Chapter 1 Beginnings
A few year ago I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia on a Press Trip. One of the things I did while there was to visit that City's excellent Maritime Museum. In that Museum there is a model of the Cunard four stack ocean liner, Aquitania. It was a sister ship to a whole series of famous ocean liners including the Lusitania sunk by a U-Boat during World War 1 and the Mauritania which held the speed record for Atlantic crossings for many years.
The Aquitania served in two World Wars as a troop ship and between wars as a luxury ocean liner of Cunard-White Star Line until finally being scrapped in the early 1960s.
For me the Aquitania stirred a good many memories. Like millions of other young Americans I was a soldier in World War II and like so many others I went to Europe for what General Eisenhower later called the "Crusade in Europe".
The Aquitania was the ship that carried me along with most of the 106th Infantry Division to Europe in October 1944. We sailed alone, unescorted, depending on the ship's 25 knot speed to protect against prowling U-Boats.
Of the actual crossing, color my memories in shades of grey. A grey ship, grey skies of approaching winter and grey seas flecked as often as not with white caps.
In tiered bunks with stretched canvas for mattresses we were crowded, ill fed and often sea sick. My best recollection is sitting topside wearing all the clothes that I possessed since the smells below created instant nausea.
The North Atlantic chill topside was much preferred to dank warmth below. Our course took us far north in the Atlantic. I remember sitting in the lee of a bulkhead watching the snow flakes as they drifted past me. Being from San Francisco it was the first snow storm I had ever seen.
Incredibly, on a ship with some 12,000 other soldiers and I have no idea of how many crewmen, I still remember how alone I was in my solitary nest out of the wind against that bulkhead. I spent the better part of the six day voyage sitting in that one spot.
I was just one month into my 19th year and I had only joined the 106th at Camp Atterbury, Indiana one month before as a replacement, one of many to bring the division up to strength.
I was just days away from being in the Army exactly one year. In that length of time I did my basic training at Camp Callan in San Diego in anti-aircraft artillery. At the end of our basic training most of us were immediately shipped off to the South Pacific. Some others, this writer included, were transferred to the Infantry and sent to Camp Chaffee in Arkansas for further training.
To this day I have no idea on how the decision was made that sent some to the South Pacific to remain in anti aircraft artillery while the rest of us went to the Infantry.
At this time in the War, the Spring of 1944, the Army needed more foot soldiers and at Camp Chaffee we were indeed a mixed bag with men from many branches of the Army and from many places. Some now found themselves as Infantrymen after years in branches like the Signal Corp or Administration. It was a difficult challenge for the older men to meet the demands of our Infantry training at Camp Chaffee during an Arkansas summer. For us 18 and 19 year Olds it didn't seem to make much difference. We were just out of high school and still just boys, single, away from home for the first time, and it was all an adventure.
While at Camp Chaffee we heard that the paratroops were looking for volunteers. Three of us marched over to Company Headquarters one day to put in our names. The Company Commander, a Captain older in years and with some wisdom, demanded to know why the hell we wanted to do something like that. Anyway he told us to stay put; that in all probability we would be seeing action all too soon--and indeed he was right.
The short life span of the combat infantry replacement soldier had received so much bad publicity that finally Congress decreed that replacements must be 19 years of age. Since many of us were still 18 we remained at Camp Chaffee assigned to meaningless tasks until such time as our 19th birthday arrived.
So it occurred that on September 3, my birthday I found myself on a troop train en route to Camp Atterbury to join the 106th division. At the time we were considered fortunate as it seemed a better assignment than being shipped directly overseas as a replacement in a combat division for some luckless casualty.
The Aquitania docked in Inverness, Scotland on a day of brilliant sunshine. It was 38 years before I saw those incredibly green hills for a second time.
For every single soldier aboard that ship, from the commanding general of the division to the privates like this writer, the events of the next few months would provide some of the most searing, unforgettable moments of our lives.
Chapter 2 England
In the month we were in England I did not get to do much sight-seeing. I had a one day pass to Oxford which was near our billets. Fresh from the U.S. wartime England seemed a grim place especially since it was raining much of the time.. I wandered around the famed University and wondered if I would ever be a student at some college. At the time the prospects did not appear to be good.
I was with Bob Clyne on this Pass and there wasn't much to do. Pubs seemed to be the only source of entertainment and one beer was about all we could manage in the way of alcohol.
As we approached the time we would be moving on, each man was granted a four day pass to London. This proved to be a time of great frustration for me. I was scheduled to go and then pulled guard duty instead. Then I was again scheduled to go and my leave was canceled for some obscure reason. And then it happened yet again. It was this type of thing that really made me hate Army life. As often as not one could never get an answer or reason for something that occurred.
I had been very lucky in a poker game and won a lot of money. More than I had seen in many months. With so much extra cash I was eager to get to London.
Men in our Platoon were granted passes a few at a time. Since I had much of the platoon's money I was loaning money to others as they went on their leaves. When my turn came time was getting short and my pass was for only 48 hours. Larry, one of my platoon conrades, and I left together.
About this short trip to London I wrote a long letter home describing what I saw and did. Cynics will say that what I wrote home and what I actually did would be wildly different. However this was not the case.
Larry and I were young and certainly not the aggressive type with girls and that is an understatement. That we met and were able to spend a few hours with two equally young English girls was, in itself, amazing to me.
The two girls were not from London but had moved there to obtain work. They were living in a hostel. Their names were Ileen Fawn and May Brown. I was very much taken with Ileen Fawn. She was a quiet, serious girl and, I thought, very pretty.
Here is the letter I wrote about this weekend.
"Saturday December 2, 1944
"Dear Mom & Dad,
"Well, we're on the move again. However before we moved I got a two day pass to London. The first day was spent by traveling and looking around. That evening we went to a couple of English pubs. Most of the Pubs are dull places. They have no juke box or pin ball machines as American taverns have. Instead they have their game of darts. How anyone could get excited about a game of darts is beyond me. However after looking around we found a pub that had a juke box so we stayed there.
"We met a couple of English girls at the Pub and talked with them. I was with another fellow that is in my platoon. After the Pub closed we took the girls home and then went down to Piccadily Circus. We slept at the Red Cross' Eagle Club. It cost us two shillings apiece. We had good beds and clean sheets.
"It sure was good to sleep between sheets again. In England instead of the U.S.O. they have the Red Cross. The Red Cross has clubs and places for G.I's to stay in all the big cities in England.
"The next day Larry and I took the two girls we had met the night before out so they could show us London. However it rained all morning so we just fooled around here and there. The girls had to go to work in the afternoon so we took them home again. I took some pictures and had a civilian take a picture of the four of us.
"That afternoon after we left the girls I went on a taxi tour of the principal sights in London. You sign up for the tour at the Red Cross. It cost six shillings. Larry didn't want to go so I left him with a soldier we had met at the Pub.
"On the tour I saw St. James Palace, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, where I had my picture taken in front of one of the lions. Next we went to Westminster Abby. Here we were given 15 minutes to look around inside. I also had my picture taken in front of the Abby.
"After that we drove past No. 10 Downing Street, Scotland Yard, The Admiralty, The War Ministry and other places of interest. Then we crossed the Thames via London Bridge, went past the new Waterloo Bridge and recrossed the Thames on the Tower Bridge.
"Right there by the end of the Tower Bridge is the Tower of London. I also got a picture of it. Next we went to St. Paul's Cathedral. We had 15 minutes to look around the Cathedral and I had a picture taken in front of it as well.
"From St. Paul's we went past Fleet Street and then back to Piccadily Circus and the Red Cross. The tour was well worth the six shillings ($1.20). We took the tour in Taxis with five G.I's to a cab.
"I would have liked to see all these places on my own but it can't be done in two days. I hope I visit London again sometime with enough time to really look around in Westminster Abby, see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and go through the Tower of London. Oh well, two days are better than nothing.
"By the time the tour was over it was time to catch the train back to camp. Of course I saw a lot of bomb ruins while I was in London. I guess you're wondering what I think of England. The people are o.k. but they seem to live for the past instead of the future as we do. They think too much about their traditions."
"P.S. I just found out that it is o.k. to tell you that we are going to France."
My frustration at getting cheated out of two days of my leave was even greater after meeting such a wonderful girl as Ileen Fawn. We only spent a few hours together wandering around London. I had plenty of money and there were so many things we could have done together if those other two days had been available to me. Anyway that is the way I viewed it at the time. All too soon I had other things to think about.
I did not get back to London until 1985. The changes were dramatic and I thought it, and still do, one of the most exciting cities in the world. This time I was able to experience the City on my own. Strangely I made no attempt to visit any of the places I had visited so long before.
My first visit, well, it was just history.
There was one exception to this. One of the things I did do in London as a soldier was find Baker Street. I had read all of Sir Arthur Colan Doyle's stories of the great London detective, Sherlock Homes, before I was 16 years old. Of course there is no 221 Baker Street but I did have my picture taken with a London Bobby in front of the Baker Street signpost.
