James D. Newton
“You guys are being too nice. How come I get the new jeep?”
“That one’s all beat-up. Ya can’t even keep it in second gear.”
“It’s another Ford. Don’t they send any Willys over here?”
“Fer crying out loud, stop griping and tell us what you want stenciled on it.”
We reached the Rhine in a couple days which, incidentally, concluded the Rhineland ‘Battle’. The army referred to campaigns as battles. They are designated by some special event or geographical area. Already behind from the invasion, were Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) and now, the Rhineland. Ahead lay only the Central Europe campaign. These were five ‘battles’ of Northern Europe. Other battles were designated in Italy and North Africa. And in the Pacific a whole different set of ‘battles’ were designated.
Upon reaching the Rhine on March 10th, 1945, we went to a staging area in a town on high ground, overlooking the Rhine Valley. We were going in dismounted again so we had to leave all the armored cars and most of the jeeps behind. E Troop’s assault guns and F Company’s tanks would remain back on the high ground.
We received a briefing from one of the squadron officers who told us we would have to get down the hill to our new positions under enemy observation. He said to drive down, full speed, to avoid being shelled. I don’t think he had made the trip himself. We loaded as many men as possible into the jeeps that were to make the trip down.
I led off through some kind of an arch leaving town and it looked like the hill to the river went forever. I shifted into second gear and we were making good time through the tall, new grass. Suddenly, I saw a trench or ditch of some kind coming up fast. That officer hadn’t told us about this… I hit the brakes and all four wheels locked up. There was no traction for breaking because the grass was so moist. We skidded into the ditch and stopped abruptly.
From a distance, it probably looked like a Keystone Cops comedy because the extra passengers in the jeep flew through the air. The soft earth and high grass probably saved them from injury and they all scrambled back into the jeep. My helmet, though. flew off my head on impact and sailed out in front of the jeep. We bounced backward and when we rolled forward, the helmet was smashed by a front wheel. Our destination was a large farmhouse three or four hundred yards from the river. We reached it without further mishap.
The farmhouse was an elaborate structure with buildings placed to form a square. The house, itself was on the river side of the square. Stalls and small animal pens formed the north side and more stalls and hay storage barn on the west side, except for an open driveway.
A cobblestone driveway surrounded a square-shaped pit in the center of the complex. The pit was filled with composting manure. If you like the odor of the manure, this was the place to be. Aside from the smell, the buildings were untouched by the war and extremely clean.
We had started running into civilians in the town after crossing the Roer River. We moved so fast between the Roer and the Rhine that civilians had nowhere to go. Unless a fire-fight started in a town there was no need to flee because we just drove on through.
This farmhouse on the Rhine was still occupied by the family that lived there and we didn’t chase them out because there was nowhere for them to go. Among these people was an attractive red-head about twenty-five years old. Naturally some of the guys were trying to make up to her despite the Supreme Headquarters order forbidding fraternizing with Germans.
After our arrival at the farmhouse, we got another lieutenant. He was all business and I think he intended to straighten us out. He immediately threatened any and all who spoke to the German civilians except in line of duty. I had the feeling he was either fresh from the States or at least hadn’t served on the line. He was in command. No one confronted him on any subject; we just went about our business knowing that he would probably soon be transferred, shot or come around to our way. Platoon Commanders get awful lonely when their men don’t speak to them.
The problem with the red-head was solved a few days later when an order came down to move all civilians back a thousand yards from the river. We moved them by jeep.
When we moved the civilians we couldn’t move the livestock, so we inherited cows, a bull, chickens, ducks and a dog. The dog was a beautiful, liver-spotted Dalmation male. He soon learned the joys of ridding in a jeep. Whenever I started the engine he jumped into the back seat and sat there with his ears flapping in the wind on the ride up the hill.
The bull was in his stall, but the cows were grazing out in the pasture. We used the jeeps to round them up. There was an attempt to rope them, cowboy-style, but our cowboys weren’t too adept with lariats. For some reason the Germans across the Rhine didn’t fire at us during the round up although we were in plain view. Fortunately we had a couple men who knew how to milk a cow and we had a steady supply of fresh milk.
Troop Headquarters learned we were in the cattle business and phoned down to make a deal for fresh meat. The 125th Cavalry was Iowa National Guard and several men had worked in the packing plant in Ottumwa. We agreed to let them butcher a cow in exchange for steaks.
They came down and shot a cow. I believe they thought we had steers. The cow was dressed-out in a rear shed and they hauled the carcass off. The best of beef should be aged for several days before eating, but our steaks arrived back down the same night. It was tough, but a treat in spite of that.
