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1—Family and College
My dad in partnership with another fellow owned and operated a laundry and dry cleaning business. He died when I was eight years old and the business gradually went to pot. The laundry and dry cleaning business gradually went the way of home washers, and laundromats took over the old commercial laundries.
He was by the standards of the 1920’s a fairly prosperous man, a prosperous merchant. After his death, in the 1930’s the business just went steadily downhill till about 1940 when I graduated from high school. We were genteel poverty, I guess you would say. My mother was crippled in the accident that led to my father’s death, and she was unable to work. She was really confined to a wheelchair and two crutches. She could hobble around on two crutches, but both her legs were stiff, so she was unable to work. Our family just gradually dissipated its resources till about 1940.
My mother and I lived at home, and usually there was a companion there. Not really a paid companion, but there were two people I can remember. They lived with us and in return for their living quarters they helped my mom, did most of the cooking and most of the housework. I suppose that was a fairly common arrangement. They were older women, and my mother’s age, but they were physically able to get around so they did most of the cooking.
I had one brother, but my brother was 13 years older than I and he was out of the home, virtually, by that time. Married. Most of the time he lived away. Married in the country.
I joined the Army in my junior year of college. I had, unfortunately for him and fortunately for me, a cousin who was named Louis Kuntz. He was a toll collector on the Huntington–Chesapeake Bridge all his life, a bachelor, and we were about the only relatives he had. I can remember him. He’d come to our house sometimes for Sunday dinner. All he did all his life to my knowledge was work as a toll collector on that bridge. The only passion he had, every year he’d take a vacation and went to Mardi Gras and stay about two weeks. What the hell he did down there I have no idea, but apparently he enjoyed it because he went every year.
His connection with me is that he passed away in the late 1930’s and he left a sum of money for me for a college education. He left a sum to my mother which she desperately needed at the time. He also left me several thousand dollars, which was a princely sum in those times. With this and a small scholarship that I got, I was able to go to Miami University at Oxford. At the outbreak of Pearl Harbor that’s where I was.
I would have been in my sophomore or second year. I did go back briefly for my junior year before I entered service. I entered service in January 1943 as a volunteer through the draft. That meant my draft number wasn’t up, but realizing that I was going to be drafted eventually I volunteered at that time.
Those that signed up for the draft, unless you claimed an exemption or physically had an exemption, you were put in 1A. At the draft board you were given a number, a classification, 727 or something like that. Then by lot they drew those out in age classifications, taking what I suppose was considered a premium age first. Probably the best soldiers were nineteen to twenty–two or twenty–three years old and they were the first to go.
I was studying pre–law, with a major in history. I graduated actually after the war, but that’s a little further on. I graduated with a major in history and romance languages. I went there with the intention of taking a pre–law course.
World War II was much different, much different climate, much different time, much different attitudes of young people instead of like the Vietnam War or maybe even the Korean War. Most young people I knew, most were gung ho to get in the Army. They weren’t raring, but they were I don’t want to say resigned to it, but they felt that it was something that they must do. And should do, even.
People with 4–F’s—there were deferments in those times, there were mostly deferments in critical industries and/or agriculture and/or family hardship. If you were sole support of a family, sometimes you could get a deferment on that. Farmers could get a deferment. Skilled workers, if their companies would attest for the need for ’em, particularly if they were in critical defense industries were deferred. Student deferments per se were not.
What many college–age people did was to go in the so–called officer training programs right after college. They had classification V–6’s and V–2’s. I think V–6 was under the Navy program. You could go in to Navy, if you signed up for the Navy, but you stayed in college and took your basic training in an ROTC outfit. But it wasn’t a deferment from service to study. You were part of the Navy, but obviously the Army, the Navy and the Air Force was expanding greatly and they had need for officers. This was one way of getting officers, putting these ROTC units at the various universities. Now Miami had a Navy unit. Ohio State probably had all of ’em. A place like Otterbein might have had an Army unit. Or Ohio U. might have had an Air Force. But Miami had a Navy. I applied for that, but I couldn’t pass the physical for a naval officer.
That draft put me in what they call a 1–B category, which is supposed to be limited duty. You’re supposed to be a clerk or like this. It was ironic. I ran into a lot of 1–B’s. As the war progressed the 1–B’s became 1–A’s very quick.
I can recall a few people and none very close to me who were conscientious objectors. There were a few of those. I’m trying to think back now. A lot of ’em wound up in the medics, but I don’t know why. I don’t know whether there was any intent or that was an underground thing among them to go in the medical corps or whether the Army and the Navy shunted them to that, but there were a lot of ’em in the medics. But I don’t remember very many conscientious objectors.
Colleges and universities had a conspicuous lack of able–bodied men. The Army and Navy sports teams just ran rampant over everybody they played. Many small colleges gave up sports, because they didn’t have enough people. Most colleges and universities had—their salvation was the training that they did for the Army, Navy or Air Force, for the armed services, large contingents of these officer trainees or trainees in some sort of combat skills. That’s what kept a lot of colleges afloat together with doing research for the military for one type or another.
I went back to Miami in the fall of ’42, and what they had were overaged 4–F’s, kids too young to get in the Army. Seventeen–year olds who weren’t eligible for the draft. Seventeen–year olds could volunteer, training units, the V–6, the naval ROTC. They were big numbers, the Naval ROTC wouldn’t have fifty or seventy–five, there would be several hundred of ’em.
2—Enlistment and Basic Training
I went back to Miami in the fall of ’42 and stayed there a couple of months and then I came home and left school at the start of my junior year because I could see that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the year. That I would most certainly be drafted. So I came back home and spent several weeks at home before I signed up and went through the draft.
I signed my papers in January of 1943. My mother was regretful, sad, but resigned to it, because everybody was going. There was no thought of objecting to it. I never felt any community pressure, overtly, but 4–F was a scornful term. A very denigrating term. Also 4–F and people who got deferments were taunted because they’re not one of our boys over there. This was a...I guess you’d have to call it a popular war if there is such a thing as a popular war.
Prior to going we went to Columbus and I think it was what they call Fort Hayes there for a physical. That’s when I got this 1–B classification and secretly I was, I suppose, relieved, because I wanted to be a soldier, but I wasn’t damned sure I wanted to get out there in trenches and shoot somebody and carry on. So I thought, well, all right, this is better.
I came back and within a matter of almost ten days or something like that you were ordered to report. My first place I reported was induction at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, down by Cincinnati. I was there ten days maybe, ten days, two weeks at the induction center where they issue you clothing. Really there’s no training to it. You did some guard duty. I forgot what the hell we guarded, the mess hall I guess. Or something. You policed the area and that’s about all. Typical.
The recruits there were from the Ohio Valley and Indiana and down the River. I didn’t go with any particular close friends. I made friends with a boy there and we went through basic training together…a boy from down in the Portsmouth area named Ray Davis.
My wife always laughs. All through training and everything that went on, he said his goal in life was to be a motion picture projectionist. I don’t know why. That’s what he wanted to be. Motion pictures were a big deal at that time and you could see all the movies free. It was a good job and he said he didn’t like to get up in the morning. He said it would be good. He says, “All I ever want to do is get out of this man’s Army and go back and get on that N & W train and get off at Portsmouth and get on that overhead bridge there and look out there and see Navoo in the distance.” Whenever we go to Portsmouth, my wife gets so sick of hearing me, I say well, we ought to stop on this bridge and look for Navoo in the distance. See if I can see Ray over there, you know.
It was just one of those little things that strike in your mind. We were bedded down close together and we struck up a friendship in the induction center. We happened to go to the same place for basic training, which was a place called Camp Maxey, near Paris, Texas, which is up in the northeastern part of Texas, not too far from Texarkana.
It would have been in February. Funny climate. We rolled in there on a train and we could see these GI’s and everybody. We came in on Sunday, it seemed to me like a weekend or something. Anyway, they weren’t in drill. They were in off–time. They were lounging around in front of the barracks and everywhere getting suntans, some of ’ em in shorts. Maybe a volleyball game.
We got in there late in the afternoon and they just shoved us in a barracks. We didn’t get issued anything. It got so goddamned cold that night I thought we were going to freeze to death. A peculiarity of that area. I guess it gets hot in the daytime and cooler than hell at night. Anyway, that’s where we went, to Camp Maxey and the basic training was for, and I presume possibly because of my 1–B classification…this wasn’t infantry, this was a military police outfit.
Basic training in a military police outfit. Now the basic training in the Army in those days, whether you were a military policeman or a paratrooper or a finance officer, basic training was basic training. It’s about the same thing. But this was a military police training area. All of ’em there were presumably going to be military police of one kind or another. Now how I got assigned there I don’t know. What made the Army send me and Ray Davis to there, because we weren’t anything like military policemen. They had openings there at that time and here were some bodies and they sent ’ em, I presume.
A couple years afterwards, after lots of experiences in the Army, assignment to an infantry division overseas, combat, wounded, back, combat, I’m traveling. The war’s over and they gave everybody a three–day leave back to Paris. I’m riding in the back of a truck. It’s just a personnel carrier, and we came through there and it was on one of those big avenues, whether it was the Champs Elysses or something I don’t know.
We were stopped for traffic there and we were heading toward an R & R center in Paris and it’s a bunch of combat guys back from Germany and the war’s over. There’s this guy directing traffic. He was an M.P. There’s a buddy who was in basic training with me, a fellow named Kelley. So Christ, I stopped off and I said “Kelley, where in the hell you been?”
“Ah,” he says, “it’s been a long war. I finished basic training there, and went to New York and did some M.P. duty, then I went to London and did some M.P. duty there for a while, and now we’re here in Paris doing M.P. duty.”
I felt like punching him right in the damn nose because I left the M.P. thing for the great A.S.T.P. Program. I don’t know whether you know what that is. I’ll explain it to you. But here was this guy. If I had stayed there. Now it was my choice not to. That’s where I would have been. I would have spent my war years as an M.P. in New York, London, and Paris which would have been a hell of a lot more exhilarating experience than I went through.
Back to basic training. I don’t know what the Navy or the Air Force did, but the basic training in the Army was basic training no matter who was doing it. It was rifle training, marksmanship, military discipline, the classes on V.D., aircraft identification, that kind of stuff. No particular M.P. training. I don’t know what period of time. It runs in my mind we’re talking seven, eight, nine weeks, something like that. It was probably a little more abbreviated in war time than it is in peacetime basic training. I don’t know what that was.
There was no brutality in basic training. Our First Sergeant, I remember him well, was a man named Bonnamo and he was a robust, barrel–chested, almost movie typecast First Sergeant. East Coast somewhere, Sergeant Bonnamo, but he was more bluster than he was brutal. No, I don’t recall any brutality of any kind, not even any real humiliation, either mentally or anything else. It was a civilian army and pretty much everyone there was out of civilian life. There were a few old Army types around that they had in these training cadres, but all of us were really trying to learn how to be an Army, I think. Because, hell, they raised ten million people in an Army that was less than a million people, maybe less than that many. It expanded so rapidly that everybody was just kind of learning on the job.
You had officers, but the sergeants basically did it. You had some specialists coming in and then you’d go to the range and you’d have gunnery officers and gunnery sergeants that did it. The close order drill, lots of close–order drill. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s the British tradition or something in the army. You had to learn to march and do all the damned fancy maneuvers and almost like a drill team.
The sergeants may have been people that came in in ’40, ’41 when the draft first started. Or volunteers. Ther e was a sprinkling of Army officers and reserve officers. In your Sergeant Majors and your higher officers, there were even World War I retreads still around, that were involved in the training process.
Really the only dangerous thing you did in basic training, and everybody feared it, was the so–called obstacle course where you had to crawl on your belly under the barbed wire and they pop up explosives around you. Then you had to scale a fence and work your way through a maze and then crawl under the barbed wire while they were firing bullets and they told you they were real bullets. Whether they were or not I don’t know. I didn’t reach my hand up to figure it out.
They kept your nose to the ground. They did mine. So I completed that and then I started in what they call the more specialized M.P. training. I started getting classes in Military Police discipline and handling of recalcitrant soldiers and what not. Police duty.
We were in a barracks. Parts of the base as I remember it were two story, and parts were one story, but they were all narrow dormitory beds lined up with a center aisle, beds lined up on either with your foot locker in front of your bed and that’s about it. And the washroom.
In basic training passes were very limited. I don’t remember whether you had to go through the first seven or eight weeks before you got a pass. I think that’s correct. I think you were confined to the base. Now after the training day there were PX’s and as I remember there was a movie. There was a PX where you could shoot pool, play cards. After that, if you were not on guard duty or kitchen police or something like that why you could get a weekend pass.
I don’t remember any unusual incidents about basic training. About the only people I can remember from basic training were this Davis and this Sergeant Bonnamo. I don’t even remember the officers because after about ten or eleven weeks, seven or eight weeks of the basic training and then several weeks, I don’t know how many went into the advanced training, I became aware of this A.S.T.P. Program. Many of us did.
3—Army Specialized Training Program
This was named the Army Specialized Training Program. Anybody that scored high enough on the I.Q. test could apply for this program. The idea was they would pluck you from your units, retain the same rank. They would send you to college and give you a very intensive specialized eighteen–month course in engineering, language or occupation skills, military occupation skills.
As it was explained to us, the Army felt that…now you’re talking, you’re getting into ’43. The Army could see victory ahead. Somebody over in Washington or somewhere could see victory ahead. The world’s going to be pretty well devastated. We’re going to have to run it. We’re going to need people with language skills, lots of people in various countries. We’re going to need people, many, many people with engineering skills and many, many people with occupational administrative skills.
I was interested first in language skills because I’ve always been interested in language. So I applied for that. My second choice was the administrative occupation because I was in the M.P.’s. I thought, hell, I know a little bit about M.P. stuff in occupation. I was accepted in the program in the engineering division, of course. That was the Army. I was much more suited to the language course and I never had a goddamned bit of engineering training whatsoever, but they accepted me and I really don’t think they paid a hell of a lot of attention to any quality analysis of people. It was just where they needed bodies, the bodies would fit.
I was accepted to the engineering program and sent with about three or four hundred others from all over to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. I don’t know whether you know anything about Lafayette or Easton. Easton is forty or fifty miles up the river from New York City and Lafayette, I’m sure you’ve heard of Lafayette. It’s an old, well–known smaller Ivy League school up there. I started in the engineering program, very intense. Right now you’re in differential calculus, organic chemistry. Never had any of this damn stuff.
College people taught these courses. There were one or two regular Army corporals, sergeants. There might have been one lieutenant there in charge of the detachment. But we lived in the dorms. Three or four hundred. We wore Army issue clothes, but for all intents and purposes we were college students. They did get you up early in the morning for your P.E. exercises. They did do that. You did have to sign in and out if you went to town or something like that, but it was very, very lax. No real military training at all. Once or twice we’d get in a column and we’d march somewhere and somebody comes in to give you a lecture on hygiene or the perils of sex, but very, very little, because it was supposed to be intensive work.
The people who dreamed up this program didn’t want your mind burdened with a lot of military stuff because they were shooting this other stuff at you. They were giving you a four–year college engineering college course or language or whatever. In this case it was engineering at Lafayette in eighteen months. They really threw it at you. Surprising to me, I did pretty well in it. I think probably spurred by the thoughts of them barracks back there in Texas and the sergeants and corporals and K.P. and what not. Here I am, hell, living a fancy eastern college and good food.
No real restrictions. You could go out in the evening. I think on weekdays there was a curfew time you’re supposed to sign back in the dormitory. You lived in dormitory rooms with two or three guys, just regular college rooms and you could go to town, eat where you like if you had the money. Go into Easton.
People treated you royally. You’re almost ashamed. You couldn’t buy a drink in a bar. If you took public transportation, a taxi or something like that, most of the time they wouldn’t charge you, just because you were in uniform. Hell, we weren’t really soldiers. We didn’t feel like soldiers, you know. We were up there. They had a regular college going on right along with us. There were many people there as I remember it. The enrollment must have been way down from what is normally. Colleges weren’t big in those days. Miami, now, is the smallest of the old land grant colleges and Miami must have sixteen, seventeen thousand. When I went to Miami they only had about twenty–five hundred students, three thousand. So colleges were smaller. Populations were smaller. I was up there three months and I went to New York City a couple times, went to Easton a number of times.
My rank was private. When I went in the Army my pay was thirty bucks a month. Gradual raises came along, but they weren’t much. I’d say less than fifty dollars. Now, I don’t remember what it was up there at Easton. That’s what I got, what a private got in the Army. Might have been forty dollars or forty–five dollars by the time we got up there. They kept pumping in a little raise now and then. Went to town often. No problem getting a date. I mean, there weren’t any young men. We were it.
I was there three months and then for some reason or other they transferred a whole bunch of us out of there to Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. I don’t know why. I don’t whether I knew why at the time or I’ve forgotten, but some remained in Lafayette. Maybe they needed somebody down there at VPI. I don’t know. I went down there. Same deal, but a little more armyish down there.
They were cadets there. That was a military school, VPI. We used to get quite amused at ’em cause we were actually in the damn Army, but boy, these guys were spic and span. They’d march them cadets around, and “Yes, Sir!” and all that kind of stuff, you know, West Point stuff. We’d stand there laughing and making fun of ’em and they were kids to us. We were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old and these were fifteen, sixteen year olds, seventeen year olds. Everyone that got through there came out an officer at that time particularly and we were privates and what not.
We’re down there, same circumstances, Blacksburg is just a backwater southern town, not much there. You had to go to Roanoke to get any entertainment or night life or bars or girls or anything else. About the only way you could get to Roanoke was on a train and I went to Roanoke once or twice but not often in six months. Lafayette was a lot better deal, everyone felt. Well, the ASTP program, I dont think it ever completely shut down, but now we’re nine months into it.
All of a sudden things started heating up over in Europe. Tseche Italian campaign is started. They’re getting ready for the invasion. They’re going to need bodies. So, somebody somewhere decided that we got all these boys in these colleges all over the country. They’re all young, they’re full of piss and vinegar. It’s time to get them back in the fighting war. Now maybe, maybe they’d trained enough in the nine months. The long and short of it is… ASTP’s over. It was about April of ’44.
Now this was kind of a traumatic experience. Here we come, a bunch of us were sent to the 84th Infantry Division, which was stationed at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. The 84th Infantry Division was kind of a funny division. The 83rd and 84th were so–called sister divisions. They trained close together. I don’t know where the 83rd was, but it wasn’t far from there.
This was sort of an experimental program in the Army. Most of the guys in the 84th Division were older men, now I’m talking thirty through thirty–six, thirty–five. Most of the guys in the 83rd Division were pups. They were eighteen, nineteen year olds. The idea was they’d take these two divisions and train ’em side by side, do the same things with ’em and see who handled it better or whether you had to go slower for older people. Like I say, training an Army was a new thing for this country, and they’d never taken so big. Train in vast numbers. They didn’t know whether you should go slower on older men or whether you go faster or whether you had to have more psychological training for younger men or older men or what.
The 84th Division had been at its outset an experimental training division. But, as in most divisions in the states, they bled these divisions for replacements for casualties in Africa, Sicily and elsewhere, and in the Pacific. That’s why they reached into the ASTP to get the bodies to flesh out these divisions, because they were down to half strength, maybe. All right, here’s a division of old guys that’s been down in Louisiana training maybe for anywhere from a year and a half to maybe longer or maybe some of ’em six months. Anyway, old guys most of ’em in their early thirties, mid–thirties, some of ’em even in their forties that they had there. They’d been out in the god–damn swamps down there, eat up with chiggers and eating Army food and all the vicissitudes of Army life for older civilians. Here come this train load of college boys in. Who are these guys?
In comes this trainload of fresh young, young kids, all privates. These guys, most of ’ em that’s left are PFC’s or corporals or sergeants or staff sergeants or what not.
“Well, who are you guys” “Where you been?”
“Oh, well, we’re the ASTP boys. We’ve been in Princeton, been VPI, been Ohio State, been here and there and we’re comin’ in here.”
“Oh, you are?”
You can imagine what a trauma there was. We lived pretty hard because we’re going to show you college boys what the Army’s all about, see? I think they were a little fearful because here’s a bunch of young college–educated boys and they’re only a private and I’m a corporal or sergeant and hey, maybe he’s going to get promoted over me or something like that. Or he’s going to get my job. It took a little time to get together, so almost immediately we then went into maneuvers and advanced combat infantry training because they wanted to get these boys ready. What they were doing is getting the division ready for overseas.
