.
He couldn’t make out the bridge and said he wanted flares fired over the bridge. I explained we didn’t have grenade adapters, blank ammunition or flares for our rifles, hoping he might get those things for us some time. I immediately realized that wasn’t what he wanted to hear so I added that we had combat engineers attached to us down here and I might be able to find some help from them. He told me to go ahead.
The engineers were across the road from us and I ran down the stairs to solicit their help. In the darkness, I stumbled over the empty gas cans and they came crashing after me.
I found the engineers and talked one of them into returning with me even though they lacked enthusiasm. It was cold outside and firing flares could draw artillery fire. The engineer reluctantly followed me back to the house where I positioned him in a door opening to the cellar. I told him to wait for my signal and ran back up to advise the colonel we were ready.
Big Six only said, “Get on with it.” I ran back down to the cellar door and told the engineer to start shooting flares and keep it up until I came back.
The first flare arched up through the blackness and popped open just about on target, but the strong winds currents in the canyon carried it away too fast to observe the bridge. Following flares were as useless.
Big Six said, “That’s no good. Tell him to stop shooting and have your mortar fire flares.” “Yes, Sir.” I ran back down the two lights of stairs again to the cellar door, thanked the engineer and went into the cellar to call the mortar section. Happily, the mortar was set up and I told them to fire flares over the bridge until I came back on the phone to tell them to stop.
I had started to sweat inside my field jacket with its bunny-jacket insert. I ran back up the two flights again to be with the colonel. The first mortar round opened on the other side of the river, too far away to see the bridge. “What are they doing? Didn’t you tell them to light up the bridge?”
I was explaining about the winds currents in the canyon when the next flare sailed uselessly away. The next flare almost landed on our roof. “Tell them to cease firing and call E Troop; tell them to fire some flares.” I hesitated, but decided just to say, “Yes, Sir.”
Back down two flights of stairs again to the cellar. On the field phone to the mortar section. “Cease fire, cease fire! You guys almost set us on fire with that third round.” “We told you we couldn’t hit anything twice with all the winds.” “Yeah, I know. Now get off line. I have to talk to E Troop.”
The C.O. of E Troop said, “We don’t have flares to shoot out of the 75’s. Ask him if he wants us to fire white phosphorous.” I told him to hang on; I’d be right back.
Now I knew the reason for my tank destroyer training. We had run everywhere we went. It was all in preparation for this night. I ran back up to the second floor. “E Troop doesn’t have flares for the 75’s, Colonel, but they said they could fire white phosphorous if you want.” “Cancel E Troop. I’ll have to see the bridge in daylight.”
Thank God! I guess the colonel was thinking the same thing I was; if the wind carried the light-weight phosphorous shells around anywhere near the way they did the flares, we might have the house burned down around us.
I led the colonel back down to the front door and saluted again. Then I went back to the cellar to tell E Troop C.O. to forget the fire-mission. He said, “That’s what I thought.” I replied, “I hoped so.”
I laid down, panting and sweating. The platoon sergeant asked, “Is the colonel gone?” I said, “Yes.”
“What did he wants?” I replied “He wanted to see the bridge.” The sergeant then asked “What about the bridge?”
Now I knew they were getting nervous about crossing the river so I said “He told me not to say anything to anybody.” He continued and asked “You can tell us. What did he say?” I simply replied “If you want to know what colonels talk about, you take him on the next tour.” I went to sleep.
Of course the colonel hadn’t explained anything to me and I was just as curious as the rest about what he might have in store for us. The bridge wasn’t usable for vehicles and, for that matter, the center of it was submerged so far under ice-cold water it couldn’t be crossed on foot. Aside from the cold, it was rather peaceful here and I, for one, didn’t want to spoil it.
We didn’t cross the river and a few days later we were relieved by some other outfit.
The relief came down before dark and we walked down the street of town up the hill. As we passed platoon headquarters, I glanced over at a jeep that was parked close to the house they used. The front bumper was stenciled: 9A 125C C14. My jeep! A field-wire ran from where a headlight had been removed into the house.
There were some things that were sacrosanct, even in our platoon, and probably in most combat outfits. You don’t touch another man’s mail, you don’t touch another man’s weapon and you don’t touch another man’s vehicle – without permission.
I threw some souvenirs out of the back of the jeep and stormed into platoon headquarters. I cussed out everybody who had anything to do with taking my jeep including the new lieutenant, just because he was there.
The poor guy stood there, not knowing if his rank had been violated or not. He was still trying to make the adjustment from garrison-life in the States, where he had been treated with some amount of respect, to life on the line, where he was little more than another body.
I finished by telling them they were walking out. I grabbed my headlight from where it had been used for indoor lighting and stalked out.
Gerry, Zwer and I rode to the top of the hill to wait for the rest of the outfit. When everyone had mounted, I pulled in at the rear of the column. Zwer rode with someone else on the way back to a rest area.
A ways down the road, the jeep sputtered to a stop. Out of gas! They had run the engine to keep the battery charged and hadn’t refilled it. No matter, except for the inconvenience, I always carried an extra ten gallons in the rear rack. We didn’t even try to tell anyone ahead of us we stopped and they continued down the road.
Gerry went back to the rear of the jeep while I lifted the seat and unscrewed the cap. Ganley said, “You don’t have any gas.” I always had gas and told him so. I went back and checked both cans and they were empty.
I was so mad now I couldn’t even talk. I got my blankets and spread them out alongside the road. Gerry did the same. We were almost asleep when a jeep came back looking for us. The other jeep had extra gas so we put five gallons in mine.
We followed the other jeep on down the road to a building in which we could spend the night. Unusually, this structure, whatever it was, had operating electricity. Light came from a bare bulb in a socket hanging by a wire. As we entered, someone said, “Last man in puts the light out.” I was still angry and wasn’t about to fumble around in the dark getting into my blankets. The light stayed on and finally someone threw a boot at it – and missed. Another boot missed the light. Finally one of the quieter men raised hi M-1 and put a bullet through the offensive light and through the ceiling and roof.
Off the line again for a few days and we got orders to remove all markings from every vehicle. The order applied to every vehicle in Ninth Army and maybe First Army too.
All army vehicles had identifying markings. After learning the abbreviations for various branches, you could tell what unit any vehicle was from. Of course a civilian with Nazi sympathies could learn to read them too and pass the information on to the enemy.
Although we were almost constantly attached to XIX Corps, we served there at the pleasure of Ninth Army. Our bumpers were marked on the right side with 9A 125C indicating we were Ninth Army, 125th Cavalry. On the left side we were, Using my own jeep as example, it read C, for C Troop followed by 14, the “1” indicating first platoon and the “4” was a random number to identify platoon vehicles. If there were no strict adherence to radio codes, the vehicle markings also became identification for radio calls. Mine was Charlie One-Four.
We painted out all the markings, along with our Red Horse emblems on the sides. The purpose of all these obliterations was to hide identity in preparation for the Roer River crossing. All Allied armies in the north were poised on the Roer by this time.
Somehow, in the place where we painted out the markings, we picked up a puppy. I’m not sure where we found him, but we did. He was a short-haired mutt, but otherwise he resembled no particular breed. The morning we started out to take new positions on the Roer we gave him a bath. He rode in my jeep and was friendly with everybody.
