21st AIB, B Company - Our First Combat
by Ray Johnson
Cherbourg to Rheims to Bastogne
As we entered Cherbourg we began to see the toll taken by war on this seaport. Little did we realize how much greater devastation we would witness in the coming months. We could see the scars of battle here but some restoration had occurred already and the place didn’t affect us very deeply at the time. We set up our pup tents at the edge of fields, surrounded by hedgerows, that were really just pools of mud. One of our half track drivers, Albert Foret, a French speaking native of Louisiana, went into a local village where he acquired a plentiful supply of cognac. When he returned he wanted to share this with his platoon. Unfortunately, our camp site, surrounded on all 4 sides by hedgerows, was a muddy quagmire except at the perimeter of the area where we had pitched our tents, and a little stream ran directly behind my squad’s tents. Foret entered the first pup tent and the occupants each drank from his bottle. However, the next tent was occupied by John Higgins, a very proper young man from Boston. Higgins was upset that Foret had stuck his nose inside his tent, refused a drink from Foret, and told him in impolite language to leave his tent. Foret, indignant at being rebuffed, did exit Higgins’ tent but in doing so he went out the back of the tent, knocking it down, and then Foret fell into the little stream running at the rear of the tent. Foret got soaked in the cold water and, decided to stop sharing his cognac and get back into some dry clothes.
On December 18 we started for St. Nazaire. This was a little peninsula in France where a small German remnant held out until the end of the war. The Germans were being supplied by submarines and, since they were surrounded, were being used as a training ground for green American troops.
We had landed in France on December 16 and it now was the morning of December 20, 1944. The Germans had launched the Battle of the Bulge on December 13 and on December 20 we were re-routed from St. Nazaire and toward Bastogne, Belgium. Thus, we were a “green” division placed into combat due to the ferocity and success of the German offensive. We had never been under attack and had never fired at anything other than the cardboard targets used in our training exercises at Camp Cook, California.
The First Battle - December 29-January 4, 1945 Belgium
As the 11th Armored Division headed for Belgium, we drove through places made famous on the breakthrough to Paris and beyond—Avaranches, Chartres, Rennes, Paris, Rheims, and Sedan. In these cities we saw the destructive results of massive battles between the Allied Forces and the German Army. Most of what had been buildings were mostly just burned out shells of what they had been. Destroyed vehicles in fields and beside the roads, both U.S. and German, bore witness to the intensity of the artillery and tank battles.
On Christmas Eve, 1944. we were quartered in French barracks near Sedan, France. I was on guard duty at midnight when suddenly a tremendous amount of rifle fire was heard. I was informed it was coming from an area occupied by the 82d Air Borne Division and they were being sent to combat in Belgium in the morning. They had been involved in serious combat before and were just letting off steam and frustration too, I guess, at having to go back into a situation where they knew what to expect.
On Christmas Day we loaded into our half-tracks and headed toward Bastogne, Belgium. We were amazed that the cooks had been able to prepare a turkey dinner on the road. On Friday, December 28 orders came down to be ready to move early the next morning.
We loaded into our squad halftrack December 29, 1944 on a cold, overcast, dreary looking day. We had not been told anything about our mission or what to expect. Our first night in Belgium we pitched our pup tents in a field covered with snow and ice about 200 feet from the highway used by the Red Ball Express. This was the road used by the American Army to bring supplies up to the front lines. The road was sprayed with machine gun fire frequently during the night by the Germans even though they couldn’t see anything on the ground because only the red lights on the trucks were turned on. About fifty yards from our tents was a downed German airplane and two of it’s frozen occupants, the first dead soldiers we had ever seen. We pitched our pup tents and climbed into our so-called sleeping bags and tried to sleep. These sleeping bags were simply a GI blanket sewn together to form a bag and provided inadequate protection against the bitter cold of this unusually cold winter. A German plane, the famous Bed Check Charlie, flew over our campsite but didn’t shoot at our troops. We later learned that because they flew so low they knew they would be shot down if they fired on us, so all they did was fly over to see what they could see. And we didn’t shoot at them because we didn’t want to give away our position which might then draw artillery fire.