The training consisted mostly of field maneuvers and war games. We went out in the damn swamps. We lived out in the field for weeks at a time and forced marches, setting up perimeter defense, digging holes, setting your kitchens up, simulating casualties so that the medics could practice. Everything. Practice war, practice river crossings, practice taking cover from approaching aircraft, unit combat infantry training. Much more intensive weapons training on, like, machine guns, mortars and BAR’s and other machinery of the infantry soldier at that time.
This is in April and May of ’ 44. April, May and June. About through the summer we went through this and I think it was either late August or early September they loaded us up and we went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, which was an embarkation point for shipment to Europe and Africa. Here again I’m still thinking well, somebody over there will look at them records at Camp Kilmer and they’ll see that I’m 1–B and I’m not supposed to be a combat soldier. They won’t put me on that ship. They’ll take me off there and send me somewhere else to do something.
Most of these old guys in the 84th Division…it was started as an old division and they’d taken replacements out. Well, they took out the best, the best physical, and a lot of these old guys were the same classification I was, 1–B. For one reason or another they weren’t supposed to be combat. A lot of ’ em, a lot of us felt like there’s no way they’re going to send us overseas. We’ll get up here at Kilmer. Well, we never thought we’d leave Camp Maxey in the first place. We thought they’d leave us behind and just take the more physically qualified. So well, they put you on a damn train and send you to an embarkation port. You think well, they’ll stop us here. We’ll never get on that ship. Well, the whole goddamn division went on troop ships and we set out.
We’re supposed to land in France. For some reason we were supposed to land at Cherbourg, but an air attack or weather or something like that delayed us, we were diverted and they landed us at various points in England. The particular Liberty ship I was on landed at Southampton.
A Liberty ship is a small cargo vessel. We had some fairly rough weather on it. I have a pretty good stomach. I don’t get seasick. Many were. Terrible conditions. The holds in the ship may be this high. They might have four bunks up here just jam–packed in there. Puke, vomit all over the place. Many guys–I don’t suppose they ate over two or three times the whole trip over and I don’t remember what it took –– ten, twelve days maybe. Probably the whole regiment was on that ship. Probably fifteen hundred, two thousand people.
An infantry platoon had three squads. Now I was in what they called weapons platoon. Mortars and light machine guns were the two weapons that we had. It was sixty millimeter mortars and light machine guns. We had two mortar and three machine gun squads which made up the fourth or the weapons platoon. In each squad, mortar or machine gun, you had a squad leader, then you had the gunner that carried the gun. You had an assistant gunner who carried the plate, the base that you set the damn gun down on, and you had two ammunition bearers. Two or three ammunition bearers. I don’t know what the M.O. called for but some would have two and some would have three.
The two mortar squads had a mortar sergeant who would be a buck sergeant. Then there’d be a machine gun sergeant. Then there’d be the platoon sergeant who was over both squads—mortar and machine gun. Then he had two what they called runners that were messengers, supposedly.
An infantry platoon had three squads headed by a buck sergeant. I think there were ten men in each squad and a squad leader. He was a sergeant. Then you had a staff sergeant who was a platoon leader and he also had two runners. Then so you had one, two, three infantry squads. That would be roughly thirty people.
Of course, you had a platoon leader who was, supposedly he was a lieutenant. Now that worked back in the states. When you got over to combat usually you didn’t have that man included. They didn’t last very damn long. The platoon sergeant who was a tech sergeant would usually run the platoon. Usually, if you were in combat a few days you lost the platoon leaders. You didn’t have enough officers left. Officers fell quickly on the line. You’d be lucky to have your company commander and then the exec officer and maybe one other second lieutenant somewhere. The platoon sergeants generally ran it. Then of course you had your headquarters people, your company clerk, your company commander, your mess sergeant, cooks, supply sergeants.
There were three infantry platoons in a company. And a weapons platoon. Four platoons. Three rifle platoons and one weapons platoon. There were three rifle companies in a battalion and a weapons company. The battalion was organized somewhat similar to the company.
The weapons company in a battalion had heavier mortars, what they call an eighty–one millimeter, and they had the big fifty caliber machine guns. At the battalion level you also had what they call a G–2 officer, an intelligence officer and various other staff officers at the battalion level. Usually a major or a lieutenant colonel commanded a battalion. Companies were commanded by captains.
Here’s a roster of the 84th Infantry Division. That’ll tell us something, maybe. 334th Infantry Regiment. Okay, let’s see what they got here. Headquarters Company, 334th Infantry, so there was a Headquarters Company in the regiment. A service company is the next one. A cannon company. This is the regimental level. Now there’s a three rifle battalions in there that are in this. An anti–tank company. A medical detachment. Okay, I guess that’s it.
Then you go to your battalions which had a headquarters company and three line companies. There were three battalions in a regiment. Our regiment was the 334th. I was in Baker Company or B Company which was in the First Battalion, so it was one of the line companies in the First Battalion. The other two regiments in there of course were the 333rd and the 335th and they made up the 84th Division.
There are three regiments in a division. When you get to the division level now in combat situations many times you’d get units attached to you. We even had British companies attached under regimental command. You’d have a British tank company because most of our combat was done on the far northern flank of the American sector of the Allied lines, so we were flanked on the left almost entirely by British through most of our campaigns. So, many times there would be British companies assigned to us.
The British seemed to have, I don’t know whether it was just attrition, we always had, what do you call ’em, the mines–sappers that cleared mine fields, cleared a path through the mine field. They were almost always British. I don’t know whether they had particular expertise in that or it’s just a fact that we were bucked up against them. The British soldiers almost always did that kind of stuff. We had British tank companies assigned to us. We had British medics from time to time. You’d get what they call a combat force or something and you’d have a couple of regiments here and maybe a couple of British units and some air support or something. One guy would be in charge of the strike force, but anyway this was the organization of it.
Thirty–five hundred, four thousand maybe, people in a regiment. A full division had about fifteen thousand men in it. You had three regiments in a division, but to make up fifteen thousand, they have a lot of people at division headquarters. There was division artillery and there’d be division intelligence, division engineers, and that kind of stuff, so the regiments would make up maybe say thirty–five hundred. There you’re talking about ten thousand five hundred people. The other three thousand five hundred would be special staff.
Well, basically you’re foot soldiers but in the latter stages of the war, they found that the truck movements…they’d go around people. We were in Europe…there was a highly developed road network there, particularly after you got in Germany. Germany had good roads. The damned autobahn, they were the first superhighways in the world. We’d sail along that damned autobahn and you’d just go clear around pockets of resistance. Just leave ’em behind there and let ’em wither on the vine.
So we landed at Southampton. We were trucked, trucked or marched I don’t know which. I rather think trucked to a great little town called Winchester. I don’t know whether you ever been there or not. Lovely town. I just loved it. My battalion was garrisoned in the regular quarters of the so–called Winchester Royal Rifles. They had that all over a sign there. They were an old line British Army outfit which was serving somewhere and we used their quarters. We got there sometime in September. We were there about a month. Maybe not quite a month. Maybe five weeks, I’m not sure.
This was after D–Day. We went over as a division. I was in B Company, Weapons Platoon. I was an ammo bearer, carried ammunition for a mortar. I had to carry the damned ammunition. Well, everybody in mortar squad had to fire the mortar. If the gunner got shot, why somebody had to shoot the damned thing. But, basically, you carried the damn mortar shells. As many as you could carry. You just carried ’em in a damn sack attached to you.
A sixty millimeter mortar shell looked something about like this. I guess they weighed two or three pounds. Two fists together, about like a potato–shaped thing. Well, you’ve seen mortar shells. My memory’s hazy. Maybe that’s too big, I don’t know, but you could hold one of ’em in your hand easily, no problem. You had to because that’s the way you inserted the damned things.
You had your own pack on, I’d say you carried, damn, I’m not sure, I’m going to say you carried maybe twenty of them damn things and you might have carried forty, forty–five pounds of those with you. Yeah, plus whatever other gear you had. We had carbines, you had a sidearm. Now the rifle companies had the M–1’s, the old Garand. Weapons people had, well, after we got over there a lot of ’em just carried pistols. When you got up in combat you didn’t pay much attention to the Table of Organization. Then you did what you damned please, what felt better to you and what you felt took care of you better, but carbine was what you were supposed to carry. Ammo bearers. Now, the gunner carried, the squad leader carried pistols.
You only carried this load when you were in a combat situation. If you were on maneuvers or something like that, now. If you’re on a march or something like that, they’d put ’em in a goddamned truck. We didn’t have to carry ’em all the way over Europe. Just when we were going to go out and shoot the damn things. Now when we first went in combat I very quickly became a runner. I got out of goddamn carrying that damn load. The platoon lieutenant needed me and he made me a runner, which suited me just fine.
Back to Winchester. Winchester was pleasant. After we come off Louisiana, Camp Claiborne, hard training, summer training down there in them damn swamps, eat up with chiggers. It’s funny. Chiggers didn’t bother the old guys. I couldn’t understand that. They’d go out there and lay around that damn stuff and chiggers didn’t bother ’em and they’d just eat me up and all the other ASTP guys. We found out, after about a week or so out there, you got immune to the damn things. They wouldn’t bother you. Hell, they bite you. You get ’em. In my case and most cases you get over it. You just get used to it, I guess. Your system builds up its own immunity to ’em.
Most of the training we had was useful because it hardened you. It didn’t teach us about combat. No, no. No, I don’t think any training can. Combat was something totally alien to anything I’d ever experienced in my life.The training helped, but the training didn’t really prepare you for what you were getting into.
Yeah, that’s all. We just waited to get transported to France. We were in Winchester about a month, went down to the pub and played shove ha’penny and threw the darts, drank the beer, wandered around the town, dated the girls. Winchester’s a beautiful town. I just enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. This was Fall, and it was pleasant weather most of the time. I enjoyed the countryside and the little village.
We had a pretty good bit of freedom of movement. They just wanted to keep track of you. We didn’t do much training there. Hardly any at all. Calisthenics in the morning. They showed you a hell of a lot of films that you had to be there. You were pretty much in the barracks all day, except for weekends. In the evening you were pretty much on your own. You had guard duty or something like that. We always went almost every evening down at the pub. Then on weekends you stroll around, and you get so you can see like Winchester Cathedral.
You had to have a pass. You signed out. They weren’t too tough to get. I had one weekend pass in London. That was enjoyable. Went to Picadilly Circus. I got there on Saturday afternoon and I spent the night with a girl somewhere. In the morning, come back Sunday. A room somewhere. Picadilly Circus. Of course that’s where all the damn prostitutes were.
None of us had any idea of what the hell we were getting into over there other than just hearsay and what you would imagine and what you’d see in movies. We were there I think in the neighborhood of a month. I went one weekend to London, but we had a good bit of free time right in the Winchester area on foot. We had an opportunity to explore that town, which is a nice little town. I enjoyed that.
It was a kind of an exciting time, you have to say that. Of course for an infantry soldier it was an apprehensive time. It was for me and I think for most of us because it was fairly evident by then that the war in Europe at least was drawing toward its end. It was also very damned evident that we were going to get put right in the thick of the thing. I think there was a good bit of apprehension, but, as you say, it certainly was an exciting time. It was for me and I think for most people.
Of course, hell, for a kid from Ironton that had never been too much of anyplace, even going to England was an exciting time and seeing the damn white cliffs of Dover even from a troop ship or something like that was fun. You got a little taste of the English culture. As a billeted soldier in a small village you’re thrown in most with the other people in the company. About all the English we saw were the people you would meet in the pubs and maybe chance acquaintances you might meet on a weekend stroll through the village. So as far as getting really much of a taste of English culture, no we didn’t. We really didn’t have much chance to do that.
We landed somewhere in Normandy. I think it was Omaha Beach. Of course, Omaha Beach didn’t mean too much to me then. We got there probably late October or early November. Let me refresh my memory with this book here. It was in Normandy and it was before they had the so–called Patton breakthrough, or the breakthrough when they raced through France. There was still a fixed line or enclave that the British and Americans held, but you were still pocketed pretty well in Normandy there. If you remember after D–Day they were pretty well tied down to Normandy there for several weeks before there was a breakthrough.
We landed on a beachhead, I think, because I know we went off in some kind of a shallow draft landing craft and that took us up to the beach and you got out and you waded in water up around your ankles.
Then we stayed in Normandy, I don’t know how long. I’m going to say a week, week and a half, a couple of weeks. In that time there were a number of the men in the outfit were drawn off into what they called the Red Ball Express and a lot of our equipment was taken off because you were in this little pocket in Normandy here. The Third Army, Patton gets the credit for this thing, they broke out of this pocket and they raced across France in sort of a pincers movement. They bypassed Paris or there was no resistance in Paris, and once they broke out of this pocket in Normandy, there was some severe fighting in Normandy. You could see towns there that were heavily damaged, or you could see there had been a great deal of artillery and some pitched battles and heavy battles. The damn roads were depressed. There were high banks on the roads.
And these hedgerows. There were all these damn hedgerows that split up little individual farming plots and individual orchards and they were almost impenetrable. They were thick, because the French peasant, he’s a fiercely individual land proprietor and he put good fences around his home. Well, he didn’t put any fences. They put these hedgerows, and you could use those for pretty good cover, although our division did no fighting in Normandy. But we saw much evidence of it there.
When you had this breakthrough, what happened, the combat troops were far outdistancing their supply lines. I mean there was no provision for keeping up with ’em with gasoline, with ammunition, with various other things the Amy needs, so they set up sort of a, I guess you would call it a task force now, but they called it the Red Ball Express. From many individual outfits that were there in Normandy like we were, and we were encamped in Normandy. We were in tents and slept on the ground and just like a field maneuver or something. They took a lot of our trucks and a lot of our men to keep this drive going as long as it would go. They called this thing the Red Ball Express.
It was to supply these forward troops. It took most of our truck drivers and maybe other people there that had some truck experience and volunteers and by grabbin’ ’em out of their own mechanics and whatnot to keep this drive going. This drive went all the way from Normandy clear to France, clear to the Maginot Line. That’s what it did. This Red Ball Express was a makeshift deal to supply ’em. But that was only for a period of maybe, you know you’re talking a week and a half, a couple of weeks.
While this went on, while this breakthrough was going, we were still there in Normandy more or less in a reserve capacity or a waiting capacity because we had men gone, we had trucks gone. The big effort for the Army was to supply these forward divisions. They weren’t too much worried about here. They wanted to keep these guys going as far as they could go because they were liberating France. That’s what they were doing.
So we laid around in the fields there in France and, as everything seemed to be…now you, of course you realize most of my time over there in the ETO was from late October and early November through till VE–Day, so that was the winter months mostly. It seemed like it always rained. It seemed like you’re always in the god–damned mud. It seems like you’re always in a god–damned sugar beet field. I think all of northeastern Europe was a god–damned sugar beet field, it seemed to me like. We always wound up in a damned beet field. That’s what I say. Memory plays tricks on you. That’s the thing that sticks in my mind from that particular encampment anyway.
We’re there that period of time. Gradually Patton and the Third Army forward elements got across France, got France liberated, and run up against the Maginot Line and they stopped to consolidate. There were pockets to clear up, if you remember. If you’ve read any history, the Cherbourg Peninsula out there was a pocket of resistance. There was a bunch of pretty good German troops holed up in there. They were cut off, and it took a while to get those, to subjugate them. They stopped up there and our transportation troops came back. Finally, we moved across France in a truck convoy. This would have been the whole damn division. It was a rather uneventful trip. We went right through Paris. We didn’t stop. I think the convoy stopped in some environ or nearby area of Paris. We stopped and had a meal there and then went on.
We went up to a very small part of Holland that had been retaken by the Allies. It was called the Maastrict Triangle because it was a triangular little enclave in there that was held and the major town in it was a town called Maastricht.
There was just a little triangle in there, just that little piece of Holland that was under Allied control. So that’s where we moved up into, close to that little town. As you see, we were pretty close. The British were all north of us here. The British were along the Channel, north. The American forces were here. We were part of the Ninth Army which was the closest to the British. We were assigned to the Ninth Army.
We got up to this Maastricht Triangle. Again we were encamped in a damn muddy–assed beet field. We were close enough to the lines then that you could hear the artillery. You could see planes flying overhead. You were cautioned—although we never had any, it just didn’t happen—we were cautioned that we might be strafed by German aircraft or German dive bombers. In the distance you could hear artillery, so we weren’t very far from the front line there.
The Allies pretty much had air superiority. Back then the jet plane was sort of a Buck Rogers type thing. We’d heard about ’em, mostly that the Germans had developed something called a jet which was much superior to any of the propeller planes and everything, and this might wrest air control back from the Allies. So we were always very apprehensive to seeing a jet. Once in a while you’d see one, whether it was Allied or German, I don’t know.
You would hear and you would see and feel and hear the damn robot things. The drone rockets. You would hear them going overhead and once in a while they would aim one at this part of the Allied encampment. But mostly those things were sent against England.
We arrived in Maastricht Triangle in November sometime. On the seventh we entrucked for a cold ride to Wittem, Holland. That’s arriving in the early morning hours of November 8th. Wittem was a small little village. We never got into Maastricht. I’ve never been to Maastricht. But it’s called the Maastricht Triangle because that was the large city. There was this little village near where we were encamped. This was really the first chance we’d ever see, the first chance we’d had to encounter any European civilians because there were civilians in this village.
We did go into the village and trade ’em food and knives and whatever because we didn’t have any damn Dutch money or any kind of money other than some American money people may have had on them. So we went into that village and got beer, maybe buy some potatoes or something to take back. One contrast to England and contrast to what little contact we’d had with us traveling through France—it wasn’t a very friendly populace. These were Dutchmen. I don’t know why they were suspicious or unfriendly to us, I don’t know, but we didn’t really feel any great wave of welcome from them.
That was also true for the Flemish part of Belgium which is German–speaking. Belgium as you probably know is divided into two major parts—a French–speaking part they call Walloons that speak French, and a Flemish part which speaks German. The Walloons were like the French. They were very friendly and open with you. The Flemish and the Dutch were not so. You felt uncomfortable around ’ em. I did and most people did.
So we’re there in this beet field and we went through some preparatory training things. Checked your armor, your supplies and everything. It was evident that we were going into the line, into combat because they were trying to make sure that everything was as ship–shape as it could be, that your gun worked and that you knew that the company had ammunition and whatever you needed for combat supplies.
We had individual weapons. We didn’t have rifles, we had carbines, but we had a sidearm. We had a sidearm, but once you got into combat that stuff didn’t go too much because nobody worried about what your rifle number was or whether you had a rifle or not. Most of the people in weapons platoons got rid of the carbines and picked up a German weapon. What they called a burp gun, a submachine gun which was a hell of a lot better weapon than a carbine. Carbine was all right, but it wasn’t very accurate at any distance and it didn’t have the thump of a rifle and you couldn’t put out the firepower with it. You could use a little damn German machine gun or submachine gun that you could spray with.
But now infantry riflemen, most of ’em kept their rifles. Of course the infantry had the automatic rifles. Each squad had what they called a BAR man, Browning Automatic Rifle, which was a longer heavier piece and fired automatically rather than firing from a clip. Bang, bang, bang, trigger pull each time. I wasn’t in a rifle platoon.
Each rifle squad would also have, maybe not each one but maybe one to a platoon, would have a bazooka man, carry a bazooka for anti–tank weapons or pillboxes or any kind of an emplacement where you could use that thing.
We move out to a place near the village of Prummern in Germany. As I remember it, we were in some kind of damn cave. I don’t know what it was, whether it was mine or a labyrinth or something else, but I remember very distinctly. It went way back in there. I can remember this is where we went at night. The company I was in, I don’t know how many people were in this damn cave, but I know our company was in there. This is where we stayed the night before we went into combat for the first time. It was kind of a spooky place to be for a twenty–year old kid, really. Here I am in this goddamned cave in some town in Germany. I have no idea where it is and it’s dark and lights and I hear all this damn bombardment and I was one scared kid, I’ll tell you. And most everyone was.
I didn’t really sleep very much. Fitfully, I suppose. I think up till then I felt (and I think a lot of people felt like me) that you could see this happening to you. Hell, you went to England, you went across, you went to France, you landed at Omaha Beach where all this fighting was. They took you up there. You knew you were going to war, but it never really hit you till that night. Now I thought how in the hell did I get in this place and what am I doing here? And am I ever going to get out of it? I think that’s the first full realization that, buddy, here you are just like the Roman legionnaires or Napoleon or somebody. You’re a goddamned infantryman, grunt, and you’re going to go out in this thing and your chances of getting chewed up are pretty good. Well, anyway, we’re in this cave so we move out the next morning.