Our routine in this place, was to stay in the house during daylight with an observation post up in the attic. At night, we outposted several bomb craters closer to the river. The craters were ‘misses’ of the air corps bombing of Dusseldorf, about ten miles away. Again, we were so thinly spread that there were gaps of fifty to a hundred yards between the outposts.
We strung field-wire out to the holes we used and took phones out with us every night and disconnected them when we came in at daybreak. We ran the wire through our hands while walking out at night to find any possible breaks from mortar or artillery fire during the day.
In the mornings, upon our return from the craters, we went to the hen house and collected fresh eggs for breakfast. Others soon realized what we were doing and tried to get their eggs first by coming in earlier. We overcame this sneaky move by coming in a little earlier than they did. Of course they started in earlier still. We then came in a couple hours earlier and connected our phone right under the lieutenants window in case anyone called. We ended up not even going out to the craters at all. Just plug the phone in next to the house and stay there all night. All for fresh eggs.
In addition to outposting the bomb craters, we had a guard at the front door of the house. I took my turn at this duty. Since the Rhine was a large river, nobody was too worried about the Germans coming across. At least not without a lot of artillery preparation.
Two of us were on guard this particular night and when we thought the lieutenant had gone to bed we came in, out of the cold. We were trying to stay awake when we heard a knock at the door. No one knocks at doors in a combat zone so we naturally thought it was one of our guys playing around. I opened the door and said, “Hello.”
Standing in front of me was a young German soldier. He looked as surprised as I felt. He was about sixteen, clean-shaven and wearing the neatest German uniform I had seen. I said, “Come in.” that’s a phrase that sounds almost the same in German as it does in English. He was dismayed, but came in.
Beside our surprise, we realized we had a problem. Our platoon leader, the lieutenant, spoke German and would interrogate him before sending him to squadron for further interrogation. He would undoubtedly find out the German had to knock on the door to get captured. He wouldn’t be overjoyed with that.
We had no choice so we brought him in to the lieutenant, telling him we found him outside. The lieutenant probably interrogated him for intelligence purposes without asking details of the capture because we heard no more of it.
We learned from the lieutenant later, that the young Kraut had been on leave and returned to where he had left his outfit. The situation had changed drastically before he returned and when he asked the troops in his old position where his outfit was, some comedian told him it was across the river. He found a kayak somewhere and rowed across to our side. That would have been a pretty good endeavor even if it had been daylight without a war.
While the platoon leader was talking to the soldier we went outside to stand guard the way we should. We now realized we had another problem; The German had come across in some kind of boat. We hadn’t yet learned it was a kayak. We walked outside the courtyard a short distance and found the boat. We were familiar enough with the military mind to know that someone would reason that if the German could paddle across the Rhine to our side, there was no reason someone of us couldn’t paddle the kayak. We jumped on the wood and canvas boat until it was splinters and rags.
Somewhere, in stored-away army files, there are probably several memo’s, starting with C Troop, then 125th Cavalry Squadron, 113th Cavalry Group, XIX Corps and Ninth Army stating “they” had captured a German prisoner who gave certain information during interrogation. Nowhere will it be admitted that the poor dummy had to knock at a door to get captured.
We were waiting for the eventual river crossing and the days idled away. The Germans were probably saving their ammunition to repulse the attack and only threw an occasional round or two of mortar to harass us. One of these blew a tire on my jeep while it was parked in the courtyard.
We had to have supplies so we drove back up the hill to get them every day or so. Sometimes we took the ride even if we didn’t need supplies – just to break the monotony. “We”, was Zwer, my recon sergeant, maybe Ganley and my self.
We used roads instead of going cross-country as we had came down. The first road led out of the farmyard to a cemetery. There, we made a hard right and then hard left turn around the cemetery. The road continued on to a small town, where A Troop was located, and another right turn put us on the road back up to the top of the hill to the town of Norf.
We were under enemy observation from the time we left the farm house to the cemetery. Almost every time we went out mortar shells would follow us down the road, exploding a couple hundred yards behind. I never understood why the Germans didn’t zero-in on the cemetery and time their fire to catch us there – but they didn’t.
A Troop, in the town we had to pass through, took the punishment for our excursions. The Germans had a rocket launcher mounted on a tank chassis that fired a missile about fourteen inches in diameter. It could, and did, take the front off of three story buildings.