The next morning, December 30, 1944 was also a cold, gray overcast day. We climbed into our half tracks as we had so many times in the past. However, little did we realize what awaited us on this fateful day. We were told nothing, perhaps because our officers weren’t sure just what we would experience on this first day of warfare. Later, we learned that in going into this battle we had made a wrong turn and went into an area we should not have entered. The immediate events that follow remain crystal clear in my memory even though it all happened in December, 1944, more than fifty years ago.
As we left the bivouac area, our Company B, 21st AIB, a part of command unit, CCB, went a short distance down the Red Ball Express road and then we mistakenly turned off onto a dirt car path. We were crossing an open area when suddenly the terrible sound and sight of exploding shells surrounded our column of half tracks. Several of the halftracks at the head of our column were hit directly and suffered casualties. All of the soldiers jumped out of their halftracks and ran over to an area where a sunken railroad track ran--except for me and 2nd Lt. Harold Hussey. I had just been made the 50-caliber gunner and my duty was to stay with the half track, which is why I was still in the vehicle. In a matter of seconds another round of shells burst around our vehicles, so close I could see the dirt hurled upwards by the explosions. I looked at the front left wheel of our vehicle and saw Lt. Hussey crouched there and he was white as a sheet. A piece of shrapnel had hit the stock of his carbine and sliced away a big piece of the wood , but had not injured him. He then said “let’s get out of here” and so I jumped over the side of the halftrack and ran towards the sunken railroad track. Little did I realize that this was not a safe area, being so new to this type of situation. Here on the railroad track I met Art Wright, a 19 year old redheaded kid from Portland, Oregon. I don’t remember just what we said at first but I told him that in basic training we had been told to spread out and that I was going to go down the railroad track a short distance. I had run about 50 feet or less when a shell exploded next to Art and he was killed. Then someone yelled that the Germans had the railroad track “zeroed in” and were just marching their shells right up the track to where we were. So, I ran up the far side of the sunken track area and into the woods--mostly large pine trees--but I was alone and couldn’t see another person in any direction. I felt lost and really lonely!
I didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t know what to do. I looked around in all directions, saw no one and I had no idea of which way to go. I didn’t have any orientation as to where the Germans might be or where the Americans were located. As I started walking I saw a soldier about 100 or more yards away, and he too was all by himself. We were too far apart to determine whether the other one was either a German or American soldier. However, we started walking toward one another, keeping a large tree between us and looking intently to see if we could make out each other’s identity. Finally, we came close enough so that we could visually identify that each of us was an American soldier. However, neither of us knew which way to go. We noticed we were on a dirt car path that probably was used when someone went into the forest to gather wood and decided to follow it, hoping it would lead us to a safe place. In about 20-30 minutes we came upon a group of American soldiers and asked them if they knew where B Company, 21st Armored Infantry Battalion was located. They pointed towards our company and within a few more minutes we found our 4th Platoon. We felt a great sense of relief, at least in that we were back with our comrades in arms.
This feeling of relief was soon shattered. We heard a few artillery shells explode near us and we all began to dig 2-man foxholes. The frozen ground was hard and difficult to dig with just the GI shovels we carried, but our motivation was intense as the shells continued to fall in our immediate area. We stayed in our foxholes all that night, our teeth chattering and our bodies shaking from the cold. But we learned a good foxhole was better than a goldmine. Frequently, we would hear artillery shells overhead, but none seemed to fall too close. It was here we learned that a German 88mm shell went so fast that when one heard an 88 it was a sign it had already gone by. We soon learned you wouldn’t hear the 88 that hit you.
Walter Keating, from New York, and I were OK the next morning. physically cold and miserable but our feet were dry! The second thing we learned was one had to keep one’s feet dry and as warm as possible. We would take off our combat boots and socks and massage our feet and toes whenever we had an opportunity and change socks whenever dry ones were available--neither of these happened often enough and frozen feet and/or toes resulted in as many casualties as anything else during the Battle of the Bulge.