At that time I had two or three special buddies. Let me tell you a little bit about our company commander. He was a fellow named Alcee Peters. In civilian life he managed a ten cent store somewhere in Louisiana or Mississippi, some southern state. He acted like a goddamn ten–cent store manager, maybe the worst type. I had a feeling he was sort of a petty tyrant. Nobody really thought much of him. But that son of a bitch was one of the best infantry officers I ever saw. He was good. He took care of his men. I’m talkin’ about through the sweep of it. He was intelligent. He tried not to needlessly endanger you, but he got the job done. He later became a major and a lieutenant colonel and later became battalion commander.
It fools you. A lot of the people that you go through training with and you think are going to be the real soldiers weren’t much good in combat. A lot of the people that you thought were fuck–ups turned out to be pretty damned good soldiers and people that you’d want to go to the wall with.
My platoon, outside of Peters I don’t remember much about other officers because officers came and went. In infantry companies we were fortunate enough that our company commander stayed with us, but lieutenants were a damn dime a dozen. They tended to get shot and wounded and things happened to ’em much more than anybody else because they were the ones that had to stick their head out and lead. We always felt, and I suppose it’s true at least it was a feeling, that if the Krauts could determine who was an officer, that’s the one they’d go for. The logical one to kill is the leader if you can.
Although I’ll make this commentary. I think what I feared most going into this thing, I suppose was what you’re conditioned to by reading stories about war, by growing up on wild west movies or seeing civil wars or something was hand–to–hand combat. Was small arms fire, you against this guy. Some guy shooting a gun at you here, and you firing and jumping around. Really, not too much of that did we encounter. Now maybe over in the Pacific Theater. Maybe in the Italian campaign they did. We had two or three times that we had to, in fact not long after we went into combat, that we had to clean out a village and there was a little bit of moving in with small arms fire against small arms fire. There was always the snipers. But as far as a guy that you could see or tell where he was shooting at you and you shooting back at him, not too much of that.
The horror of the war for us was the God–damned artillery because that was constantly with you. The mortars. The eighty–eight guns. The heavy guns and the shrapnel. That was where I would guess in my immediate experience that ninety percent of the casualties I saw where shrapnel casualties, not bullet wounds. More casualties in the ETO tended to be more of a long–range war than what I’ve read about the Pacific theater. If you talk to somebody there they may have had a completely different experience.
I never saw a bayonet fight. In fact a week or two after we entered combat I doubt if there was one person in fifty that had his bayonet. You threw ’em away. They were useless. They were just something extra to carry and stick around. If they kept it they kept it for an entrenching tool or something and most of ’em got rid of it and got hold of what they called a trench knife which was just a big hunting knife which you didn’t use to knife anybody. You used it to gouge out things. Or if your helmet got full of mud or something like that, you’d clean it out with it. It was a utensil.
Getting back to people, the platoon commander was a fella named Gould, Sergeant Gould. I think his name was Ira, something like that. Now he was from Pittsburgh. Long–legged, lanky guy. A good enough guy, but kind of a buffoon. Everybody sort of made fun of him in a way. He wasn’t a real leader or anything. I remember we were walking along the road one day and the people laughed. This was back in the states somewhere, we were on maneuvers down in Louisiana and we went by a field. There was a damn mule out in the field. He’s a city boy. He’s from Pittsburgh, see. He looked over there and he said “What the hell kind of a cow is that?” He was a dumbass! He was. After that, anytime we’d see anything we didn’t know what, we’d say “What the hell kind of a cow is that, Gould?” We’d ask him, you know. So that was sort of a byword in our platoon. He wasn’t much for us. He knew stuff by the book and he was always fair. Nobody disliked him. They just kind of laughed at him a little bit.
The mortar sergeant was really the leader of the platoon. He was a fellow named Simco, John Simco. He was also from western Pennsylvania as many of them in our battalion were. I don’t where. This may have just been an original contingent came from western Pennsylvania. He was from some steel mine town, close to Pittsburgh. He was a good noncom, a good leader. People respected him and he got the job done. Gould didn’t last very long after he got in combat. He got wounded in some fashion and went back.
Simco took over the platoon. He was the one that was the head of the platoon when we went through most of the combat. He was up for a battlefield commission the end of the war. Whether he ever got it or not, I don’t know. I’ve lost track of him.
The two guys probably I was the closest to in the company, one of ’em was a mortar sergeant named Jim Trentham. He was—as I told you I think before, the 84th was a division of older men originally. He was one of these original older men and he was from Monrovia, California. We sent Christmas cards back and forth for a long time, and then I lost him. He was sort of like a surrogate father figure to me. I respected him a lot. He was a wise old guy. He and his wife ran a restaurant out there near Monrovia, but he’d been with the 84th since the start. He was a damned good soldier. A lot of the younger guys in there looked up to him and went to him with their problems and he was understanding and a pretty good guy.
The two best friends probably of the same rank—one of ’em was a guy I still correspond with and I’ve seen him a couple times since the war and his name was Richard Hussey. He was from Old Town, Maine. I looked him up a couple years ago when we took a trip through New England and called him and went out and met him and his wife. He had a New England accent and he was a typical to my mind what I think of as a kid from down east.
The other one was a boy named Weldon Bergreen, funny–named kid. He was a Mormon kid from Salt Lake City. It’s funny. The big leavening that World War II did. I never knew anybody from Maine. I never knew anybody from Utah, but these were the two good buddies I had in the platoon.
Going into combat for the first time. The next morning we move out and we got a company of British—they call them sappers. They’re minesweepers and were attached to us. Now we’re up in the Siegfried Line. It’s late in the war and I don’t suppose these were like the blitzkrieg troops that the Germany Army had when they started the war. But they had an elaborate system of fortifications there and they were well manned. They certainly didn’t have the firepower that we had in artillery, but they had enough. As much as I needed or anybody else needed to go up against. They were dug in there and they realized, I think, that the Siegfried Line was their real last bastion of defense. If they couldn’t hold that, why, they were done.
It was the first taste we got of really heavy combat. So we move out, the first thing was I’d never heard such a fearful bombardment as they had preceding us to move out. The idea was to soften them up and then run ’em in there. Now under cover of this bombardment, we moved out. We had some British tanks and we went through minefields and these British sappers had been through there before and they’d marked out paths through the minefield. They marked ’em with little flags and banners and stuck ’em in the ground and you stayed between these goddamn sticks going up there.
Well, of course it didn’t take the Germans very long to see what was happening, to find these paths through the minefields. That’s where they put the goddamn artillery. Now the first bunches that got through, got through pretty good. Because the Germans were still under cover from this bombardment. The second or third companies though, by that time the Germans had found these minefields and they knew. As I say this is the Siegfried Line and they had predetermined co–ordinates. They knew where every goddamn inch of ground was there in relation to everything else. There wasn’t much guesswork with them.
If they could determine where this minefield was and find it on their map and they’re sitting back here, they could hit that goddamn place because this was their defensive line. This was where they’d trained and maneuvered and they had all this laid out in advance. Now, I’m sure they had the same problems that we were having on our side. In wartime things don’t work just like clockwork like you think it’s going to, like a computer. I mean you get new people in there and mistakes, you don’t do it right. We must have been the third or fourth company of our battalion through that damn minefield.
We were B Company. Baker Company. Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog were the universal communications terminology used for ’em in the military then. We were about the third or fourth company through there. It was pretty heavy going and tanks were going through with us. British tanks were going through there. We soon learned tanks were lovely creatures, but at least at that stage of the game, the further you stayed away from them goddamned tanks, the better off you were because they’d draw artillery fire and antitank fire just like honey to bees. It was nice to have the tanks if you run up against an emplacement or something, but you wanted to stay just as far away from them bastards as you could because the heavy fire was around them. We moved through the minefield.
It took an hour, hour and a half. Two hours, Three hours. I don’t know. Time is slow. You go a little bit, you crawl. There wasn’t no walking or anything.
After the damn artillery coming in you crawled. Now, if there’d be a little lull, you’d get up and run a few steps, but there wasn’t much lull. When you hear this damn stuff, then you hit your belly. If the artillery got hot, you took your knife and your shovel and whatever and while you’re on the ground try to scoop yourself a little ditch out. Or you’d get into a manhole where one of these shells had hit before and try to get below the plane of the ground a while until it let up for a little bit. When it let up, why you’d go on a little further.
Of course there’s people coming behind you all the time. So they push you out. I mean you couldn’t—I would have just loved it if I found a deep hole to get in that son of a bitch and just lay there for the rest of the time. Let someone else go on up there. But you couldn’t do that. There’s people coming behind you and “Hey, soldier, get the hell out of there! We’re in the war! This is Charlie Company coming through there and you’d better get up there.” Well, eventually we got through the minefield. Our objective was this little village of Prummern.
So the first thing I did in combat was go through a minefield. That was the first damn thing. Follow the path through this minefield. I was scared shitless, yeah. I just knew one of them goddamn things were going to blow up and then the goddamn artillery coming in and I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. I probably did both, I don’t remember. But we went through.
7—Life on the Line
I don’t think there was a damn minute I wasn’t scared. Most of the people the same way. Now you just can’t live in a outward sense of fear all the time. I mean you can’t go for days and weeks nervous and on edge. But I think there was always fear. As long as I was in that damned infantry company.
The first three or four days our company was decimated. It wasn’t twenty–five percent—it was about half gone. Half of ’em were casualties. Replacements were coming up because we took a pretty good thumping the first day. Now not everybody was killed, but casualties. Lost. I don’t know, some of ’em probably became prisoner. I don’t know. We never saw ’em again. Well, anyway, we got through the damn minefield and everything was confusion. That’s the big thing about war. Our particular company’s mission was to take some high ground around this village of Prummern.
Well, we started going to it, and another artillery bombardment come in. Me and Bergreen, that’s one of my boys, we got separated from the rest of the damn outfit. If you think that wasn’t a scary feeling. You see soldiers going here, you could feel the bombardment. It was, as all mornings then seemed to me, gray and wintry. There was a haze of smoke and crap from the battlefield.
You could see German prisoners straggling back toward the rear. You had no time to take prisoners. Many guys wouldn’t fool with taking prisoners. If they could get away with it, they’d just kill ’em, be done with it. If they came out with a “camerade” or something like that, you just waved ’em to the rear. You didn’t have time to guard ’em or fool with ’em or anything. Oh, maybe if you had a bunch of ’em and there was an officer around, he’d assign somebody to take ’em back to the rear and then come on back.
But anyway, for a period of time, Bergreen and I were lost from our unit. We didn’t know where the hell they were. There were pillboxes past this minefield. They were these big German pillboxes and they were dug into the ground and, with a concrete thing over ’em and trenches around ’em, fire trenches. So we got our ass in one of them pillboxes. We decided we were just going to stay there a little bit till this situation stabilized and we could see where something was because we didn’t know where the hell we was going—toward the German lines or our lines or where they were. So, I think the craziest thing that ever happened to me—I’m in this pillbox and Bergreen’s here and the trenches are maybe chest high around here.
We’re down there and we got our carbines and stuff and we’re lookin’ this direction and that, trying to see. All of a sudden somebody says something behind us. I nearly jump straight up in the air and so did he. There were about seven or eight goddamn Germans in this pillbox, see. Well, I could see, we’re out there talking and we’re looking around and and what were we going to do. You see one of them goddamn Krauts. Yell at me to shoot the hell out of ’em, these Krauts were behind us. He says something, and they come out, say “Comrade, surrender, surrender!” See, they wanted out of that damn thing. Well, they could have killed us both very easily. No problem. They had weapons. They were in the damn pillbox. We didn’t know. A pillbox didn’t mean nothing to us. I didn’t know what the hell was in there. I didn’t know where the opening was to it, even.
Anyway, we rousted ’em out of there and John Wayne’d ’em and everything. “All right, get over here.” Bergreen said “I’ll take ’em to the rear.” I said “No, you won’t. I’ll take ’em to the rear”. Well, anyway, he took ’em, see. And that’s the last I ever saw of that boy. Never saw him again. I don’t know what the hell happened to him. I don’t know what the hell happened to them prisoners. I don’t know what the hell, I stayed there and after a time, I saw a group of soldiers that I recognized as being from my company. I went over and joined ’em and I rejoined the outfit, but I don’t know what in hell happened to Bergreen.
Somebody told me he got hurt, that he was, he got hit on the way back. But he never came back to the company. To this day I don’t know what happened to him. I suppose he’s in that roster, and I suppose if I wrote to what they call the Railsplitters’ Society, which is the veterans’ group from the 84th Division, I could probably find out, but I never did find out.
We didn’t get very much further than where I was, around this pillbox area. I don’t think we got to the high ground that we were supposed to capture. We dug in there and of course you carried the rations. That night the Germans counterattacked and we pulled back some. That went on for a couple of days. We’d move out a little bit. You measured your gains in tens of yards really, through that Siegfried Line. We’d advance, take some ground, and at nightfall perhaps or the next morning the Germans would pinch you off and you’d pull out and move back.
The first damn thing you did was dig a foxhole. Or if you’re in a town or anything get in a cellar. That’s the number one priority is get under the ground. Because of the shrapnel flying overhead.
There were usually two in a foxhole, or one, seldom more. I don’t remember any night attacks like you’d think of Indian attacks at night or something like that, a wave of people coming at you. You’d get orders to move the hell out. You’d feel the pressure of the artillery. Maybe you would hear or see a German tank group coming, and you got the hell out of there. You were in an untenable position. Now when I say night attacks I’m talking about mostly early morning. Seldom attack at midnight or something like that because you couldn’t see what the hell you were doing.
It ebbed back and forth for a couple of days. Finally we were able to surround and take this village of Prummern which apparently was some strategic crossroads or something that they wanted. This was one of the few times that we did do some street fighting. It wasn’t fierce. Mostly pockets of resistance. Snipers. In a matter of a few hours the village was secure. We got run out of there and then came back again to it, I know at least once. I can remember going out of Prummern and coming back.
When I say a pocket of resistance, it might be one sniper or a group behind a wall or something like that. What you would do most cases is call for artillery fire. You would have a forward artillery observer there with you. If you couldn’t handle it with your own mortar squad or the battalion heavy mortar squad couldn’t handle it, then you called for artillery fire on it. That was the general thing, rather than charge it or something like that. Now if it’s an isolated sniper you would probably move on him. You’d call him to surrender. You’d give him a burst or two with the machine gun fire and usually you either killed the goddamned guy or he’d surrender. But if it was a fortified position with a group of men you’d try to handle it. Maybe your bazooka man if it was that kind of a thing, you’d call up your bazooka man and he’d fire a couple of bazooka rounds in there and that generally was the end of it. They would either surrender, withdraw, or if they were too strong for you to take, then you had to fall back. In most cases, the overpowering force was on our side.
You wanted to have tactical superiority and we did for the most part. Hell, if the German Army had equal weapons, I don’t think we could have ever dislodged ’em. The German Army, they were good soldiers. I don’t think we could have ever dislodged them if they’d have had equality in the air. They were a pretty beat up bunch when we got to ’em, anyway. When most American forces got to ’em in Europe. Now guys who were in the Italian campaign in Sicily will tell you a different story. Germans were still pretty good shape then. They had the whole fortress Europe. The big thing the Germans had, they were fighting a defensive battle. They were constantly shortening their lines and shortening their supply lines and falling back, where we were having to keep going forward more and more and getting more spread out.
A little bit about my frame of mind at this time. After four or five days of this, I’m watching and seeing what happened to my company and there was a constant stream of replacements coming up. Sometimes you’d never get to know the guy. You wouldn’t even know his name. He’d be gone. He’d come up and be gone while you were there.
I and most of the front liners here felt that it wasn’t a question of were you going to get hit. It was when you were going to get hit and how bad you were going to get hit. Were you going to get maimed or were you going to get a nice clean wound? Frankly, that’s what most of ’em hoped for, get a nice little wound in the hip or the shoulder or something like that where it would take you back to the zone of interior.
It seemed like to us there was such a tremendous reserve, particularly when you get a chance to go back to the rear for rest. It seemed to me like such a tremendous goddamn body of men, equipment, the big machine, and there were so few damn guys up there actually on the cutting edge of it and we were the guys on the cutting edge. It didn’t seem goddamned fair to me. There were so damn many guys back there in logistics and supplies and burial details and God only knows what, and just a few damn…It didn’t seem fair that I should have to go into battle and get pushed back then go back again, go back again. Why couldn’t I go up there once and go back and somebody else come up here and me go back there and push the damn paper, do that stuff?
There was a lot of resentment by the combat infantrymen to the so–called Z.I. or zone of interior guys. Unfair, because we would have done the same thing if we’d been in their place. But you couldn’t help but feel that way. You couldn’t help it. You were the guys taking all the shit and the misery. These guys were back there fooling with the ladies of the night in Liege and Paris and what not and doing jobs like that.
After a time, it was just dogged resignation to it. You see no way out. Here’d be Bill Martin and me right here, and there wasn’t any damn way I could go back, and Bill Martin go on. We both were there. It was just the luck of the damn draw that got you in the combat infantry. And you stayed with it. After it was all over, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.
That little blue combat infantry badge was really for a couple of years right after the war, that was the real status symbol in the Army, to have the combat infantry badge because anybody that was there knew that was the damn guy that was doing the work. By and large. There were other people that were in just as dangerous, submariners and fighter pilots and bomber pilots and whatnot there––they had their travails, too. I always kidded the guys in the Navy. I said, "Yeah, some of you probably were at just as much risk as a foot soldier in the Army but by God you had clean sheets at night, and you had your orange juice in the morning , even when you’re out at war. Where a combat infantryman’s life was a misery."
Everybody there was resigned. I mean, nobody there really felt buoyed about it and if they did they were nuts. They were screwballs that talked about the glory of war and how we were finishing off the Nazis and anything. Everybody there wanted out! Really.
But, by the same token, side by side with that, Bill, and I suppose it’s funny, you had a pride in your outfit. After a few days, and it didn’t take us long, we felt we were a goddamn pretty good lean, mean fighting machine. You were proud of the abilities you had––the martial abilities that you had to kill people, I guess. To take ground. Those things existed side by side.
You see stuff that just scared you deep down in your bones. I watched a boy named Nick LaBlanc who was a kid from a French–speaking family in New England. He spoke English, too, but he was French–speaking. A damn shell hit him out there. We were in foxholes, moving forward. We stopped. A shell hit him, heavy artillery barrage and he lay out there about half an hour and died. I knew the kid. We all knew him. Liked him. Screaming for help, but you couldn’t get to him. You couldn’t. Finally a medic came up and crawled out to him.
If there were ever a class of people who were to my notion the real heroes in the war it were the infantry front line medics because their job was to go to wounded people and help ’em. Even in the heaviest bombardment, they would go. And they’d get killed. That was their job and most of ’em did it. That’s the first thing you heard. People yelling for“Medic! Medic! Medic!” And they came. If there were one around, he’d try to get to you. Sometimes he couldn’t.
I told you Gould was a platoon sergeant and Simco was a mortar sergeant. You also had a machine gun sergeant. He was head of the machine gun section. He was an old boy named Carter from Alabama. He was an old Army man. We called him an old Army man. He wasn’t a drafted civilian. He’d joined the Army prior to Pearl Harbor and he was making a career of the Army. About the fifth, sixth day or something, a German eighty–eight shell, which was one of their best weapons, landed right between his damn legs. It was a dud. He just froze there, just like that. I didn’t hear the goddamn shell hit. It looked to us like it was between his legs. It might have blown him to smithereens if it had gone off. And he just froze there. Finally somebody got to him and pulled him out of there and he couldn’t talk and they sent him back and he never came back. He wasn’t worth a damn after that. That just took him out of it right now. Hell, I’m not sure, it’d probably take me out of it, if that son of a bitch’d hit there. I said that’s what’s going to happen to me.
We’re in the Siegfried Line here, we’re back and forth. Prummern was the first village. There was a couple of others, Leiffarth, I’d have to look. I was in about three weeks in this when I got hit. I always tease, I got hit. Well I still got a couple little pieces of shrapnel in my hand here, the doctors say. I got hit here, hit here and in the back of the head. I always tell everybody it’s obvious which way I was going when that shrapnel hit me because I was running like hell back. It hit me here, here, here––the shrapnel. It stunned me, knocked me out, the head blast. The shoulder thing was just a nick, it didn’t amount to much, the cut on the shoulder. But my hand was pretty well tore up here.
I was stunned. I don’t know how long I was out. When I come to there was a medic to me and he was dressing my hand. He said you go on back. He didn’t have to take me back. There wasn’t no stretcher or anything like that. My legs were all right. He didn’t have to tell me but once to go back, and back I went. I went back to a field station. They took a look and said well, you’ll have to go back and get this stuff dug out of you. There was some shrapnel in my shoulder and some in my hand and fortunately no shrapnel in my head. It just hit me and stunned me and knocked me out.