When I returned to London in 1985 it just happened that my Hotel was within a short distance of Baker Street. And again I had to walk that thoroughfare which is famous throughout the world thanks to the Holmes stories.
Chapter 3 The Ardennes
We were awakened from our miserable bivouac before dawn with our Platoon Sergeant bellowing out "Oh, what a beautiful morning" from the musical, "Oklahoma", then the big hit on Broadway.
It was anything but a beautiful morning since it had rained all night and was still raining. This meant that we had to break camp with our pup tents and everything else we owned, including the clothes on our backs, soaking wet. After some days spent in an open field outside La Havre we were again on the move.
Word finally seeped down that this move would take us into combat but as all who have served 'in the ranks' know, it is hard to tell fact from rumor.
Anyway after a hasty breakfast served from the field kitchen in the rain we were loaded onto the typical two and one-half ton GI truck, standard throughout World War 11 to haul either troops or material.
As we traveled all day through France it seemed to get colder and colder since the trucks with canvas covered beds offered only slight shelter from the weather. With all of us wet we were a truly miserable lot.
Our infrequent stops were made for the men to relieve cold activated kidneys and bladders. When we jumped from the truck we found we could hardly move. Stiff in joint and muscle, with feet like blocks of ice, we were a sorry group indeed.
Of course no one told us where we were really going or how long the trip would take. It was the 10th of December 1944 and with the shortest day of the year almost upon us daylight did not last long.
We were able to see that the flat countryside of France was giving way to the hilly forests of Belgium. As dusk approached we heard our first sounds of war, distant artillery fire.
As we left the trucks for the last time we were handed a K ration and finally were told that we were in the Ardennes Forest close up to the prewar German border and that we were to replace the 28th,'Keystone' division, so named for its distinctive insignia, but called by its men the "Bloody Bucket". in the line.
The 28th Division received lasting fame by being chosen to March in Review following the liberation of Paris just months before.
A Sergeant from the 28th, acting as our guide, took half of our squad, six of us, to our position. En route he told us how fortunate we were since they had been in this line for a month with almost no action. There had been little more than patrolling activity in that period of time. All this was of great relief to the men of their division who had seen hard action in France.
Fortunately for us the rain had stopped and here in the forest there were patches of snow, the whiteness in stark contrast to the deep gloom of approaching night.
I was in the third platoon, third squad of Company B, 422nd Infantry Regiment. The Sergeant led us to a dugout roofed with raw logs and covered with the sod removed from the pit. It included a makeshift stove made from a five gallon can with number 10 cans improvised for a chimney pipe. Also four bunks, again made from raw pine poles, covered with chicken wire.
His duty done the 28th Division Sergeant left us with a cheery good-by and good luck. The drill for the six of us was two men on guard duty, two hours on-four hours off, the other four using the bunks depending upon need for sleep.
We soon discovered that the stove seemed mostly for show since we never could get much heat from it and the makeshift chimney pipe of Number 10 cans smoked badly most of the time. No one got much sleep that first night. We did manage to make some hot water using the instant coffee packets of the K rations for a much needed hot drink.
Slowly our clothes dried on our bodies making for a steamy atmosphere of wet wool in the dugout.
My first tour of guard duty that night was cold but uneventful. The 28th Sergeant had warned us not to move much until daylight because booby traps made from grenades tied to trees with trip wires were in place in front of the position.
We did have some sun that first morning which helped in giving us some orientation as to where we were.
It seemed that our half squad of six men were in a position that was the extreme left flank of the whole company. We were almost at the top of the forested knoll with a thinned forest of pine and fir trees sloping down to what we presumed to be the German lines.
In the whole week that we occupied this position I never did learn just how far down that slope the Germans were or if they were on some unseen knoll out of our view.
To our left was an open meadow, still completely covered with snow. I was never told who or what was on the other side of that meadow. It seems unbelievable to me that so little information was given to us.
Looking back I can only account for it by reminding the reader that we were green, untried troops and this was true for the noncoms and officers as well as the men.
Also by the fact that as the 28th Division Sergeant told us so little had happened there. There were no shell holes or evidence of the violent conflict of war. I think all this lulled one and all with a false sense of security. This was to change very quickly.
The fact remains, however, that no one either at our platoon or company level ever gave us anything like a true picture of our positions.
Our one link with the rest of the platoon and eventually Company Headquarters was a path with one string of plain wire strung from tree to tree acting as a guide when traveling at night. The only time we used this path or left our position was for chow. For breakfast and dinner we paired off two at a time moving down this path to the field kitchen which had been set up at Company Headquarters.
This was as far as I ever got from our position which besides the above mentioned dugout also included four fox holes and a second dugout that was used only as a defensive strong point for one or two riflemen.
Our half squad was commanded by a three stripe Sergeant, Schell by name, and included four riflemen armed with the regulation M1 rifle, one Browning Automatic Rifle, always called the B.A.R, and one man armed with a Sniper rifle which was the old bolt action Springfield rifle equipped with a telescopic sight.
Behind our position on the very top of the knoll a lookout platform had been built by the previous occupants overlooking the meadow which was quite large in size. It looked very much like the tree house some buddies and I had built in San Francisco when we were about 14 years old.
One day a Lieutenant who I had never seen before and a Sergeant carrying a radio came past our position and went up to the tree platform. Being off duty I followed until they reached the spot when the Lieutenant sourly told me I was off limits and to get back to my position. The Sergeant gave me a wide grin and an expression that read: "See what I have to put up with".
Since the meadow was surrounded by deep forest I doubt if they could have seen much. For our group Schell said it best: he just hoped they weren't spotted which would make things very unpleasant for us if the Germans lobbed a few shells in our direction.
I always meant to climb the platform myself when no one was around who could object but I never got the chance.
On the third night at this position I had just been relieved from guard duty by Sherm, a 19 year old from Massachusetts, and was barely in the dugout when a mortar shell exploded very close. This was followed by a cry of pain and "I'm hit, I'm hit."
Since I was still fully dressed I was first out of the dugout to find Sherm on the ground clutching his leg. A piece of shrapnel had sliced through the back of the calf of his leg. It was not a serious wound though no doubt quite painful.
We soon had him in the dugout and a bandage in place. While not life threatening it was decided one of us should get back to platoon or company headquarters to report it and perhaps get a real aid man on the scene. That mortar round was something of a mystery. It was only one of two rounds ever fired in our direction at this post. The other round, fired another night, landed harmlessly in the meadow leaving an ugly brown stain on the otherwise white field of snow.
I was dressed and said I would go. The night was overcast and in the forest about as dark as it can get. Only the patches of snow gave any contour to the ground or surroundings.
As I stated earlier our path had the guide wire strung alongside for just such occasions. However the mortar shell explosion had torn it loose as well.
In trying to find the path without it I wandered off the path and tripped one of the wires attached to a grenade which was secured to a stout fir. I knew exactly what I had done and could hear the fuse. I had just five seconds to throw myself to the ground on the opposite side of the tree.
The grenade exploded and the shards went singing over my head but I was unhurt. The explosion of course brought everyone out of the dugout and our B.A.R man, Mac, told me later he just did hold back from firing a burst at me.
Once all this activity had subsided I once again started for headquarters, this time finding the path where the wire was again present.
I went all the way to company headquarters where the Captain was present although by now it was close to midnight. I explained the situation and he decided to wait till first light to send an aid team for our wounded man. While I had taken my rifle with me on this excursion I did not have on my cartridge belt. The Captain, L.L. Littlejohn, pointed this out to me stating I was out of uniform. By now I was so used to being "chewed out" for something or other it did not bother me. Like most of our officers our Captain was from civilian life, a professor at a University in South Carolina before the war.
So my wandering around the forest at night and tripping a grenade in the process was all for naught. It did not escape me however that I had been very lucky to have missed some injury from that explosion. My night vision might have been a fault but at least my reflexes were all right.
The next morning Sherm was carried away with everyone congratulating him on his 'million dollar wound'. I never saw him again either then or after the war.
We were now five instead of six at our outpost and no effort was ever made to replace Sherm. However at about 11 a.m. that morning both the Company Commander and the Lt. Colonel commanding our Battalion showed up at our outpost. Obviously the events of the previous night had received some attention. The Colonel looked around and ordered wire and a telephone for our position connecting back to Company HQ.
While having no solid information about the true position of our outpost (I think in an earlier war we would have been called pickets) we always had the feeling we were 'way out in left field.' If they thought we needed a telephone then it only confirmed our worse suspicions on the subject.
After their summary inspection of our outpost the Captain and Colonel went on their way. It was my last look at the Battalion Commander. He was killed a few nights later by an enemy shell during the bombardment that opened the German Ardennes offensive and what has become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Beyond our guard duty there was really very little for us to do. Our predecessors had spent much time in preparing the positions and with consideration to some small facilities for comfort. There was little we could add to it. The duty was wearing enough since no one was getting more than three hours sleep at any one time. We slept fully clothed of course but after sentry duty during the cold nights it took awhile to get warm and make sleep possible. And chow calls and camp chores made much sleep during the day a slim possibility as well. Plus we now had one less person for sentry duty.