As usual, or what seemed to be usual, it had been raining and mud was everywhere, even on road surfaces. We stopped for some reason and bunched all the vehicles close together. This was against all military disciplines for aircraft attack, but we didn’t want the pup to get out and walk through the mud to get to the other vehicles. This way he could jump from one to the next without getting out in the mud. He caught on immediately and frisked his way back and forth along the column. Jeep to jeep, to armored car to jeep, getting the attention he needed.
When he returned, I put him inside my field jacket so he could take a nap. I heard Zwer, my recon sergeant, say, “We have to get rid of him.” That surprised me and I asked, “What?” Zwer said, “We can’t take a dog up on the line.” Of course it made sense. As I thought about it, I realized that beside the danger, he would probably have to stay in a foxhole. That was no life for a dog.
I looked around. We were on high ground of a ridge and there was only one house in sight. The land was cold and bleak. We couldn’t just turn him loose. As I looked, I saw a young German boy standing by the corner of the house watching us and he was curious.
He saw me as I got out of the jeep. I took a few cans of C-Rations out of the wood box tied to the wire-cutter on the front bumper. He continued to watch as I approached. He was apprehensive, but held his ground as I came closer.
I asked, “Want a dog?” Naturally he didn’t understand me so I held the puppy out with extended arms. He looked at the pup and then at me. The boy showed no emotion. I made a motion with my head to indicate he could have the dog. His eyes got large and he reached out and took the skinny little runt. I took the C-Rations out of my pocket and handed him those too. His mother couldn’t complain too much if the pup came with its own food. They probably wouldn’t be able to read the printing on the cans, but once they opened them they’d know it was dog food.
In very clumsy German I said, “Das ist eine gut Hund.” That was the best I could do to explain it was a good dog. He knew a good dog when he saw one and nodded his head. The boy never spoke or smiled, but as we drove on a few minutes later, he was smiling at the puppy. The pup seemed to be happy with the new arrangement.
I looked back at the platoon. No one waved or spoke to the boy, but they all took a last look at the dog as they passed.
We drove on to a small town, still on the high ground overlooking the river. It was still daylight and Headquarters Platoon was in town with us. We were located just south of Julich across the river. Someone, thinking aloud rather than making a statement, said, “This isn’t going to be so bad.” The rest of the conversation with a sergeant from Headquarters Platoon went something like this:
“You guys are going down to the river.”
“Where’s the river?”
“About a mile down the hill.”
“What’s down there?”
“They say it’s just a little town – and the river.”
“How come we always have to go somewhere like that and you guys stay back in a place like this?”
“We’re too valuable to get killed. We’re all technicians. It’s hard to replace good cooks and mechanics.”
“Oh – Okay”
After all the trouble to confuse the German Army one of the radio operators heard the English-speaking “Axis-Sally” on the radio say, “Welcome to the men of the Thirtieth Infantry Division. I hope you like your new positions on the Roer River.” So much for out smarting the Krauts.
After dark we packed up and started down to the new positions. I guess we always looked like a bunch of Gypsies whose horse had died. We didn’t have packs like the infantry so everything was carried in our hands or over our shoulders. As usual everyone carried a machine gun or a tripod or ammunition for it as well as a personal weapon and ammunition for it too.
We walked down the steep, pot-holed road to level ground below. Leaving the road we used a trail to a place where there was running water. We crossed over a log. As I reached the far end I slipped and two men reached for me. I said, “That’s O.K., it’s just a stream.” They told me it was a mill-race, deep and fast, carrying water to a mill a few yards away. We got to the first houses of the little town whose name, I think was either Inden or Winden. The infantry started out and we passed each other without speaking.
They must have sent the same guy who picks out army camps in the States to pick our positions. The “town” was a farming community of ten or twelve houses. It was located in a loop, or horseshoe bend of the Roer.
The army has a name for these positions. They call them “strong-points”. Strong-points are never on the line, or behind the line; they’re always in front of the line. With the whole United States Army a mile behind it becomes necessary to set up a “perimeter” defense. Perimeter defense means you set up guns pointing to the rear as well as front and sides.
We walked into the single street of the town, always a strange feeling because there is no way of knowing what things really look like in the darkness. Being optimistic, we naturally headed for the houses to set up our positions. If you can make it into a house, there’s always the change nobody can find you before morning at which time you explain you wondered where everybody was all night. We didn’t get the chance. We were told there were fox holes already dug by the infantry that we could use. We would be allowed to let four men stay inside houses until it was their turn to man a machine gun position.
We found a hole and upon inspection found it well constructed and large. Timbers had been laid over the hole and dirt piled over it. We decided that if all six of us went into the hole we wouldn’t have to be waking each other up all night. Besides, if we had one man awake we would only have to be on guard one hour during the night. That’s the kind of ingenuity that made America great.
The 30th Infantry Division dug good holes. This one even had a tiny coal-burning stove in it with a chimney that ran underground so the smoke wouldn’t give away the exact location.
In spite of the casual military structure of our fox hole and the reduced time to stand guard over the machine gun, I still had a problem staying awake. One night, while I was supposed to be the man awake on the gun, I awoke to hear whistling coming over the field-telephone. The bells had long been disconnected to avoid the sound. Troop Headquarters had been trying to get us for about twenty minutes and asked if we were all asleep. I asked if they really thought we would be sleeping in combat. They seemed satisfied with my explanation that the phone was buried under something and we couldn’t hear it.
I knew that I should be awake and the next night I devised a fool-proof scheme to stay alert. When my turn came on the gun I dug a hole for my trench knife and buried the handle, point up. I hunched over the point reminding myself what would happen if I dozed. I woke up about a half hour later, still hunched over the blade point.
We, C Troop, were not the only “strong-point” down at the river. A Troop was situated similarly somewhere up-river (south) of us. To keep the enemy from wandering around between strong-points, it is necessary to patrol between the points. On alternate nights, A and C Troops would send a patrol of five or six men to the other troop and then return. The patrol would phone ahead so they would be expected and phone again to their own troop when they were ready to return.
The system worked well for a while and then one night A Troop’s patrol got lost. They couldn’t get their bearings to find our troop so they turned back to A Troop’s position. We had been expecting them, but their own troop was waiting for their phone call to announce their return.
It must be understood that on the line you don’t challenge to find out if it’s friend or foe. There are no friends. You shoot. That’s what one of A Troop’s machine gun positions did, wounding some of their own men of the patrol. It is unfortunate, for lack of a better word, but it happens in war. I don’t know that anyone is at fault. Whoever makes the least mistakes wins.
After we had been in these positions a few days the Germans south of us blew a spillway to the Schwammanauel Dam. The river started to rise and, because we were only a few feet above normal water level, the water started coming up through the bottom of our holes. We had to keep building up the floor and the holes kept getting shallower. It was later estimated that if the dams had let go altogether, it would have flooded the valley a thousand yards across ( and this would not have been written ). We were three or four hundred yards from the normal river channel.
When we went into the holes at night, we carried straw to lay over ammunition boxes to stay above the water. Our floor kept getting higher and the head space lower. We brought in a supply of coal briquets each night for the little stove. I got so I could sleep around the thing without burning myself. We broke the brick-shaped briquets before we burned them because we had been advised the Krauts had been stuffing explosives inside.
We spent the days inside houses in the town. In one, we found a bin with small, dried-up potatoes. We also found some kind of cooking grease, so we sat around for hours peeling and slicing the potatoes and deep-frying them. The end result wasn’t worth the effort and no one would have eaten them under different circumstances. But, it was something to do.