The shrapnel must have hit my helmet because I had no cut or anything in there. It had to hit the damn helmet. So the helmet saved my life. I went back to a hospital in Rheims, France. From the time I was hit until the time I was discharged from the hospital was two weeks, maybe. Not that I really needed that much hospitalization, but the hospital people, they’re human beings like anybody else. If they got a combat soldier in there, they tended to keep him as long as they could. It was a little bit like the guys you see on MASH. They didn’t want to send them boys back there any quicker than they had to. I had no disabling wound, so I started back for my company.
This was a process, getting back. They didn’t call a taxi and say here’s PFC Ed Clark, take him to Baker Company, 84th Division, see. There’s no way you can do that. Everybody that was discharged from the hospital that day was told to report to a replacement depot there in Reims. They put you in a replacement company. You stayed there for three, four days, maybe five days.
The Bulge hit just then when I was back in the hospital. That just disrupted everything. It took transport…it took all our energies. All anybody could think of was containing this German attack in the Ardennes. This particular company that I was in, Baker Company, was right in the middle of it and did some heroic work in it. I didn’t have any part in it. I wasn’t there. This was really some of the heaviest fighting and the hardest fighting then because it was colder than hell. It was one of the worst damn Decembers that there had been in Europe.
I started back up. We went to a town called Liege in Belgium. We went from Rheims to Liege which was closer to the front, and we were in a replacement depot there. It seemed to me like I was there for a week and a half maybe in what they called a “repple depple”, replacement depot. This was a Ninth Army replacement depot. From Rheims they sent convoys to all the armies and I went to the convoy to Liege which was the Ninth Army. I waited there until—again, this was the time of the Battle of the Bulge, and nobody was real damn sure where the 84th Division or the 1st Battalion of the 334th Regiment was. Where the hell ever they were, there wasn’t anybody back there wanted to go up there right then, because they were right in the middle of the damn fighting and hard fighting.
I was around there for a week and a half. Liege was a pretty good size town. It was by and large a French-speaking town, but there was a big Flemish population in it, and this was the time of the Bulge, and it was funny. You stayed the hell away from the Flemish part of that town because these were German sympathizers. They were tickled to death that the goddamn Germans were coming back. They thought they were coming back, on this Bulge. They were getting a little bit hostile toward the Allied soldiers.
I’m there in Liege for a week and a half in this replacement depot. Finally a sufficient number of people go and they sent a convoy up to the 84th Division. A truck out of that convoy dropped off and sent me to Regimental Headquarters and then went back to the First Battalion. Eventually I would get myself back to my outfit which at that time was over most of its fighting it had done in the Battle of the Bulge and was back in a reserve capacity.
This was January, I expect. Cold, colder than hell. Again we were out in the field. By that time the Bulge had gotten pretty well taken care of. It was over and the Germans had withdrawn from practically everything that they’d gained.
The next step in the ETO campaign as far as we were concerned was the so-called Rhineland campaign. We’d beaten through the Siegfried Line at a heavy loss as far as our division was concerned. The Germans had counterattacked in the Bulge, and we had been pulled from our positions around to help blunt that attack. Did that.
9—Crossing the Roer
The next big defensive position that the Germans had in that area was the Roer River. Now the Roer River is a pretty good–sized river. I’m going to compare it to the Scioto River in my memory, about that size a river. The Rhine River ran roughly parallel to the Roer River, I’m pretty sure. The Rhine’s a big river, about like the Ohio. You probably know about that. Between that was the Rhineland and this was the next step in the Allied advance— to cross this damn river. Take the Rhineland, march to the Rhine.
Our regiment was two, three, four miles behind the front when I got back. Our regiment was on reserve and the other two regiments in the division were on the line. Now it may have been at that time, since the 84th was in such hard fighting in the Bulge that the whole damn division might have been back. Usually it was a regimental pullback.
At that time we had the regular old army combat boots. That’s another damn thing up there. They were the coldest damn things God ever made on your feet. The Army decided we needed some kind of Arctic boots or something, but they didn’t get ’em to us until March and April when we were fairly well over in Europe and we were in the damn mud. So they took the goddamn combat boots from us and gave us these Arctic boots. You could hardly walk in the mud in them damn things. You’d just get down in ’em and then just sink. That’s just one of the little ironies of war that what you need is never where you need it at the time. You’re too far behind.
We slept in individual tents, called shelter halves. You would have your company kitchen set up. You would have hot meals. Even troops up on the line, a lot of times, half the time or something, you’d get hot meals. If you had a good mess sergeant he’d cook his damn food and put it in big hot containers and he’d put ’em on his jeep and he’d get just as close to you as he could.
If you could take turns and go back, either by two’s and three’s or by squads or something like that, they’d try to get you hot meals up on the line. Now you couldn’t do that when you were in moving combat as a rule because you couldn’t stop. But if you were in fixed positions as you were from time to time, the mess sergeant would put it up. When you were back in reserve you went in a mess tent and ate. You didn’t have any utensils or anything; you used your mess kit. You went through a chow line and they’d put stuff in your mess kit and hot coffee and pretty good food, whatever he could scrounge or get. So you had those amenities there.
For latrines they would dig a big hole and put a tent around it or something like that to give you some privacy. If they could they’d try to bring some portable showers in. As close to field conditions as they could get, just like they were back in the States.
There wasn’t much attempt at camouflage or anything like that because the German planes were just very seldom. They weren’t much interested in that. You’d hear the drone or the damn buzz bombs coming.
You’d see these things, you’d hear this whine and see this thing up there and they’d say “That’s a jet! That’s a jet!” I suppose two or three times I saw that. I don’t think I saw half a dozen German warplanes the whole time I was in combat there. Two or three times there were German planes.
The biggest problem we had from the air was our own planes. We got so that at least the junior officers would beg the higher echelons back there, “Don’t give us any air cover!” because them goddamn pilots would drop them damn bombs from way up there, and they was just as liable to drop ’em on you as they were the people that were three or four hundred yards over there. If you heard an airplane coming, you took cover because that son of a bitch just soon drop it on you as anybody else, by mistake.
That’s tricky business, particularly in a fluid front. I think we were envious of the Air Corps people anyway because it was a more glamourous service. We always felt that they flew too high. They didn’t get down close enough. They stayed well above the anti–aircraft and just unloaded the damn stuff.
I’m not a plane expert. We had mostly dive bombers, small bombers, small mobile bombers that flew the support. The Army had its own artillery spotter planes, little Piper Cub planes and things of that nature. Those were the most welcome to see. Really, it was a very dangerous job because they had to fly close and slowly over the front lines and call artillery fire. That was a tough job. We had a lot of respect for them. The Air Force—we just as soon they stayed the hell away and went and bombed Berlin or some place like that. We didn’t have any enemy air force to be worried about particularly for them to combat. When they tried to give us close–in support it was about six of one, half dozen of the other whether they hit us or hit the place they were supposed to.
Air strikes were called at a level far beyond me. The battalion or regimental level would do that. If an advance was planned, whoever the division commander or the corps commander, whoever that was, would plan for the air support. We had no direct contact with the air support.
Our communications at a company level were primitive, I’m sure, compared to what they had in Vietnam. We just had the hand–held radio sets. Hell, they worked sometimes. Sometimes they didn’t. There would be flares of various types to mark the lines.
Back to the unit. I worked my way back to the unit. They were still in the Ardennes where they had been moved to counteract the Battle of the Bulge. By the time I got back the Ardennes campaign was just about wound up. The German attack had been blunted and all that my company was doing then was simply mopping up and pulling itself together. Getting its replacements in. Outfitting. This would be late January. Early February.
We were still pretty much out in the field. We weren’t really engaged in much because the attack had been blunted and we were just sort of regrouping. The biggest thing we had to contend with there was the weather. It was colder than hell. We were out in the field and sleeping in a foxhole or in whatever cover you could have. If you were very, very lucky you might find an abandoned cellar. There weren’t very many of those around.
Mostly we were on a company front of some kind in a field, around maybe a piece of an old farmhouse that was left. But everything was knocked down. There just wasn’t much there. You wake up in the morning and you had your overcoat on and that damn thing just frozen stiff as a board. Just like a baby chicken trying to get out of an eggshell, you kind of had to fight your way out of the damn thing. As I told you, I think I mentioned once before, we had the old combat boots. They were the coldest goddamn things that you could ever imagine. They just didn’t give your feet any warmth.
You didn’t have a sleeping bag. You just had a field pack and you’d dig a hole. You did have a shelter half which we never put up. The shelter half—you just used that for a cover.
You dig a foxhole. You don’t ordinarily dig it round. It’s just like a little trench or something like that. We’d generally try to find some damn wood and put it over from side to side and then spread that shelter half over that so you had sort of a little cave and some protection from the wind and the weather. Waist high, usually. You crouch down or sit down in it. Chest high took too long. You seldom stayed over a day or two or sometimes just a few hours in a foxhole.
You would put a board or branches on the back part crossways, and then put your shelter half or something in there to keep the damn rain and the snow off of you. Unless you were out on an outpost foxhole where you stay awake, you slept in the damn foxholes. You slept just sittin’ up. You just lean back with your legs stretched out. You sleep. You get tired enough, you can sleep any damn way.
Usually there were two people in a foxhole. What you do most of the time, you’d have what you call a perimeter of guards and those’d just be one–man foxholes spaced so far apart. Everybody had guard duty. You’d go out there and you’d relieve a guy and then you’d come back to another foxhole, the one that he left or something. You shared these foxholes with different people at times, just two to it. But out there you were just a one–man foxhole and you were on alert and watching to see if any patrols or anything came through.
The distance between foxholes depended on the circumstances of the terrain and what kind of situation you were in. See, if you really expected that there might be patrols coming through there, you’d be closer together. So you could see them and spot them easier. Now, at this particular time I’m talking about, unless it was stragglers or something like that, we didn’t really have much contact with the enemy. The Bulge was blunted and the German army had retreated and we were just finishing mopping up.
The Ardennes was the last real convulsive offensive action of the German army on the western front. When it was done, they were dead in the water as far as any offense. Everything from there on in was strictly defensive stuff for them. The war was over, really.
They scared the hell out of us at the time because it was a surprise attack and they just chewed up one division up there. It was a new division, had never been in combat and they were stretched pretty thin. The Germans burst through them and they were behind our lines. It was a pretty well organized attack. They were good soldiers. They had many English–speaking officers and soldiers with them. They really rolled through the Belgian countryside and surprised lots of units.
Once the Allies regrouped, they brought reinforcements up from the south and from the British down from the north. The Germans were trying to get to Antwerp and cut the British away from the American line and give themselves an opening to the sea. Now I don’t know what the hell they was going to do with it when they had it, but that was what was told to us anyway.
We were up there after I came back a week, maybe. Maybe just three, four days. Not long. The end of January and we were trucked back to our old positions, back down to the Siegfried Line, and the Gellenkirchen and the Prummern areas where we had been engaged before being pulled off to go the Bulge. It was like revisiting childhood scenes again to go back to that place after you’d been gone for six weeks or so. You go back and by that time the front had been pushed up to the Roer River.
We were billeted back in these places that we had fought over and it was kind of spooky. Going through these little towns and across these fields and seeing this place where there’d been so much really violent action. So many people killed. So many people hurt. There just wasn’t much left of that countryside. The villages were just flattened. You could scarcely find a cellar, a few stone walls, but mostly rubble. Streets were cleared. They cleared off the streets so that the traffic could get through.
The next big action was the crossing of the Roer River. We were supposed to do that in early February. We expected to do that in two or three days. We learned to our great joy that our battalion was to be the spearhead battalion—was to cross the river and establish the bridgehead so the engineers could build the bridge. Well, the Germans blew some dams and flooded the damn river. Actually delayed it two or three weeks, which maybe was fortunate for us because we spent that time in maneuvers just like back in the States, practicing a river crossing.
It gave ’em time to bring up assault boats. I know at least on three or four, maybe more different occasions, the whole company was trucked back to another river, back behind the lines fifteen, twenty miles maybe. We practiced getting in the things and getting out of ’em. We got detailed instructions on what they were going to do.
They parked these boats in a sheltered area somewhere close to the river. See, the west side of the riverbank was all in U.S. hands at this spot. The Germans were of course on the east bank over on the other side. So in a sheltered spot near where the crossing was going to be they’d parked these boats. They were behind sort of a bank going down this little road. The night of the crossing we were to go up there and pick up these boats and carry them on our backs. There were boats twice as long as this table, maybe, and twice as wide, maybe.
The boats were fifteen feet long or so. They weren’t heavy. Some kind of light metal, aluminum. It seemed to me like you could sit three across in ’em. They were square, flat-bottomed, very shallow draft assault craft. I would say there’d be nine, ten people in a boat. Roughly a squad.
We propelled them with just oars, paddles. In each boat was a combat engineer and he was the guy that knew where he was going. There was some sort of a rudimentary steering mechanism like a rudder on it there. We had damn wooden paddles. The Roer wasn’t a big river. The Scioto comes to my mind as a pretty good comparison. It didn’t take very long to get across. The river was flooded. Maybe twenty-five, thirty yards across.
This pushed us up into about mid-February, something like that. I’m not sure the dates would be in there. I’m going to say around about the middle of February. It was a night crossing and for two nights before the artillery heavily bombarded. They did this I know for at least two nights and possibly three or four. I suppose for two purposes, to camouflage actually where the crossing was going to be and also to lull the Germans into thinking, "Well, hell, it’s just another damn night of bombardment. They’re just shooting again.”
Eventually the night came and about midnight, one o’clock or something, we marched down toward the riverbank. It was dark and we’d been pretty well briefed. As I say, we had two weeks because of this flooding to prepare for this. Everybody had been briefed on how they were going to do this and where they were going to do it and what everybody’s job was when you got across the damn thing. So we start down there about one o’clock, I’ll say, and about two o’clock they started the bombardment. It was really awesome—if I can use a word that the kids tend to use nowadays, I think. I never heard so damn much noise and saw so damn much flying over there. It was a fierce bombardment.
They threw everything it seemed to me like that you could possibly think of. There were air strikes, heavy pieces, mortar, and the night was just lit up. The bank, the other side of the river, it just looked like a vision of hell, with just fires and smoke everywhere across the river. We got up, picked up the boats, got ready to go at a predetermined time. It was dark. Maybe it was three o’clock, three thirty, something like that. The bombardment lifted from the riverbank on the opposite side. Moved back I don’t know how far. A good bit. We crossed the damn river.
As happens many times, the spearhead bunch had less trouble than the second or third bunch. So our battalion got across in pretty good order. I think the Germans were simply stunned by this terrible bombardment.
One of the things that amazed us—one of the great fears we had as infantrymen going to this other side. Now, when we went through the Siegfried Line, the Limeys went ahead of us and cleared the minefields, see? The sappers had marked passes, but there wasn’t anybody clearing minefields and we were all scared of what the hell we were going to run into on that other side. But the damn bombardment had been so heavy that the mines were all detonated over there. Many of ’em were trip mines and the wires were all tripped and they exploded or they were mines that were laid not so far down. I don’t suppose there was a square foot of that bank in that narrow section we were crossing that wasn’t hit by an artillery shell. It just tore all the mines up. That was something that I thought was amazing. Maybe somebody figured that. I don’t know whether anybody did or not. Maybe they did…probably there’s been river crossings before in warfare with guns and maybe that’s how they did it. But none of us suspected that and were quite relieved.
We got across. Our company objective as I remember was to get across the river, and about two, three hundred yards from the bank was a railroad line running. This railroad line was elevated up maybe as high as this table, something like that. Our objective was to head for that railroad line. Get up there under the cover of that railroad line and regroup. Try to find your buddy. The captain would find the platoons and the platoon sergeant could find the squads and the machine gunner could find his ammo bearer, because once you hit that water everybody just flew off like a bunch of chickens.
We managed that pretty well. We were supposed to stay there along this railroad embankment and secure the bridgehead for following units. There were some more units coming on boats and then some engineers were coming across. They were going to put a footbridge across first and then expand that footbridge into a support bridge that would carry vehicles—a pontoon–type bridge of some kind or other.
There wasn’t anything to secure up there. We ran into no fire. The decision was made somewhere…battalion level I suppose…to push on down this railroad embankment and take the first little town. Another unit following us was supposed to leapfrog us and do that. Since we had no opposition, they just said “Go ahead till you run into some resistance.” So, we did. We moved down that railroad embankment and toward this town.
We followed this in toward this town and we hit resistance there. Not extraordinarily heavy, but there was small arms and we started getting artillery fire. We kind of hunkered down and started a flanking motion around the town and another company went this way. Eventually we moved into the town. Our battalion stayed in that town that day for most of the day.
It was Korrenzig, I think it’s spelled. On the east bank of the Roer. It wasn’t very big. Very small. We stayed in there most of the day as CP. A company and battalion headquarters were set up in the town. Then other troops were going through and pushing on. We were to secure the town and there were a few stragglers that were there.
By the time we got there it was nightfall again, so we hunkered down in that town. We set up lines along the outside and there were a few cellars in the town that you could get into. Everybody that could, got into a cellar cause that’s the safest place to be. There’s still German artillery coming in on us. That night we had a tank attack and were driven out of the town or at least to the outskirts of the town. We were driven out of the damn cellars anyway.
At night you can hear the damn tanks and you can see ’em and their following infantry. You don’t stay around to watch it very much. We got out of town. Called in some artillery fire. The tanks then went under cover, behind a wall or something in the one end of the town and we’re on the outskirts of the other end of town.
We got the hell out of there because the tanks were coming downtown and we didn’t have any heavy tanks over yet to combat them. But we did have communication to call artillery fire, so we got out of town and called artillery fire on the town, and that made the tanks back up. But that night was sort of a hectic night. We ran out and then the artillery fire and then we’d cautiously go back in. Then maybe you’d hear the damn tanks again and you’d back out.
Probably wasn’t over two or three tanks, really. It wasn’t a major thrust. By the next morning they had gone and we reoccupied the town. The next day, that second day, we pushed on up a road past some ground that had been taken by another part of our division. Our objective was a town called Rurich. About the same thing happened as in Korrenzig. There was some resistance, not extraordinarily heavy.
By this time it was a little different than going into the Siegfried Line. In the first place you weren’t attacking entrenched positions like pillboxes and fixed weapons with fields of fire. This was more an open warfare type. There were German units and there were German infantry, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult. The 84th Division was pretty well blooded by then. They’d been through the Siegfried Line. They’d been through the Ardennes. They were a pretty damn good fighting force.
It was really like a John Wayne movie sometimes to watch ’em. Boy, if they’d encounter small-arms fire, fire resistance or something, they’d form a line of skirmishers and go in marching fire with the machine gun spread ahead of ’em and mortars. These guys would go across the field and attack. It was a good fighting force. They’d had a couple of months of hard fighting. They knew how to do it.
You’re getting into Volkssturm, and the prisoners you’d take would be kids sometimes, or old men. You were really getting the last remnants of whatever the German army could scour up. You were getting lots of Poles and Ukrainians who had no desire to fight whatsoever. They had been forced by the German officers in there, and the very first chance they’d get to surrender or save themselves, they did. I say we were a lot better fighting force, but we had a lot less opposition to fight against, which may have made you look better, I suppose.
Each company has mortars and machine guns and what you would do, you would generally try to put your machine guns on the flanks like this and make a crossing field of fire here. The machine guns and the mortars would clear anything that was standing up or visible or the mortars of course could set up behind walls or anything like that. Then the infantry would march behind this field of fire.
It wouldn’t be marching. Just walking across the field slowly and firing at targets of opportunity. If you were attacking a village, for example, or a farmhouse or a knot of resistance. Then the machine gunners would move forward, you’d fire a few bursts and you’d pick up. That’s why I was in a machine gun squad. You’d pick up and you’d go up maybe twenty-five yards and you’d shoot again, stay ahead of your rifle troops. Mortars, same thing.
What we were running into, weren’t fixed lines. There would just be knots of resistance. It’d maybe be a German field piece with some infantry support or a German armored vehicle parked some place with protection of a bank or something like that. This was what you were working against, rather than two lines of battle coming. There were just knots of resistance in the towns, at the road intersections, and at any natural commanding position. This was pretty well flat country, but sometimes there’d be a bank or a road embankment or a piece of a wall still standing.
We outnumbered the enemy ten to one in most instances. That gave you a little bit more confidence. Small arms fire really wasn’t your biggest worry. It was the artillery, the things you couldn’t see coming that gave you more trouble. And mines. You were always worried about mines, particularly if you were walking in the villages or down roads that the enemy had vacated because they did tend to leave mines. Now as you went on, as you started moving faster and faster, the mine factor decreased greatly because they didn’t have time. They didn’t have time to dig places and put mines. They’d move out.
