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When Officer Candidate Class Number 20 graduated in June, l942, I received my commission and assignment. I was to report to the 490th Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 11th Armored Division in Camp Polk, Louisiana in July. All the graduates were given tickets to their homes with travel time there, plus leave time and then more travel time to their new Post.
Transportation home arranged, I learned that officers could fly from one post to another if an Army Air Corps plane with room was headed in that direction. Then I bought a uniform that fit me at Abercrombie’s, had a date, and went to the Hotel New Yorker to hear Benny Goodman and go to Greenwich Village to hear some good jazz and tour New York. That was my big splurge on my first leave as an officer.
Toward the end of my leave a few of us drove out to on Long Island to catch a passenger ferry to Fire Island. The beaches out there were magnificent, the water clean. That day the sun was out and breezes pleasant. I knew that I had not been in the sun except for my face, hands and forearms. I had what somebody called an "Iceman's Tan." My legs and feet, back and body were pale white. I hadn't been out of a buttoned up uniform or coveralls and leggings for a couple of years. The result was the worst sunburn of my life. My skin was now a fiery red. I had a robe which I had tried to use to protect me against the sun. It just didn't work. I suffered for a couple of weeks.
NEW YORK TO CAMP POLK
I managed to get aboard a plane at Mitchell Field headed for Langley Field near Washington as the first leg of my move to Louisiana. Then, I switched to a train headed to New Orleans. Again I had to sit up through the night and finally arrived in a hot, steamy city. A bus heading north by way of Lake Charles and De Ridder took me north for another couple of hundred miles to Leesville which was nearest town to Polk. Now I began to know I was in the Deep South. As might be expected, the bus to Polk was jammed with GI's. I was the only officer. There were seats...but only in the BACK of the bus. I didn't think twice about it but just walked back and sat down. Nobody said a word and I don't remember anybody staring at me. But there were no blacks aboard. Then I began to realize why the seats were there. I sat in the back anyhow. The ride to Polk was about twenty minutes.
I reported in at Post Headquarters and learned that where the 490th was located, where my quarters would be and a driver took me to the 490th Headquarters. I met Colonel Bilbo, a West Pointer who was the son of the Senator from Mississippi, Senator Bilbo. He was a big man, well over six feet tall who was a regular in the Army. I was one of the first new officers to report to become a member of the cadre. The rest of them came in during the next day or so.
Bilbo ran the show his way. Nobody ever made the mistake that he was one of the boys. He insisted on officer classes being held every night in the Recreation Hall. He was my CO at Camp Polk, at Camp Barkley near Abilene, Texas, at Camp Ibis in the Desert, near Needles, California. It was here that one of our officers, Major Tom Grace, said that there was "Nothing between Ibis and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence." We came to agree with him since we were living in tents without heat and exposed to constant winds. It was December. We moved from there to our final post in the States. Camp Cooke was right on the Pacific Between Lompoc and Santa Maria. When we were there we start the morning in fog. When the fog burned off the insects would find us. The late afternoon was the best time for us. The wind would start and the bugs would leave.
At Polk the surroundings were very different From anything I had experienced until that time. The post was large, all by itself in the middle of unfinished dirt roads, pine trees and miles of space where we maneuvered, We fired our howitzers and learned how to keep our vehicles going...no matter what. We had a tough lesson one night when our first self-propelled guns, with 75's mounted on half tracks, froze solid when the temperature went down suddenly. It wasn't supposed to do that in a Southern state. Colonel Bilbo read the riot act to everybody about that because we could not start their engines and we were supposed to go to the range for service practice. Bilbo read the riot act to everybody.
My first assignment at Polk was as Liaison Officer in C Battery. I was also Executive officer for a while. However, as it developed I became S-2, Intelligence Officer on the Battalion staff at that time, as a 2nd Lieutenant. This was a job which called for a Captain's bars. I held the job all the way to the end of combat. When the battalion was dissolved-solved overseas I was sent to the XV Corps where I became Assistant G-2 where I wrote Intelligence Summaries for the Corps.
In all of the posts in the States we moved constantly. It was one great maneuver. We moved for hundreds of miles in blackout conditions and over bad terrain. We had self-propelled 105 mm howitzers which could fire shells for 13,000 yards. We sensed where the rounds landed by the flash where it landed and where there was the sudden burst of an explosion. Sometimes fire was conducted from ground observers and sometimes from the air.
