We landed in Marseille, France on October 20, 1944.
As we slowly sailed into the harbor of that war-torn city, I saw, for the first time, the terrible sight of the utter destruction of war. All wharves, docks and piers were in a frightful state of destruction from bombing and German demolition units. The sight was awesome; the devastation was beyond imagination.
As soon as we landed, we were required to march at least fifteen miles with full gear to a high plain and campground beyond Marseille. I still have a clear image of the low hills surrounding that area. We bivouacked in small, two-man pup tents. Mt tent buddy was Jacob Cohen, a clerk with Co. “A” Headquarters. He was later to become a G.R.O. (Graves Registration) – one of the boys who picked up the K.I.A.’s (Killed in Action) on the battlefield. Here, I recall casting an absentee ballot vote for Thomas E. Dewey for President of the United States. I was a rocked-ribbed Republican in those days and didn’t dare inform anyone, especially 1st Sergeant Marcastomas, that I had voted against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At Camp Howze he had vehemently instructed us to vote for F.D.R. For several nights we were detailed to help unload cargo ships in reconstructed piers back in the city, Marseilles. We were transported there every night be the army trucks of our own Service Co. How strange it seemed riding through the streets of a foreign country – cobblestone streets, houses so different, smells so strange. I recall riding up a steep hill and observing little French kids begging for chocolate from our C and K rations kits. (Recently, I saw a story on television about grateful French of German kids who had been given chocolate bars by a G.I. on a tank. Now, many years later, they were seeking this G.I. in America on order to express their gratitude again for his kindness)
I was informed by my veteran comrades at our reunion in Cherry Hill, NJ that most of our original men were either killed or wounded along the way. The following will explain, perhaps, to some extent why I was not one of those killed or wounded. It so happened that I was walking along the main street when our Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. McMackin, was in the process of trying to billet his Headquarters Co. men. I must have been walking along with a group of G.I.s when he said, “Do any of you speak Kraut?”
Without any hesitation, I said, “Yes sir, I speak German.”
“You come with me,” the Lt. Col. Replied, “I’ll reassign you to Co. Headquarters of the Battalion. We need you to set up housing quarters for the men.”
This job turned out to be of little importance, for after Meissenguth I don’t recall billeting anyone. Nevertheless, I was retained in Co. Headquarters for what appeared to be no other special or steady assignment.
Importantly for me, this new situation was akin to a new lease on life. It meant, henceforth, in future action, I would be approximately fifty to one hundred yards behind the fluid front line instead of directly facing the Krauts.
Surely, I celebrated too soon on the fortuity of my reassignment to Battalion Headquarters. For soon thereafter, I recall an event wherein another G.I. and I were ordered to scout an area between the edge of the woods (our location) and a village about three to four hundred yards forward.
We reached halfway to the designated reconnaissance area when we were spotted by the Krauts in the village. And with almost no time lapse, mortar shells began coming in on us, each shell getting closer.
Luckily, however, after the first round of shelling, we saw a dome shaped shelter – obviously built expressly for such exposure – in the middle of the nearby open field. We scampered into it. While inside, shells were bursting all around us. But we succeeded in convincing ourselves that we were relatively safe in that shelter – at least momentarily. Still, with mortars zeroed in on our position and exploding outside the bunker, we tensely awaited the worst. It was terrifying. I recall reciting the Lord’s Prayer to myself. It was apparent that since the Krauts knew exactly where we were, they might send out a patrol to flush us out of the shelter. But, on the other hand, our main force was too nearby for them to do that.
The mortars ceased, we returned to our slit trenches at the edge of the woods and our mission to determine what lay between the village and our position was completed.
It was the job of Battalion Headquarters to man Observation Posts overlooking the town. Together, another G.I. and I took our turns at manning an O.P. And that turn usually came up during the night.
One night, on the way to the O.P., the Krauts suddenly sent up flares in order to detect any night patrol movement on our part. We froze, not even blinking our eyes. Fortunately, they did not see us. All night long, while we were in the O.P., flares zipped high and hung there. (This is on reason why I do not enjoy 4th of July fireworks. I learned to hate those flares and, instinctively, I still do. Last summer at N. Topsail Beach, N.C., home of dozens of marines living off base, a marine sent up a flare – for fun, I guess. It was totally unexpected and, instinctively, with knee-jerk reaction, I fell flat on the beach. It was accompanied by a pang of strange fear. This was indeed a strange experience. It may be difficult to believe, but I am convinced that I was reacting to a Kraut flare of forty-six years prior.