On the plus side we had been blessedly free from "authority" almost since the time we landed in France. Our bivouac in a French field had left us with much free time. We were in shelter-half tents, two men each carrying half the tent and then sharing the result when buttoned together. These tents were supposed to be water proof but if you touched the inside of the tent during a rainstorm that spot would soon be dripping water.
One of the more enterprising soldiers in our squad found a local French farmer who would sell us straw for the floor of the tent since the tents did not have any type of covering to place on the ground. The currency for this transaction was American cigarettes. This same chap also discovered another French farmer who had hard cider to sell again using cigarettes as currency.
I did not particularly like the hard cider but it was better than nothing and helped to pass the time. Since it rained a lot we needed some way to while away our time in our uncomfortable tents. If you sat up in the tent your head would hit the ceiling and soon water would be dripping.
Our first days in Ardennes were quiet and we had sunny skies which made sitting outside quite comfortable. And again with our squad Staff Sergeant away we enjoyed our "freedom from normal Army life." With only five of us we knew what we had to do and when without Schell having to remind us or think up ways to keep us busy.
Schell had an easy, competent style of command. We knew he was in charge.
But he never made a big thing of it. He was a vastly superior person to our Squad Sergeant who was a braggart and a man I could not imagine having anything to do with in civilian life.
We would sit in the sun, see to our weapons, write letters or just loaf.
None of the letters that I wrote during this period ever reached home. The last letter my Mother received from me was written when we arrived in France on December 4. I dated that letter Monday, December 4, 1944, Somewhere in France. However the postmark on the envelope is dated December 19.
I do not know what the second Lieutenant who was our Platoon Leader was doing at this time. I cannot recall that he ever visited our Outpost. And no one complained about that.
During this period a call came through one day for some volunteers to make up a patrol. I volunteered for this more out of curiosity to see something beyond the limits of our outpost than any idea of getting at the Germans.
While waiting we cleaned our weapons. Our B.A.R. man, Mac,(B.A.R. meaning Browning Automatic Rifle), also volunteered, and then nothing happened. Hours later word was sent down that the Patrol had been canceled.
I did talk during chow one day to another B.A.R. man in our Platoon who actually did go out on a Patrol. He said they had sighted a group of Germans out woodcutting in the far distance. While the range was long the Lieutenant in charge had ordered him to give them a couple of bursts. He did so and then heard some yelling indicating that at least one had been hit or so they thought.
Chow time was about the only time we ever got any news at all. It was here too that I learned that our squad leader, the Staff Sergeant had been pulled out for being diagnosed with a case of VD. So much for the wonderful time he had in London which he never stopped talking about.
A dark incident occurred during one chow run which made me realize that all men are not good men. Normally we always carried our rifles and did so to the field kitchen and then just parked them against a tree. The field kitchen was open except for a tarp over the cook stoves and as often as not we ate standing up balancing our mess gear and canteen cup the best way we could.
Upon returning from chow I checked my rifle more out of habit than anything else and noted it was not mine. They all looked alike of course and one could only really tell by the serial number.
First I checked with the others at my outpost but they all had the right weapon. On finding I had a different rifle the first thing I did was break it down and check it for cleaning and to see if it was operating properly. It wasn't. A steel pin in the trigger assembly was missing. This showed that the switch had been deliberate. Someone wanted to get rid of that rifle and I was the unfortunate victim.
My first thought was to go to Company Headquarters and report the incident. However after some tooth sucking with the others at the outpost we hit upon a solution. Every soldier soon learns that dealing with "authority" is never a very good idea. Out of sight, out of mind, invisible in the ranks, was almost always our philosophy. We decided that we could fashion a new pin from the wire that was available at the Outpost.
This we did and it was a good fit too. And the rifle worked as it should. Schell helped with this and taking everything in account was a good soldier and a good leader for our small group. However the rifle switch did leave a rather nasty taste in the mouth and we all agreed it was a lousy trick.
Being so new to the outfit I did not have time to make close friends or to actually get to know even the men in my own squad very well.
Mark was a boy of the deep south and had the sniper Springfield rifle. Like me he was also 19 years old. Schell, Mac and Larkin were older, maybe in their late twenties but certainly no older than that.
While not being on truly close terms with any of my fellow soldiers at the Outpost, I did have confidence in them and knew that I could depend upon them if need be. I hope that they felt that way about me as well. The few close friends I had were in other platoons of the company.
At the Outpost we took what we were doing seriously and there was little of the usual banter that one usually associates with army life. Thinking about it now I do not believe we had a single truly outgoing person in our small group.
I do not think any of us had the "wind up" to use an English expression and we took whatever happened quite calmly. For myself I do recall dreading the long nights and the long hours in the cold on sentry duty, I believe more from discomfort than fear.
Sentry duty at night was demanding because we did not want to show movement and make any kind of a sound since if a German patrol was in the vicinity we wanted to hear them first. Standing still in the cold for two hours was trying.
Schell suggested we take one of our blankets with us to throw over our shoulders on top of our overcoat. This did help and if we needed to move quickly we could just slip the blanket off in seconds.
Actually until the night of December 16th the nights were mostly still, often without a single shot or explosion.
Later we realized that the Germans were quietly going about their business of preparing the attack and needed no diversions.
That changed on the morning of December 16 when a fierce bombardment commenced. It was still dark and a few hours before dawn. I was on sentry duty at the time standing outside the dugout. The shells were all screaming far overhead destined for the rear areas. Not a single shell landed within miles of us. But of course the noise brought even our most ardent sleepers out of the dugout to see what was going on. We knew that the enemy must be making a move but what and where? Later that day we were told it was this bombardment that killed the Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Thomas Kent.
The afternoon of the l6th a brief fire fight had taken place in one of the other platoons of our company. A small group of Germans had attacked. It had been beaten back but in that first action our company executive officer, First Lieutenant Wm. B. Brice had been killed instantly with a bullet to the head.
The only other noteworthy event of this skirmish was how a German had been wounded and was lying between the lines. He had been hit by B.A.R. fire. He lay out there crying in pain and the man who shot him went out, completely exposing himself to enemy fire, and carried him into our positions. The Germans seeing what was happening did not fire.
He was badly wounded and died at our aid station. The one telling me the story said he was only a boy. But then that could be said for a good many of us as well.
After a night when no one got much sleep word came to us to prepare for an enemy attack. No one left for chow and eventually K rations were sent down to us.
Again this day Schell showed his worth. He very carefully decided how to man our positions such as they were. We were only five men and I don't believe any of us believed we could stop a serious German attack. He placed our B.A.R. in the best defensive position but because of the trees there was no effective field of fire.
This was on December 17 and we spent all day in our fox holes and positions waiting for an attack that never came. I was assigned the bunker position and was there by myself. Schell apologized for having me in a position that really required two men but we both knew there was no alternative. The man who had been wounded three nights previously, Sherm, would have been the one to share my position.
The runner who brought us our rations also brought some mail, the first we had received since leaving France. I remember getting a couple of Christmas cards from relatives including one from an Uncle which included a five dollar bill. I set my mail on a shelf that divided the dirt walls from the log ceiling and left them there. It was days before I remembered and then they were gone forever.
Early on the morning of December 18 we received orders to move. We were to prepare our packs for marching while leaving our Barracks Bags and the rest of our belongings behind. I remember in my Barracks Bag I was also carrying the Platoon football which had not seen any action since we left England.
I don't remember if we had any breakfast that morning. We joined the rest of our Platoon and the Company was together again for the first time since being deployed at the front.
Soon we were on the march on a muddy dirt track. It was overcast but not really cold though it would still freeze at night. We marched most of the day on hilly terrain and before the day was out a good deal of gear was abandoned from the packs of many of us. And surprisingly neither noncoms or officers said anything about it.
Again very little information was forthcoming except that the Germans had advanced to the side of us and we must move to keep from being surrounded. Up to this point no one in our Platoon had even seen an enemy soldier or fired their rifle. As usual the march was stop and go and once we were held up in deep woods because of some shell bursts ahead. We were stopped for some time and took advantage of the delay to get some much needed rest. Our packs were heavy and I was carrying a bandolier of ammo for Mac's B.A.R. I had two grenades still in their packs as well. These had been handed to me by one of the Sergeants just as we started that morning. He emptied a whole box of grenades in this way catching whatever soldiers he could find to carry them. We had also been issued three boxes of K rations that morning.
No shells dropped close by so we again moved off. There was a heavy overcast this day and it was impossible to maintain any sense of direction. Unfortunately I did not have one of the G.I issued compasses which generally were carried by squad leaders and above.
Years later I still wondered why I had not bought a compass of my own. At Camp Callan I had received extensive training in map reading, setting azimuth courses and moving cross country. But then no one ever gave us even a glimpse of a map from the time we had arrived in France.