We had two light L4 Piper Cub planes for this purpose. We also had a couple of pilots who could land the planes in places which looked impossible to anybody who did not know how well they could fly. It had to be this way since helicopters had not yet be invented. The last mission flown by one of them for our battalion, which went deep into Austria, the pilot landed his plane on a slanted, plowed field at 5,000 feet. The propeller was damaged but the plane was largely intact.
While we were at Camp Cooke I attended two advanced officer's courses, one at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, near Hagerstown, Maryland. The other was an advanced course at Fort Sill where we concentrated on Fire Direction and surveying. All of this was a great system of focusing artillery fire more effectively on a single target from number of batteries or even battalions. We really sharpened up our capabilities in survey work, in communications procedures and command operations.
At Camp Ritchie we concentrated on interpretation of aerial photos. We saw pictures of the Calais area where we could identify fortifications- , mine fields, barbed wire. We were there in Camp Ritchie during D-Day in Normandy.
We were ready for combat at Camp Cooke. We had had plenty of training and a great deal of firing and maneuvering. We thought we would be going to the Pacific. We were alerted and then, at the last minute things changed. We were visited by General Marshall who spoke in a post theater jammed with officers and top noncoms.
GEORGE CATLETT MARSHALL
Everybody was anxious to hear what General Marshall would say when he arrived. While we were waiting technicians adjusted the sound system and mikes on the stage. General Kilburn, otherwise known as Pistol Pete, anxiously waited while sitting on a folding seat on the stage. The sound technicians tuned, adjusted and tested..."How do you hear me?" It sounded fine. Then Marshall appeared stepped up to the microphone and the loudest feedback I ever heard blasted us out of the seats. General Kilburn ran off the stage to turn it off. Silence. Then Marshall stepped up to the edge of the stage. And, very quietly asked "Is there anybody here who can not hear me?" Nobody dared say "No."
Not long after that we boarded a train to go to go East to New York and a ship for the European Theater. We arrived at the New York Port of Embarkation on 29 September 1944.
We stayed at Camp Dix while we took all of our shots, signed all kinds of documents and prepared to move from the middle of New Jersey to the New York waterfront. There were trips into New York to see the sights. I took three of the battalion officers home to Floral Park to see that they had a good meal. Nanna Kitty lived up to my expectations.
Finally we made the move and boarded what had been a British passenger liner, the Samaria. We sailed for England on 11 October 1944.
We were in a big convoy. The commander of the convoy was a British Commodore who was on the bridge aboard our ship. Enlisted men from the 490th were selected to man the gun pods topside which would go into action if either German planes or submarines attacked us. The British crew needed some relief. They usually manned gun pods on each side of the bridge where the Commodore was stationed. Now we were there. One of the pods was manned by a gun crew under a Staff Sergeant Tony Vercilleto from New Jersey who was one of our Signal Sergeants. The other pod's men were under Sergeant Benny Wikowski, who was a free soul. With the trip almost half completed we were surrounded by other ships including a jeep aircraft carrier, some destroyer escorts and other naval vessels. From time to time we changed course. Radios were not used but blinking lights signaled changes in direction.
During one such exchange a series of signals from another ship were directed at the Commodore on our bridge between our two men. Vercilleto interpreted these signals, which were in the clear and shouted from his end of the bridge across to Wikowski at the other end... "Hey Benny, we are going to change direction." That did it for the Commodore who screamed "Get that man off MY BRIDGE."
Our officers were comfortable although crowded. But they were fed reasonable well. We had a mess boy in a white jacket serve us at tables with a white table cloth. Things were very different for our men. The food was nothing with which they were familiar. They had greasy fish...if they could eat it. Some of them practically lived on candy bars which they bought. Everybody was glad to land in Liverpool on the 11th of October. We went down the gangplank, crossed a platform to a waiting train and were off to Trowbridge where we marched to Nissan hutments. I remember marching along while silently hearing "It's a long way to Tipperary."
We did not have our heavy equipment yet but squared ourselves away on some of the smaller details. In a couple of weeks we moved to Sutton Veny where we received the last of our equipment and fine tuned every-thing for a move to France which did not seem imminent.
However, while we were still in England we learned that some things were in short supply across the Channel. Colonel Bilbo, already ahead of us with another division in France, sent word back that we had a chance to get some things which would be tough to come by once we crossed the Channel to Normandy.. So, I was told to scrounge around Southern England at Quartermaster and Signal warehouses to pick up such incidentals as grid sheets, rubber cement, radio tubes (Printed circuits were off in the future) and odds and ends, which were needed badly in France. I would arrive at a big warehouse, walk in and talk to one of the sergeants. I'd tell him that what he had right there in front of us was tough to get in France and that I was joining the outfit there in a couple of days.. He'd usually say good-bye, and announce that he was going to lunch. We 'd help ourselves to whatever we needed. We were able to get enough to last us through combat.