One night I remember sleeping on a concrete slab, all that remained of a previous structure. I don’t know if it was warmer than the snow or not, but I guess it wasn’t damp and maybe a little hidden from the view of the German soldiers. The next day we dug in on a little rise a mile or so above Mande (or Chenogne). And just as the mail was being delivered some artillery shells began falling in our area. The mail clerk was walking around delivering the mail when we heard the explosions and he was in the process of handing me a package from Ginny. When he heard “incoming mail” he just threw the package toward my foxhole and ran for safety. This was New Year’s Day, January 1, 1945. Anyway, that’s how my first 35mm camera, an Argus C3, was delivered. I used it whenever I could and brought home a few pictures of our days in the field and some after WWII ended..
It’s difficult to recall details of the next few days (December 31-January 3 or 4) except for our last night on the line. Because we were an armored unit we moved about often, moving from one forested area to another by some back roads lane to protect the tanks from artillery fire (but not the soldiers), or to gain a strategic position for an attack on the German positions. Sometimes we rode in the half-tracks in moving about and sometimes we trudged through the ankle deep snow to our next assembly area. It seems as though we would just get some place, start digging a foxhole, and the order would come down to move out. This was especially the case whenever the Germans discovered our tanks had moved to a new location, as they would start shelling the new position immediately. Then the command would be issued “to get those tanks out of here.” As the infantry platoons were assigned to work with, and protect the tanks, we had to follow along with the tank platoons. This meant overnight marches on foot sometimes and sometimes riding in our half-track. Some of the names of villages I remember seeing are Champs, Longchamps, Cobru, Chenogne, Jodenville, and Saint Hubert.
At first our 4th Platoon was an anti-tank unit. We had trained to fire the 57mm anti-tank rifles in Camp Cook in California. Our assignment was to set up at a position where we could fire at a German tank in the event one came into our area. Being in this assignment may have saved some of our lives because in the first 4 days we were never at the head of our company as were the rifle platoons. However, Captain Fabrick, a wonderful company commander, realized our 57mm rifles were useless against the thick armor of a German Tiger tank and that our shells would simply careen off of them. This plus the fact the other platoons had suffered such severe casualties there was a need for more riflemen. So, he left our 57s somewhere and changed our platoon into another rifle platoon on the 4th day of this initial combat. However, being in the anti-tank platoon these first 3 or 4 days was a lucky break.
The next two days we experienced the same hardships the other rifle platoons had been having for the preceding 3 days--being exposed to regular artillery fire more often while in a foxhole, helping secure a little village, and being on outpost duty at night. Keating and I had outpost duty the last night of this initial combat. We were sent out about 100 yards beyond the village (Mande, I now believe), told to watch for any movement from the Germans in the woods up ahead of us, maybe 300 yards away, and to run back to Capt. Fabrick’s quarters to alert him that a counterattack was starting. The snow was about 1 or 2 feet deep where we were lying as lookouts, keeping as low as we could. Sometime before midnight we saw the German soldiers emerge from the forest and start towards us. Our orders were not to fire at the German soldiers, as this would give away our position, but to ran back and alert Captain Fabrick that a counter attack was imminent. He had our company fall out to form a line of defense; however, snow began to fall and visibility was very restricted. So, we were told to get under a line of Sherman tanks posted at the outskirts of the town and stay there while the artillery in the rear laid down a curtain of fire in front of us. We had so few soldiers there was concern we might not be able to resist an infantry assault of any great size, so this was the tactic used that night. We all crawled under the belly of a Sherman tank and were there all night, lying in deep snow and shivering, but thankful for the protection provided by the tanks above us. We were grateful too for the accuracy of our artillery, as their 105mm rounds fell at a safe distance about 100-200 yards in front of us and prevented any German infantry counterattack from materializing.
The next day we were relieved by the 17th Airborne Division. Our company had lost so many due to wounds and frozen feet that we had about what amounted to one platoon of men instead of our original complement of 4 platoons, or from about 250 to 50. Our relief to be going back to rear echelon was immense after these few days of combat where we lost so many friends.