At dusk they told us we would stay in this bit of forest till morning. No tents, no fires, no smoking, the Germans were on the other side of the ridge and we would attack in the morning. We just laid on the ground, fully clothed, (we were all wearing our Army overcoats), and used the blanket sleeping bag which had been issued to us in England. There was no snow on the ground here but it was still a very cold, uncomfortable night.
At first light which did not arrive till almost 7 a.m. at this time of year we formed up and started moving up the hill toward the ridge. We left our packs stacked in a pile under some trees. Our platoon leader had two squads up front and our squad in the rear as reserve, this probably because we were already short two men.
As the first men reached the ridge the firing started with most of it coming from the Germans sitting on the high ground. We just hit the dirt being some 70 or 80 yards further down the slope. The Lieutenant from the second platoon was hit in the arm almost immediately but not seriously. He had been standing upright moving along the ridge and there was a good deal of automatic fire coming over.
I'm afraid he did not get much sympathy from us, the feeling being he was lucky not to get his head taken off exposing himself so obviously.
The attack stalled almost before it had begun in our company and we were ordered to back down the slope and then regroup.
Here we were in the Vee of a long valley which was completely open and free from trees. We moved to our left, leaving our packs behind, for some distance and again were ordered into battle formation. And again my squad was given the rear reserve position.
The company almost immediately came under fire from German 88mm guns, mounted on tanks. This was the word passed down the line. When the artillery fire started it was directed to the men in front of us so we found a convenient creek bottom, that had cut deeply into the hillside, for cover.
Then again almost before the attack could get started the men in front were moving up the hill with their hands up over their heads. We could hardly believe our eyes.
In our squad we had only two choices--to move up to the ridge with our hands up in surrender or go back the way we had come. And the latter was what we chose to do.
At the bottom of the hill we met C Company and the Company Commander told us that the order was to surrender and to move back up the hill. Meanwhile the artillery fire on our positions had stopped. However across the Valley in a grove of trees the fire continued and we could hear the screams of men being hit from tree bursts. Much later I learned it was K Company that caught it and that I had a boyhood friend that was wounded there. I will relate his story at a later time.
Half way up the hill Mac, Schell and I again paused by the Creek. I noted with no particular interest that there was a dead sheep in the water. Finally with no alternative we threw our weapons in the creek and walked up the hill with our hands on our heads.
The German soldier who met us at the top was as young as I and carrying an automatic machine pistol that we called "a burp gun" because it made a staccato sound when fired. He wore a wide grin and was very pleased with himself and events. He also reeked of alcohol, which Schell identified as Schnapps.
We were now prisoners of war. It was about the last thing I ever would have imagined happening to me. Wounded yes, killed perhaps, but the role as a PW had never occurred to me.
Almost the whole company had already gathered at the top of the ridge when we reluctant sluggards arrived. While we were walking the last 100 yards or so we passed some our people carrying up the bodies of those that had been hit by the 88 fire.
The view of a human body that has been torn apart by artillery fire is not something anyone can ever forget. And these were people from our own platoon.
Schell, Mac and the rest of us in the third squad had our romantic sergeant and Sherm's million dollar wound to thank for being held in reserve and out of the strike zone of the German artillery.
I must admit that I was in a total state of shock at being captured. I think my main emotion was one of anger and frustration at not being able to put up any semblance of fight. And I spoke of this to Schell and he perhaps put in it in its proper prospective. He pointed out that we were still alive and not among those torn and disfigured bodies that were now laid untidily in a row.
On top of the ridge besides the German tanks and infantry there was a large stone barn. The kind that can be seen to this day all through the Ardennes and as well as in Germany. Most of our Company were put into the Barn making it convenient for the Germans to use as few men as possible to guard us.
It was here that I learned that the order to surrender came from the Colonel of our Regiment and that all of the men in the Regiment were now prisoners. He had decided that we were indeed surrounded and that resistance against the German armor would have been futile and only cost a good many lives. In hindsight I cannot disagree with his decision although many, both officers and enlisted men did on that day.
Wiser heads among us advised to hide a wrist watch if you had one since the Germans were taking them if seen. I did just that and it may have well saved my life at a later date.
If there is anything I wish to convey in all this is how little the average foot soldier knows about what is going on. Your world is narrowed to the men around you and a few feet of ground. Each man is only a pawn to be moved here and about in an unseen plan that often as not is never revealed.
By noon on December 19, 1944 the war was over for us. We spent the whole afternoon in the Barn until before dark we were marshaled outside to be joined by almost 1,000 other soldiers of the Regiment. An English speaking German officer told us we would soon be marched to a rear area and that anyone attempting to escape would be shot. And so it was that as dusk turned into night we began our long walk into Germany.
It had been only 15 days since we landed in
Chapter 4 The Men
I did not find the Army basic training at Camp Callan at all distasteful. For one thing I was placed in a group that was destined to continue training in a variety of occupations and skills. We 18 year olds were eager and anxious to learn and the older men all were from civilian occupations that rated them above the ordinary.
At Camp Callan the food was excellent and we had officers that we could respect. I made friends readily at this Camp which certainly had location in its favor. Today the land is occupied by the Torrey Pines Golf Courses situated on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
We were only minutes away from La Jolla and a half hour bus ride to San Diego. And if the physical training was hard, and it sometimes was, we had a hospitable climate.
For us youngsters it was one long Boy Scout adventure. We were always playing pranks on one another. I recall one of the first inspections we had. As the Officer reached me with the Sergeant at his elbow he said: "Soldier, when did you shave last? I replied in complete innocence: "Two weeks ago, Sir". He replied: "From now on you shave every week." Later the Sergeant had a few words to say to me about this episode.
When it came time for those of us to take special training I chose Scouting and Reconnaissance. This meant scrambling all over the countryside using compasses and making map overlays. I enjoyed it all except for the poison oak which actually sent me to the base hospital on one occasion.
Our Platoon leader was an outstanding young man from Massachusetts, not much older than us, named Lieutenant Sullivan. He was always approachable and available if we had a problem with some of the courses we were taking.
When the training was finished and it was announced most of the Battalion would be going to the South Pacific I was very disappointed that I would not be going with all the new friends I had made.
About 200 of us had been transferred to the Infantry for further training.
Camp Chaffee was a rude awakening in many ways. Being from San Francisco racial prejudice was unknown to me. Those first signs I saw in Arkansas that read "Colored People Only" were a big cultural shock for me.
Then too when we were finally assembled in Platoons and Companies I soon realized that, with some exceptions, I was with a group of people completely different from those I was familiar with at Camp Callan.
There is no question that the military services are a giant social mixer. I was now living, eating and working with types of people I would have avoided in civilian life.
"Barracks language" was rare in our Platoon at Camp Callan. Here it was rampant and many appeared unable to express themselves without four letter words.
Aside from work a group of us 18 year olds stayed together. I wrote home on several occasions that with the exception of this group there was no one in our Platoon I would ever want to go on a Pass with.
At Camp Chaffee morale was terrible. The training was very hard and the climate of an Arkansas summer made everything we did doubly difficult. In our regiment of 3,500 men we had over 100 AWOL at any one time. One week we had five absent without leave from our Company. This made the Company Commander drastically reduce the number of weekend passes.
None of these discipline problems existed with us 18 year olds which is probably why the Company Commander laconically dubbed us the "Young Virgins".
Physically we were up to whatever demands the training required or too proud to admit otherwise. On some of the tough long marches we would often add the rifle of another soldier to our own if he was struggling to keep up.
And we were still too young to have developed the many bad habits and behavior we saw every day in some of the older men. Certainly they set an example that none of us ever wished to follow.
This is not to say that all the older men were crude and ruffians. I made good friends with some of them and often their advice and counsel was needed and heeded. It is merely a fact that at Camp Chaffee they appeared to be in the minority.
An example of this huge gulf that existed between some of the men comes to mind. Oswald Castellanos was a cultured man and one with a wonderful artistic talent. He had trained as an operatic tenor and had a wonderful voice.
He was a good deal older than me but my love and appreciation for classic music and opera created a bond between us. He was always in demand to sing at special functions held for officers and their wives at the Officers Club.
Also in our barracks and as things would have it located in the bed next to Oswald's was one of the most despicable men I ever encountered in the military. He had been in the peacetime army and was no stranger to the Stockade. He delighted in telling of his experiences with the low life in the many places he had been. Selling his body to homosexuals for money, rolling drunks, his adventures with whores in a variety of places, these were all part of his repartee as well as his trips to the Stockade for any number of offenses.
For me he was a curiosity. The question being how did one sink to such depths in the social order
Years later, after the War, when I read "From Here To Eternity", by James Jones this man immediately came to mind.
He took to heckling Oswald at every opportunity and this cultured man did not know how to respond. Finally a few of us suggested to our Platoon Sergeant that moving Oswald to a different location in the barracks could help. And this was done.
Both these men after finishing their six weeks of training were transferred to Fort Mead and then to Europe as infantry replacements. I received a few letters from Oswald Castellanos and then no further word. I have no idea if either survived the war. I would like to believe that Oswald Castellanos did. I would have loved to see Oswald play Don Jose in Carmen or Radames in Aida but as an infantryman in World War II he was miscast.