The Normandy invasion by this time was ended. The Germans had left Paris for Germany and points East. We began taking hikes to get in; shape around the countryside. Some of us were able to get into London. I went in myself and on the way back, just before we boarded the train to return, a V-2, one of the first, landed about a block away from us. There were broken windows all around. The residential neighborhood where it landed was demolished. Since the missile was supersonic, the explosion of the charge as it landed was heard before its delayed WHOOSH was heard.
It wasn't long after this that we were alerted one morning while on a hike. out of Sutton Veny. We reversed ourselves, dashed back to our Sutton Veny quarters and started loading our equipment, everything, aboard our vehicles. I had a half track, an armored vehicle with wheels in the front and tank tracks in the back. It had two radios and towed a trailer with a supply of maps and plotting equipment for the battalion fire direction center. There was a ring mount over my head with a .30 caliber machine gun. We were to tow a trailer which would be loaded with maps, plotting supplies and sometimes C Rations.
Up all night, we were not tired. We were wired up. March order saw us on the road toward the Channel through Taunton to Weymoth where we boarded a waiting LST. Our vehicles had to be backed into the maw of the ship up a ramp, through open doors to a very specific spot in the cargo hold where our headquarters vehicles could be carried. Other LSTs carried the rest of our battalion. This was a big operation.
Fog held us in Weymouth for a couple of days. Finally we set out for Normandy. We could see other officers from our battalion on an LST which was parallel to us in the convoy. On December l6 we landed in Normandy near Cherbourg. The doors of the LST simply opened and we headed out in a column which parked on the road near Barneville, France. The night was cold and frosty. I thought I'd sleep on top of the trailer. At least it was flat..
Apple trees and hedge rows were all around us. The area was mined. We stayed on the road. A French farmer came along. I asked him in my high school French if he had any cider. He said "Oui." I made a deal with him...cider for cigarettes. The cider was unexpectedly hard. A few of us slept very well that night in spite of the cold frost.
At this point our assigned mission had been to contain the channel ports in France which were still German submarine bases. But out orders were changed. Instead, we streamed toward Paris. The Germans had mounted a big offensive and were headed back through the Ardennes toward Bastogne where the road network converged. The 101st Airborne and a couple of elements of other Divisions slowed them down ...They had to be halted there. The 11th Armored, a mobile reserve, came quickly in response to this situation to relieve the defensive efforts of the 101st. We were the first full strength armored division to arrive...All the way across France .
We went through the middle of Paris in daylight. The Parisians were cheering us on, handing out bottles of wine, loaves of bread and flowers to the men. The French girls were kissing our men. They were certainly pleased to see us. They thought that the Germans were coming back and that they would be occupied again. But we didn't stop. The 11th Armored Division was on its way to Bastogne.
We marched toward Neufchateau and on Christmas Eve we were in what had been a French military post with big, old fashioned buildings, two of three stories high where we stayed the night.
The next morning, Harold Davitt, our new CO gave me permission to take a half-track back to a small city where there was a cathedral. I took a load of the Catholic boys, hoping that we might attend mass but when we arrived there was nobody there. Unlike American churches there were no pews...must loose chairs. Well, our intentions were right but we could not stay there for any length of time so we returned to the rest of the battalion.
The 490th, as part of Combat Command A of the Division, moved toward Houffalize from Neufchateau, attacked the Germans east of Rechrival on New Years Day, l945, when 27 of our tanks were lost in three hours. This was our introduction to the Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans had their antitank 88's dug in. They had covered them with camouflage netting and then straw which was then covered by snow. Our tanks, advancing across relatively flat land were exposed for well over 1000 yards. Experienced German gunners pumped rounds right through the turrets of the American Sherman tanks. The 490th pounded the suspected positions. The antitank 88's were finally knocked out of action when our white phosphorous rounds burned them out of their concealed gun positions.
THE END OF THE BULGE
There was only one further halt of the Division before we left the area around Bastogne. The Germans were trying desperately to escape. If they did not move quickly they would be cut off, surrounded in a pocket which would have make it significantly difficult for them . to continue fighting. Then the skies cleared. We would have air support.