We were sent back to a village behind the front lines where we were able to rest, clean our equipment and get some sleep—and get warm. After a few days, a week at most, we went back into combat. This second battle was similar to our first few days but not quite as violent. We were fighting in a densely forested area against some Polish conscripts. We were receiving shells that would hit the top of the tall pine trees and explode quite high up. None of them came too close to us, maybe the German artillery didn’t really know where we were. The Polish troops either retreated or surrendered as their hearts were not in fighting for the Germans. It was here I came down with a 104 degree fever and was sent back to a battalion field station for a couple of days. When I came back the First and Third Armies had closed off the German divisions in the Ardennes and the 11th Armored Division had moved on into Luxembourg. It may be worth mentioning that while in Massul, Belgium, for the first time in a month and a half, we were able to take showers. I remember that when I put on new “longjohns” they felt much colder than the ones I had been wearing and which had better insulating qualities due to soaking up body oils or whatever!
The Sigfried Line
We were located next to the 90th Infantry Division, but I have no idea where we were then. The Germans were shooting many barrages of their artillery rockets but none were falling near us. I guess they were firing at the 90th. Late that night, I and two other soldiers were assigned to go on patrol and make contact with the 90th Division. It was pitch dark and we hadn’t gone 50 yards when one of the patrol stepped on a board with a big nail that went all the way through his boot and foot. So, two of us walked on down a wagon trail in complete darkness. We were stopped by the military “halt, who goes there?”. It was so dark we couldn’t see anyone, but we stopped in our tracks. We said we were from the 11th Armored Division out to make contact with the 90th. They then asked us what was the password. We told them we had been out in the field so long we had no idea of what the current password was and the last one we had heard was “hamburger.” That is, one would say “ham” and the response was supposed to be “burger.” We were then told to “advance and be recognized” which we did. We spent a few minutes talking with them and then returned back to our company headquarters to inform Captain Fabrick we had made contact and where the 90th Infantry outpost was located.
Early the next morning our company started walking while it was still dark. We were walking down a road when suddenly a German machine gun started firing at the head of our column. The road here was slightly elevated so we immediately all jumped down into the lower area by the side of the road. The firing stopped soon and we were told later that the lead platoon had met a group of drunken German soldiers marching on the same road as we were. The Germans were confused and disorganized and unfortunately for them they all died on this lonely, dark road. We continued walking down into a valley, maybe a mile or two across, and here we had our first glimpse of the Siegfried Line. There was a line of concrete barriers running the length of the valley, the kind that look like a small pyramid maybe 4 feet high. The Germans had set a line of anti-personnel mines in the area which we had to go over. Some of the soldiers (maybe from the Army Engineers) found the trip wires and showed us where to step so we wouldn’t set off any of the mines. We got across this area OK and then walked up the far side of the valley to the bunkers built by the Germans. These bunkers had been taken earlier by the Americans in about September 1944 and then, when the Americans retreated due to the Bulge breakthrough, had been reclaimed by the Germans. However, whether by Americans or Germans the bunkers had been dynamited so they weren’t useful for anything but protection from artillery fire. The Germans had left the bunkers so there wasn’t any combat in taking them back. However, there were German snipers in the woods who would shoot at us once in awhile. I think we sent out a patrol to find the snipers, but I didn’t go on this one. I remember hitting the dirt once (we hadn’t had time to dig foxholes) and Captain Fabrick was next to me. I said something about not liking the artillery which was going over us, and landing quit a distance behind us to which the Captain said “don’t worry Johnson, Jerry doesn’t even know you’re here.” I suppose he was correct but it wasn’t very assuring at the time. I seem to remember being on perimeter guard until late that night and then when I was relieved I was told to go back to a German bunker. I did this but it was full of soldiers, one of whom suffered shellshock from an artillery shell that had exploded close to him. He kept moaning all night, I guess from the trauma. But he couldn’t be taken back until the next morning. I found a small area somewhat protected from the rain that had been falling and stayed there all hunched up until morning. I think it must have been from the cramped, cold position I was limited to in that cold bunker but when I started to get up in the morning I kept falling down, too dizzy to stand up. Maybe my circulation or something--anyway they sent me back to the aid station and then back to a hospital for about a week.