Throughout my two years in the army I got along well with almost everyone. If they were not my kind of person I worked with them but otherwise we went our separate ways.
I was involved in only two altercations with other soldiers in those two years. The first took place at Camp Callan and came about strictly by accident. Part of our training was boxing matches. We would pair off in twos, put on the gloves and spar for a round or two.
One day I was paired with another 18 year old from our Platoon. We were fairly evenly matched except he was taller and had a longer reach. We lost our tempers as blows were struck and were soon in a serious bout. Others seeing what was occurring stopped to watch us.
Our Sergeant let us fight awhile then said we could go another round and we did. By this time we had a large audience including some of the officers of the company.
When it was over, from sheer exhaustion, there had been no knockdowns but we both were marked up some as the result. Later in life I was a sports writer and scored quite a few professional boxing matches. In honesty I would say he won on points.
But when it was over there were no hard feelings. In fact we both apologized for letting our tempers get the best of us. We had not been close friends before and we were not after. But we were not enemies either. We continued as before as if it had not occurred and in future boxing matches were careful to select other partners.
That night I had guard duty and was certainly not feeling my best. I had bruises on my face and in fact hurt all over. I said nothing about this but the Officer of the Day, a Lieutenant Colonel, who I had never seen before, came up to me and said I could take one of the bunks and sleep in. They would mount the guard without me. I thought it a nice gesture and was very grateful.
The other event took place at Camp Chaffee and occurred completely without provocation or warning of any kind. The man was from New Jersey, older, stocky in stature and heavy in build. I doubt if I had ever had a conversation with him though he was in our barracks.
He was a morose, silent man, who kept to himself, never smiled and appeared to be filled with bitterness.
That evening I had gone to a movie and upon my return to the barracks was greeted with loud banging and the clatter of foot lockers being kicked. Most of the men were already in their bunks trying to sleep.
It was one of those humid, hot nights which we came to accept as the norm for an Arkansas summer.
Hearing the noise as I moved to my bunk I asked in a normal tone of voice: "What's going on?" The man than charged me without warning knocking us both over a bed with the occupant still in it. He landed on top of me and immediately had his hands at my throat chocking me.
Everyone was now awake and others quickly pulled him off me but I have always had the feeling that he actually wanted to kill me that night. And without cause or reason. I was not hurt but shaken and very angry.
I told the Platoon Sergeant that I refused to sleep in my own bunk that night with that crazy son of a bitch on the loose. That was one occasion when I used many four letter words myself. The sergeants seemed to agree with me. They had their own rooms. One had an extra bunk and I slept there that night.
Nothing more was ever said to me but the New Jersey man was transferred to another barracks the next day. I never spoke to him again or he to me. There was never anything like an apology from him.
At the end of the course he was shipped off to Fort Mead and then on to Europe. In my two years in the Army he is the one man that I can say, if he didn't get back I could care less.
Chapter 5 War, Always a Mystery
War is a gigantic lottery and only fate seems to determine who survives and who does not.
In individual combat skill can make the difference as with pilots of fighter aircraft. But skill as often as not means little for the individual foot soldier. Literature, both fact and fiction, is full of stories of soldiers who die in their very first military action.
There appears to be no answer to why one soldier may endure days, weeks, even months of combat and survive. While those around him are killed and wounded in ever increasing numbers.
Sherm was hit by mortar fragments before we ever caught even a single glimpse of an enemy soldier. And he had relieved me on sentry duty probably no more than five minutes when the shell exploded.
The Executive Officer of our Company, First Lieutenant William B Brice, was a graduate of West Point and was killed in the first minor engagement that took place on our Company front.
One of the things that disturbed me most after capture was how little use all my training had been. Between the time spent at Camp Callan and Camp Chaffee I had been through 36 weeks of intensive training. At the time it seemed that I had wasted a whole year of my life for nothing.
In training I had fired every weapon available to an infantry company. This included the rifle, carbine, BAR, 30 and 50 caliber machine guns, Bazooka, light mortars, the one man flame thrower pack as well as drills using live grenades.
At Camp Chaffee one of our number figured that we hiked an average of 10 miles a day over a six week training course and this under an Arkansas summer sun.
About this time the Army announced the Badges that would distinguish an infantry soldier. There was the Expert Infantryman Badge for those that completed a special course in training and the Combat Infantryman Badge for those that had come under enemy fire. The Expert Badge was worth a $5 a month increase in pay; the Combat Badge a $10 a month increase.
In a letter home I listed what the requirements were for the Expert Badge which we were going to test for the following week. They included running 300 yards in 45 seconds, running 70 yards in 20 seconds carrying another soldier, 33 pushups, a nine mile march with 9 pound rifle and 45 pound pack in two hours and a 25 mile march in eight hours with the same equipment.
There were also tests in patrolling, scouting, first aid and digging fox holes, firing the rifle for a certain score as well as firing mortars.
A letter home told how all this turned out.
"In the Infantryman Badge tests Junior and I passed everything till the nine mile in two hour forced march. Only 18 men out of 84 in our Company made it on time. Gordon and I made it in two hours and three and one-half minutes but they said it had to be in two hours so we were disqualified.
"I sure wish I had movies of the fellows coming in from the field that night. They were the sorriest looking sight you could imagine. Everyone was limping or staggering or just plodded along like every step would be their last.
"Junior and I were sure mad about coming in three and one-half minutes late. If we had a watch we could have made it on time easily. I haven't been wearing mine because of my poison ivy and Junior's watch is broken. Five minutes after the hike started there was no formation. The men were stretched out along the road for miles and miles.
"Junior and I stuck together but before we knew it we were all by ourselves. Everyone has bruises on their backs from the heavy packs. Some men passed out during the hike, and others were laying in ditches alongside the road too tired to go any further. Finally they had to get trucks and go pick them up.
"The officers had to take the hike with us and were just as tired as we were. Today higher authority canceled the rest of the schedule so no one will get the Badge and no one is feeling bad about that."
Perhaps all this physical activity was to the good since I was in excellent physical condition when I was captured.
But if I felt such frustration, at capture, one can only imagine that of some of the officers of the division who had spent most of a lifetime schooling themselves for war and combat in leadership roles.
In just 10 days the 106th Division had for all practical purposes ceased to exist. That so many of us were able to survive as POWs rather than battlefield casualties was due to decisions made by individual commanders under great stress.
This is a personal account of one foot soldier but if the reader wishes a full history of the short life span of the 106th Division he should find the book entitled "Death of a Division" by Charles Whiting.
Chapter 6 An Overall look at events
As I have stated when we were captured on December 19, 1944 we had no idea what the tactical situation was or objectives of the German offensive or indeed what our own defensive position was in Belgium.
In actual fact the people in the U.S. and my parents in San Francisco knew by early January more about our division, its assignment in the Ardennes and its ultimate fate during the Battle than any of us who were still marching ever deeper into Germany as prisoners.
At this time I will reprint a news story which appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Monday January 22, 1945.
"One of the major battles of the war burst upon the 106th Division just six days after it took up positions on what was supposed to be a 'quiet' sector of the Ardennes.
"The Division was spread pitifully thin along a 27 mile front.
"By December 19 two regiments and supporting artillery and armor of the Golden Lion Division were wiped out.
"(Until Sunday censorship had forbidden transmission of the details).
"(On January 18 Secretary of War Stimson announced that the 106th suffered 8,663 casualties in the German offensive in the Ardennes, including 416 killed and l.246 wounded. He said most of the division's 7,001 missing were presumed to be prisoners.)
"The men of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments were engulfed by the overwhelming weight of the German breakthrough spearhead.
"The attack against the 106th started at 5:50 a. m. in the foggy predawn of December 16 with a tremendous artillery barrage against their line that curved northward from the center of the Schnee Eiffel, a rocky wooded ridge 10 miles long and two miles wide astride the Siegfried Line.
"By daybreak on December 17 the Germans had thrown two divisions into this part of the front. By midmorning enemy columns swamped the 422nd and 432rd Regiments and the 424th was force to withdraw.
"The two regiments continued to send back reports of the fighting until radio contact was lost. At 3:35 p.m. December 18 the radio sputtered that all units of the two regiments were in need of ammunition, food and water. Because of the fog, parachuting supplies was out of the question.
"The last message came from the 422nd at 4 p.m. that day and from the 423rd at 6 p.m. Both said: 'we are now destroying our equipment.' That was all.
"The Germans then headed for and occupied St. Vith at 11 p.m. on December 21."
In September 1945 I received a letter from the Adjutant General's office addressed to "former members of the 422nd Infantry Regiment". It is far more accurate an account of events as it should be since the European war was now over.
Again I will quote from this letter in its entirety.
"The 422nd Infantry went into combat in the Schnee-Eiffel area of Germany on December 10, 1944. On December 16, the regiment was hit by the German Ardennes counter-offensive, and was quickly cut off. Several sections of the regimental zone received heavy artillery fire and ground attacks, all of which were repulsed.