An Air Corps liaison officer appeared near our Fire Direction Center with a radio which he could use to bring P-47's of the Ninth Air Force over The main German positions. He set up his radio and started to direct them toward the German armor. Then 18 beautiful Thunderbolts arrived. As arranged we fired colored smoke which could be seen by the pilots and direct them to targets. They paired off in two's circling. The first two dived and came across our front flat out and low. They fired their 50's and then streaked upward away from the German ack-ack. The rest of the flight followed the first two with machine guns zooming up out of range of the German ack ack. All of them had a chance to see where the German armor was located. Then they came down again...this time with 500 pound bombs and blew away any cover they panzers may have had. As they dove on the Germans our cannoneers cheered. They would dive behind a hill release their bombs and we'd hear the explosions and see smoke rising over the tops of the trees. And, finally, the last time around, the 47's used their air-to-ground rockets. That did it. We moved up almost immediately. From there on in through the end of hostilities we never really stopped moving forward. The Bulge was over.
We attacked the West Wall on February 6th and finally overran dozens of Pillboxes on 18 February. Moving forward we relieved the 87th Infantry Division at Manderfeld on February 25th. We reached the Rhine River on March 9th and a month later took Suhl in house to house fighting.
THE PANZER TRAINING CENTER
We took Grafenwohr on l9 April. This was the German Panzer equivalent of Fort Knox, the big training center in the United States for armor. As we getting close to Grafenwohr the Germans left young boys in uniform and old men who were in a sort of civilian reserve position to warn us not to shell certain areas of the Grafenwohr area...where nerve gas and other dangerous chemicals were stored. These were older men in what the Germans called the Volksturm. The Germans did not want to be accused of deliberately using poison gas. These men were there to warn us and we had the good sense to believe their story..
We found immense warehouses here similar to the type which we had in Britain. By appealing to the Division G-4, a fine Irishman who was a major, we asked for brushes and soap so we could scrub the bogies of our tracked vehicles. We were able to get all we needed of the brushes. We also helped ourselves to preserved foods of all kinds, bottles of wine and liquor, and preserved meats, even cigars ...all originally meant to go to the Wehrmacht. We loaded up a 2 1/2 ton truck to the point that it would not hold any more and returned to the battalion where it was quickly distributed to the battalion in jig time.
WEGESCHEID...LAST TOWN IN GERMANY
Two weeks later we were about to leave Germany to go into Austria at Wegsheid. We believe that the Germans resolved to make one more all out defense at the town. We were advancing along a road led by the 42nd Tank Battalion. It moved out of a wooded area and was about to make a sharp turn to their left toward Wegsheid when German antitank gunners, firing simultaneously, took out five of our tanks at the same time. We ran our guns into firing positions in a field just short of the woods from which our tankers had just emerged.
We fired on the 88's using one of our forward observers
Because we were so close to the trees in front of us, our first rounds from one of our batteries blew off their tops but luckily caused no American casualties. The remainder of the tank battalion and the infantry were in front us. We were stuck in position for the moment.
I was on the radio in my half-track monitoring what was going on. Then another voice, from Division Headquarters called General Holbrook, the CCA commander. It was the Division Commander Major General Dager asking why we were held up. General Holbrook told him that "We are being held up by antitank guns. We are going around them with our infantry." General Dager then asked "You are not going to let a few antitank guns hold you up are you?" Shortly after that we moved forward but it was too dark to march through the night.
On May 5th we took Linz after shelling the bridge which had to remain intact. The river was quite wide there and without a the bridge we could not get across. We thought German engineers were trying to blow it up. We put time fire on it to keep them away from it.
We found ourselves in the hills across the Danube from Linz. Then we learned that the Germans had surrendered. Thousands of Germans were being rounded up. Some of them who still had their weapons came up the road with tanks and motorized equipment to had for one of the detention centers where they would be fed. We stood in the door of a farmhouse which was right on the road...perhaps 15 feet from these men whom we had been driving ahead of us for weeks. I'll tell you that it was a strange feeling to see them that way. XXX
Three days later we met the Russians at Amstettin, Austria. That's the furthest East that any American division moved in the European Theater.
THE LAST ACTIONS
The last weeks of our run had been mostly unopposed. We found Hitler Jugend, young kids, and Volksturm, old men, placed in defensive positions without any real training or inclination to put up a real right. Some of them would fire a rifle at a distance and then vanish for good. We were advancing about 20 miles each day when faced with such light opposition.
Probably the most memorable experience we had was to capture Mauthausen, a German concentration camp as fighting ended. If we had had any doubts about why we were fighting we now saw real reason for beating Hitler.