All our supplies had to be hand-carried down from the cliffs above. Nobody liked the walk so we eliminated water. There were pumps in the backyard of the houses so we depended on that. The trouble was that the water we got out of the pumps was dirty. The earth was saturated and we scooped up a can full of the muddy stuff to prime the pumps. I guess it was good the army gave us all those shots at regular intervals.
One night, out in the holes, we heard an explosion from a nearby hole. It was obviously a hand grenade. We all came alert and one man listened in on the telephone for someone to report what they had. After a long silence troop came on to ask who had thrown the grenade and why.
It was two goof-offs that we had gotten rid of from our platoon a few weeks earlier. At that time they had paired-off with each other because nobody wanted either of them for a partner. This night they thought they heard something and couldn’t wait it out. They threw the grenade, which was all right, but they didn’t tell anyone what had happened and we didn’t know if a patrol was coming in or what had occurred.
Out of boredom during the days, two men decided they wanted the little parachutes that let rifle flares descend slowly. By this time we had collected grenade launchers and blank ammunition for the M-1 Rifles to fire grenades and flares.
They fired the flares against the side of a half-timbered barn across the narrow road. The flares kept falling to the road and burned the parachutes. A couple of them though, penetrated the mud wall and set fire to hay stored inside. One more building burned in this war didn’t really make so much difference, but the men went in to see if they could put out the fire.
The fire was going too strong to extinguish and on top of that, they found the infantry before us had left 81mm mortar shells stacked inside. Now we had a problem. If those shells got hot, there would be shrapnel flying all over town. A few men ran in and out of the barn carrying the shells until they were all removed. The barn burned.
By chance, or maybe design, Big Six chose this night to come down to inspect our positions. I was again selected to guard the gate and greet the colonel. Everybody was awake and alert as we always were when Colonel Biddle came to visit to assure him that the two infantry and one armored division behind us were safe from surprise attack. I stood at the gate to our ‘headquarters’ across from the burning barn wondering if we were supposed to know he was coming. If not, I should challenge him as he approached. That would be impressive.
While I pondered this, the colonel came up. I didn’t challenge him, but came to attention and gave him a smart salute. Funny; for the last few months whenever I had to stand at attention, I had the feeling my uniform didn’t. It always seemed to be ‘At ease’. He returned an even smarter salute. Captain Ploehn was with him.
The colonel asked why the barn was burning. I couldn’t tell him it had been set afire by men trying to salvage parachute’s from flares so I told him the Krauts fired a couple rounds of artillery and those started the fire. When he asked what was in the barn, I told him the truth about the mortar shells and the men carrying them out. I hoped he wasn’t going to put them in for medals and my story would come out.
Colonel Biddle, like General Patton, was West Point Cavalry. Like Patton, he was spit-and-polish but unending personal courage.
The colonel and captain disappeared among the houses. Immediately, the platoon sergeant came up and told me to go to another foxhole on the river-side of town. I asked him how long I should stay there and he replied, “Just until the colonel leaves.”
I found the entrance to the hole from the sergeants directions and let myself down into it. I hadn’t been in this hole before. It was a trench, covered with timber and dirt and made a couple turns before the other end where it surfaced again.
As I felt my way through the black tunnel, I came to a sofa which had been put in before the trench was covered over. It had probably been intended for comfort, but now it was sodden from rain that had seeped through.
While I sat at the far end, wondering what I was supposed to be doing, I heard voices coming from behind me and then stopping right in front. The colonel was speaking: “You should have a machine gun position right here, Captain.” The Captain hopefully replied, “There is one right around here somewhere.”
I didn’t have a machine gun and I was planning to get out of the hole as soon as they left, but I spoke up and said, “Right behind your ankles, Sir.”
The captain was relieved to find he did have a position there, Big Six was satisfied his ‘finest’ had things under proper military control and they left.
I never quite understood why we had to make the colonel think he had more men then he really did.
The town on the bluffs behind us became our ‘rest area.’ Headquarters Platoon was there with hot meals. What a difference from Beeck and other line-positions we had since October.
We were relieved regularly by platoons, although the positions down by the river weren’t too bad by themselves. They were almost peaceful. The Germans were apparently saving their ammunition for the impending river-crossing. They hadn’t even shot harassing-fire at us.
The inevitable complaint arose though; “Why do we have to walk up that damned hill to rest?” We would have walked up Mount Everest to get away from Beeck to a rest area, but now the easy-life had caught up to us.
Our rest-time was usually spent loafing, sleeping and letter-writing. The only chore we had was to fire a few rounds from a .50 caliber machine gun a couple times a night to harass the Germans across the river. If it didn’t harass the Germans, it did wake everybody on the hill. At the range we were firing, one .50 caliber bullet probably landed for every fifty square yards in the impact-area, but it was just to let them know we were still here.
While ‘resting’, we spent our time reading or writing letter. On one of these days I was sitting outside, leaning against the house we used. While musing on some insignificant matter, I examined a fragmentation hand-grenade. A couple screw-threads were exposed so I unscrewed the fuse. I poured some of the powder out into my hand to see what it looked like. Then, in an instant I was ashamed of then, and still am, I pored the rest of the powder out and screwed the fuse back in very loosely. With the fuse back in place, I pulled the pin and tossed the grenade through the open window into the house.
I heard the spoon clang on the wooden floor and somebody yelling, “Grenade!” The yelling and subsequent clamor inside startled even me. I jumped to my feet and looked through the window. Men were diving out the rear windows and running down the steps to the cellar. The guys in front, going down the cellar weren’t moving fast enough for those in the rear and they dove head-long over the top of them.
Long after the time the grenade should have exploded, heads started to appear over the floor-level opening to the cellar. They saw me looking in the window and one asked, “Newton, did you do that?” Those who had been in the room formed a spontaneous posse and I ran for my life. I had to find a different place to sleep that night.
The green field jacket was regular issue to us. That’s why no could tell what kind of an outfit we were in when we were dismounted. The only exceptions to the field jacket uniform were the platoon sergeant and one or two others who managed to ‘requisition’ the tan, ‘tanker-jacket’ with knit collar and cuffs.
For some reason, Ganley had borrowed this prized possession from the sergeant, probably to wear while he washed his own.
Ganley came into the house on the hill above the Roer while we were resting and approached the platoon sergeant. It must be understood; we didn’t salute anyone under the rank of full-colonel, and even in garrison-life, non-commissioned officers – corporals and sergeants – are never saluted. We knew something was about to happen when Ganley stopped in front of the sergeant, stood at rigid attention and saluted smartly. The sergeant also became aware of this strange behavior.
Gerry held his salute and stated, “Sergeant, I’d like to report your goddamned tanker-jacket is on fire.”
The platoon sergeant didn’t ask questions but in complete panic, brushed by Gangley and ran out the door, followed by everyone in the room who didn’t want to miss the joyous occasion. The jacket, submerged in five gallons of gasoline in a galvanized wash-tub was in mid-state of cremation.
Everyone had at least a smile on his face watching the sergeant trying to salvage his jacket with a stick. Whenever he raised it out of the tub, roaring flames made him drop it. Gerry looked worried and stood near the rear of the audience. I asked him, “What happened, Ger’?”