I was with a group of four or five G.I.s when we reached this fence. At that point, the now familiar terror came screaming into us. Zip! Wham! Bang! Crash! Mortar shells were now coming in on us. The Krauts had zeroed in on that very spot and were waiting for us to make our appearance. The mortars began bursting all around us and the guys were running in all directions. But, in a split second I recalled my father, a veteran of WWI, telling me that whenever they were subjected to heavy bombardment, the soldiers learned to jump with all possible speed into a hole or depression made by the last shell that had just landed. They knew that no shell would land in that very same spot. I did likewise at that farm fence. I am a survivor. I do not recall if any of the other guys were hit. It was pandemonium.
We entered a wooded area located just ahead of the next village. I came upon a wounded German soldier lying on his back. He appeared to be in bad shape. I talked with him and learned that before being drafted he was a “Bayerisher Bauer” (Bavarian farmer). I had compassion for this unfortunate man. He was in terrible pain. I gave him a pack of my powdered sulfa drugs and several swallows of water out of my canteen.
When I arrived in town, I reported the wounded soldier and his location to the officer in charge of our Medics. When the officer (Lt.) learned the man was a “Kraut,” he was not interested in going out of his way to give him further aid, let alone bringing him down out of the woods.
Finally, in desperation, I, a lowly dog-faced Pfc., reminded this 1st Lt. Of the Medics of his “Hippocratic Oath.” Somewhere along the way, I had learned that all future doctors are required to take this oath whereby they are committed to aid all in need of their attention.
I had spoken the magic words, Without any further ado, he said, “O.K., we’ll go up and get him down and do for him what we can.”
December 15, 1944, the most terrifying day of the war for me, the Germans were beginning to launch the “Battle of the Bulge” as it was later called. They threw at us every mortar and artillery shell available to them, all they could spare. On the night of the 15th of December, I vowed that if I survived those dreadful and frightening times of abject terror with mortar shells and artillery shells crashing in on us, I would, for the rest of my life, express to God on prayer my gratitude for peace all about. I have done so. I shall never forget that day.
We were caught in open fields moving toward the next town when the mortars suddenly came crashing in from seemed to be every direction and exploded all around us with absolutely no respite. Could hell be worse?! Every crashing shell seemed to be a close miss.
We were forced to retreat back into town. (It was here, I learned later, where my buddy of Co. “A,” Howard Umberger, was killed. I had just been with him before he moved out. We were joking, kidding, and even laughing about our misery. At times, how could we maintain our sanity any other way?)
Those mortar shells , 88’s and other artillery shells never ceased coming in on us, no matter where we were. It is not a trite, worn out phrase for me to say, “I can still hearâ€¦” and so I write, I can still hear the endless loud cracks, sharp crashes, loud blasts, bangs, and thunderous explosions all around. Only a soldier who has experienced such a day can understand and relate to that time of terror.
In Geislingen, Germany, we interrogated a former Nazi official who, when several citizens were questioned, was considered to be a notorious informer for the Gestapo. We decided to drive him to the rear in our jeep for full questioning immediately. We were aware that we had caught a “big fish.”
Just as we were set to drive off, the Nazi popped a cyanide pill. Almost immediately, the veins in his forehead bulged out, his face turned a ruby red, and sweat poured out all over his face. Then he collapsed and died in the front seat of our jeep.
Krauts were now surrendering by the hundreds and perhaps by the thousands. Long columns of uniformed German soldiers came marching voluntarily into our sector. The sight of them became so commonplace that they were no longer of any particular concern. Guards were unnecessary. As a matter of fact, the surrendering columns were an annoyance on the road for our army vehicles.
Now, in my jeep, I had the opportunity to travel the beautiful German and Austrian countryside. Our work in rounding up the bad Nazis was nearing its end.
The Worms Cathedral, miraculously, was untouched by our bombs despite the fact that every inch of its surroundings was in complete destruction. Block after block of Nuremberg was leveled and returned to the First Century. All that I saw of Nuremberg was completely destroyed. The sight was absolutely beyond anyone’s imagination. It was as though a monstrous bulldozer had ripped through the city.