"On the night of December 17 the Second Battalion was swung around facing north, to meet a threat from strong enemy forces which had outflanked us. On December 18 orders by radio from Division Headquarters directed the 422nd Infantry, in conjunction with the 423rd Infantry to attack and destroy enemy forces at Schonberg, and continue along the Schonberg-St. Vith road and clear the enemy from that road, which was originally our principal supply route.
"Meanwhile, the 7th and 9th armored Divisions were committed in the vicinity of St. Vith, where the 106th Division headquarters and other installations had been located, but they were unable to stop the German drive at that point.
"The 422nd Infantry made an extremely well-executed cross-country withdrawal during the day and night of December 18, to assembly position southeast of Schonberg, and attacked toward Schonburg on the morning of December 19.
"They quickly came under small arms and artillery fire from several directions and the First Battalion, on the right, was attacked by tanks and part of the Battalion was cut off and captured.
"The Second and Third Battalions continued the attack toward Schonberg and came under intense fire from several types of weapons of a large enemy antiaircraft unit, which inflicted heavy casualties and knocked out a number of our mortars and machine guns.
"The 423rd Battalion on our left had sustained
heavy casualties, was badly disorganized and later was
almost entirely captured or surrendered. In the
afternoon of December 19, having no resupply of food
or ammunition, or evacuation of casualties for the
past four days, Colonel Descheneaux decided to
surrender that part of the regiment.
"Parts of the First Battalion , Company G, Company H and men from other units found their way to the Regimental Motor Park, and held out until December 21. Company L escaped almost intact through the German encirclement, and moved west, but ran into enemy positions on the night of December 20, and were captured after sustaining many casualties. The majority of the vehicles and personnel of Regimental Headquarters Company, AT Company and CN Company, which had remained in the assembly area, tried to force a way out to the west, but ran into mine fields and artillery fire and were captured or surrendered.
"Of the 422nd Regiment all were killed, wounded or captured except for nine officers and about 70 men."
In the correspondence I received from the Adjutant General's office a letter from the Commander of the 422nd Regiment, Colonel George L. Deschenlaux, was included.
At that time Col. Deschenlaux was hospitalized in Fitzsimmons General Hospital, Denver, Colorado, as the result of tuberculosis, which he contracted while a POW.
The Letter is here included in its entirety.
"Members of the 422nd Inf. Regt:
"The war in which we took such a brief and tragic part is over. Most of us were fortunate enough to have returned to our families and friends. Time will dim but never entirely erase the memory of our trying experiences. I have found, through conversations with many former members of our regiment confined in this hospital, that information as to our mission and the circumstances leading to our capture are not fully known. Events happened so fast and under such difficult circumstances that it is understandable why such information did not reach everyone. I hope that this bulletin will serve to clarify that undesirable situation.
"As to our part, after we were cut off we were ordered to leave our position on Schnee-Effel and to attack and destroy a German Panzer Combat Team on the Schonberg-St. Vith Road, after which we were to proceed to St Vith and then west from there.
"We were almost entirely surrounded and in order to reach Schonberg we had to move across country. I was separated from you not long after capture, and with few exceptions, have seen none of you since. It was only after my arrival here, and through correspondence with officers and men of the various companies, that I have been able to get a fairly complete picture of many details of the attack.
"We ran into a trap near Schonberg and were subjected to heavy fire from nearly all directions and by tanks and artillery. By the afternoon it became evident that the accomplishment of our mission was impossible. It became further evident that there was little we could do to help any operation.
"The paramount question became that of saving the lives of as many of you men as possible and every possible action to accomplish this was discussed. Our situation was rendered hopeless by our great distance behind our lines, the weather, our ammunition supply, and many other factors. And so, though my spirit revolted against such a decision, surrender seemed to be the only solution to avoid needless loss of life and further suffering. I am convinced that there was nothing else to do and I know that opinion is shared by most every one of you.
"It is my sincere desire, and that of all our officers, to secure the recognition and awards which so many of you richly deserve for gallantry and meritorious service. This may be slow, due to administrative difficulties, but you may be sure that many deserving cases will be recommended for awards as soon as full information can be secured in proper form.
"The Combat Infantryman Badge was awarded to all Infantrymen of the Regiment and the Medical Badge to members of the Medical Detachment, and Regimental Colors of the 422nd Infantry recently were appropriately decorated as a Combat Regiment at a Division Review in the ETO.
"I wish all of you the best of luck in whatever course your lives may take in the future. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for having made it possible for me to as proud of his officers, men, and regiment as any commander ever could be."
George L. Deschenlaux, Jr.
Chapter 7 The 106th Division
It might be well here to explain what makes up an army infantry division. Like all World War II Army Infantry Divisions the 106th had almost 14,000 men. The 106th Division was activated at Jackson, Miss., in March, 1943. At that time Major General Alan W. Jones told the division: "You're brand new; you have no past history to live up to, and no past sins to live down."
The following is from a newspaper story dated January 20, 1945:
"The 106th Infantry Division, decimated in the Germans' crushing offensive in the Ardennes, was a unit of typical American draftees, assembled from nearly every state and schooled in combat lessons brought back from North Africa, New Guinea and Stalingrad.
"Army officials said the 106th had received "the works" in training before its departure overseas.
"From infantry replacement centers came farm boys from the Midwest, city boys from the East, range-riders from the West. Officers up to regimental commanders of infantry and artillery battalions, assistant general staff officers and some special staff officers were provided by the 80th Infantry.
"The filler replacements had reached 3400 in March and two months later the 106th received its shoulder patch--the head of a lion denoting strength and power, the blue background signifying the infantry, the red border representing artillery support.
"In the Schnee Eiffel, a rocky wooded ridge, the 106th was in almost an identical defensive position to that which it had held during Tennessee maneuvers in March 1944, when it did so well the referees had to call time."
A Division has three regiments, in the case of the 106th Division, these were the 422nd, 423rd and 424th. Both the 422nd and 423rd were surrounded and surrendered to the Germans. The 424th escaped entrapment and after the Bulge had been contained was used in France to guard captured German soldiers.
An Army regiment has three battalions. Each of these battalions has four rifle companies, a headquarters company and a heavy weapons company.
The companies had letters for designation--the first battalion with Companies A,B,C and D. The other two battalions with letters further into the alphabet.
Each company was made up of four platoons, three platoons of riflemen and one weapons platoon. The Platoon was broken down to three squads of 12 men each plus a Second Lieutenant as Platoon leader and Platoon sergeants.
The Company Commander had the rank of Captain and his executive officer the rank of First Lieutenant. The top ranked enlisted man in each Company was the First Sergeant who carried out the administrative orders of the Company Commander.
The Regiment also had its own companies: Headquarters, Service, Antitank and Cannon companies.
A division had its own artillery batteries, Signal and Quartermaster companies as well as medical and engineer battalions.
In short the division was designed to be a self contained fighting unit.
As privates our world was limited to the
squad and platoon to which we were assigned and to
some extent to the other platoons of our company.
Orders came from on high, as often as not without
explanation, and we did as we were told.
Chapter 8 The March
It was 41 years before I again saw the Ardennes Forest and the part of Belgium where I fought my short war. I was in Europe as a journalist covering the annual convention of the Alcohol Beverage Merchants of California which was being held in England.
I left California before the convention, flew directly to Paris, rented a car and preceded to cover the "old ground" as it were from those events of so long before.
My visit to St. Vith and Schonberg and surrounding region I will leave to a later chapter but one incident brought to mind much of that March into Germany as a Prisoner of war.
Gerolstein is a small town in Germany located in a deep valley between two high ridges and one part of the town is occupied with large railroad marshaling yards. It was that way in 1944 and it had not changed when I viewed it again 41 years later.
In fact as I drove toward Gerolstein in my rented Renault I stopped above the Valley with a view down to Gerolstein and the memories came pouring back and some of the terror too.
It is a fact that as a prisoner of war I was exposed to more fire from bombs, shells and strafing than I did before my capture.
We started our March from that hilltop Barn the night of December 19 and continued to walk in a long silent column all through the night stopping only in the early hours before dawn. We huddled in an open field and tried to get some rest and sleep.
In England we had a lecture on being captured, what to expect, the Geneva conventions on the status of prisoners of war, and what the chances were for escape. One thing I had remembered of all this was that if an escape had a chance of success you must make the attempt as soon as possible after capture, before being moved too far into Germany.
That first night we were not guarded closely and with dense forest on each side of the road we were taking a few of us thought it might be possible to slip away. Schell and I talked about it with a few others. The problem was none of us had a compass. One Sergeant in the Company we knew did have one and still had it as a prisoner. However when Schell asked him for it he refused.
Without a compass any chance of getting back to our own lines seemed futile
and in truth I don't think we would have had much a chance in any event.