These next few paragraphs I wrote just previous to attending my first 11th AD reunion in Louisville, Kentucky in 1992. In looking forward to seeing my former army friends I began thinking about the many young men I had met in 1944 at Camp Cook who wouldn’t be there. My thinking zeroed in on one of these carefree, youthful soldiers, Wally Adkins, and I wrote the following in his memory.
When I get to Kentucky
I'll truly be looking forward to seeing B Company buddies I haven't seen for 47 years! We shared so much, so fast, and so intensely that the passing years have failed to dim the clarity of what we experienced together. Once I get to thinking about what happened from January to May in 1945 a flood of images come over me, undimmed by the passage of time. You probably can relate to this.
One of my most vivid memories is about a young, blonde friend from Kentucky, Wally Adkins. Wally was always singing `I'm not denying that my heart will be flying, when I get to Kentucky.'
Wally landed in B Company when all of us from A.S.T.P. were reassigned to the infantry in March, 1944. He must have been about 19 or 20 years of age, had a dry and quick sense of humor. He laughed a lot, and swore the best whiskey in the world was made in Kentucky.
On a cold, snowy night, early in January, 1945, we were on a forced march between 2 little Belgian villages. Longchamps and Cobru come to mind, but may not be accurate. It must have been about midnight as we were slogging along when Wally said to me `Johnson, when we were in Camp Cook I just hated to march behind you, you were always out of step, but here in this snow you march just right!' I accepted this as a compliment as under the circumstances I suppose it added a little humanity to a miserably cold situation.
My next memory of Wally is when we entered the Sigfried Line in Germany. You may recall we left our bivouac area before daylight. Walking down a road we suddenly were fired upon by a German machine gun squad and we hit the dirt. The forward platoon silenced the German soldiers who we found out were all drunk, and should never have fired on us in their condition. Going on down into the valley we crossed a mine field while some of our buddies held the wires as we stepped over them. As I recall, the German soldiers had abandoned the concrete bunkers on their side of the valley and so this objective was easily taken. Some of our company captured several German soldiers and Captain Fabrick asked for volunteers to take the prisoners back to the rear echelon. Several of us volunteered but Wally was chosen to do this. We kidded him for being so lucky.
Wally took the prisoners back to the village behind us and as it was almost nighttime he found a nice warm, soft hayloft to sleep in that night. We were out in the cold, wet weather either in a foxhole or holed up in one of the concrete bunkers, as there was frequent shelling by the German artillery.
The next morning we learned that Wally's hayloft had received a direct hit during the shelling and that he had been killed in one of those contradictory events of war that just happen. We had each one wanted to take the prisoners back to where we figured it would be safer than on the front lines. But fate figured it differently.
I liked Wally. And when I get to Kentucky my heart will be flying in his memory, and in looking forward to seeing all of you who can be there. And one mint julep will be for Wally. Race to the Rhine The next segment of my war experiences demonstrated the kind of warfare for which General Patton was famous. We were like the old fashioned cavalry in a sense, making a charge against the enemy. One scene is where our armored division was used like a line of cavalry. We were in a long, long line, Sherman tanks in front, mobile artillery firing in back of us, and we in the infantry all riding in our half tracks toward the German Army. We marveled at the immensity of this scene, and the viciousness of the tanks firing away at each other in front of us. We could see German artillery shells exploding in the field of battle around us but none of them fell very close to us. Both German and American tanks were firing at each other and we could see tanks of both armies on fire. However, the numerical superiority of the 11th Armored Division tanks and their speed in this battle proved overwhelming and the Germans had to retreat. I don’t remember the infantry having to do much this day except that night we probably had to guard the perimeter of the area where the tanks were camped. This was a day of classic tank warfare.