You had mine sweepers. If you could see ’em, of course you went around ’em and marked ’em. We didn’t try to explode ’em or anything like that. We just tried to avoid ’em and mark them. Then you had units coming up that were trained to sweep mines.
You could see a mine. You’d see it. Or the damn thing explodes. Nobody went ahead of you with a damn mine sweeper or something. You just hoped you didn’t step on a mine. Now if you could see ’em, obviously you’d go around ’em. If they were buried and the damn things exploded, you stopped. You stayed off that path or that road. By this time, with the artillery bombardment ahead of you and as fast as the Germans were going, the mine factor decreased greatly. We didn’t have very many casualties from mines.
We had about four days. I remember those two villages, Korrenzig and Rurich. It was pretty heavy fighting. There were no casualties like in the Ardennes or in the Siegfried Line, but we would have casualties every day. In a company of approximately one hundred eighty, two hundred men, some days you might have three, four, five casualties. Some days you might have fifteen or twenty. We’re getting replacements not quite as fast, so our company was decreasing in size.
We had about three or four days of this fighting and a strange thing happened which really just mystified all of us. They said “Okay, tomorrow morning we’re going to get in a motorized column, a task force of two and a half ton trucks led by tanks and we’re going to travel that way instead of walking.” Well, we’d been used to the Siegfried Line. We’d been used to the Ardennes. Nobody could see getting up in a two and half ton truck and riding toward the Germans
Hell, it was just like committing suicide, we felt.
What had happened, we had broken through the core of resistance on the east bank and the German forces were pretty well disorganized. There really wasn’t, after that first three or four days, any fixed heavy resistance. The army commanders felt that we could start what they called a breakthrough. And in fact it did work.
I know that was the first time I felt, and in talking with many others the first time that they felt, I felt like I had a chance to get out of this damn war. Because I thought if we get in a damn truck and ride for a few miles, then maybe the worst part of this damn war was over unless I caught an unlucky piece of shrapnel or like that. That maybe you did have a chance. Up to that time you could talk to ten line infantry soldiers, not a damn one of ’em felt that he could escape this unscathed. He was either going to get killed or badly wounded. That’s the only alternatives you had. Then this happens and they put you in motorized columns in our little task forces. They were led by tanks and there were jeeps and two and half ton trucks.
A company of the infantry would ride on the tanks. I didn’t like to do that because them tanks drew fire and they were in the lead. Then you would have the anti–tank vehicles, armored cars with mounted anti–tank guns on ’em and the two and half ton trucks and then other trucks carrying ammunition and supplies. Out we set. The first two or three days of this, instead of measuring your advance by yards, well, we were going several miles a day, maybe five, six miles. Now we aren’t going straight across toward the Rhine. We were kind of angling north. Between the Roer and the Rhine I don’t think it was over fifty miles probably. Maybe not that much. I’m not sure. We angled up to the north. We’d travel anywhere from five to maybe some days you’d only get two or three miles, maybe you’d get six or seven, because almost every road intersection there would be a roadblock. Sometimes it would be manned. More often not. But you’d hit a couple of ’em in a day.
What would happen is that the lead tanks would advance to the roadblock and fire on it to clear it. The infantry on the tanks would fan out and try to mop up or eliminate any infantry personnel that were supporting the roadblock there. Once you determined it wasn’t manned, or if it was manned, nine times out of ten you’d have a brief fire fight. But the Germans would see all these big tanks and the infantry coming at ’em and they would surrender. They would stop.
Then you’d go up and the damn tanks would push the roadblocks out of the way if they could. If not, they would go around them and the trucks would get around them as best they could. Usually you could knock ’em apart. Sometimes the Germans would drive some piling in the ground and then put some kind of metal around it like that and then fill it full or sand or something like that. It would take a little time to knock those down. You’d have to pull up. Usually what they did was shoot into the damn thing till they could dissolve part of it and then just by hand pull it out of the way and then the tanks run over the top of it. Most of the time it would be just some wagons or trucks or old vehicles, old junker vehicles piled across the road between banks where you couldn’t very easily go around them. Those were no trouble to push aside, but they would slow you down. You’d see one of them. You’d have to stop, be careful, you’d send out some scouts to see if they was manned, if there was a German tank hiding behind that somewhere, or if there was an anti–tank weapon. You’d try to find that out before you’d commit your tanks. If it looked all right, then you’d send the damn tanks up. I have even seen ’em call for air fire on some of these things. Again, we hesitated to do that because they weren’t very damned accurate. You didn’t want the damned dive bombers too close to you.
The supply units like the company kitchen stayed with us, and the battalion would have their ammunition trucks and those things right along with us. It was a self–contained task force is what it was.
After about the second or third day they had pontoon bridges across there, just pouring stuff across. We even had the company kitchen with us. Not then, but later on across the Rhine, you’d have truck companies go with you. That’s the first black soldiers I ever saw in combat. Most of them were quartermaster truck companies that came up and some of ’em were pretty good fighters. You’d hit a roadblock or something like that. They’d get out of their damn truck, take their rifle and they’d go with you. We really had a lot of respect for them.
I don’t know where they got the trucks. Some of ’em were from division. I guess each division had transportation companies. The first big town that we hit in Germany was Krefeld. I think Krefeld must have been a town maybe the size of Chillicothe. Anyway it was the first town that we’d been in and it was a strong point of resistance there. We were stalled there for two or three days. My particular company really was a flanking company. We really didn’t have much to do with subjugating the defenders of Krefeld. It was another regiment. We were just more or less in reserve and we were going around it more.
We stopped around there until it was cleared and we went in. This was the first town of any size that we went in and it was kind of amazing to see. There just wasn’t much left of it. It was really battered up. I don’t know for what particular reason. But it was just rubble, the parts that we went through. Maybe some of the outskirts weren’t. Whether there was defense targets there, it had been bombed heavily. It had to have been bombed heavily because we didn’t put that much artillery on it. We put artillery on it, but to tear down some of those big buildings in that old town, it had to have been bombed.
But anyway that’s the first sizable town that we’d gone into. Once we got around that, the advance was faster. We’d get in the trucks. We’d ride down the road. You’d hit a roadblock, stop, clear that, on you’d go. Not any particular fierce fighting. Streams of refugees, displaced persons, Germans coming down the road to get to the rear. This was the first time we saw many non–Germans, many civilians. Most of ’em were eastern Europeans, Frenchmen. They were forced laborers. As the Germans fled, the D.P.’s as we called ’em, fled the other way. They were just on both sides of the road. They were heading back away. Some of ’em were jubilant. Some of em were just too far gone to be jubilant. They didn’t show much emotion, they’d been through too much.
I know there were some Frenchmen because I could speak a little French and you’d yell at ’em and talk to ’em when you’d stop. You’d talk, so I know there were some Frenchmen among ’em. But most of ’em were Hungarians. Poles. As I said before, many of ’em were pressed into German military service. Still the German military uniforms on. But they weren’t Germans. Mostly adults, men and women both.
I would suspect they lived off the countryside where they could. Some of ’em had food, chickens and eggs you could see ’em carrying. We didn’t feed ’em, but I suppose back to the rear the American army set up camps to concentrate ’em. That’s a bad word to use, concentrate ’em in a camp. Gather them in a camp where they could feed ’em and decide what they were going to do with ’em. I expect if they were Frenchmen they just kept right on walking till they got to France.
They didn’t want to go back the other way. Now I don’t know whether it was brainwashing from the Germans, but the great fear of everybody was the Russky. They want the Americans, they didn’t want the Russky to get ’em. Everybody was afraid the Russky would just eat ’em alive or something. I think this was mostly German propaganda.
So we continue in this fashion and the destination that we ended up was a city called Homburg. The town of Homberg. It wasn’t as big a town as Krefeld, but it was an intact town. There had been some damage, but all the water was running. You had electricity. In my memory we were on a second floor. It was a private house. It had a kitchen. It had hot water. It had showers in it. A tub. It had beds.
The occupants were gone. I don’t know, they might have been just around the corner. You’re going to be in these two or three houses and they said weapons platoon, you’ll be in this house. Now where people that was in that house before, I don’t know. They were either gone or somebody ordered ’em out. Now I didn’t see personal belongings.
We really didn’t have any onerous duty. Of course just like any place else where the Army is, they set up the guards and so you’d have to pull your guard duty every so often. Our mess sergeant was there. The kitchen was there. We fed. In these houses it isn’t like the people left their bacon and eggs on the plate and then fled or anything. The bed linens were there. The furniture was there. It was a German home that we were in. We were there for maybe a period of week and a half, two weeks maybe. It seems like it was something like that. Again, it was a feeling of really elation, it was a feeling of relief and the biggest thing was that by God maybe this war’s going to end. By God maybe I’m going to live through it because you could see where things were going.
I’d say you’re in late February now. I don’t think we went across that damn river till the middle of February sometime. We were two weeks from the Roer to the Rhine. I’d say it was late February or early March. We had USO shows. They came up. For the first time there were a lot of civilians around.
For the first time we started hearing about the word fraternization. You don’t fraternize with these people. Well, most of us didn’t. In my case, I think, and in most cases through fear of what the hell would happen to us. Because they said if you fraternize with the enemy, if you mess with ’em you’re subject to court martial. There was a lot of combat soldiers, some of these guys had been through one hell of a lot. An old infantryman, he didn’t give a shot for a court martial or anything else. He’d been maybe two or three months without a girlfriend and if he saw a pretty little German girl that he could bed down for a chocolate bar, why he was going to do it.
This was the first time it started any contact with civilians and there was some contact. A lot of guys, the word’d get around—you go down here, such and such a strasse and look on there and there’s a couple girls in there and take some chocolate bars with you and they’ll give you a good time. And they would. And they did. Just as an aside, as the war went on, and of course up until, in the waning days of the war and then most certainly during the occupation, after V-E Day, they still had a non-fraternization policy. Actually it really wasn’t enforced. Everybody did it. But at this time, no. Just a few.
11—to the Elbe
Nobody had been able to get across the Rhine except down there at Remagen, you see. It had been a pretty massive military exploit to cross the Roer and conquer the Rhineland and get up there, and it was time to sit down and rest for a minute. The Germans had blown all the bridges except the one at Remagen down there.
Remagen was down south of us. It was way down in the Third Army area, way off. We weren’t close to it. Remagen was the only one that was captured intact. So we were there for that period of time, living pretty much a semi-garrison life really. We really didn’t have much to do outside of a little guard duty. You’d clean up your weapons. You’d get new weapons if you needed it. If you’d lost your entrenching tool or if your shelter half was torn or something like that, why you’d try to get that. You’d pull your guard duty. Replacements were sent in to fill up the squads. There was just sort of a period of refitting and outfitting yourself.
Now we crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge on a vehicle. Obviously they must have sent assault boats across and then built the bridge across. But some other outfit did it. We didn’t do it. We were the spearhead battalion crossing the Roer. I don’t know whether other units in our division made the Rhine crossing or whether it was an entirely different division. It could have been. Because I remember the Rhine crossing was uneventful. The area was cleared. We crossed it just like you’d cross the bridge at Chillicothe, except it was a pontoon bridge. Because the Rhine’s a pretty good sized river and building a pontoon bridge across, that’s a pretty good job. I guess they had the people with the know-how and the material to do it.
We crossed the Rhine. We did the same thing that we did after the breakthrough in the Roer. You were in a motorized column. Only instead of going three or four miles or five miles a day, we might go twenty-five, thirty miles a day, maybe more. Still, you would have to stop for occasional roadblocks and occasional resistance. You might get stopped for a day or two, you might get stopped for an hour. Hordes of refugees now, hordes of soldiers coming back the roads. Sometimes we’d be on a superhighway–like thing. Not often. More often on a two–lane road. Now you’re piercing the heart of the fatherland here. And soldiers, civilians, D.P.’s.
German prisoners moving to the rear. These task forces, we didn’t fool with ’em. We went on. All we were interested in, and if you run into heavy resistance, you just stop and you go around it. You go across country, you get to another road and go, because what they wanted to do was push forward and envelop as much of Germany as they could. You would stop at a town perhaps, at a crossroads, at some kind of a fortified area, and you’d have to stop and you have a fire fight.
Sometimes you’d watch it from the damn trucks. It’d be another company. If it was just a small job, they’d send just a company out and two or three tanks and it was like watching a movie. You’d watch this damn firefight. Most of the time it didn’t amount to much because Germany was crumbling. Once in a while you’d run across a unit of S.S. or an elite unit of Germans. Then you’ve got problems. Then you’ve got to stop and you got to fight because they didn’t give up too easy. Maybe they were afraid of what was going to happen to them or maybe they just had a fighting spirit.
There weren’t many concentration camps in this part of Germany. Most of ’em were in the eastern part of Germany or down in the southern part of Germany. There wasn’t many up there. We did run across a few.
More often we would run across a big farm or a factory where these forced laborers were kept. I don’t suppose there were gas chambers there like Auschwitz or anything, but it was a horrible sight. I mean there’d be a room maybe this size. It’d be just like a chicken coop and they’d have fifty or sixty people in there, these laborers. Laid on the ground or in the rude bunks built along there. They used them to work in the mills and the factories, the farms. You’d go to a farm and you go out there and there’d always be a damn chicken coop back there where you could see where they’d kept four or five people that were working the farm. Germany’s manpower was all at war. There was just a few people left. There wasn’t anybody but these Poles and Ukrainians and whatnot. They had to work the farms and the mills.
We did see one small women’s concentration camp that our battalion was involved with. The division as a whole overran several of these camps. But the only one that I saw and I don’t know where it was. It was a women’s camp. Salzwedel as I remember it. We did overrun that. By the time our trucks pulled up there, the women, most of ’em had streamed out of it, but they were still coming. There were still some there. The guards had left, fled, and we didn’t tarry there long.
I think they said at the time that there were maybe a thousand to fifteen hundred women there. There were a group of barracks–type buildings. I don’t know what they did with these women there. I don’t know why it was a women’s camp. I don’t know whether it was a brothel. I can’t believe it with that many women in it or whether it was just a place to keep these women, imprison ’em. Or whether they worked, take ’em out in work details, or what they did with ’em. I never did find out. All I know it was a women’s concentration camp, and that’s the only camp that we saw in our area.
Most of ’em were down in the southern part of Germany. But we did see, everywhere you went you would see quarters and places where they kept these forced laborers, mostly eastern Europeans it seemed to me like, although we ran across French and Belgians and Dutchmen. I never saw any British or Americans or heard of any British or Americans in these places. Mostly eastern Europeans, some French and Belgian, Hungarians or whatever. It might have been Slovaks.
My particular company didn’t have much fighting to do because there wasn’t much fighting. The biggest town that our division went through was Hanover, which was one of Germany’s largest towns, pretty well battered up by the war. We rolled through it. We stopped there for a couple of days to go through. There’d be pockets of resistance and snipers, diehards and maybe a small unit of S.S. This was a big city and I think the whole division had enveloped it, but the part I was in there was no major fighting of any kind.
It took a day, day and a half to reduce Hanover. It was mostly a matter of just being cautious and going through the sector you had street by street and flushing out anything you’d see. We didn’t make a house–to–house search or anything like that, but we just would go through there, talk to people.
They’d come out with the white flag, “Me no Nazi, me no Nazi.” Lots of times they’d tell you if there were “Soldaten, soldaten up there.” So you’d go up there and see, and maybe there’d be a soldier, maybe not. You’d wave him out of there and take him on down and run him back toward the rear. We didn’t bother searching every house or anything like that. If we didn’t encounter any resistance, well you’d go on.
Once in a while you’d get a sniper and occasionally you’d get a small knot. Then you’d have to deploy and roost these guys out of there. Bring up a tank, shoot a couple shells into it, would do the trick for the most part.
We went through Hanover and the next thing we hit the Elbe and we stopped. That’s as far as we went. My company, we weren’t really in a town or anything. A farmhouse was the company headquarters. A big farmhouse. It had its pigpens and where they kept the slave laborers as we called ’em. They were all pretty well gone as was the farmer.
We were right on the banks of the Elbe. The Germans were on the other side. But the Russians were advancing and the Germans I think were very desirous of coming over. I think they would have come over and helped us cross if we would come because they didn’t want to be captured by the Russians. About all we did on that side, we established a perimeter line along the river bank, had foxholes. Back to the back was the company headquarters in this farmhouse and then there were a couple barns back there where nearly everybody stayed except the ones that were up in the foxholes on the river patrolling and watching the riverbank. Once in a great while somebody from the other side would lob a shell over there, but it was desultory firing. I mean, hell, maybe one or two a day. I don’t know whether they got bored and just decided to shoot one or not.
After we were there two or three days, we were just a reception committee for German civilians, D.P.’s, everybody coming across that damn river just as fast as they could go on anything they could get ahold of. On a piece of wood. On a raft. After a while you could hear artillery in the distance and the Russians were approaching the riverbank. It was just frantic…and they made no pretense anymore of cover over there.
You could see literally hundreds of soldiers over there on the other side. German soldiers and civilians and all they wanted to do was get across the damn river. They’d come across and try to swim, come across in anything that’d go, anything they could. About all we did was, any of the soldiers we would relieve them of their weapons. Some of the guys would relieve them of watches if they had ’em, anything else of any value. I remember back in the corner of the barn where our particular machine gun squad was, we had a great big sack as big as a garbage can full of German P–38’s and Lugers and guns like that. We’d take ’em and of course there was nothing we could do with ’em. You’re an infantryman—you can’t carry a sack of goddamn pistols around with you. But we took ’em.
I brought a P–38 and a little Belgian 25 millimeter automatic that I took off one guy. I kept ’em for a long while until we adopted the little kids and Patty said, “You get the guns out of the house.” So I gave ’em or sold ’em, I don’t know which. I think I gave ’em to Jerry Kirkendall, who was a gun collector. Four or five times I’d take ’em out to the Farmer–Sportsman and get some ammunition. I don’t think I ever took that little gun. I was afraid of that little gun. I didn’t know just exactly how it worked. But the P–38 I used to take out and shoot once in a while. When we adopted the two little kids, Patty said “I don’t want any guns in the house.” So we got rid of ’em.
The Russians came right to the river. They came over and we went over there. I went once, but a lot of guys went lots of times. The company officers and everybody went over there and they’d shake hands and they came over to our side. Everybody was peace and we’d drink together.
We drank Schnapps. Whatever we could find. Whatever the Russians had or we had. All these people coming over, they’d come over with two or three bottles of booze on ’em sometimes, and we’d always relieve ’em of those.
Of course you couldn’t understand the Russians. The ones I saw were mostly Asiatic cast of features and they were boisterous, friendly. Looked like they’d be one hell of a soldier which I guess they were. We’d just toast ’em and shake hands and maybe hug one another, that’s about all.
I didn’t see any women soldiers. I don’t know whether they were Mongolians or Caucasians or whatever. I suppose that’s the kind of a outfit it was.
I didn’t see any Russian tanks. Bear in mind we just had very limited front there, and they had some trucks and lorries. They had some artillery field pieces which were pulled behind these trucks. We talked to ’em. I don’t think we had any Russians, but we had a couple guys in the company that could speak Slovak or something like that and some of the Russian noncoms could speak. They could communicate, Then he asked ’em some stuff.
“Well, where’s your mess sergeant?”
“Don’t have no mess sergeant.”
They give ’em a great big loaf of black bread and water and then vodka of some kind. Everything else they’d take off the Germans. So they lived off the land. One reason the Russian army could move fast, they didn’t have kitchens and mess sergeants and supply sergeants and company clerk. God, this loaf of black bread was hard as a rock. You could kill a man with it if you hit him. And sausage. That’s what they ate and whatever they could take from the Germans. We’d get eggs from the Germans. We kill chickens as we come, but they lived off the land. They didn’t have to worry too much about the supply problem. They supplied ’em with ammunition, sausage and black bread and go to it, babe.
Eventually V–E Day came.
It seemed to me like we were up on the Elbe a couple weeks. We were up there a couple weeks before V–E Day, maybe three weeks. We were there a good while cause we took thousands of people across and went through our lines and went back, German soldiers and civilians.
We stayed there until V–E Day and beyond. Then after V–E Day, the U.S. Army established a system of points, depending on length of service, length of combat time, whether or not you were wounded, and age was a factor, too. The older ones first. If you got enough points, you got to go home. If you didn’t have enough points to go home, but still had a middle range of points, you would stay there in the army of occupation in the occupying forces until your point level was reached, to send you home. I fell into this middle range.