Our packs had been left before our final attack effort and so we were with only the clothes that we were wearing when captured. It also meant we lost access to the K rations in our pack. I was fortunate in that I was wearing a lot of clothes. Being from San Francisco I was not used to the cold weather we had been experiencing.
I was wearing long johns under my wool pants and had on a sweater, field jacket and standard issue overcoat, and the issued wool cap under my steel helmet. Also I was wearing the overshoes that were issued to us in France.
Some of the more unfortunate men had discarded their overcoats for one reason or another. Also when I had discarded my rifle and cartridge belt into the creek I had kept my canteen, slipping it into my overcoat pocket. That proved to be a fortunate decision.
Mac and I huddled together in that field which did produce some degree of warmth. Sometime after daylight we were again on the March. We were already in Germany and sometimes curious civilians would stand beside the road as we walked by.
The second night we stopped at what appeared to be an extensive farming complex. Being a City boy I had no practical knowledge of rural living. However fortunately one of our small group, which had stayed together to this point on the March, had been raised on a farm. He took us to an outbuilding that had very recently been home to livestock and our noses told us that.
But he pointed out that manure generates heat and
the stuff which was generously spread on the floor of
the barn would guarantee us a warm nights sleep. And
he was right. It was the first time I got warm in
about three days.
After another day of marching we were housed in an old empty warehouse and it was also the first time we were given anything to eat. A thin soup of unknown origin was ladled out to us with a piece of dark German bread. The warehouse had shelved bins along the walls and many of us climbed into one of these bins for the night. So again I got some sleep minus the cold experienced earlier on our outdoor bivouacs.
The next day we arrived in Gerolstein. This had involved a march of some 50 kilometers or 30 miles. I remember two remarkable acts of kindness on this part of the March. One by a young German girl of about l7 years of age. She had carried two large containers of raw milk out to the side of the road and was giving each of us a cup of that milk. I remember she poured a cup of milk into my steel helmet which I drank immediately.
One other time we had been stopped along a road and we were sprawled on each side getting what rest we could. An old German man came out of his house and motioned to a group of us and pointed to a dirt mound he had beside his barn. By example he showed us that it contained carrots and indicated that we could each have some. I was certainly grateful since I always loved raw carrots as a boy.
Upon reaching Gerolstein we were loaded into box cars, 40 men to each car. This was in late afternoon but we never moved. That evening some of the men in our box car did a very foolish thing. Some of the wooden slates on one side of the car were loose and they pried them off and tried to build a fire.
This brought a group of guards shouting and screaming at us and we were all unloaded from that car. They then pushed 20 of us into two other cars which already had their complement of 40 men. With 60 men in the car everyone was jammed together making for much pushing and cursing and making a place to lie down difficult to come by.
That night came one of the moments of terror I associate with Gerolstein. We were attacked by British fighter bombers which bombed and strafed the marshaling yards not knowing of course that many of those box cars were filled with American POWs.
We of course could see nothing and the doors of the cars were locked shut. The planes would start their strafing run and you could just feel each man draw into himself as an act of imaginary defense. Being in a Valley between two high ridges the sound of the attacking planes and the resulting gunfire and explosions were amplified intensifying the feeling of complete helplessness. I was reminded of this horrible feeling of claustrophobic defenselessness when I saw the movie, Das Boot, where the crew suffered through the depth charge attacks. It really is an experience that defies description.
At least one of the other cars did suffer some casualties but our car was not hit. The next day we remained in place, locked in the cars. Obviously the lines and some rolling stock had been damaged. That evening we were removed from the cars and once more walked in a long column into the night.
I was wearing regular GI shoes and as I mentioned earlier the waterproof overshoes. Not used to walking in the overshoes any great distance I developed some blisters so that this night I fell behind and became separated from my companions limping along quite gingerly.
I was not alone in having a physical problem and there was a group of us now bringing up the rear of the long column. The guard would urge us along but was not belligerent about it.
Quite unexpectedly a Germany lorry came up behind us, not much different from the two and half ton trucks we were used to. The guard spoke to the driver and then motioned us into the truck. There was about twelve of us. In the truck were four German soldiers and a large stack of loaves of bread.
One of the soldiers soon started carving up a few loaves in generous pieces and passed one to each of us. In this way we passed the whole column of POWs and soon arrived at an unoccupied group of army barracks. Here we were unloaded, remembering to say "danka" to the soldiers for the bread.
Someone pointed to one of the buildings, which although unheated was better that being outdoors in the first hour of dawn. A few hours later the whole column filed into the Camp.
As daylight arrived I was able to take a look at my feet and give them some much needed air. Also I fluffed up my socks and performed some first aid to the blisters which were on my heels.
Watching all of this one of the men I had been with in the truck suggested that I carry the overshoes over my shoulder, if I wanted to keep them, and that my feet would then be o.k. This was good advice so when we left this Camp I was able to walk with no further problems.
One ugly incident occurred at this Camp. The Germans had prepared, in huge pots, a turnip soup and the men formed a immense line to get a ladle full. Since most of us no longer had our mess cups most just had the soup poured into the steel helmets they were still wearing.
Some of us looked at this huge line from our barracks window for a long time before finally joining it. It was a cold, blustery day so I never did leave the barracks to get in that line. Thanks to the generous German soldier in the truck I had a large piece of that dark, heavy German bread to munch. Those of us that had arrived by truck were the privileged few since we were the only ones actually allowed in the barracks. The mass of the column, which must have numbered close to 1,000 men, just milled around the Compound and stood in that massive line for the soup.
But watching from the window I noticed that a few from my Company were going back and standing in the line a second time. The result of this was that the soup ran out and those remaining in the line received only a small slice of bread instead.
I could find no justification for this act. Perhaps they thought they were only cheating the Germans but actually they cheated their own. I said nothing about this to anyone, but it made me realize for the second time in a few days that the world is truly filled with all kinds of people. I did wonder if one of them was the man who had switched rifles with me.
That night we were on the March once again. It was December 24, Christmas Eve, and it was snowing lightly. I was now back with the main column but I could not find Schell and the others who had been with me earlier.
We walked all night and as dawn arrived the snowfall had stopped and we were in a small town which I believe was Mayen. Here we were herded into an area which looked very much like a shipping dock complex, roofed but open on one side.
Here for the first time the Germans conducted an actual count of us, separating us by units, 106th division men in one area, 7th and 9th Armored divisions men in another.
This place was most memorable by the theft of my overshoes. I was not wearing them but had carried them slung over my shoulder as had been recommended. In making a trip to the latrine I left them where I had been resting and upon my return they were gone. At the time I just shrugged it off as one more lesson learned. It was also a result of my being separated from the men of my own platoon. Again I looked for Schell and some others but in the huge mass of men stretched out in that shipping area I could not locate them.
Here we were given a ration of the German bread and I had a chance to refill my canteen with water.
That night we were again on the March.
Sometime in the night we reached the Rhine River and word passed down the column was that we were close to Koblenz. I was having trouble with diarrhea about this time seemingly from the German bread which rumor had it was made with a good part sawdust. I was not alone. All along the column men could be seen moving to the side of the road, dropping their pants and then moving on.
Toilet paper was a luxury that had come and gone.
We arrived in the outskirts of Koblenz at first light and then were directed to a large complex of three story buildings which were part of some kind of school or college. Before occupying the buildings some of the men were conscripted to moving the furniture out of the buildings into one storage area. The furniture mostly consisted of chairs and desks.
Fortunately I missed out on this detail. At this time physically I was worn down from the diarrhea and mentally from being separated from any one I knew. The day again had a heavy overcast and we considered ourselves fortunate to be indoors for a change.
We all just staked a spot on the floor of one of the rooms. I was on the third floor of the building and looking forward to some sleep. Early that afternoon the air raid sirens sounded. The German guards indicated that we were to move down to the cellar of the building which acted as an air raid shelter.
Most of the men moved out, I stayed put believing that not much would come of it all. I could not have been more wrong. Soon bombs were dropping and some quite close. About this time I decided to join the others below ground. I was on the landing of the second floor when I heard the sound of a descending bomb. I dived for the corner just seconds before it hit.
That quick action saved my life. The building was well constructed and each floor had double steel doors with chicken-like wire embedded in the glass for reinforcing. They were very popular in the U.S. as well and indeed my high school had similar doors.
The suction from the explosion tore those doors off their hinges. They came crashing down missing me by inches. Unhurt I jumped up and took the remaining flights of stairs down to the cellar at top speed.
There was a long corridor tunnel that went from one building to the next. I found a spot against one of the concrete walls there. The bombs continued to fall and the concrete at my back would tremble as in an earthquake.
Finally after the bombing was over we moved outdoors. The main buildings had not suffered a direct hit except the one building where all the furniture had been stored just hours before. There was nothing left of it.
This seemed to please some of our men greatly, especially those who had toiled moving the furniture into it.
As evening approached we were again formed up for the March. As we moved along the road we could see the effects of the bombing everywhere. Indeed we passed holes where houses had been and others that were now only shells. At some of these civilians were moving among the ruins trying to salvage what they could. As we passed some would pick up a handy loose brick to throw at us.