“I was going to clean his jacket in gasoline before I gave it back to him. I must have dropped a match, or something. He’s going to be mad.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“What d’ya mean, ‘don’t worry about it? He liked that jacket”
“It was just an accident. What’s he going to do, put you in point? You’re already in point.”
“I don’t know, but he’s going to be mad.”
“He can’t break you to private. You’re a Pfc by an Act of Congress.”
“He’s going to be mad.”
“Forget it. You’re my partner; if he gets too mad we’ll both resign from point.”
“You can’t resign from point.”
“Who can’t? How do you think I got driving? The last guy told him to shove the stripes and quit. That reminds me; I think I’m supposed to be a corporal or something. I’ll have to ask him about that.”
“Well, don’t ask him right now.”
Nothing further came of the cremation.
After a couple days in the rest-area we returned to our small town down the hill to resume our strong-point positions. One morning, after leaving the nighttime fox holes at sunrise, we took refuge from the weather inside the houses. Most everyone went back to sleep, but Ganley and I decided to eat first (old army adage: “Never miss the meal ahead of you”). We found the rations, but the containers were different they were marked, “10 in 1.”
Old-time outhouses were supposedly decorated with a carved crescent moon in the door. The army, for reasons known only to itself, used the same crescent moon printed or stenciled on food containers. We knew from that code that the carton contained food, but it was marked 10 in 1 so we read the rest of the label. The contents would feed ten one meal; five men, two meals or any other combination.
We tore open the box and found a new world of exotic foods. There was canned ham with raisin sauce, dehydrated breakfast food and other equally tempting delicacies. After months of C and K Rations on the line, I became suspicious.
“I think it’s a mistake”, I told Ganley.
“What do you mean, a mistake? Why?
“I think this is the kind of stuff the guys in the rear eat.”
Ganley mused; “I wonder how long the army’s been sending this stuff over?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll net we never see any of it again.”
Ganley solved the dilemma. “Let’s eat it before they find out and make us give it back.”
We gorged ourselves in an orgy of breakfast. The dehydrated breakfast food became a delicious mixture by adding water. It even tasted a little like milk and sugar had been added. We ate cold, thick ham slices dipped in raisin-sauce.
We talked with full mouths about this wonderful food that had somehow found its way to the line. We had just about decided it might turn out to be a pretty good war if food like this kept coming, but we finally agreed that somehow the army must have shipped this over faster than Service of Supply could sell it in France on the Black Market. We must have been right, and demand caught up with supply, because we never saw it again as line-rations.
While back up on the hill for another rest, we were called together in platoon formation. The special occasion was for the issue of Shoe-paks. These were specially designed boots with leather uppers and rubber soles and last. The came with felt inserts for warmth, They were intended to stop “trench-foot” which had disabled thousands of G.I.’s during the winter. Some even their feet amputated in severe cases. However, we needed them in October, November, December and January. It was now February and the snow had melted and the temperatures were rising.
“Men”, the Supply Sergeant said, “I know things are a little late getting here, but we have to issue them. And we only have enough to issue two pairs to a platoon.” At full-strength, it meant that two men out of thirty one would have protection against trench-foot. The expected jeering and cat-calling started at once. After we tired of whistling and hooting, someone said, “I’ll take a pair, What sizes you got?”
“Seven and a half.”
“That’s it. Two pair, size seven and a half.”
The whistling and jeering started again with new vigor. The only man in the platoon with a size 7 ½ foot was Zwer.
“Send them back to those rear-echelon bastards who’ve been selling them to the Frenchmen with a note to shove ‘em.”
We broke the formations and wandered away while the Supply Sergeant was still explaining, he just took what they sent him.
We changed holes from time to time and one night while we were in a hole closest to the river, and facing it, I heard a tank moving around on the German’s side of the Roer. I called E Troop, the assault guns, by phone and spoke to the C.O. I told him I had a target; a tank, but it was so dark I didn’t know how to adjust his fire. He said they would fire one round of white phosphorus at the edge of the river and I could try to adjust from there.
A few seconds later I heard the 75mm shell pass overhead. A couple more seconds and I saw the brilliant explosion. The captain of E Troop asked if I saw the burst. I told him I did and working from sound only, in relation to the shell burst, I thought the tank was moving about three hundred yards up and three hundred yards left. The captain came back and said, “Seranade on the way.” Seranade is a romantic word artillerymen use to describe a battery firing with all guns. The shells passed overhead again and started landing in the area where I heard the tank. E Troop fired about sixteen rounds which was unusual because they were usually short of ammunition.
The E Troop commander came back and asked, “Do you hear anything more of the tank?” I listened and told him everything was quiet over there. He said my adjustment had pin-pointed an intersection in a town across the river. We congratulated each other on knocking out a tank. I asked about all the firing and he said they had all the ammunition they could handle now.
We never knew what any given situation was, and I don’t suppose it was any of our business. All a combat soldier has to know is where he is, where the enemy is and do his job. It might be years later, while reading unit histories, that you find out what happened in the big picture.
The infantry we relieved on the Roer was the 30th Division. They went into reserve behind us and prepared for the river crossing along with the 29th Infantry Division. The 2nd Armored Division was interspersed with the infantry. We had about forty-five thousands combat troops behind us but we didn’t know it and it was still lonely down by the river.
Nobody told us anything about the attack across the Roer because it was secret. That’s why all bumper markings had been removed from vehicles. Somebody could have said something, though, just before the artillery started.
I was in a hole, about half asleep as usual, when they started. We had been under some pretty good artillery barrages before, both German and American, but this was enormous. Apparently all units were tied into a radio net that gave a command to all guns. They all fired at once.
It was combined artillery of the 29th and 30th Infantry Divisions, artillery and tanks of the 2nd Armored Division, 20 battalions of XIX Corps artillery and Anti-aircraft artillery brought forward for support. There were quad (4) .50 caliber machine guns, 37 and 40mm AA guns, 75mm, 76mm, 3 inch, 105mm howitzers, 105mm guns, 155mm howitzers, 155mm guns, 8 inch guns, tank guns, tank destroyer guns. A guess would be a thousand guns of heavier calibers all firing on signal.
The first indication I had that something unusual was taken place, was a sound that must have equaled a cyclone. The air overhead was being moved with a tremendous rushing sound. I think I was on the phone before the first rounds landed on the other side of the river. I was hollering at someone back at troop headquarters asking what was going on. “Their attacking the river.”
The sky lighted up from tracers from the AA guns. Across the river an unbelievable area was exploding with hundreds of rounds landing every minute. I couldn’t feel sympathy for the Germans caught in the tons of steel falling on them, but after Beeck, I sure knew how they felt at this moment.
The infantry of the 29th and 30th Divisions were down to the river waiting for the assault. They were going to cross in different locations. Before them would go the other “Bastard” outfits (besides cavalry) of this war, Combat Engineers.
Nobody can ever say enough in favor of combat engineers. That night, they would put fifteen bridges across the Roer at flood stage. The bridges would be cut by debris and re-built. Machine guns, mortars and artillery pounded the engineers. One bridge would have to be re-built nine times that night. All the time they were being wounded and killed. Meanwhile, corps artillery (20 battalions) fired four hundred tons of shells.
The infantry of both divisions had to cross those bridges with full combat gear and fight when they got to the other side. A lot of them wouldn’t reach the other side that night.
We pulled back from the river after the bridgeheads were established. A couple days latter, when heavy pontoon bridges were secured, we crossed the river behind the 2nd Armored Division. We and the armor were put across to take advantage of the expected breakout.