A few days after our arrival, they fired this weapon into the town occupied by A Troop whenever we drove through. The men of A Troop shouted obscenities at us as we drove by, then dove for cellars because the rocket was on its way.
Every time we went for a ride up the hill, I went out first and thoroughly warmed the engine. I didn’t want the engine to falter after we left the gate. While the engine was warming, the Dalmation came out and jumped into the jeep. The first time he sat in the front seat. Zwer came out and asked, “What’s that dog doing in my seat? Get him out of there.” I said, “I tried, but he’s Kraut. I don’t think he understands.” Zwer made a threatening gesture with his hand which must have been the same in German because the dog jumped in the back seat.
On one of our trips, after reaching high ground at Norf, we heard shouting. It was the young boy who lived in the house we were occupying down at the river. He had spotted the Dalmation so we gave it back to him. I think the dog would just as soon have stayed with us.
Now we lost our new lieutenant. This one disappeared and “Baldy” Bierman came back to the platoon. Baldy had been field-commissioned from the First Platoon. He was welcomed back because he was a good man and a good officer. His nickname, Baldy, did not reflect on his full head of hair.
After he was back a day or so, he came outside to where I was standing and asked if I wanted to be his driver. I asked, “Would that mean I won’t be point-driver?” He told me I could go back to point when we started moving again. He then told me I was the best driver in the platoon. Compliments don’t come too often in the army and I guess I looked at him kind of funny. He said, “I mean it.” I was greatly flattered.
The next day he said, “Let’s go.” I didn’t need much to get me going. It was better than sitting around the house killing time.
I started out the driveway and asked, “Where to?” He told me to just drive up the hill and he would tell me where to go from there. He was reading a map.
Baldy gave me directions as we drove along roads. I finally told him, “Why don’t you tell me where we’re going? I’m going to know after we get there anyway.” He said, “O.K., but this is confidential. I don’t want you telling anybody. I’m going to take a patrol across the Rhine and I’m going up in an artillery-spotting plane to look things over from the air.”
Artillery aircraft of World War II were Piper Cubs. They were top wing monoplanes with room for two; the pilot and an observer. Their function was to spot targets and direct artillery fire. The airplane offered no protection for the men inside, except maneuverability. Pilots and observers were the best. Hearing that little engine, early in the morning, meant that artillery from the Germans would stop or lessen because they could be spotted from the air. It was always reassuring.
I asked Baldy if I could go for a ride when he got back. He said it was alright with him if I could talk the pilot into it.
We arrived at the small air-strip and while Baldy was getting his maps and things together, I asked the pilot, a lieutenant, if he would take me for a ride after he brought my boss back. He said, “Sure, where do you want to go?” I suggested we might go up and buzz the guys back at the house. He said he wasn’t sure he should do that.
Baldy took off in the spotter plane and I waited for him in the jeep. They were up about a half hour and when they landed, Baldy got in the jeep and said, “Let’s go.” I reminded him that he said I could go for a ride in the plane and I had arranged it with the pilot. Baldy said, “I really don’t have time, Newt.” I didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day, but I guess he had more important things on his mind.
The next day Baldy came out to where I was loafing in the courtyard and asked if anyone else could handle the B.A.R. I told him I didn’t think anyone had been trained for it and asked, “Why?” He said he wanted the gun along on the patrol.
You learn early not to volunteer for any patrol, but crossing the Rhine at flood-stage adds another element of chance. However, since he was going and he wanted the gun along, I said, “I can handle it.” He told me he wasn’t taking any married men on patrol. I said, “You’re married.” Her replied, “That’s different, I have to lead the patrol.” That’s the kind of man he was. He named a man and I showed him how to load and fire the B.A.R. There wasn’t much to it except learning to hold the muzzle down when it fired.
On a bright, sunny March morning, I walked to the door leading out to the courtyard. Standing in the doorway was one of the quiet men of the First Platoon; a very quiet man. We had always spoken, but I had not become really close to him. Although he was friendly, he wasn’t close to anyone in the platoon. His gear was stacked just outside the door.
I asked, “What’s going on?” He said he was going home. In answer to my next question, he told me he had been overseas since 1943 and his rotation back to the States had come through.
“I thought you were Cavalry”
“No. I landed in Africa. I was Amphibious Engineers.”
He had either been wounded or had some illness and after hospitalization, he went through the replacement system.
“How did you end up in Cavalry?” He didn’t know. I guess it didn’t matter. I was trained as a Tank Destroyer and was now Cavalry.
“Are you married?”
“I guess so. I’ve had one letter since I’ve been overseas. I don’t know if that makes me married, or not.”