We pulled back from the Elbe to some little town over there, the division did. Then everybody that wasn’t going home right away that wanted it was given a week’s pass to go where the hell ever they wanted to in the European theater for a leave. They drew lots as to when you would go.
I chose to go to Paris. They put us on a truck and we went somewhere in Germany, the distribution point, and then trucks from there fanned out to wherever they were going. But some wanted to go to the south of France. The ones that went to Paris they made a convoy out and off to Paris we went.
Paris was beautiful; I loved it.
12—After V–E Day—Army of Occupation
This would have been less than a month and probably not more than a week and a half or two weeks after the cessation of hostilities. So it would have been late June probably. It was a very, very hectic time on the continent. Everybody just moving everywhere. Displaced persons moving back home; the Allied Armies moving troops hither and yon; the civilian population in a ferment, trying to pick up the pieces of some kind of a normal life; and prisoners of war to be processed.
In our area the German Army soldiers pretty much disarmed themselves. They were anxious to give up because they knew we were in what later became the Russian zone of occupation. They wanted to surrender to the Americans and not only surrender their arms, but surrender their bodies to the Americans or the British or the French, as the case may be, and pull back with them. They didn’t want any part of the Russian occupation. They were terrified of the Russians. I’ll get into a little bit of that later on.
To get back to Paris, Paris was somewhat anticlimactic to me. It was just fun to be back in a big civilian city. Naturally, as any young man, particularly anybody’s been to college, I was brought up on Hemingway. I wanted to go see those sights and do things. I did a lot of that stuff, walking around in Montmarte and those kind of places. I went to the Louvre, but that was just an entire mystery to me. I didn’t know where to go when I got in the place, and it was partially open. Many of their priceless things weren’t there. They were just in the process of reopening it.
I tasted a little bit of the nightlife, went to the topless shows, and went to the bars in Pigalle. Did that for a couple of nights, but nothing sensational, really.
I went with a buddy. It wasn’t a fellow that was a real comrade in arms, nobody from my company, but it was another fellow from the 84th Infantry Division. We made friends as we went back in the truck and then we were billeted in a USO place there, a hotel in Paris that the army had taken over specifically for combat soldiers on leave.
The quarters weren’t bad. They were all right. Hot showers and everything like that was luxury to us, luxury enough. They gave you clean uniforms and changed your money for you. Money was a constant. I suppose they changed dollars for francs, I’m trying to think back. I know I had to change some money to get some money to spend, although I later found out you’re better off not changing there at the official rate. Take your dollars and the French were anxious to get the dollars and would pay you a premium for them.
I went back from Paris same fashion that I went. You went to this hotel where the Army was when your papers were up. They let you know there when a truck would be leaving for the particular part of Germany that your division was in.
I think the time was from the unit, portal to portal, from when you left the unit to when you got back to the unit. I was a week’s pass, but I probably had three nights and two full days in Paris.
So you generally went the day before. I think I was, as most of ’em, probably a day late getting back. The division when I got back was no longer on the Elbe. They had pulled back. We’d been up there by that time a good month, maybe six weeks.
I don’t know when the Russians actually came over because the demarcation line was back from the Elbe. I don’t know whether the Russians had taken over by then or another outfit, but the guys in the outfit told me that we had been relieved, that another outfit had come up and taken over. We pulled back. We went back to towns further west in Germany. I don’t remember exactly where.
All this time the big thing was the demobilization of the Army. Figuring out who was going to go where and who got to go home and who had to stay. They had a point system based on time and type of service. If you had enough points you got to go home immediately. If you had too few points you were transferred to outfits. Many of the newer replacements in our outfit were transferred to outfits and put on transports for the war in Asia. The war wasn’t over for them. As it happened it was because the war over there didn’t last long enough for anybody to get transported by ship over there. But nobody knew that.
There were quite a few people who wanted to remain in the Army of Occupation, surprisingly enough. They didn’t want to go home. Whether they had enough points or not, they requested to stay—would reenlist and stay for the occupation. There weren’t any reenlistment bonuses as such then, but you were pretty well assured of a promotion in grade. If you were a corporal and you chose to stay because they needed people and they wanted you and you had a good record, why you’d probably jump a couple ranks up to staff sergeant or something like that. There were many of ’em that did that.
We stayed as a unit at that time. We pulled back and about the only thing we did, we did a lot of stuff that they called search and seize. That is they’d roust—you’d get up in the middle of the night and you go out and probably in battalion strength or maybe two companies and you’d surround a small village, a small German village or a small German town. You’d put up a blockade around it, and then systematically you’d go in that town and house by house, person by person, you would go through the town. You’re looking for weapons. You were looking for still–armed German soldiers. You were looking for explosives. Each of these teams around a village, you would have a G–2 [intelligence] person who could speak German who would interrogate.
The Germans all had, the word was kindcarten or something like that. I did know a smattering of hog German at the time, but I’ve forgotten it, but an identity card. Anybody that didn’t have one of these identify cards, or even anybody that looked suspicious, you sent ’em back to this G–2 for interrogation. They were looking, I presume, for Nazis, war criminals, or maybe just for people who could help them in the occupation. People that were formerly municipal officials or people that were water superintendents or something like that that they could use. That’s what they were looking for.
We went through right down the street, and you go house by house, and you’d search every room in the house. There was a little bit of petty larceny went on. Don’t forget these are the combat troops going through. These are the damn people that’s been shooting at you, trying to kill you, and you didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for ’em. So if they had a bottle of schnapps or something, why you were very tempted to liberate it, take it with you. There was some petty theft, or I suppose that it comes under the broad heading of looting, I guess you’d say. I’ve seen guys take watches off civilians, pieces of pottery, maybe a figurine or something like that. I saw one guy, I don’t know what the hell he was going to do with it, he took a cuckoo clock. He wanted that for a souvenir.
By and large, the officers and the top noncoms, they would look the other way if you took a bottle of Schnapps or something like that. They didn’t condone the robberies, which was more or less what it was, of the civilians. Many of these houses that you went through were empty. There wasn’t anybody in ’em. People, families had been broken up by the war and the men were off killed or in prisoner of war camps somewhere. Those houses were pretty much open game. If you saw anything you liked there, you took it.
But we’re infantrymen, and you could only take what you could carry on your backs. Any weapons you found of course had to be turned in, but by that time, anyone that wanted souvenir weapons after the Elbe had all the goddamn guns you could carry anyway. Nobody really bothered about taking weapons.
We would have been the first American troops in those towns. We must have done that to three or four small villages while I was there. They called ’em search and seize missions. Usually they were small places. I assume they did the same thing in the larger areas. Some outfit would probably take a neighborhood or a quadrant like that. Our experience was all in the small towns.
You didn’t find much in an empty house. I suspect that the other people in the town had removed anything that was of any real value or anything like that. We moved a couple times in there. Now we’re out of the field. We’re not in tents or digging holes in the ground. You had billets. You just took over a house or inn or a tavern or something like that. The troops were billeted there.
Finally the division was moved down into the area around on the Neckar River and roughly the area around Heidelberg. Heidelberg was the big town around there because we went there a couple times. That’s down in the southern part of Germany in Bavaria in the American zone. Up to this time we’d been in either the Russian or the British zone. We moved down south in there, and our company was in a little village called Baiertal.
It was just a tiny community, a few houses. Glenroy maybe would be a comparable sized town. One street with a few little houses off the couple of side streets, one little pub and that’s about all there was in it. Our company was stationed there and rest of the division was around in other towns. I think the division headquarters was probably in Mannheim. We were pulled back there just as a place to be, and we were nominally in control of this area. What was happening, you just sat down there to wait till the troops were disposed of.
If the 84th was not going to be part of the Army of Occupation, and there was no sense of permanency to this thing, this was just a waiting period until they decided most of ’em could go home. A lot of people were leaving. Where people with certain number of points could go, well then you went. So almost every week a contingent would have enough points, and they’d leave for a port to go back. So you were losing people constantly. Eventually, the division went back, but by that time it was almost a totally different group of people than it was at war’s end because most of the older ones had left and new replacements came in.
I spent maybe three weeks, a month in Baiertal there. A very pleasant time. It was just a little farming community. There weren’t very many people there. Our weapons platoon were billeted in one house, two houses really. The machine gunners were in sort of like a duplex house. Two families had lived in it. The mortar section was in one and the machine gun section was in the other. They were very relaxed there.
We didn’t do much. Sat around and played cards, joked, traded the Germans for Kartofflen and cooked French fries almost every evening. Plenty of Schnapps. You could go down to this one little tavern. They didn’t have much of a selection of drinks, but they always had plenty of potato schnapps and stuff like that and a little bit of beer, although it wasn’t very good beer as I remember it. Wasn’t really much going on.
It was just a waiting period there. The anti–fraternization thing was still on, but we’re just one company with our own officers and they didn’t pay much attention to it. You talked to the Germans. We made friends with ’em, especially the kids. Kids were always hanging around. There were a few guys that had picked up girlfriends and go out and stay all night, but there weren’t many damn women in the town. This was just a little place, and there were mostly older people there. There were hardly any young men and hardly any younger women really. Old people and kids for the most part.
After about three weeks to a month there, I and maybe a dozen others from the company got orders to report back to a transportation company in Rheims, France. We weren’t scheduled to go home. We didn’t have enough points to go home right away, but we did have enough points to go home in a couple months’ time it looked like. They sent us back to this transportation company because they needed bodies there. I’ll never forget, it was a great place. It was a quartermaster company, and it was billeted in a champagne factory right over the vaults of one of the most famous champagne…we had champagne for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Man, we just had champagne constantly! That was something else.
My rank was T-5. I was a corporal, but when I went to the transportation company, they didn’t have corporals. They had Technician 5 so I was given the rank of T-5 in this transportation company, which corresponds to a corporal. After coming back, after the war was over, I was promoted to corporal.
You found out what your duties were and this was pleasant. This transportation company was involved in just miscellaneous transportation. An officer was stationed in maybe Paris, and was moved to someplace in Germany, say Heidelberg. Well, he wanted his belongings moved there. He was going to be permanent in the occupation. I would pick up his footlocker and maybe he had a musical instrument or some things he had. If he was a colonel or something and he was going to be stationed there, my job was to take his belongings from Rheims to Heidelberg. We take it there.
This transportation company was just a hastily–formed outfit. They’re all old combat guys and so the dispatcher would say you’re supposed to be there a certain time. I’d say “When do you want me back?” “Get back when you want to, just as long as it’s within reason.” They would give you chits to pick up five–gallon cans of gas for your truck because there were no gas stations in Germany right after the war or anyplace else that you’d get gas. That was just like giving you a gold mine, because as long as you could pick up five–gallon cans of gas, you could sell that gas anywhere along the damn road for as much as you want to. So you were a damn plutocrat. It was a jaunt, boy, to go on these trips.
What you got was an order to give gas to this T-5 Clark, engaged in official business as part of the so and so transportation company, going from Rheims to Heidelberg and back. As long as you stayed on the general route, you could get as much as you want. You just couldn’t take that truck out for six months and stay, but you could steal two or three days both ways with no problem.
I did go back to Heidelberg. I went to Brussels. I went to the Hague. I made one trip to Nice and then several smaller trips around, from France up to places in the Rhineland. This was over a period of six weeks. If I could have stayed there, I’d damn near have re–enlisted in the Army. If I could be assured that was going to go on forever because it was great. You had plenty of money because gasoline was currency. When you’re on the road on this thing, if you wanted to stay at civilian you had plenty of money to do it or if you wanted to stay in Army, you could stop most anywhere and they’d put you up for the night at any Army base or any Army installation or Army group that was there. I must have been there a month, six weeks.
Now getting up into winter again, it came time for me to be sent back to the States and demobilized. I went back to Southampton, where I’d come into the continent. Went to France. Went up to one of the Normandy ports, I don’t know which one it was, whether it was Cherbourg or one of these ports or whether it was just like Omaha Beach that they kept or something like that. We got on a little steamer, went back to Southampton into a receiving outfit there.
I did get a chance to go back up to Winchester where I had been before that time. Did get another pass to London, overnight pass, and back to Winchester and renewed my acquaintance with a couple of pub keepers that I knew up there from the time before.
They said they recognized me. I don’t know. There’d been so damn many GI’s that…I played shove ha-penny with ’em two or three times. They said “Oh, you’re the guy that played shove ha’penny with me.” Yeah, well, maybe five hundred guys played shove ha’penny with ’em, but anyway they said they did. But I recognized them.
It’s a bar shuffleboard game. It’s got a board on the edge of the bar. A board about the size of four legal pads laid out square and marked off like in shuffleboard, with lines, with so many points if you get the ha’penny. Which actually wasn’t a ha’penny then but apparently had been in the original. It was a little small pellet about the size of a ha’penny, which was about the size of a half dollar in our money.
You put this ha’penny on the edge of the bar and you shoved it with the heel of your hand and it was like shuffleboard. You tried to put it in the spot. Then the next guy would come along and he’d take his and he’d try to knock it out and get his in the spot. It was a shuffleboard game on a bar and they called it shove ha’penny. They actually had little round pellets about the size of a half dollar. The origin of the game was that in the old days they just took a knife and cut lines in the bar and took a ha’penny and shoved it up there between those lines.
You’d propel the ha’penny with the blow of the heel of your hand. By now they had a board and a little pellet that they used. The game’s still known as shove ha’penny and it’s in every pub in that part of England. The shove ha’penny game was just like the darts game. They had both of those and both of ’em were equally patronized by the customers and it was a fun game. I liked it. I never was any good at darts, but I got to be pretty good at the shove ha’penny and you always played for beers. The boys, just like they played for darts, they’d play shove ha’penny and whoever lost would have to buy the round of beers. Anyway, I did get to go back to Winchester.
We came back. By this time I’m free of the division. I’d left the division back in the Heidelberg region. I later understood that the division per se as a division came back as the 84th division and was demobilized, but I just came back as a casual GI returning. We came back on one of the Queens, I don’t remember which. The Queen Mary, I suppose. We came back to New York Harbor.
It was wartime. It had been traveling back and forth when it was taking troops over to Britain, but it wasn’t overcrowded. You weren’t uncomfortable, but you were slung up in hammocks and bunkbeds. There’d be hundreds and hundreds of people in each room. But food was all right and the trip was uneventful. Many, many large–stake gambling games on it because everybody had lots of money. These guys coming back, they’d been involved in the black market over there.
In the Army of Occupation you really didn’t need much pay because you could take a pack of cigarettes which you could buy for maybe ten cents. You could probably sell it for maybe four or five dollars sometimes on the black market. Depending on supply and demand at that particular moment. So everybody had lots of money. There was lots and lots of heavy gambling on there—crap games, poker games. That’s how many of the people spent their time—gambling. We pulled into New York Harbor. We went to some sort of a holding area there. I don’t know whether it was Fort Dix or Camp Kilmer, I don’t remember.
After a few days there, I was sent to Indiantown Gap and mustered out there. I wasn’t there over a week and maybe not that long, maybe three or four days. That was an uneventful time, not much there, but the paperwork was processed, and I came home.
13—After the War
I came home, and that was the end of it. Well, not the end of it, because it’s never the end of it. It’s an experience that colors your life from now on.
I was in slightly over three years. I would have been twenty–three in March because I was demobilized in February of ’46. I was born in March of ’23 so I was almost 23 years old.
I went back to Miami University. I graduated with a B.A., pre–law. I went from there immediately to U.C. Law School. I stayed six weeks. Dean Rowley got rid of me in a hurry. I wasn’t ready for law school. You could get sixty–five dollars a month, and the U.S Army would send you to school anywhere, so I put in for University of Geneva in Switzerland. I was accepted and I went over there, stayed for about six months over there and got a little bit of romantic nonsense out of my head, I guess.
I studied basically French literature and French culture. I was going to be the world’s greatest novelist or something. I was going to be another Hemingway.
After I left Geneva I came back to New York City. Decided that you couldn’t make a living being a new Ernest Hemingway. Guys that were making all the money were accountants, so I enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School to get C.P.A. training. I worked in the daytime at New York University in the Accounting Department.
I made a mistake. You were in a great big room downtown, New York University, in a high building. You’re sitting there all day working with damn figures, and myself and maybe two or three other guys in this big room, and the rest of ’em were women. I was doing very mundane bookkeeping work, routine stuff. I had a couple big windows right there that I could see out of. Every day goddamn ships sail out, off they’d go for ports all over the world. Sailors standing on there looking casually around, the wind tossing their hair. I thought “Jesus Christ, what am I doing here when people are doing something like that going to Arabia or Afghanistan or Rio or someplace like that?”
I took one lunch hour and I went down to the Seaman’s Hall and they say no, sir, you can’t get on any of them ships. You got to have seamen’s papers. Well, I must have just hit it lucky or something. I said I’d like to get some seaman’s papers. Okay, we’ll give ’em to you. That was very, very fortunate.
Now, I got entry level papers. I could have been an ordinary seaman or what they call a wiper, which is in the engine room of a ship, or a messman, which is a dishwasher, table waiter. They gave me the seaman’s papers. The next day, I took a day off and I went to the Army. They told me to go over to the Army Transport Headquarters which was in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, that they were looking desperately for people to man ships to take supply. Of course at that time there was still a hell of a lot of American troops abroad, to take troops back and forth or to take supplies to Army bases.
I went over there and said, “Here’s my papers, you got anything?”
“Oh, hell yes, buddy,” he says. “Can you leave next week?”
I say, “I can leave today.” I didn’t have much.
I signed on for a ship. They signed me on as a messman which suited me because I didn’t know nothing about being an ordinary seaman, even less about a wiper, but I could wash dishes! I figured I knew how to do that. They put me on a Liberty Ship and I never did go back to the damn accounting office at N.Y.U. I just wrote ’em a letter. Told ’em I had some things come up. I could no longer continue employment there and please send my check to...I gave ’em my mother’s address back in Ironton. Send everything you need back there.
I was gone. I was on a damn Liberty ship and the thing didn’t go to Rio. It didn’t go to Venice. It went to Greenland, for God’s sake! Not only did it go to Greenland, but they went up one of them damn fiords up in there. The goddamn Eskimo pilot or whatever it was taking up there, he hit a rock and broke the rudder. We was up in the damn place for about a month and a half, couldn’t get out. They had to fly some Navy frog people up there or something, take that damn rudder off, fly the damn thing back to Boston or someplace on the east coast or maybe a naval facility somewhere up in Maine or something close, then fly it back. Then they had to put it on.
I forget what the name of it was, where we’d gone. We couldn’t get off the damn ship. You could get off and walk on the quay there or something, but the naval base was maybe a couple of miles on down from where we were, connected by a road. The rest of the damn thing was Greenland, which was Denmark’s territory or something. We couldn’t go in that. Well, there wasn’t nothing there anyway, just goddamn rocks and mountains and ice up on top of it. We was on that damn ship for I know, the whole trip took almost two months. A month and a half of it we spent up in that damn fiord. I sure as hell learned how to wash dishes, I’ll tell you that, boy. I did that.
The Merchant Marine paid pretty good and anytime you got fifty or sixty miles away from the coastal United States, you got what they called combat pay because it was still a war zone. We were still technically at war with Germany. There were mines out there. It was dangerous so you got 25% or something like that combat pay, double, so you make pretty good money in it. There was nothing to spend it on up there in that damned fiord, see, so I came back from that with pretty good pay. You didn’t get paid on those damn ships till you got back. You got it all in one hunk.
I got tired of washing dishes and on all these ships they had a thing they called the steward’s yeoman. All that son of a bitch did, he’d sit up there in a nice office and typed up the menus for the steward and typed up orders for food and stuff like that when you come back into port or you’re pulling into port or when you’re delivering. The feeding establishment of the ship, the chief steward, was over that and the chief steward had a yeoman who was his office boy.
Well, that looked like a good job to me, but I couldn’t type. You didn’t learn to type in high school or college automatically those days. I went back to New York and I took about a month. I bought me a goddamn book and rented a typewriter and I just stayed in a room till I taught myself to type. Till I could type fast enough to pass the test, the yeoman’s test. So back I go to the Army Transport Division and tell ’em I want to take the yeoman’s test. Okay, come in here. I took the yeoman’s test, I showed ’em my seaman’s paper and they put yeoman on there. Now I could be a wiper or a messman or a yeoman. So I put in for a yeoman’s job. I got it. Got a job.
I sailed as a yeoman maybe year, year and a half, on various ships. We made trips to Bremerhaven in Germany. Lots of trips to Guantanamo Bay and the Canal Zone, Puerto Rico, Liverpool. Some damn port on the Italian Riviera—I don’t know where the hell it was or what the hell we did there. We just pulled in and out of there and didn’t stay long, but that was one trip. That was the only time I was in the Mediterranean. Most of the trips were to Caribbean or Central America—didn’t go back to Greenland anymore. Bremerhaven lots of times. That was a big supply port for the U.S. there.