We were mounted again and it felt good. We passed through Julich which had been reduced to rubble. Only a few walls and chimneys remained standing. Our orders took us to the Hambach Forest where the 30th Infantry Division was located, but as usual we didn’t see anyone but ourselves.
Forests are not looked upon with favor by mounted troops. Trees can hide a lot of enemy and there is no room to maneuver. We drove along fire-breaks in the forest and took up defensive positions. There were supposed to be several thousand German troops in there somewhere.
I had to take one section, with a machine gun, down to another fire-break to set up a position. The location was less than a quarter-mile away. We left just before dark and by the time I dropped them off, it was completely dark. I drove by outlining the dark sky against even darker trees.
We hadn’t heard or seen the Germans in the forest, but it was mighty lonely driving back by myself. I think the hairs on the back of my neck were starting to stiffen when I felt the jeep go airborne. We landed and I put it in low gear and let out the clutch. All for wheels spun with no purchase on any of them. The jeep could pull itself out of anything if it had traction, but now we sat helpless.
I started to get out to see where we were, but as I stuck my left leg out, it hit something alongside. I crawled out and found I had driven into a bomb crater about five feet deep. The jeep was hanging by its bumpers. I grabbed my riffle and walked back to the others to get help. Four men returned with me and we manhandled it out of the hole.
The night was uneventful and the next morning we packed up and moved out. Our destination was a town which gave the prospect of sleeping in a bed. We relieved a unit of the 30th Infantry Division and asked them if there had been any action. They pointed to a hose at the end of town where we were positioning an armored car. It was a brick house and it had holes punched all the way through it. We looked through the holes and they formed a straight line out the far side. This was not artillery fire; it was tank fire from a German 88mm gun. It could go through the armored car as easily as it did the house.
We were out in the open, directing the car into position and hoping the tank, or tanks, the Germans had in the next town had left. That town was about eight hundred yards away and the terrain between was as flat as a table-top.
In situations like this one, you find yourself talking to anyone and no one saying, “Why are we doing this?” You picture an enemy tanker looking through his sight, waiting to see if you’re going to bring up any more targets for him before he starts shooting. If he shoots the 20 pound, 88 millimeter shell – and misses – you can shoot back at him with the 1.6 pound, 37 millimeter round from the “main armament” of the armored car.
We got the car parked and nothing had happened. So far, so good. We found some pieces of fencing and propped them against the car for camouflage. Maybe it wouldn’t be so easy to recognize; no, it still looked like an armored car – with a fence leaning against it.
We all walked away from the car because it seemed to be a hazardous place to be. We got word that we were being reinforced by tank destroyers. Now they might think twice before shooting at us. A tank destroyer’s 76 millimeter gun evened thing up a little.
We stood around the street having a smoke when we saw a truck approaching. They were towing a cannon. We wondered what an artillery outfit was doing so far forward. Then we saw it was Tank Destroyers – ‘towed-mount’ Tank Destroyers. I didn’t know they even had any in Europe.
A crew got into the armored car and the rest of us walked back down the street to look around and find a place to sleep. Ganley and I were awakened at ten P.M. to take a turn in the armored car. We were to be there until we went to get our relief at midnight.
At midnight, Gerry and I were sound asleep again. About 12.30 A.M. I felt a hand shaking me awake. Someone was asking, “Who’s in there?” I recognized the captains voice and my first thought was that they had caught us asleep while on guard and we would spend the next hundred years in a stockade – if they didn’t shoot us. I replied, “Newton, Captain.”
I was in the car commanders seat and Gerry was below me in the gun-loaders seat. I kicked him with my knee to wake him. Now he was smacking his lips, trying to get the sleep-taste out of his mouth. And mumbling, “What’s the matter, what’s the matter?”
The captain whispered, “Big Six is with me. Who’s in there with you?” Big Six; the colonel. That settled it – we’re going to be shot! I thought of telling the captain I was alone, no use both of us getting shot, but Gerry was making too much noise now. “Ganley’s here Captain.”
Now Ganley was coming to the top of the turret. He was still half asleep so I kept whispering, “Big Six, Big Six”, so he wouldn’t come out grumbling about being woke up in the middle of the night.
The captain whispered, “Ganley?” Gerry was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He whispered to me, “Who’s that?” I told him it was the captain.
Almost cheerfully Gerry said, “Oh, Hi Captain.”
“Hi, Ganley. Go back and wake up the troop. We’re going to attack the town up ahead.”
This struck Gerry as incredulous. He asked “Tonight?”
I was hoping the colonel couldn’t hear any of this.
“Tell the First Platoon they will go in mounted and the Second and Third will go in dismounted.” Ganley replied, “Okay Captain” as though the captain was making a big mistake.
“Newton, there’s a German half-track on the road. Take the armored car down there and push it off.” Now it was my turn; “Me?” (I had never driven an armored car). I decided no to tell the captain I had never driven one before. I though we were in enough trouble already. Amended my quaestion with, “Okay.”
I climbed out of the turret, opened the hatch to the drivers seat and slid down. I knew there were two buttons on the dash; one was the starter, the other the siren. I lighted a match. I knew the colonel wouldn’t forget to shoot me if I hit the siren. The engine started right up.
The armored cars didn’t have shift patterns like a jeep or truck. The lever moved in a straight line with notches for various gears.
I lit another match, found “1”, which must be low gear and let the clutch out. The car moved forward. Onto the pavement now and down the road toward the German half-track in low gear so I wouldn’t have to shift.
The tank that had drilled holes through the house was on my mind and I wondered if some panzer gunner was tracking the armored car at this moment. I reckoned I would find out when I turned it broadside to push the half-track.
A little past the German vehicle I stopped and lit another match to find reverse gear. I found it and backed the car around to the right until it was aimed at the half-track. Another match and I put the car into first gear again.
As I let the clutch out, I remembered there had been dead German soldiers hanging out of the vehicle. I couldn’t remember on which side though and because I was on the dark side of it, I couldn’t make out details. I pictured the sharp, horizontal nose of the car bisecting a body about two feet in front of my face; yeeeuch!
I eased the car up to the half-track until it rested against its side, then gunned the engine and slipped the clutch. All six wheels were spinning on the pavement, but the half-track wouldn’t budge. The noise was outrageous and I expected enemy fire.
Captain Ploehn and the colonel had walked up to me by then and the colonel said, “Ram it! Knock it off the road.” I backed up and took a running start, the impact jarred my teeth, but I repeated the process until the vehicle was on its side in the far ditch.
The rest of the troop arrived at this time and I gave up the armored car to its driver. I got into my jeep, which had been driven up, and we went into the town. No opposition, the Germans had pulled out. The colonel went back to his headquarters, satisfied that we had taken another town, and the rest of us found suitable quarters to go back a sleep.
The First Platoon took over a three-story house so Gerry and I found a bed on the third floor where we hoped we wouldn’t be disturbed for the rest of the night. Before we fell asleep Gerry asked me if anything had been said about us sleeping in the armored car. I replied, “No.” Like a couple good “Guard-house Lawyers”, we decided that since they had committed us to combat we couldn’t be court-mart1ialed and fell asleep.
We were awakened about Six A.M. by someone shaking us. We irritatedly asked what was going on and the man said, “They’re blowing the roof off the house.” We lay there a few seconds and sure enough another barrage came in destroying part of the roof. We got up and got out of town.