We saw bodies piled high along a trench a hundred yards long ready to be pushed in by bulldozers. There were hundreds of them. We smelled the stench, saw their ribs which looked like washboards, watched the flies on them. They had been beaten and mistreated... You could see the marks, their wounds. Dogs had been probably attacking them as directed by their guards. Their distended stomachs, spindly legs with knobs for knees, and empty eye sockets, told us that they had been starved and tortured.
Division Headquarters moved to Gmunden at the head of one of the beautiful lakes in the country. We went south to Alt Aussee to a beautiful country which had been one of the exclusive and remote areas where Nazi Gauleiters sent their families to escape the bombings. Our Headquarters Battery enlisted men took over a hotel and its staff. Col. Davitt, the Battalion Commander and his staff took over the luxurious home of an Austrian art dealer which was located right on Lake Aussee. I was assigned a large bedroom with French doors to a balcony overlooking the lake. There were two large double beds in the room. This was a lot better than sitting up all night in a half track while we moved along a road in blackout.
The town, if you could call it that, was very small. One church and possibly twenty houses were there, nestled next to the lake surrounded by mountains. There had been a salt mine there before the war. It was still there. The Third Reich was using it to store art treasures which had been looted from museums, private collections and institutions by the Germans. We had two American naval officers in the town who had been sent there by the Monuments and Fine Arts Section of the Third Army.
Both of these men were curators of museums in the United States. Ted Rousseau had been with the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Ed Plaut had been on the staff of the Fogg Museum in Boston. They had a German there who had been the official photographer for Hitler. He was being held there to help identify and to catalog the materials in the salt mine. The 490th provided a detail to be certain that this man did not escape.
In a few weeks John Walker, Curator of the National Art Museum in Washington arrived. He was going into the mine to inspect the condition of the art treasures. We had not been in the mine ourselves. It was off limits and heavily guarded. There were seven large chambers containing priceless art treasures which had been hidden there. I went into the mine with him. He looked at paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and many other masters. He felt the surface of the canvas for moisture and signs of deterioration. He examined the statuary, the tapestries, the furniture. This was the best art of all the masterpieces taken as war booty by the Germans. It was going to be exhibited at Linz in a museum built to the memory of Hitler's mother.
There was only one thing which went thing wrong during Walker's visit. He was my roommate. He found out that I snore.
During this time I spent about a month within the Russian lines at Melk, Austria. This was about thirty miles from American Troops. Melk was a Russian garrison town on the Danube. We were part of an Allied commission sent there to expedite the return of Prisoners of War, Displaced Persons and Slave Laborers. Many of them had been working in German plants producing materiel for the German Army and Luftwaffe. They were to be transported from the Russian zone to France, Holland, Poland and other Western countries. We had to check them out to be certain that they were not bringing a plague to western Europe. A couple of our surgeons were there to examine them and spray them with DDT powder.
Trains from Melk to Linz were jammed with refugees. They sat on the roofs of each car. We also jammed them on river boats to Linz. This went on day after for a month. All of them had to be checked by one of the surgeons we had with us. They looked them over for contagious diseases. Nobody wanted to spread a plague. About thirty officers and men stayed in a gasthaus on Melk's main street. The staff which ran the place before we arrived remained to cook our food, which we supplied. The Russians had agreed to bring it to us. The staff found beer. A couple of our best scroungers found a place where they could buy a barrel of wine. Nobody dared drink the water. After this interlude we returned to our separate units.
Upon my return to the battalion I learned about a system which would release people from the service. It was based on length of time in the service, decorations received, number of dependents, as well as other criteria. The people with the greatest number of points were to go home first. Officers needed more points than enlisted people. Although I had been in the service before the war as a volunteer I still did not have many points.
The War with Japan continued with American and Allied forces taking thousands and thousands of casualties. The American Navy lost 33 ships to suicidal kamikaze attacks by Japanese planes. The Japanese stood ready to fight to the last man...as demonstrated by their performances at Okinawa and their desperate last ditch battles for other islands.
Nobody who was aware of such a situation could visualize anything but a vast blood bath in any invasion of the Japanese homeland. Today we see fingers pointed at the United States for dropping the A-bomb. However, the A-bomb stopped the fight quickly, probably saving Millions of Japanese and almost certainly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American servicemen. I cannot believe that our assessment was rationalization.
Any landing on Japanese beaches would have been a vast blood bath. The Americans in Europe who had fought the Germans were certainly not anxious to find themselves at risk again in another war which the Japanese had started without any warning on a country which had no intention of attacking them militarily. A country which was not prepared. It took a couple of years before the United States began to get ready to fight. This was more than a case of revenge. They were not about to surrender. We had to beat them. The A-bomb may have been the only way to stop the war quickly