I enjoyed it. Going to sea for a single man was great. You could just sock your paychecks in the bank, particularly if you were sailing on these Army ships. I did. We made about four or five trips to Bremerhaven in a row.
You could go over there in Bremerhaven and I’d buy about two dozen Hohner harmonicas. I don’t know whether you know about a Hohner harmonica, but that’s the Cadillac of the harmonicas. They were made in Germany. See, you couldn’t get ’em in the U.S. I could buy ’em for maybe...it cost me six packs of cigarettes. I could get a Hohner harmonica over there. I’d bring ’em back to the States. There was no customs for seamen, particularly if you’re an Army seaman. I brought ’em through undeclared of course. I think the statute of limitations has run out on me. I don’t think anybody could get me for harmonicas. You could sell those babies for maybe twenty-five, thirty-five dollars. I’d bring back a couple dozen of ’em, which maybe cost me two or three dollars and I can make three or four hundred dollars on the damn things.
You make buddies on these ships. One guy’s was, name was Mattie Navarre, and he was a character, boy, from way back. He was an old–time hood. He knew all the old Mafia guys and all the old racketeers and he could talk for hours on it. His goddamn hands were broken where they’d clubbed him down and he’d been in prison several times. I expect he’d killed two or three persons. The Merchant Marine is a repository for all kinds of flotsam.
He wound up there and he befriended me and I think he was the one that really put me onto the harmonica bit. He was into guns, but I wouldn’t take guns. Lots of money you can make in guns, bringing ’em back, but I didn’t want that. That was what his thing was. He tried to get me to help him with the guns and I said, “Matt, I ain’t got nothing’ to do with them goddamn guns. I’m afraid of guns. I put my guns away when I got out of the damned infantry and I don’t want ’em any more.”
“Well,” he said, “why don’t you try harmonicas?” He says, “You can make a little bit on it there.” So that’s the guy that put me onto it. I must have done that, I’d say four or five times. Probably wasn’t over two or three times, really. I’m romanticizing back there. I know one time I had two dozen, more times I’ve had ten or a dozen or something like that, these things. I kept one or two of ’em and just played ’em all the time when you’re out on the ship.
Well, eventually I got enough service in and I took the test for supply officer on a ship, which was, just as the title suggested, the guy that bought the ship’s supplies. Now not the manifest, not the cargo, but the supplies for the ship. The food and the cleaning supplies and whatever navigational supplies you had to have or something. I took it for assistant supply officer and the equivalent in the Army was like a second lieutenant or something. You were in officers’ quarters then. You ate in the officers’ mess. You were very, very, very junior, but nevertheless an officer. I made one trip as an assistant supply officer.
Then my mother became very ill in Ironton and I came home to be with her. She was ill for several months and I stayed in Ironton with her in that period of time. Ran out of money. Took a job with the Ironton Daily News while I was there, which paper folded up about that time. The editor down there told me why don’t you go up there at Jackson. He says I’ll give you a recommendation to the Chapmans up here. A fellow named Art Farrar is quitting and going to work as a sports writer for a Columbus paper.
The lady who was staying with my mother was named Mrs. Reagan. She had relatives in Wellston. I’d purchased a car. I had a car. That’s another story, a couple of cars I had.
The first car I purchased was a 1947 Crosley. You know what a Crosley is? Powell Crosley, he used to own the Cincinnati Reds and had the Crosley appliances. You’ve heard of Crosley appliances, made refrigerators and stuff. He decided to make a little bitty car. That damn car, I could pick it up. Me and another fellow on either side you could pick it up, and you could turn it over on its side and work underneath it. It had a chain-drive gear drive and you could fix it. Anybody could fix anything on it, and they didn’t cost very much. I bought this one used. Two people could get in it and it was just like a little eggshell. It wasn’t any bigger than, oh, it wasn’t as big as this table. About six feet.
Maybe it was about the size of this table. I bought it. Of course, during the war my driver’s license had lapsed. So you had to get a new driver’s license. It was just like this. You went down and took the written test and you had to drive with a driver’s examiner. It happened to be a big old patrolman. You took your own car. We came out. I passed the test and came out.
He says, “Where’s your car?”
“It’s this one right there,” and I pointed to that little Crosley.
He says “Aw, f♦♦♦ you, GI.” He said, “I ain’t getting’ in that thing with you. Here’s your license.” He said, “You been a truck driver in the war or something’ like that?” Just something that stuck in my head.
But anyway, I took this lady to Wellston and then I came back to Jackson and stopped in at the Publishing Company. I had a note to Ed Chapman. Well, they weren’t in, the Chapmans. So I told ’em what I was here for, that I was interested in employment. It was probably Ralph Eisnaugle that I talked to. “Well,” he said, “Here, I’ll take your name and address and I’ll give it to Mr. Chapman and he’ll get in touch with you if there’s anything available.” I go back up and get this lady who was living with my mother and we go back to Ironton and I don’t think much more. I think well, that’s just another don’t call us, we’ll call you job.
I’m here and I’m wanting to go back to New York, but I don’t have any money. I want to get a little grubstake. So I think well, I’ll have to get a job in a damn store or something around here, and make enough money to get back and get on the ships again. Then I can start dealing with them harmonicas, maybe make a little money.
My mother had improved and we had a lady staying with her. I told mom, “Say, I’m gonna go up to the library a little bit this evening and read the shipping news in the New York Times.” See what ships are coming in and out or what maybe I could do. Maybe I could write somebody over there and find out if I could get a job guaranteed me in advance. I’d take what little money I had and go over because if I get over there and get on a ship I’ve got it made. So I’m up at the library.
In the interim, the Chapmans had come back, and Art Farrar indeed was going to Columbus to take a sportswriting job. He was a good newspaperman, good worker, nothing against him. He introduced me to my wife and then we’re best of friends. He was kind of a roisterer in those days—a drinker and a gambler. Ed Chapman, Sr. was a pretty strait–laced member of Jackson Christian Church down there. Now Ed Junior wasn’t, never has been, I don’t think. But Ed Senior was. Art had gotten into debt a couple of times for a couple thousand dollars and he’d had to borrow against his future pay, and Ed Chapman, Jr. really wasn’t too unhappy to see him leave at that time. He’d had about his fill of him, he told me later.
Ed Senior and Ed Junior decided this guy looks pretty good and they knew the fellow who had recommended me in Ironton. So they drive down and go to the address I’d given them which was my mother’s house. They identified themselves and inquired where I was. Well, they said, Ed’s gone up to the library. Junior said you had the job right there. “The guy’s at the library,” he says. “That’s the guy I want.”
So they came to the library. The library is just a little one, and I was in the library. Junior came in and he like to scared me to death. I’d never seen Junior Chapman in my life and he came in. It seemed like he had a hat on or a jacket and he’d come in there and tapped me on the shoulder and he says, “Are you Ed Clark?” I turned around and looked at this guy I’d never seen and he had this hat pulled down and he was kind of a tough looking guy. I thought who the hell is this wanting me.
One of the reasons the old Ironton Daily News closed down there, it was purchased by a guy named Ducky Corn who was a notorious syndicate guy down there. The only reason he bought the damn paper was he thought he could get a racing wire in through the paper. The son of a bitch closed the paper and left most of the employees owing ’em about two or three weeks’ pay.
Junior came in the library, and I don’t know what time of year it was, but it was dark in the library and it was night. Junior, when he’s got a hat on and a coat, can be kind of a sinister–looking figure. I’d never seen him, and had no idea what he was. I wasn’t even thinking about anybody coming in the library, but he came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Are you Clark?”
I looked around him and I thought well, who in the hell is this guy, is he Mafia or something, and why’s he coming after me? I never saw this guy, but he introduced himself, so I went out to his automobile and he and his dad were in the car. I think we went somewhere. I think we probably went to a bar or a restaurant or a diner or someplace like that and talked for a while. They said, “Well, come back up tomorrow. We think you’re the fellow we want and we’ll complete the arrangements then.” So I did. About two weeks later I started the job.
I hired in as editor. That was the only job here. There were editor and society editor at that time. There were only two people who worked on the editorial staff. Jennie Watson was society editor and then myself who succeeded Art Farrar. I really had no great attachment or great enthusiasm for the newspaper business. I happened to work on the news to make some money down there, and I came up here basically to get a grubstake to go back to New York and go back on the ships.
As things worked out, I met my wife. I enjoyed the publishing company, and I found that I enjoyed the newspaper business. With the exception of about nine months when I went to Akron and worked in the P.R. Department of the Ohio Edison Company, I’ve been here ever since. I left, that was about a year after I was here. It was late in ’53. I’d been here about a year. I started here in September, Apple Festival week. When I went to Akron it was the following September, about the time school started because we got up there to get Craig and Marsha in school up there. I stayed there about nine months, and I didn’t particularly like the P.R. business.
They had an awful time with some editors who succeeded me here. One of ’em left a trail of bad checks and another one was constantly getting in trouble, so they came back and made me an offer. A better proposition than I had before and also a chance for some stock options. I returned here in the spring of ’54 and been here ever since.
The papers were the Sun–Journal, the Herald and the Oak Hill Press. There were three papers which are now combined in today’s Journal–Herald. The Sun–Journal was a Monday–Thursday traditionally Republican paper. It got all the Republican advertising. In those days if you had a Republican paper and a Democrat paper in town, legal advertising, much of it, had to be run in papers of both kinds. It was advantageous for them to keep both papers because legal advertising then as now was a big source of revenue for the newspapers. The Oak Hill Press was a weekly on Wednesday.
I edited both papers and much of the copy or articles in the paper. Much that went into Monday’s Sun–Journal was retained for the Tuesday’s Herald. You’d try to change the front page and bring any last–minute sport news or court news or something like that or police news, but everything we used in one paper, we used in the other. They also used the advertising in one paper and the other because they were separate circulation lists for the most part. A good deal for the paper because you build the ad once, run it twice, charge twice for it, or three times if you put it in the Oak Hill Press.
It got a little traumatic for me and a little silly because around election time I’d have to write a fire–eating Republican editorial and support the Republican candidates, Republican position on Monday, then turn around the next day and do the same damn thing for the Democrats. It was all me, see, and for a long time I never registered at the primary. I never voted in the primary because, well, they asked me not to, the Chapmans. They said it’s better that you don’t, and they knew I was a Democrat. I didn’t make any particular bones about it, but at least I could tell if somebody came in and asked me if I was Republican, well, I said, “I’m an Independent. I’m not registered to vote either way.”
That went on till about ten years ago. No, probably longer than that. I forget when they combined it into the present format as the tri–weekly Journal–Herald. We had put four Jackson papers out a week, two Sun–Journal’s and two Herald’s and in between on Wednesday, the Oak Hill Press.
My column “Sunspots” came from the old Sun. Will Evans or somebody back there or maybe Ben Ames Williams’ dad, Daniel Webster Williams, or one of ’em. The Sun–Journal was a combination of the old Sun and the Journal. The old Sun had a column which was called “Sunspots” and it was just brief items in the Sun. Well, the Sun name was phased out. It was when the Sun–Journal and the Herald combined, they just called it the Journal–Herald, so even the Sun name doesn’t remain, but the “Sunspots” has been there.
Front–page columns are rare anymore. You see ’em, now and then, but you don’t very often, a general–type column. I’m surprised it has lasted past my tenure down there. I figured long since probably Pete would drop it back on an editorial page or something like that. He’s chosen to keep it there on the front page.
14—Q and A: Reflections and Conclusions
Q: You’re going to notice when you get your transcript back that when you’re talking about that period of time, your language changes.
Is that right?
Q: It’s a lot saltier.
I’ll be damned.
Q: And you switch into proletarian grammar.
I’ll be damned.
Q: You’re no longer the newspaper editor.
You’re a GI, huh?
Q: You’re a GI. How important is language to a soldier? What does it mean?
I think the obscenities and the rough language is probably in large part due to the all-male atmosphere. In the enlisted ranks in the Army you don’t have a very high level of education. I don’t want to say intelligent, because many people in the enlisted ranks are much more intelligent than the officer caste. These are proletarian people, by and large.
Now World War II, it was a civilian army of course and it was a conscripted army and universal conscription. I don’t think this was true in the Vietnam War where most of your people were caught up in this and could see no way out. Had no opportunity of going to college. Didn’t maybe have ambition or the drive to go to Canada if they resisted or wanted to or to find other ways of staying out. World War II was pretty much a universal conscription and most people I think went willingly. Now I don’t say enthusiastically, but willingly. They felt that this was a duty, really.
There wasn’t a great deal of anti-war sentiment that I ran into. 4-F’s by and large were scorned. Of course, after you’ve been in the Army a while, and particularly if you’d been in combat, you didn’t scorn the 4-F’s so much. You kind of envied them a little bit and you desired really to get out. If you could see any kind of legitimate way of getting out of the Army, you would take that exit.
Q: During your account, you’ve identified yourself at various times as being a mortar ammo bearer and a runner and a machine–gun ammo bearer. Did you have all three jobs at different times?
Most of those jobs were interchangeable in the weapons platoon. As I told you, an infantry company had four platoons, three rifle platoons and one weapons platoon. The weapons platoon consisted of a mortar section and a machine–gun section, two squads each. There were two light machine guns and two sixty–millimeter mortars. Each squad would have a gunner, an assistant gunner and three ammo bearers and a squad leader. Most of the men in the weapons platoon...Well, not most of ’em...all of ’em had to be adept at either section, either weapon because you didn’t know in combat if you might get four or five people wiped out of one section and you need to have somebody to man the guns in the other section. So at one time or another, most of these people did switch from one weapon to the other in the combat situation.
Q: The runner was the communication between the squad and the higher command?
Usually between the platoon sergeant and the company headquarters. The Table of Organization called for a lieutenant to command the weapons platoon. Most of the time we didn’t have a lieutenant. Officers were in short supply up there, and they tended to get shot more than the others because they had to expose themselves. They were leaders and they got out there first and they got shot more and hurt more and they weren’t replaced as readily. I don’t know why. I don’t know whether they didn’t have a pool of them or not, but much of the time the platoon sergeant was the commander of the platoon.
Q: How important was alcohol to soldiers in combat?
In combat, relatively unimportant. The United States Army had no source of alcohol unless you commandeered it from an enemy territory or whatever territory you were on.
Q: What about the rear, then?
In England and in France in the rear areas there was a good bit of drinking, yes, because the populace, particularly in France once the channel crossing was made, was where most of our rear areas were. Wine, cognac, brandy, calvados drinking was a way of life. Combat troops would drink when they could get it. When we were in Normandy, calvados, apple brandy, was the big drink up there. Very strong fiery drink. We’d trade and swap cigarettes or maybe a trench knife or something like that for a couple bottles of calvados.
I think in an infantry company, in a combat company, it was something to kind of befog yourself or forget about the horror that you were going through, when you had a chance. I never saw an enormous amount of drinking in combat situations. Now after the war in the occupation or in rear areas, there was a lot of drinking, but there just wasn’t the opportunity in combat situations. You weren’t around it that much. I mean you just weren’t around civilians very damn much. You pull back in reserve, until the latter stages of the war when you made a breakthrough through the Third Reich.
Q: I think you went through the topic of ladies when you were giving your account. There was some fraternization but not a great deal.
No. Now as the war wound down it got more and more. In the Army of Occupation, what little time I spent in it, there was an awful lot, very much, because soldiers were young single men. The biggest part of German manhood had been slaughtered in the war. There weren’t a lot of German men around. The GI’s had the whiskey, the money, the creature comforts that the German girls were willing to trade their sexual favors for to get food, clothing, heat.
Where we were in the occupation, the couple of months that we spent as an occupying force, as contrasted to the time I spent with this transportation company in France, when the division was occupied, we were in a small place called Baiertal. Hell, there just weren’t many people there. There might of been half a dozen or a dozen women who could have been consorts for soldiers and there were two or three hundred soldiers. Most of us didn’t have any luck with ’em. Because they just weren’t available.
Q: A lot of people, looking back on that time from the perspective of today, see a lot of Bill Mauldin and Stars and Stripes. How important was the Army’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes.? How frequently did you get it?
It was well read. In combat situations we wouldn’t see it. If you’d pull back in reserve, you got mail from home and you got the Stars and Stripes. and you got hot meals and that kind of thing. Soldiers did read the Stars and Stripes.. The Mauldin cartoons of course were the joy of the infantryman because he was good. He caught the flavor of it very well. The Stars and Stripes, I devoured one every chance I got.
Most people did because in a combat company or an infantry company the God awfullest rumors swept you all the time. You’d hear this—oh my God, the Russians have broken through here, or there’s an S.S. Division that’s cutting down through the north, or Hitler’s retired to some damn lair in Austria and we’re going to have to go down there and fight in the mountains, and just all kinds of rumors. I don’t know that the Stars and Stripes was any great masterpiece of truth or anything. I think there was a lot of Army propaganda in it, but buddy, it was more reliable news than the rumor. You found out a little bit. It had news of what was going on at home and in the other theaters of war.
Q: During your account you mentioned some ill treatment of prisoners. Did you actually see any atrocities?
Atrocities for prisoners. Yeah, I’ve seen that. Now, that’s a harsh term, murdering prisoners, but I have seen German soldiers shot that I was one hundred percent certain were trying to surrender. The guys that shot him would say no, he was reaching for a weapon or something like that. In most cases, you would simply wave prisoners to the rear. In some cases, if there were a group of them or if you were ordered to by an officer or something, you needed to escort ’em to the rear. Nobody wanted that damn duty because you exposed yourself. You’re up front, you’re on your belly and you fight from foxhole to foxhole or you fight from behind cover.
If you’re herding prisoners to the rear, you’re much more apt to take a piece of...now I’m talking about the immediate rear, right behind the lines, the battalion collecting point or something like that. The shrapnel’s flying around there. Nobody wanted to do that, so you’d just “It’s that way, Jerry, go that way.” Jerry—we never called prisoners Jerry. I don’t know what the hell we called ’em. You bastards or something like that. Jerry was more of a British term. World War I, I think. In fact I don’t know. “Krauts” was probably our common appellation for the Germans. I think “Kraut” was probably the term for all Germans, civilians and soldiers.
Q: Did you see any evidence of atrocities or ill treatment with respect to civilians?
Not, not really. I’ve seen some brutal treatment in cleaning out a house. You might see a young man there, you might see a soldier take a gun butt and say “Get the hell over there in the corner,” or something like that. Or “Get out of here” if he was protesting. But, really, no. In combat situations you didn’t see many civilians, of course. In mopping up operation, in these search and seize operations, you ran into a lot of civilians.
There were some instances where German girls were reportedly raped. Not much, because by and large you didn’t have to rape ’em. Bill, hell, there was plenty around, plenty willing around.
I can’t say that I saw any atrocities as such against civilians. I did see German soldiers shot who were I felt sure were in the act of surrendering, because the combat people...it’s a brutal damn thing and you’re very, very excited, you’re scared, you’re in a damn frenzy and people are shooting at you and the artillery and this and that and somebody pops around there. Well, maybe he’s putting his hands up. Really you don’t have time to fool with this guy. You don’t have time to think if he maybe he’s got a potato masher behind his neck he’s going to throw at you. You let go at him. That didn’t happen to me too much because I was in weapons platoon, and riflemen were more apt to have the hand–to–hand combat than in a weapons platoon. We were the support group for the rifle platoons.
Q. I want to get back a little bit on the Army’s relationship to enemy civilians. Did you have a code of conduct? I’m thinking about such things as comparing it to the way the American army, at least some of the people, behaved in Vietnam.
The Army line at least in our division and from our officers...they didn’t really tell us to be polite to civilians or even courteous, but they discouraged any incidents with civilians. Now when you went to a house, if there were civilians there, if you were mopping up or in a search and seize, you told the civilians to get out of there. There’s a good bit of theft I guess you’d call looting. I didn’t see anybody hold a German, and somebody else slap him or punch him or hit him with a rife or anything like that, no. I don’t think that happened.
Q: Was that because of the quality of the soldier, because of the training you went through, because there were rules and regulations? Did anybody have a guidebook on how you behaved toward civilians?
No, I don’t think so. We just followed the instructions that were laid down by your officers and your noncoms. It was explained to us what we were to do when we went into these German towns on a search and seize.
Q: Have you ever reflected on the morality of a free–fire zone in Vietnam?
I can’t conceive of Vietnam. When I watch the films like some of these later films come out, Platoon and one or two of these other ones, that must of been a hell hole beyond my comprehension.