Maybe the war was becoming too casual because the next night, in another town, we parked the armored cars and jeeps at the curb – civilian-style – and posted one man at the door of a house. Something happened to his relief and the next morning we were awakened by the rest of the troop, which was already moving out. One whole platoon was asleep.
This day we attacked two – really three towns. We drove into the first, Niederembt, and met no resistance. While we waited for further orders, a German woman came out and spoke to us in her own language. This was interpreted for us by the one man in the platoon who spoke German. She said her son, a soldier, was home on leave and wanted to surrender. She was frightened for his safety. We told her to bring him out – he wouldn’t be shot.
She returned shortly with her son in his neatly pressed uniform. The boy had obviously never had to shave. We asked her how old he was and she replied “Sixteen.” He didn’t even look fourteen. He reminded me of a high school freshman meeting the varsity football team on his first day at school.
“Tell her to take him home and get rid of the uniform. The war’s all over for him.” She spoke to the kid, but he shook his head negatively. She told us he had to surrender. He kissed her goodbye and we sent him to the rear.
Someone decided the troop should attack the next town with the First and Third Platoons dismounted and the Second Platoon mounted. The next town turned out to be two, side-by-side. We, the First Platoon, took the right sight of the road and the Third took the left with the Second following, mounted. I decided to carry the B.A.R. that I picked up in Beeck last December. The Browning Automatic Rifle and a couple Tommy Guns would be our only automatic weapons.
As we entered the first town, Lippe, the third platoon came under attack from Germans out in a field. We went over to give them a hand and the second platoon came up with the armored cars. There was a small fire-fight and many of the Germans hid behind a hay stack. 50 caliber machine guns, mounted on the armored cars, set the hay on fire and the Krauts had to get into the open. A few of them made a half-hearted attempt to attack, but canister shot from the little 37 mm cannons discouraged them. If the 37’s had anything good to be said for then it was the canister. As the name implies, a thin metal canister held ball bearings, or round shot, packed in resin. The effect was that of a large-bore shotgun.
We continued into town, going house-to-house to make sure we didn’t leave enemy behind us. We came to a large factory which was empty of anyone. There was a ramp leading to a cellar under the work area. The platoon sergeant told me to check it out; because I was carrying the B.A.R., I guess.
I started down the ramp, but before I got more then ten feet it was too dark to see. I lit a match and took a few steps and then repeated the procedure. After a few matches, I realized I was violating a vital rule of survival and gave it up. I thought of rolling a grenade down, but there was a change civilians might be at the bottom.
Continued down the street, we came to a cross-road. The Second Platoon, mounted and the Third Platoon continued into Lippe. We, the First Platoon, turned right and passed under the railroad trestle. As we turned to enter Bedburg, Lieutenant Strykawlski (again, not his real name), who must have thought he was in command of all the dismounted troops, became confused. He stood in the middle of the intersection holloring, “Which way do I go?” Someone in the Third Platoon told him that if he didn’t get his butt out of the street he was going to Graves Registration. He chose to remain with the Third.
Bedburg was only about three blocks long where it fronted the railroad tracks. We had only to worry about houses on the right side of the street. We searched each house as we came to it because we couldn’t chance leaving any enemy behind.
I found the drawback to the B.A.R. while doing this. The rifle had a ‘flash-hider’ an extension about four inches long at the muzzle. Even carrying it at ‘high-port’ it caught in the doorways.
Next to my jeep, the B.A.R. had become my most prized possession. The Browing Automatic Rifle became obsolete after the war, but it was a superb weapon. It fired the same .30 caliber ammunition used in the M-1 Rifle and .30 caliber machine guns. The magazines held twenty rounds fired full-automatic. It had seen service in World War I and continued as a basic infantry weapon.
This one had been picked up in Beeck where its owner had lost it under unknown circumstances. Our Troop Armorer got into a fist-fight with a man at ordnance who didn’t want to issue magazines because cavalry wasn’t ‘authorized’ B.A.R.’s.
Although the armorer had ‘requisitioned’ magazines and ammunition belt for the gun, neither he nor I thought of suspenders for the belt. Web suspenders were universal as army equipment, but I couldn’t find one pair among anyone I asked. Now I had been wearing the belt around my waist with its full weight hanging on my hips. As soreness set in, it started one of the inane arguments Gerry and I got into. I asked him if he would carry the ammunition belt for a while. He answered, “No.”
“B.A.R. men are supposed to have ammunition-bearers.”
“You’re not a B.A.R. man.”
“I’ve got a B.A.R.; that makes me a B.A.R. man.”
“Cavalry isn’t authorized B.A.R.’s.”
“I don’t care, I’ve got one.”
“You haven’t got an ammunition-bearer.”
I continued to carry the belt around my waist.
We came to an empty lot and out behind the houses, we saw someone peeking at us from out of the ground. We told him to come out, in German, and an old civilian man came out of a bunker or air-raid shelter in the earth. He looked like a left-over from the first Great War. He was followed by a procession of men, woman and children.
The little, old man was defiant and feisty. He led his group toward us, carrying a white flag attached to a pole. When he got to within five feet, he pounded the staff to the ground in military-fashion. He then rattled-off a long speech in German which none of us understood. He must have been officially surrendering the town and probably reminding us of our obligations under the Geneva Convention, but it sounded more like he was issuing an ultimatum. This was our first experience with civilians in combat. When it sounded as though he was finished, someone told him what he could do with his flag and pole. He didn’t seem to understand.
In faltering German, I asked the old man if there were any German soldiers in town. He said, “Nein.” I motioned to the bunker out back and asked him if there were any soldiers there. His reply was negative, but his attitude was nasty so I grabbed him by the arm and walked him back. I asked once again if there were German soldiers down there. He defiantly said there weren’t so I pulled the pin from a grenade and tossed it down the hole. I watched him as the grenade exploded and he didn’t flinch so I guess he was telling the truth. He was now, anyway.
We continued house-to-house down the block. Gerry and I passed the last house in the row. Beyond it was a concrete wall about eight feet high. The wall enclosed the yard of some kind of business. The wood gates were wide open and we merely checked the yard with a glance as we passed.
We had both just made it to the continuation of the wall when a machine gun from inside the yard fired through the open gate. We pressed ourselves against the wall. We were safe enough with the concrete to protect us, but we had to get back and knock out the gun.
We stood there looking at each other. Almost accusingly, he said, “We could have been killed.”
The statement was rather obvious, but I didn’t understand why he was holding me responsible. I said, “Ah – right.”
One of the men behind us motioned for us to stay put. We couldn’t go anywhere anyway and all we had to worry about was a German grenade coming over the wall – or more Germans coming around the corner. There was no place to take cover, except possibly in the shallow gutter.
The man who told us to stay where we were went up into the last house we had passed and lobbed a grenade into the yard. It seemed to take care of the machine gun.
The platoon sergeant told us this was as far as we would have to go today. We were to outpost every other house as far back as we had men, two to a house.
Gerry and I took the house next to the wall. The enemy was somewhere between us and the Erft River a couple hundred yards to the east. As usual we were undermanned and under gunned.
We went to the third floor or the house. There were no windows facing the yard from which the machine gun had fired at us so we chose a rear room facing the back yards and the enemy. The room was sparsely furnished with a leather-covered sofa and matching chair. The sofa offered the promise of some sleep.