The next phase for our division was “The Dash To The Rhine.” As the German High Command had decided to consolidate the German Forces on the German side of the Rhine River, we had only token resistance as we advanced 20 to 40 miles a day. The 4th Armored Division was doing about the same as we were doing but Patton liked their general better and they had a better PR officer, so they received the most press. In fact, we had to hold up as we reached the Rhine so the 4th Armored could take credit for taking the city of Worms. While we were holding up we found a couple of Opel cars and had fun driving these civilian cars. Also, some of our company found a steam engine train and they were driving it back and forth. We rested here in Worms. I remember being on guard duty on the riverbank and seeing my German counterpart doing the same thing on the other side of this huge river.
Across the Rhine and the Battle of Central Europe
We stayed here a few days to rest, get new supplies, and then moved on to cross the Rhine River. We left Worms one night and drove all night and the next day we journeyed through wine country. I remember being impressed with how high the vineyards went up the hills and how distant the people working the fields looked as we drove along the road.
We crossed the Rhine River on a huge pontoon bridge to enter the city of Darmstad.. The pontoons were quite stable but one wondered if they would hold up under the weight of the half-tracks I don’t remember but I believe the tanks used another bridge for crossing. Darmstad had been a railroad center and the bombing here had been enormous. As we rode by the railroad yards the rails were all uprooted and everything practically obliterated. Then as we entered the city all the multi-story buildings, which must have been commercial and residential, had been reduced so only the skeleton of the ground floor remained. This was the scene block after block for miles. I thought as we rode through the city “how could anyone have survived such destruction.” We saw no people anywhere and assumed they had been long gone from what looked like just a ghost town.
Cham, Kyll River, and Oberhof
After crossing the Rhine River, we moved rapidly into Germany as their defenses began to crumble. First we headed toward the town of Fulda but then changed directions and drove toward southeastern Germany and Austria. Our fighting was mainly in towns and villages, many quite small. Cham was one of the larger towns whose name I recall and here we were involved in house-to-house fighting, which was typical as the war was winding down. In Cham, one of my friends later told me that as we were walking behind one of the tanks that he yelled to me as I was stepping over a German hand grenade, which I didn’t see, and with all the noise I didn’t hear him. Luckily, it was a dud and didn’t explode. I don’t recall this at all but was told it was true. All I remember is shooting at the frightened German soldiers as they scaled a 6 foot stucco wall, and being glad that I didn’t hit anyone. The war was very one-sided at this time and the soldiers were mostly the Volkgrenadiers. These were older men who had been conscripted for military duty or young boys 12-16 years of age. We felt sorry for them, but they were just as deadly with a rifle as any of the regular German army soldiers, and so we did what we had to do to survive.
We had two serious battles near the end of WWII. One was at the Kyll River. The other one was in the town of Oberhof, near to where the Winter Olympics were held in 1936. The action at the Kyll River involved a well trained and battle hardened German division fighting for its life, as it had little support from artillery or tanks, or aircraft. We traveled through mountain forests on winding dirt roads and when we came out into the open there below us was a small town with a railroad station. At this time especially, a railroad station that was still viable must have been very important to the German High Command. Our orders were to get up on the outside of the tanks ( as we did at times) and ride them down into the little valley to the railroad station. We hung on for dear life as we rode downhill toward the town. One of my friends, Sgt. Dale Dean was on top of a tank in front of me. His tank hit a ditch and bounced down and up and Dean was thrown into the air, clear of the tank. Luckily, he landed safely and wasn’t hurt, but it was a scary sight to see him flying through the air, and it made us hang on even tighter. Some of B Company were able to get across the river but the Germans were well dug in and we were not able to secure the river crossing that evening. That night I was on guard duty at the railroad station buildings. The electric lights outside the station still worked and I remember being very careful not get in an exposed position where I might be seen by a sniper. I think the Germans were able to make a quiet retreat during the night and while the fighting was fierce the first afternoon it was relatively light the next morning. Some infantry outfit came up to hold this position and we moved on, but as to where I don’t recall.