In the ensuing silence we both thought about that.
“What did you do for a living?”
“I’m a cowboy.”
“You mean a real cowboy? You rode a horse and everything?”
“Is that what you’re going to do when you get out?”
“It’s all I know.”
“It doesn’t sound too bad. Where you from?” He named one of the Southwestern states.
A jeep and driver pulled up in front of the doorway. He threw his duffle bag into the back seat.
“Take it easy”, I said.
“And – good luck.”
“Thanks. I guess I’ll need it. Take care of yourself.”
I watched him ride out of the courtyard and wondered what kind of a homecoming it would be for him. Maybe he had parents who would welcome him home. Of course, there would be other cowboys. There’s always more than one cowboy, isn’t there.
How would an engineer end up in cavalry? I thought about that for several days until it came to me. It was the army again. The pure, organized logic of the army.
You have a replacement you have to assign. You look at his 201 file. Under “Occupation” it says, “Cowboy.” Cowboy; horse. Horse; cavalry. Who says the army doesn’t know what it’s doing?
Baldy continued his preparations for the patrol. It is a big river and there were many considerations. The rest of us continued our routine functions.
One of these duties was to observe the enemy across the Rhine through a B.C. Scope, B.C. standing for Battery Commander’s. It is an artillery telescope with strong magnification. So strong, that it has to be mounted on a tripod because it can’t be held steady with hand only. We had the scope mounted in the attic of the house, on what would be the third floor. We could observe, with detail, the Germans and their equipment across the river. On one occasion, we watched them dig-in a tank for two days. After they got the hole dug, we called for artillery fire and knocked it out.
On a day when I had the detail, I took looks across every once in a while, to see what was going on. It hurt your eyes to look for too long at one time. While I watched, I noticed black smoke going up in the air, in puffs. I called E Troop by phone and told them I had a target. They asked, “What is it?” I told them it was a railroad engine, only I didn’t know how to adjust their fire. They knew we were and I described the town directly across the river from us. E Troop came back and said there was a station located there and they would shoot. A few seconds later, the man on the other end said, “Fire in the hole.” That’s another artillery euphamism meaning they have fired their guns.
We were on almost a direct line between E Troop and the target, so I waited to hear the relatively soft whistle of the little 75’s come over. Instead, I heard a much heavier moan of larger shells sailing past, overhead. I went to the B.C. scope and watched the target area.
I couldn’t understand what E Troop was firing, but the detonations in the town across the Rhine were big. They fired about sixteen rounds and the man from E Troop came back and asked, “How was that?” I told him we hat a hit because I saw a large cloud of steam rise up, which meant the boiler had been hit. I said , “That was great, but what are you guys shooting?” From the other end, the man laughed and said, “I thought you’d like that. We have a battalion of 105 howitzers attached, so they took the target.”
While most of us were idling away time, Baldy was making final preparations for his patrol across the Rhine. A patrol of this magnitude had to be arranged carefully. All things that go into a patrol had to be checked; dog-tags taped, anything else that made noise left behind, no papers to identify the unit, no shiny objects to reflect light. Guns and amounts of ammunition to be carried, radio equipment.
But this was a river crossing. The river was wide and the current, strong. Rubber rafts wouldn’t do, Engineer assault boats would have to be used. The noise of bringing the boats to the river and getting them across would have to be muffled.
The night came for the patrol to cross. Those of us who were staying behind wished the guys who were going, Good Luck. If they were discovered, their chances of any getting back were slim. At dark, we went to our bomb-crater foxholes and waited.
There were searchlights aimed at the clouds somewhere to the north of us. I don’t know if that was intentional or not for the patrol. Behind us, artillery started shelling the opposite shore. Under cover of the artillery, E Troops assault guns came down near our positions, just before the levees along the water, with combat engineer assault boats tied on top.
We watched as the patrol and engineers manhandled the boats to the ground. Once on the ground, they carried them to the river. After they went over the top of the levee, we lost sight of them. The artillery continued to cover the noise of the boats because they used outboard motors. The boats would have to fight the current to arrive at the specified landing site. The engineers would handle the boats and wait on the far shore until the patrol returned.
Combat Engineers were probably the most unglorified outfits in Europe during this war. Next to cavalry, of course. They were my favorite people. When the headlines in the States told a river crossing by infantry, there were combat engineers out putting up the bridges the infantry used. If there was a mine field, the engineers cleared it. If you wanted an area mined – the engineers put them in. If there was nothing else to do, or if they needed infantry, the engineers did that too.