We checked out the back window from back in the room so we couldn’t be seen. Everything appeared quiet. I dropped the B.A.R. ammunition belt to the floor and loosened my trousers to massage my hips. They were reddened, but hadn’t yet blistered.
We both watched out the window for a while and could see no enemy movement. Then, by whatever system we used, it was decided that I would use the sofa first to relax. We had no idea how long we would be here. Gerry took first watch at the window.
I was just reaching that half-sleep that is so comfortable before unconsciousness closes over when I heard Ganley whisper, “Newt, Newt.”
I tried to maintain my trip into oblivion, but asked, “What d’ya want?”
“There’s a Kraut sneaking up through the back yard.”
“Shoot him.” I was awake now and on my feet.
“You get him with the B.A.R.”
“You saw him first – shoot.”
“No. Use the B.A.R.”
I looked over Gerry’s shoulder and saw the German walking in a low crouch along a fence in our back yard. He was only about twenty yards away and would soon be out of sight below us. He was wearing his helmet and carrying a Schmeiser Machine-Pistol so he wasn’t coming in to surrender. Gerry was kneeling on the seat of the chair as he watched so I told him again to shoot. He repeated, “You get him with the B.A.R.”
I climbed onto the chair with my right foot on top of the back-rest and my left foot on an arm. Ganley continued watching and I had to maneuver the muzzle of the rifle around him.
The army, in its wildest dreams, had never considered the Browing Automatic Rifle fired from this position. From the first round, the recoil started pushing me backward. I did a reverse somersault and landed on the wood floor with my shoulders. Ganley hadn’t moved before I fired and the muzzle-blast was only an inch or two from his ear.
From the floor, I looked up at Ganley who was standing with his hands over his ears. He was deaf from the blast. I hollored, “What happened to the Kraut?”
He couldn’t hear me and seemed to have lost all interest in the enemy soldier or any possible more enemy soldiers. He was mad now and finally shouted, loud enough for himself to hear, “You damn shot my head off.” He was so mad at me I started laughing at him which didn’t help.
I got up from the floor and checked out the window. I guess they only sent one man in. I told Gerry he could have my turn of the sofa in an effort to calm his anger. He accepted my offer, but wasn’t nearly ready to forgive me.
A few seconds later the platoon sergeant came bursting into the room and wanted to know what the shooting had been about. Ganley’s hearing must have returned because his first words were, “Newton almost shot my head off.” “Newton” instead of “Newt” – he must really be mad at me. The sergeant looked at me as though I had indeed tried to shoot his head off.
I tried to explain to the sergeant about the German soldier coming through the yard and that the Dumb Bastard on the couch wouldn’t get out of my way when I fired. The sergeant looked from one to the other of us and left the room shaking his head. I don’t think he wanted to understand what had happened.
I turned my vigil at the window once to look at the man on the sofa. He was asleep already. For a guy who almost had his head “Shot off”, he had sure relaxed in a hurry.
I thought about that now. How come we were in this house together – the last house, as usual? Why were we together? Nobody told us we had to be partners. I knew I didn’t have to look for him when things got rough. Did he feel the same?
I continued to think about it as I kept my vigil at the window, but couldn’t come up with an answer. Maybe we could figure it out after the war was over – if we were still talking to each other.
There was an explosion down the street and a few minutes later the platoon sergeant came in and asked, “Are you guys all right?” I looked at him, wondering why he asked, and replied, “I guess so.”
He told us that soon after I fired the B.A.R. an artillery shell came through the window of a house down the street where two other men were out-positing. Apparently the Germans saw the two men and fired a direct-fire gun at them. They both just happened to have left the room for a second before the shell came in and demolished everything. I guess the sergeant was trying to keep count of how many men he had.
In civilian life, a burning house is cause for alarm. Now it was normal. Houses are supposed to burn. The odor of old, dusty wood and straw burning is part of war. Smoke and manure and wet earth are smells required for war. Nobody tries to put out the fire.
Sounds had changed too. The soft sound of rubber heels wasn’t there. Now it was glass and shale breaking under foot, or mud sucking with each step. The noise of splintering wood. The old men of war no longer breathed as they once had; they wheezed and gave primordial grunts. And at night there was silence. No traffic sounds, no dogs barking, only the ceaseless wind blowing through a crevice in low moans.
Colors had changed from bright reds and blues and greens to gray. Everything was gray; the sky, the earth, the trees, the olive drab uniforms and the bodies inside them.
Gerry and I, like men in other houses, waited through the night. All shooting had stopped and the Germans, like us, were waiting for dawn. While you wait out the night there is little to do except think. Most thoughts are of morning and wondering if we would go after them or if they would come to us.
About Three A.M., the platoon sergeant came in and told us to come down to the street. We went down and joined the others. We lighted cigarettes without shielding match flames because the street was bright from the burning house. We waited for the explaination. No one asked for fear he would be the one to cause an unwanted answer.
Out of the darkness and into the light of the burning building came a column of infantry.
An infantry major, accompanied by a sergeant, came up to us as their column waited. The sergeant was in a bad mood and I didn’t blame him; coming into a strange situation in the middle of the night.
The sergeant sarcastically asked, “What’s the matter; can’t you guys take one little town without calling for help?”
I felt myself flushing with anger. You don’t like to be talked to that way. I was going to tell him to go back to wherever he came from, but was interrupted by the major who turned and asked, “How many men do we have, Sergeant?”
“About three hundred, I guess.”
The major turned to our platoon sergeant and asked, “How many men do you have in this town, Sergeant?”
“We came in with twenty-eight, Major.”
We told the infantry where we had last heard from the German army and they moved into the houses we had occupied. We stayed in town, but it was the infantry who continued the attack at day-break.
They moved down to the corner, just past the wall where Gerry and I had been shot at the day before. Almost immediately we heard the bridge over the nearby river go up with a loud explosion. These were a battalion of the 30th Infantry Division.
Most every soldier had pride in his unit and no outfit had more pride than the 30th Infantry Division. They were tough and knew it – so did the German Army. At one time they were dubbed, “Roosevelt’s S.S.”, but the U.S. Army quieted that down because of the reputation the German “S.S.” had off the battlefield.
Nineteenth Corps, both in the First and Ninth U.S. Armies, had units that were unsurpassed by any others. The 29th, 30th and 83rd Infantry Divisions and the 2nd Armored Division could not be outdone. My particular favorite was the 30th. Divisions could be moved in and out of a corps, but the 30th Infantry and 2nd Armored were almost constantly with XIX Corps. Of course the Red Horse Cavalry was an integral part of the XIXth.
This battalion of the 30th Division turned the corner where we had stopped and ran into fierce rifle and machine gun fire. They moved the Germans out of Bedburg, but left their dead on the streets to do it.
We had not taken part in this fighting, but had returned to the town where we had left our vehicles. We drove back to Bedburg and took up quarters in houses. Ganley and I found a good double bed on the second floor of one.
I woke up just after Noon. Gerry was still asleep so I quietly grabbed my rifle and walked down to the corner where we had stopped and the infantry had started this morning. Infantry-dead were scattered about doorways and sidewalks and on the street. While I stood there looking at them, a jeep pulling a trailer pulled up. It was a Graves Registration unit.
A lieutenant and two or three enlisted men got out. The lieutenant told his men, “Cut off the webbing (belt, canteen, first-aid packet and suspenders) and throw him in the trailer.” He was talking about the first body they came to.