Q: Well it wasn’t any crazier than what you went through. You lost half your company on the first day of combat.
I guess that’s true. The jungle I suppose is the most fearsome thing.
After the immediate combat, when you went into a German town or a German village, I think you could see that they were for the most part perceived as people pretty much like ourselves. You see a little kid down the street, a little curly–headed blond kid. Well, hell, that could be your nephew or a kid next door. They dressed in more or less European clothes which weren’t much different than we dressed in. You had a Burgermeister—a mayor. You had a guy keeping a tavern or a public house, and butchers, and bakers.
Q: So you played against the culture that you found yourself in?
I think probably the biggest reason you hear for the destruction or the annihilation of civilians or razing of villages in Vietnam were that the soldiers over there claimed that civilians were a danger to them. That people would pose as civilians and once you were by would throw a grenade at you or knife you or shoot you.
Hell, you see the German cities and they were reduced to rubble by the Flying Fortresses which were the precursers of the—if they would have had jungles over there, I suspect that the generals would have tried to clear the jungles with bombardments.
Q:; Do you know whether or not you killed anybody over there yourself?
No. If I did it was with a mortar or machine gun. I have fired a personal weapon, but to my knowledge I never downed anyone. There wasn’t that much hand-to-hand combat. Once you got to where you could see somebody or where you could hit them with a carbine...a carbine, which is the side arm that we were issued, was very inaccurate at a distance over ten or fifteen yards. Hell, you were lucky if you could hit anything with it. Pistol was worse than that.
Q: Do you have a notion of what you’d have felt like if you had had to do that? How did your buddies feel when they had to do it?
I don’t think anybody had any guilt trips on it. Now, I know that the machine gun unit that we were with killed people. I never actually pulled the trigger on the thing, but I’ve helped set it up and fed the bullets into ’em. And you could see ’em drop out there. At least you hit ’em, whether you killed ’em or not. I’m sure that the mortar rounds that we fired into enemy emplacements did some damage, but as far as saying somebody came around the corner and I went down on him and killed him, saw the blood, saw the expression on his face or anything like, no.
Q: That really never gave you any particular problems, or you didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, worrying about it?
No. If somebody’s shooting at you constantly and you’re shooting back, it’s hard to make a personal tragedy out of it cause it’s just going on all around you. They were obstacles. Get them out of the damn way, get to a place where you could hunker down for the night and get under cover somewhere. You had to push them out of the way and you had to watch for ’em, keep ’em from coming back and shoving you out.
Q: Did you have any contact with Nazis as opposed to just regular German soldiers?
In the search and seize missions, where we went back there, I had a fragmentary knowledge of German. I took German in college as part of one of my courses, and I could speak a little German. Then once you got over there you picked up a little German from conversing with the people. A time or two I would help, now I wasn’t interrogating them, but I would be back in the interrogation area and maybe trying to explain to a group of people that they were going to interrogate, “Now, I want you to go in this room. Geht su za zimmer” or something like that “and stay in there.” I knew enough German to do that.
This was one of the big things, the interrogation. First, we were trying to winnow out the Nazis from the other population so that we wouldn’t go back and put these same people in positions of authority in our occupation zone. I don’t think I ever saw over two or three people out of two or three hundred that I saw in this instance, say that they were Nazis. Nobody claimed to be a Nazi. There were denunciations. Other Germans would inform on the Nazis.
Q: That’s because they didn’t like the Nazis, or were they just trying to curry favor?
Curry favor. If it’d been the other way round, they would have identified them as Communists, I suppose, or Democrats. Then you find papers, records with peoples’ names on ’em and you’d find ’em that way. In some instances the S.S. people had a distinctive tattoo that they had on their body somewhere.
Q. Did you find S.S.?
There were whole divisions of S.S., Death’s Head Division, and we fought against S.S. divisions because they were the last ditch of resistance in many cases. When we were pushing into Germany, they were really about the only resistance you had somewhere. You had the so–called Volkssturm which was just conscripting kids and old men out of the fields and factories as a last resort, but many of the officers, many of the tank troops were S.S. Full S.S. divisions.
Q: Now in retrospect the plight of the Jews was extraordinarily important in World War II. Did you sense that at the time or were you just strictly in combat?
Q: You found out about that later?
Q: Was it a surprise to you later?
Oh hell, yes.
Q: You just didn’t have any hints?
Vaguely, vaguely you knew.
Q: You knew Nazis were anti–Semitic, but did you know that they were killing Jews by the millions?
I don’t think we had any idea until the concentration camps were opened up. We had Jewish boys in our outfit, and they were much more emotionally involved against the Nazis as such, but by and large this wasn’t a war to free the Jews from the Holocaust because we didn’t realize that. The Nazis were perceived as a threat to our own country and that’s what we were fighting for.
Q: How obvious were blacks in the army at that time?
In the combat outfits almost non–existent, except that in the breakthrough situations, when they loaded us on the trucks, most of the truck drivers were blacks. The blacks by and large were in the quartermaster corps. That’s where they put’ em, all black outfits.
They would furnish the transport, the convoys. Most of the black truck drivers that the infantry went to were very well received because they were brave guys. They’d drive them damn trucks right up there with the tanks and if you got caught in a firefight they’d grab their gun and they’d go fight with you. They were very well thought of. I didn’t hear aspersions cast on ’em, even by the southern boys.
Q: That wasn’t the proper place for it, I suppose?
No, not at all. You needed a buddy and a gun up there, whether he was black or white.
There was no integration in the combat units.
Q: What about the Army of Occupation afterward? You had a lot of trucks going every which way and you yourself were in a transportation unit...
Yeah, lot of black boys. Yeah, lot of blacks in that.
Q. Were there any blacks in your unit or were they in a separate unit doing the same job or how does that work?
In the occupation, these were mostly pick–up units. They weren’t really units. They were just oh, what the hell do you call ’em? They were just a motor pool.
Q: Did they throw black guys in with white guys?
I never remember one being in the barracks with me up there. I don’t remember that, but you go down to the motor pool and you check out a truck and the next guy might be a black man. Or you might have a black dispatcher, because they were by and large in the Transportation Corps. Now there were black outfits toward the end of the war that did help fight. I never saw one of ’em fight as a unit. I think there was a black regiment or something in Italy if I remember correctly. There were some black combat outfits toward the end of the war, very few.
Q: Did you ever see a black officer? Do you remember?
No, not to my knowledge. I’m sure there probably was in the Transportation Corps. I don’t remember ever seeing one, no. Now after combat the black boys dating the German girls was very, very common and very, very objectionable to southern soldiers. Objectionable to many northerners and almost to a man the southerners. They couldn’t understand that. They never saw anything like that. I think if they thought they could get away with it, they’d catch them and beat them if they could.
Q: Okay, let’s change the subject to what was it about the military that influenced you after the war service? Did you join the American Legion, for example?
I belonged to the American Legion for years. Never went to a meeting. Never took any part. I joined it probably as part of my job... I don’t belong to the Legion now, but I do belong to the D.A.V. and the V.F.W., mainly because I’m on the Veterans’ Commission and I need to belong to a veterans organization.
The American Legion was a very active organization and a strong organization in this town back when I came here in ’52. In this town they played Bingo. They ran Boy Scout troops. They had frequent meetings, played cards, put on patriotic demonstrations and parade, were a little bit of a watchdog against anything that they considered anti–patriotic in the town life, such as a movie here that they thought was a little left–wing or something. They would protest it.
Q: What about Joe McCarthy? Did they like Joe McCarthy?
Q: What did it have to do with politics?
Not a whole lot, not really. I think most candidates who were eligible would join the Legion and court the favor of the Legion. I don’t know that the Legion ever came out and publicly endorsed anybody. Informally they may have worked for candidates who were a member or who were perceived as a strong “Veterans’ Man”.
Q: Now these were virtually all Second World War vets I suppose? Some Korean War vets?
When I came to town, many World War I vets, back in the fifties. Dave Shively, Frank Gettles, some of ’em who were officers and big honchos in the Legion. Of course the state and the national and local legion, their big push were veterans’ benefits. That was the main thing they were for—get bonuses and pensions and provide a service officer who was knowledgeable, would help any veteran who wanted to claim a pension or get medical service and was having trouble. This was ostensibly their prime reason for being.
Q: How about the National Rifle Association? Did you ever belong to that?
No, I don’t like to shoot. I don’t like to hunt, and I really didn’t want anything to do with guns.
Q: Did your wartime experience have anything to do with that?
I think so. I just didn’t want any more shooting or killing.
Q: Is that fairly typical of people who were in intense combat, do you think?
No, I think that’s more of a personal thing. I really don’t because I’ve known a lot of combat veterans that are still marksmen, still have guns, like to hunt, who are very strong anti–gun control.
I think, personally, of course I may be prejudiced in my own viewpoint, I think personally anyone who is more intelligent or more educated tends to be alarmed at the NRA’s position on just almost unlimited weaponry among civilian people.
Q: Would you want to do it again? If you had it to do all over again or would you just pass it up? At one point you said after it was all over you were awfully proud of having done it.
I think I wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars, but I think it was one tremendous experience in my life, yes. I don’t regret having gone through it, but I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want anybody to have to do it again. It was a searing cataclysmic and an enormous thing, being part of the U. S. Army in Europe and then, my God what a mechanism and sometimes even the chaos of it. It was just unbelievable. It opened my eyes. I was a little ol’ high school boy from Ironton, Ohio. Never been much farther than Cincinnati, and a year at Miami University and been up to Columbus, and it really broadened my world. My world just exploded. To run into Englishmen and Poles and Russians, the peoples of the world.
Q: Do you think that was the major effect on you?
Had it not been for the World War II experience, I would probably have been in your profession. My father died when I was a young man and my uncle, who was a father figure to me, was a well–known, respected lawyer in Ironton. While we never spelled it out, he had a solo practice down there. Never spelled it out. I went to Miami University as a pre–law student and the expectation was that I would continue my education, get a law degree and come back and work for Uncle Don and eventually take over his practice. That’s probably what I would have done had it not been for this.
Q: My formative years were in the sixties. You know all about the sixties. Now I just tend to be skeptical about authority figures and I think that’s what I carried out of that decade. What did you carry out of your decade?
I think more a...I don’t know how to explain it, but an attitude that it really wasn’t the end of the world if the county commissioners passed a sales tax or not. That the business of the world, there were much more important things in the world going on, than affairs here. Sounds like a very, very pompous expression, a global viewpoint.
I think it made me an intellectual, political liberal where I probably would have been like my uncle in Ironton, a conservative Babbitt-type, had it not been for World War II. It shook me out of a lot of things.
Q: I’m contrasting your experience. You’re obviously a liberal person, an articulate liberal person, versus there were a lot of Legion types. I remember them as I grew up.
By and large I’ve always felt, and I have no research on this, I think most of your “beat the drums, blow the fife, let’s blow the hell of the Commies” and this type, I say they were rear area people in the war. I’d say they were people that had stateside jobs—clerks, traffic cops, whatever. I can’t see combat people condoning anything but a hundred percent effort all the time to preserve peace in the world as opposing to using military force or using war as the ultimate diplomatic tool.
It just horrifies me to think of another large–scale war. It’s just impossible with the weapons that they have today. I think that feeling, particularly in nations like China and Russia and Germany, which have felt the horrors of war right in the homeland, has a good deal to do with the fact that there has been no major outbreak in this period.
Q: What would you have done differently if you were in command in World War II?
Oh, dear hearts. In command of the allied armies?
Q: Let’s say your company and then we’ll go up the chain.
I don’t think I would have done anything differently than our company commander. I don’t think he had even much latitude to do. I think we had a good company commander. He was a conscript just as I. His job was to command the company. My job was to run messages or haul ammunition.
Q: Did Eisenhower get it about right?
I don’t know. The American army...when we stopped at the Elbe, and we waited there for a couple weeks. Probably could have pushed into Berlin, probably could have pushed almost to the borders of Germany.
Q: By borders you mean the eastern border?
The eastern border of Germany because the Germans were fanatically determined not to fall into the hands of the Russians if they could help it. They were terribly afraid of the...they called ’em the Ivans sometimes, the Russkies.
Q: Why do you think Eisenhower did that? That’s one of the controversies of World War II, why he stopped at the Elbe?
I assume he was instructed to by the premiers of England and the United States. I presume that was one of the things at Yalta, Potsdam...
I think it was a deal because we knew we were going to the Elbe. That’s where they told us we were going. When we got there we stopped all along the line. So there was apparently at least an Army-wide order at the time to hold up there.
Q: So the deal was done before you got there and you knew that’s where you were going to stop for a while?
We knew that was it. Thank you, ma’am, that’s as far as we wanted to go. We had no desire to go much further. It suited us fine. In retrospect it may have caused many problems in the divided Germany. But maybe Germany should be a divided Germany. Maybe a strong Teutonic nation in the middle of Europe as the old Germany was...maybe it’s better there are two of ’em there that can balance one another, I don’t know. They’ve got a history over there, that Germany.
The prevailing opinion of the American Legion types, the McCarthy types, conservative America is that Roosevelt was a sick, dying man and he was suckered by Churchill and Stalin. Well, maybe there’s some truth to that, I don’t know.
I don’t know whether if we had won a bigger place on the world stage, whether we would have done much better than has happened, really. I don’t think we could have held any occupied territory for any great length of time. I don’t think we needed any colonies or any spheres of influence. My God, at the end of the war, the Unites States was practically the only healthy economic country in the world really, of the developed nations. We could do about anything we wanted to within the free world at least, so–called free world.
Q: How did World War II affect your relationship with your family and your friends?
I had several good boyhood friends died, as pilots or as ground soldiers or as sailors in the war. When I came back to Miami University to complete my undergraduate work after the war...when I left Miami I was a sophomore, I was a big member of Sigma Nu Fraternity, pledgemaster, active in that kind of stuff. When I came back, I didn’t go renounce my affiliation with the fraternity, but I didn’t have anything to do with ’em. I came back as a veteran. My associates were all veterans. We didn’t really associate much with the younger college crowd who were just out of high school.
The veterans stuck together. Myself and another fellow (from the 84th Infantry Division incidentally), we got a room uptown, and went about our business, getting our college degree completed and doing what we wanted to. We really didn’t take much part in college life, as I was just thrilled to be part of college life prior to the war.
Q: In the Civil War I think they said if you’re in combat you’ve seen the elephant and if you’ve seen the elephant you’re different from everybody else. Did you feel that way?
Yeah, and we I’m sure looked down our noses at the fraternity boys and the cheerleaders and the sororities and the general college atmosphere. There were many, many veterans returning to the campuses then, with the GI Bill of Rights. We were catered to pretty much. We got free tuition, books and sixty-five bucks a month. On sixty-five dollars a month, you could live pretty well on in those days around a college.
Q: How much benefit would you get for your service? How many quarters or how many semesters?
You’d get time of service. You get exactly equal time of service as I remember it. You’re in three years, you got three of that. You didn’t have to take it all at once. You could take a year of it and then maybe four or five years later you could go back. Now there was an ending time on it, I don’t know, ten years after the war ended or something like that. They cut those particular benefits out.
They were very liberal benefits. Very liberal in their interpretation of ’em. In between the time I graduated from Miami and I went to the University of Cincinnati Law School, I stayed in Cincinnati with an aunt and a cousin. My cousin ran a beauty shop and a beauticians’ college there. She was certified for GI Bill if anybody wanted to do it. I just kept on drawing. I signed up for damn beauticians’ college and drew that, I draw my sixty–five a month, see. It’s what I lived on.
Nobody questioned it. I was a veteran. This was a veterans’–approved institution and what the hell. I got good grades. She saw that I got good grades. I never went near the damn place of course, but I drew it. That’s how I went to Europe. When I went over there, I think it only cost me $75.00 to go to Europe. They had a thing there if you were a GI student, the government ran these ships over here and you paid $75.00. You could go over on that ship. I think that’s all it cost. So it was a very, very enticing proposition, it was.
Q: Well, how did World War II affect the life of a community such as ours? You have talked about several themes. You’ve talked about the theme of a cosmopolitan world view. You’ve talked about the theme of the American Legion close–minded patriotism.
I think it shook and shattered the insularity of these towns like Jackson and Ironton. I know when I was a kid growing up in Ironton, a banker lived across the street, man named Lewis. William A. Lewis or something. He’d been to Europe. Nobody else on that whole damn street, and I mean this is middle class, moderately well–to–do family, nobody else had been to Europe. He was a big wheel, and it was a big thing, somebody had been to Europe. Or if somebody over here moved to California, that was an occasion.
After the war, everybody on that damn street had been to Europe or Asia or Philippines. Many people in the neighborhood were uprooted if they weren’t in the service. They went to Cincinnati, Huntington, Detroit City, for jobs in the defense industries. The war I think liberated women from the Kuche, Kinder and Kirche—the kitchen, child and church syndrome. They got out and began to take an active part in the world, began to go to college. Not many young women went to college in my early years. It was unusual. Wealthy girls would go to a finishing school, but I didn’t know of any girls my age in Ironton who went to a law school or a medical school...they go to Rio Grande and become teachers, yeah.
People got used to moving great distances across the country for work reasons or other reasons. I think that was the big thing of World War Two. This country became more of a worldwide nation rather than a small provincial nation which it was. Of course, World War One had a little bit to do with that, but World War One wasn’t near the major cataclysm of World War Two. It didn’t affect as many people.
There were what, quarter of a million Americans in Europe in World War One, maybe, or half million. Well, hell, we had ten, twelve million people under arms all over the world for five, six years, and beyond if you count the occupation. Then if you count the Korean conflict, almost continuously for a decade or better. I think that was the big effect on the community.
Q: Now there are power structures in every community, would be the politicians and the bankers and what not, and I think there are probably two points of view on that. One is that the people would come back from World War Two with skills and confidence and courage and all that sort of thing. And the other point of view is that the people that stayed at home inserted themselves into positions of power and were able to consolidate that and stayed there. In your view, in our community, is it the stay–at–home’s that held the power in the late forties and fifties and sixties, or did the veterans achieve position of power?
I don’t think being a veteran was any great advantage or disadvantage. If there was any advantage, it would be the stay–at–home, who, for one reason or another, whether he was sole support of a family or he was 4-F for some reason or slightly underage or slightly overage, probably consolidated his position in the community a little more than the veterans.
Now the GI Bill of Rights was a great thing for veterans. It gave them a chance. I probably could have finished my education had there been no World War Two because I think my uncle would have seen me through it. By the end of World War Two, my uncle had married, second marriage, and he got a new family. He married a widow with several children, smaller children. You could still work your way through college, but that’s a tough row to hoe, always has been. The GI Bill of Rights did allow me to finish my education, such as it was.
By the same token the war mixed me up so much and put so damn many romantic notions, I think, in my head...my education really, I don’t know other than as a broad background, it’s helped me in the newspaper business, I suppose. I really got no vocational skills out of my education. Hell, I graduated in romance languages and history. What the hell you going to do with romance languages and history unless you teach it, and I had a Bachelor of Arts degree. I suppose the newspaper business is about the only place where you could use things like that.
Q:; That about completes what I had to ask. Do you have any concluding remarks?
I’ve thought about a lot of things here that haven’t popped up in my head for many years. As interested in your oft–times comparison to the Vietnam War and even in the Korean War, there’s a very, very different attitude in the country in World War Two. I don’t think it was the “Yanks are coming over there, over there” attitude as it may have been in earlier wars. I don’t think there was any doubt in most peoples’ minds, at least in these small communities of southeastern Ohio, that if you were a young man, you ought to go into service and defend your country. We felt it was an honorable thing to do and the correct thing to do. Now, we weren’t fools about it. We tried to get the best deal. If you could get in an officers’ training camp or something like that, well that’s better.
This was maybe the last war this nation will ever be in, in the foreseeable future, where there is a feeling of voluntary compliance from ninety–seven percent of the populace. Oh, there were so–called draft dodgers and objectors then, but not many. Not in this area. Very, very few. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t people that did try to use the avenues of avoiding military service. If you were a productive farmer and could prove that nobody else could do that, I think you could stayed out of the military service and some did, and maybe should have. We needed farmers, I guess. We had to have somebody working. If you had a physical condition that would prevent you from serving, why, you used it. But by and large we all marched off pretty willingly. That’s about all.
tried by fire—a video
“Tried by Fire” is a video produced by the United States Army and narrated by Paul Newman for the series The Big Picture, embedded from YouTube. It follows the 84th Infantry Division from late 1944 to the Elbe and the end of the war. The film illustrates much of what Ed Clark discussed in his oral history. It also shows soldiers and equipment in that combat experience. You may click “full screen” at the lower right of the video after you start it.