After several hours the patrol returned from across the Rhine. They had made it without incident, but the strain of a mission like that is draining on nerves.
We lost Baldy again. He had been put in charge of the First Platoon just for the patrol. I lost my job as driver for the platoon leader and reverted to Point driver. There wasn’t much driving though, except for our trips up the hill.
Whenever we were without a platoon leader the platoon sergeant was in charge. A platoon gets to know what it’s supposed to do and there is not too much leadership needed; at least in combat. Most functions become routine and platoon members perform on their own. Too much leadership is just bad as too little. If you got a new lieutenant, trying to go by the book, he found himself having to give orders for every detail because the men would not do anything without being told. New officers learned that in a hurry.
We had only one casualty while on the Rhine River. It was our habit to walk out to our bomb-crater foxholes at night through another platoon’s position – except for two men who checked the telephone field-wire starting from our house. The other platoon was alerted to our presence in front of them this way.
On this particular night, while we were checking-in with that platoon, we heard a rifle-shot. One of the men in the other platoon saw our men walking in the field and, unable to recognize them in the darkness fired a round. One of the men was hit.
We brought him into an area where we could see his wound and found he had been shot through the fleshy part inside the thigh of one leg. This particular soldier had a reputation for griping; not that we all didn’t do our share, but he was more consistant. Someone brought a blanket to keep him warm and he was put in a jeep for the ride up the hill for medical help. As the jeep pulled away, we could hear him complaining about the dirty blanket around him and it was no way to treat a wounded man. A voice in the dark said, “The sonofabitch has a million-dollar wound and he’s still complaining.” (A “million-dollar wound” was any wound that would have no permanent crippling effect, but serious enough to be sent to the States.)
The Rhine crossing took place to the north of us. We immediately became operational as cavalry and moved into a staging-area near the bridgehead. This is where the army really shines and restores faith in the commanders who plan and execute the attack.
Ordinarily we could move on a minute’s notice, but crossing the Rhine held a little more significance. It is a wide river and once across those of us on the east bank would be committed. You go to stay.
We performed maintenance on vehicles and weapons with maybe just a bit more care than usual. I checked my jeep.
Fluid levels up to requirements, tires and spare checked. Two full, five-gallon cans of gasoline and one five-gallon can of fresh water in the rear rack that we had welded onto the back of each jeep. Two sand bags on the floor in front and two in the rear. Six boxes of fresh machine gun ammo in the rack over the right-rear wheel well. A fresh belt of ammo in the machine gun mounted behind the right fender. A new case of C-Rations tied to the wire-cutter on the front bumper. A case of .30 caliber M-1 Rifle ammo behind the front seats. Radio in working order, antenna tied down. Extra barrel for the machine gun. Box of grenades, grenade launchers, blank ammo. Personal gear in the rear rack. Blanket-rolls tied on the front fenders.
Headlights had been blacked-out from the beginning, but were checked. Horns, long disconnected, checked again. Everything that was not ‘issue’ had to be abandoned. Well – almost everything.
We would move out over the pontoon bridge in the morning. Now, just before dusk, Colonel Biddle came to inspect his Cavalry Group. It would be the last time the two squadrons were assembled until the war ended.
Big Six came to the First Platoon. He was ramrod straight, as always, while he inspected each vehicle and man. When he came to my jeep I realized that with all my careful preparation, I forgot to remove the bicycle horn with the rubber bulb at one end. We stood at attention, but I managed a glance at the colonel. He reached for the rubber bulb and squeezed slowly, probably hoping one of his finest couldn’t possibly have left such a thing in operating order. The horn emitted a half-hearted “honk”. “Get rid of it.” I did.
The next morning we waited at the assembly area just before the pontoon bridge with engines running. A vehicle that wouldn’t start would be left behind. The bridge had been thrown across the Rhine by engineers of XVI Corps after an assault using Navy landing craft.
The bridge undulated under the weight of our jeeps, M-8 Armored Cars, half-tracks, tanks and assault guns. Combat Engineers stood on the upstream end of occasional pontoons looking for mines the Germans might float down to destroy it.
The 2nd Armored Division had already crossed and turned southward to meet the 3rd Armored form the First Army to encircle a hundred thousand Germans in the “Ruhr Pocket.” We crossed without mishap or delay and fanned out to screen the 30th Infantry Division. The 83rd Infantry Division crossed and our sister squadron, the 113th, screened their front. The “screen” involved about 1400 men of our two squadrons spread over 35 miles.
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