I don’t know if the lieutenant had become hardened to handling dead men of if he was new and just trying to be casual, but his attitude struck me wrong.
I spoke to him; not his men, and said, “They can cut the webbing off, but they’ll pick him up and lay him in the trailer – easy.”
The lieutenant stood there a few seconds, looking at me. His men were looking at him. Nobody was smiling. He told his men to pick up the dead soldier. He didn’t tell them to lay the man in the trailer gently, but they did.
The dead man was just another G.I., another dog-face sojer, another hobo, but he was American-dead. He had come down here in the middle of the night and this morning he ran around that corner with his rifle at ‘high-port’ and caught one or more bullets in his body. He was entitled to some dignity. I stood there until they picked up all the bodies and drove off.
Bedburg-Lippe had Polish workers for the factory. These were part of the peoples from occupied countries brought into German to relieve their manpower shortage. It was forced-labor, but not under the same conditions as those put into concentration camps.
The factory, actually located in Lippe, was the same one we had searched when entering the town. There had been no one in the factory at the time and I never did see any finished products made there.
We had a man of Polish ancestry in the platoon who soon made friends with the workers and invited us all over to meet his friends.
We went over to the factory, where they had living quarters and shook hands all around . That was about as far as we got because the language was impossible for us to understand. We soon did learn the Polish word for “Cigarette” though as they bummed them from us. I think Poles can outsmoke any nationality in the world. They held the cigarettes between their thumb and forefinger, European-style. There was a small bottle of liquor that was passed around, but the happy atmosphere was created by these people who laughed easily and now could look forward to going home.
The laughter had to be interpreted for us, so there was always a gap. At the height of our party, if it could be called that, Lieutenant Strikawlski happened by. I guess he thought we were having such a good time he would join in. Our interpreter was talking fast to the Poles now. They would laugh and look at the lieutenant. This went on for a while until the lieutenant in fluent Polish spoke. We had forgotten the ancestry of the lieutenants name – and he had been the butt of the joking.
We hadn’t understood what our interpreter had been saying after the lieutenant came in, but it turned out he had been telling the Poles about the lieutenant’s short-comings. The lieutenant stood there listening to a detail description of his failings until he could stand it no longer. He exploded in indignation. He to was now threatening us with courts-martial for some infraction I think he made up for the occasion. We all dived for doors and windows while he shouted after us.
We stayed in Bedburg long enough for the rumor-mill to start again. Now we were going to stay in Bedburg as Military Government. The war was over for us again.
The morning after the episode with the Poles, Ganley and I walked down the street to where another underpass crossed the railroad tracks. Things were returning to normal and people were going to work. Only now, there was a check-point.
We stood watching a while. Woman between the ages of twenty to thirty had to produce the most identification. They were being especially questioned about their addresses and how to get there. The ladies giggled good naturedly. Older people had less questioning.
We asked one of the border-guards what they were doing and he replied that everybody knew we were military government, so they were checking everyone out. We asked if they had been told to do this. “Naw.”
The following day Gerry and I walked around town sight-seeing. We came to the city hall and out in front was ‘Frog’. Frog was a nonconformist who seldom passed up a drink and had an impulsive nature that led him into sticky situations. We greeted he; “Hi, Frog. What are you doing here?” He answered, “I’m Lieutenant Strikawlski’s driver.” We both asked, “You?”
Frog volunteered, “He’s Burgermeister now.” We asked who appointed him Burgermeister and Frog replied, “He did. He threw the German mayor out and took over his office.” We asked why and Frog stated, “Everybody knows were going to stay here as Military Government.” The lieutenant was acting on our latest rumor.
We asked Frog what the American mayor of a German town did. Frog said, “Anything he wants to. Right now he’s shipping all the civilians out of town.”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is he sending them?”
“Who knows? They just go down the road in trucks.”
The lieutenant was not around so Frog invited us in to see the office. Inside was a beautifully furnished room, befitting a burgemeister. Or a G.I. Mayor. While we were sitting there, with our feet up on the desk, the lieutenant walked in. He demanded; “What are you men doing here?”
We said, “Hi Lieutenant. We heard what a good job you’re doing so we thought we’d drop by. Do we call you Lieutenant, or Burgemeister?” He liked that and smiled.
The Lieutenant turned to Frog and ordered, “Driver, get my vehicle ready. I have some things to do.” I guess he had important governmental business to attend to.
The ‘driver’ winked at us and motioned for us to follow him outside. He said, “Get a load of this.” The lieutenant came out with a German saber strapped to his web pistol-belt. Shades of General Custer. Frog saluted, the lieutenant returned a snappy, but unorthodox salute. When he came around to our side, we also gave him a salute to complete the charade. We got the same response.
Frog was in the drivers seat and the lieutenant got in the right-front, but he didn’t sit. He grabbed the windshield with his left hand and drew the saber with his right. “Move out”, he ordered. Frog moved the jeep forward and turned to wink at us again. We watched the lieutenant, standing and swinging, but missing, at German civilians with his saber. The conquerer was wielding his authority. Ganley muttered, “Wait ‘til the Colonel catches him with that windshield up.”
We walked back toward our house and bumped into the ‘Bazooka Team’. I thought they had thrown the thing away.
“What are you guys doing?”
“We’re going to blow the safe in the Post Office.”
They looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.
We followed them into the Post Office. The Post mistress screamed in German so we sent her outside. The gunner took shelter in a doorway. The loader shoved a rocket into the rear of the launcher and patted the gunner on the back to let him know it was loaded. He tapped him again to tell him he forgot to connect the wires.
Finally they got everything in order and the gunner aimed and fired. The rocket swooshed the short distance down the hall and hit the safe. There was an explosion and then silence. We approached the safe. The rocket had hit dead-center and there was molten metal around the small hole. The safe still wouldn’t open and smoke poured out of the hole while the contents burned inside. Gerry and I walked around the corner to our house to take a nap.
Rumor had it that the lieutenant was transferred to Squadron Headquarters to relieve the strain of command, then sent to the Riviera for rest during which time the medics discovered he had some ailment that could only be cured back in the States. Just when we were beginning to like Military Government.
We continued on toward the Rhine River. The German Army had decided to withdraw to its east side and there was little combat for the rest of that drive.
We drove all day on departing Bedburg. It was after dusk when we entered a town. I didn’t like driving after dusk because chance took over and any skill was useless.
Part of what I considered my successful acumen for driving point was not taking any unnecessary chances with things or conditions that struck me as suspicious. I began to wonder if I was being too cautious, then one day later – on the drive to the Elbe, I looked back one time to see what the column was doing behind me. I had been driving in zig-zag to avoid recently repaired road surface. The column was zig-zagging in my tracks.
Now, the day we left Bedburg, we drove all day and it was getting into the dusk of evening. The worst time to see anything. We entered a town and heard shouting from behind. We looked back and saw a fire had broken out on the rear of an armored car. Camouflage netting had fallen down over the exhaust and had been set afire. The crew put out the blaze with CO2 extinguishers.
We got word that we were to stay in this town overnight. After driving continuously for twelve or fourteen hours, all we wanted to do was get some sleep.
We took over one house posted a guard outside. I was the last one in and found all the good places had already been taken, even floor-space. That night I slept on a wood table two feet wide without falling off or even awakening.
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