What follows is an additional recollection of this day in combat at the Kyll River written by Dale Dean, a retired optometrist from Stockton, Kansas. Dale was a sergeant in the 4th platoon and we served together until the end of WWII. Dale and I have been friends since then and have enjoyed spending time together at several reunions of the 11th Armored Division. We have talked about this day at the Kyll River and our recollections support each other’s memory of events. Dale has given me permission to include his account of this day in my telling about it.
The Day I Got My Lugar - Sgt. Dale Dean
“It was cloudy, cold and muddy. Our mission was to pass through the 4TH Infantry Division bridgehead and then advance to the Kyll River, cross it and establish a bridgehead. We just got started when our 4th platoon got held up and the rest of Co. B went on. We were riding tanks this day when we could get started. We were trying to catch up when the tank I was riding hit a deep ditch and I fell off. I thought it was going to tip over on me, fortunately it didn’t. I climbed back on and we took off again. When we got to the river valley with this village down in it the tanks couldn’t go any farther so we took off on foot down into this valley headed for the village. The Germans were dug in on the other side. They opened fire on us and us on them. Then our tanks started firing over our heads. This kept the Germans pinned down so their fire wasn’t too accurate. When we got to the bottom of the valley we took cover behind some railroad tracks. We could see the Germans leaving the woods and going over a steep hill. We were at the edge of the village so we started on to the river where there was a footbridge across it. We had a new platoon leader, Lt. Stevens (1). He made us stand back while he went across to see if it was mined. It wasn’t so we all crossed and advanced up this steep hill we had seen the Germans withdrawing. If they hadn’t it would have been rough. When we got close to the top we could stand and look out over the crest into an open field. About this time a mortar shell came in and landed right in front of me. The concussion blew my helmet off but because I was down below the crest far enough the shrapnel didn’t hit me. Later I took part of the men back to the village. Three or 4 of us sent into one of the houses. I went upstairs to see what was going on. As I looked out the window a sniper shot the pane out. It was getting dark when we got orders to pull back and we had a better bridgehead someplace else. We started back to get the rest of the men up in the woods when this German soldier showed up. He wanted to surrender. I disarmed him and got his Lugar. We sent him back to the rear and we went to get the rest of the platoon. I couldn’t get one guy out of his foxhole and I found out he was dead. When we got back to the village our halftracks were coming so we mounted up and started on again. Our antiaircraft had lowered their searchlight beams so we could see where we were going. It was a eerie sight. We rode most of the night. The next morning we took off again. The Rhine River was our objective. We reached the Rhine just above the Remagen Bridge that night. It was quite a sight seeing the tracer shells as the Germans tried to destroy it after our troops had captured it.”
The above is a true story given to me by Sgt. Dale Dean, Fourth Platoon, B. Co, 21st Armored Infantry , 11th Armored Division, Third Army about this day along the Kyll River.
To reach Oberhof we had to travel by mountain trails again until we reached the edge of this town later in the afternoon. The town had been subjected to heavy artillery fire and many of the houses were burning as we entered this alpine village. The Germans had cut down several large trees to serve as tank barriers and since it was getting dark we didn’t have time to remove the trees. We put a couple of tanks at the edge of this village, which was about 100 yards before the tree barrier.
My squad was in the house at the edge of the town. I did a stint of guard duty that evening and when I was relieved of this duty went inside the house to sleep. About 4 or 5 A.M. a German soldier fired a bazooka shell at the tank which didn’t do much, if any, damage, but certainly woke up everyone. We all grabbed our M1 rifles and went outside and crossed the road into the thick woods. We couldn’t see anyone we but could see the muzzle flashes from the troops firing at us in the darkness. I got off a couple of shots and then, as we were taught, rolled away from where my muzzle flash would have been located by the Germans. We were very close to each other in this counterattack, probably less than 20 yards apart. We were ordered to come back across the road to our house so they could spray the woods with machine gun fire from the tanks. We did this and just as I entered a back or side door of the house machine gun fire came within inches of my head, splattering glass and some metal shavings of the bullets along the right side of my face. The soldier following me was shot in the leg. It was what we called a million dollar wound as it sent him home. My face was bleeding profusely and I was sent to the medical station for first aid. It turned out my face was lacerated but it was basically a surface wound. Later on I received my Purple Heart and I still have a piece of the bullet in the lobe of my right ear. Also, for many years after I was discharged from the Army little pieces of metal would work out to the surface of my face.. My optometrist located a piece of metal in my right eye many years later and the last X-ray taken of my sinus (about 1990) revealed many pieces of some foreign material still under my skin.
VE Day in Mauthausen, Austria
This was THE DAY for which we had been longing since our first brush with combat in December, 1944. We hadn’t dealt with this outwardly very much during our time in combat except in the cynical sarcasm of Army talk (e.g., I’ll be home for Christmas, 1948) since combat soldiers, I believe at all times and places in history, carry that uneasy burden that they may not be around when the next battle ends. We had a rumor circulating about 2 weeks before VE Day that the war had ended, but it proved to be premature, and disheartening. We had celebrated too early and soon realized that we had to experience more time “on the line” which we knew might still rob us of this personal victory.
So, shortly thereafter when we heard that WWII had officially ended we breathed huge sighs of relief, but were just too fatigued physically and emotionally to celebrate immediately. Later in the day when it became clear this really was the case some of the soldiers began firing their rifles in the air, but those of us who had seen more than enough of war just stayed inside where we felt protected from this senseless display. A day or so later my squad, which was a 60mm mortar crew, decided that since we had carried white phosphorous mortar shells across half of Europe, and had fired them only a few times, we could shoot them off at night over the Danube River. We did this and watched gleefully as the small parachutes opened and the white phosphorous burned brightly as the shells floated down and splashed in the river. We went to bed that night elated and thankful to have lived to see this day.
Mauthausen was one of the infamous concentration camps established and operated by the German government, in this case in Austria. The stench arising from the camp was evident much before one entered the prison. I was told there were several thousand dead persons within the camp and, since seeing so much of death and suffering, I didn’t go into the camp until I was assigned guard duty at its entrance. Our platoon was assigned to guard several of the barracks, some for men and some for women. Our job was made more difficult because some of the women in this concentration camp would to meet with American soldiers in order to get food for their favors. Once when on guard duty I refused to let a young girl out of the camp to go visit with her “boy friend” and she used very profane language toward me as she walked away. It seemed even though we had been here only a day or so she had learned several choice phrases already and acquired an American boyfriend.
When I was first assigned guard duty here at Mauthausen I was shown inside one of the barracks where the men lived. The men were assigned to a large bunk bed type of room, about 3 bunks high. There was a walkway down the middle of the room with bunk beds aligning each side of the room, with no wasted space for anything else. The men were emaciated and very weak and the smell was sickening inside the barracks. I went outside immediately.
My main assignment was to guard the people living outside the camp who cared for the potato fields. This group, except for one or two of the dozen or so assigned here, did not wear the usual concentration camp striped prison suit, but were allowed to wear civilian type clothing. Most of these people were from Russia and I was able to talk with them because of the Russian language training I had received in the ASTP program at U.C., Berkeley. The Russians were amazed that I could read their language as some of them couldn’t read. I learned from this what high respect there is for a literate person in parts of the world where education is a privilege and not available to everyone.
I lived with my squad members for several weeks after the war in a small bungalow that had been used by SS officers who operated the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Then one day Captain Fabrick called me in to say a typist was needed at 3rd Army Hq and since my personnel record indicated I could type would I like to accept a transfer. Since the rumor was that the 11th A.D. was returning to the United States to be redeployed to invade Japan I gladly accepted a future sitting at a desk typing rather than carrying a rifle, mortar base plate, and mortar shells into yet more combat. I packed my gear and left quickly. There were only a few men remaining in our platoon with whom I had served long enough to develop a friendship so saying goodbye took little time.