The German guards shouted on them to stop and they did so, used to obeying the orders of authority. In fact personally I could hardly blame them. After all we were the enemy, true not the ones that had destroyed their homes but symbolically culpable none the less.
That night March was very physically wearing for me and many others as well. We had not gotten much sleep or rest thanks to the bombing and we now left the Rhine River and Valley and moved over some headlands where the road climbed steeply in places.
Soon word passed down the column that we had a few newcomers. They were crewmen from B-17 bombers that had taken part in the afternoon raid and had been shot down. We learned that because of the heavy overcast the bombers had just used their radar and bombed without seeking individual targets.
The ones that joined us were the fortunate ones. Later as a POW I would watch raids and see the planes hit by flak and start their final plunge to earth. We would carefully watch for parachutes and cheer when we saw one.
Unfortunately hardly ever were more than two or three crewmen able to escape from the plummeting plane. And again by nightfall, if they had not been injured, often they would be new arrivals in the camp.
The March from Koblenz was a long one and it was well into the next day when we finally reached Lemberg. Like Gerolstein, Lemberg is a rail center and once again we were moved into box cars. The March was over and we would now ride, perhaps.
Once in the box cars red cross parcels were distributed, one box for every six men. This did not amount to much food. My share was half a tin of uncooked bacon and some biscuits. Fortunately I had filled my canteen at a creek en route sometime in the night.
Our guards for several days had been older men, some older than my father and I am sure the Marching was as hard on them as on us. Perhaps more so. They were in no way mean spirited and were very tolerant when men had to peel off for natural functions or in my case when I motioned that I would like to fill my canteen at the creek.
We were placed 40 men to each box car which was very much better than the 60 we had been forced to have at Gerolstein. I was unlucky in that I was placed in a car that had last carried coal and the coal dust was everywhere.
Before we left that car five days and nights later we all had coal dust ground into every inch of our clothes and physically we resembled nothing so much as a group of coal miners.
The one positive thing at Lemberg was that I was reunited with Bob Cline.
We had been together at Camp Chaffee as 18 year olds and moved on together to Camp Atterbury to join the 106th division and as luck would have it both of us were assigned to B Company, although in separate platoons.
Bob was from Flint, Michigan and when we managed to get a three-day pass from Camp Atterbury we both went to visit his parents in Flint. They were wonderful people and in many ways so like my own parents that it was almost like a homecoming for me as well.
Bob had an older brother who early in the War had volunteered and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. And he was now 'Missing In Action over Germany'. I am sure it must have been very difficult for Bob's parents, knowing that now a second son would soon be on his way to combat as well.
Not much can be written about the five days and nights we spent en route to Stalag IV in the box cars. It was very cold and it was during this time that I froze my toes on both feet. I had on regular G.I. shoes and was wearing only one pair of thin socks when captured. And after the long March they were rather the worse for wear. On the March I wondered why I had not thought to stuff an extra pair of socks or two into a coat pocket when we left our barracks bags behind before capture.
It was at this time that I missed the overshoes that had been stolen from me earlier.
It was very much a stop and go journey. We would roll some during the nights and generally be placed on some siding during the day. The doors of the box cars remained locked almost the whole time and one corner of our car was made the latrine. Thirst became the big problem for all of us. I had my canteen but many of the men did not.
Even with my canteen munching on raw bacon and bacon grease and dry biscuits created a very big thirst. I can remember only once, during one day when on the siding, men were allowed out of the box car a few at a time to drink from a nearby water pump.
Because the Allies ruled the skies I don't believe any German trains were moving during daylight hours at this time. It was probably for our own good that we remained on sidings until dark. Of course the cold would be more intense at night and the cars were unheated and quite drafty when we were moving.
We were all very relieved when we finally arrived at Stalag IVB one evening about 9 p.m. Here we were lined up for our official registering as Prisoners of War. And it was here that a chance meeting with a sergeant of the Royal Canadian Air Force helped Bob Cline and myself.
Seeing the blue uniform Bob Cline explained that his brother was in the RCAF and currently listed as missing. Did the Sergeant know him, or anything about him? The answer was unfortunately negative but the Sergeant did ask us our rank, which for both of us was Private First Class.
The Sergeant explained that as privates, under the Geneva Conventions, we could be required to work, while noncommissioned officers did not. So he requested our paybooks, which we were carrying, and on the spot promoted us to Corporals, grandly initialing our promotions with the name of our Company Commander, L.L.Littlejohn.
And it worked. When we finally reached the desk of the English speaking German Feldwaval or Sergeant we passed him our paybooks and were promptly entered as Corporals. We were also issued our POW dogtags. I still have mine which has only my number on it, #306050 and "Stalag IVB". Here we were also required to surrender any money which we might have on us.
Actually I had quite a bit. I had almost $120. on me in Occupation Francs and this I handed over and was given a receipt for the total amount.
I managed to hold on to this receipt the whole time I was a POW and upon my return sent it to the proper authority in the Army and was reimbursed.
The reason I was carrying that much money which amounted to about two months pay was the fact that I had been lucky in a poker game just before we left England. In fact I had won much more than that. At that time everyone was given a four day pass for London and since I had a good deal of the platoon's cash I loaned much of it to my fellow soldiers.
Of course I never got any of this money back with one exception. One soldier in my platoon handed me the $20 he owned me shortly after our capture.
Our processing at Stalag IVB also included a bath. And we certainly needed that. When we unloaded from our box car on arrival at Stalag IVB we were greeted with laughter from our men and German guards alike. With our black faces we were a sight to behold. In fact some of the German guards, laughed and shouted to us, "Schwartze", which is German for black.
While the bath did something to get us clean our clothes were another matter. As soon as we put back on those coal dust saturated things we were dirty again.
It was January 5, 1945. It had been a journey
of 17 days and nights, afoot and by rail to get us to
our present destination which was in the eastern part
of Germany. Stalag IVB was located at Muhlberg, south
Chapter 9 Stalag IVB
I never really had the opportunity to experience what life was like in a regular Prisoner of War camp. I was at Stalag IVB only a short time before I became very ill. Those first days, I recall we would stand parade morning and evening while being counted by a German guard. Then waiting for the one hot meal, served at noon, which was almost always rutabaga soup.
At the Camp we had been issued a tin mug which served for all eating and drinking purposes. Breakfast was a slice of that dark German bread and ersatz coffee, which had a taste that was certainly unique. The only thing that could be said for it was that it was hot.
Our barracks Sergeant had been a prisoner for some time and of course knew the "drill" very well. One day he had an interesting story to tell us of events that had taken place just a couple of months before.
Stalag IV was located next to a rail siding and one could see the siding through the tall barbed wire fences that surrounded the Camp. A long train of box cars arrived one morning in November in a cold driving rain. Soon guards opened the doors and women were herded from the cars and made to stand in the driving rain.
The ground was a sea of mud and many of the women were without shoes. Others dressed in only light summer dresses. None had anything except the clothes they were wearing however inadequate for the beginning of Winter. The women remained standing in the rain for some hours. Watching from the Camp American and British POWs became so outraged that they began shouting obscenities at the guards in both German and English. These were not the guards of Stalag IV but some that had arrived with the Train.
Somehow the POWs learned that the women were Polish and had been locked in the box cars for many days. The scene became uglier and had all the makings of a riot. After consulting with the POWs the American senior officer went to see the German Camp Commandant. He explained that Americans were not used to seeing women, any women treated in such outrageous fashion.
The American Officer explained that many of the men, both American and British, had volunteered to donate some of their own clothes to the women. To alleviate what could become a nasty, unwanted confrontation for both Germans and the POWs, he suggested that the men be allowed to pass over the clothing to the women and that they be moved out of the inclement weather as soon as possible.
The German Commandant saw the wisdom in this and it was done. This was no small offering by the POWs since all had only the clothes they were captured with and another winter was upon them.
No one seemed to know what the future held for
the Polish women once they were finally marched away
but the Sergeant guessed it was to be used as
Chapter 10 The Home Front
My Mother received the following telegram at 9 p.m. on January 13, 1945.
"The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son, Private First Class Joseph G. Hilbers Jr., has been reported missing in action since the 16th of December in Germany. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified" Signed Dunlop, Acting the Adjutant General.
A few days after our arrival at Stalag IVB we were given Red Cross Post Cards so we could communicate with our families back home.
I wrote my first "Kriegsgefangenenpost Postkarte" on January 10, 1945.
"Dear Mom and Dad, I am now a Prisoner of War. I am safe and well and I am uninjured. Try not to worry to much about me. Contact the Red Cross as to Food Packages and letters. I remain as always. Joey."
When this arrived at the Post Office in San Francisco it was for delivery the next day. However our Mail Carrier knew I was "missing in action" from the letters that were being returned to my Mother. So that evening he called my parents to read them the post card. I have always thought that was a most sensitive action on his part.
Besides the post cards we were also allowed to write short letters, again on a special style letter form that folded three ways. The first one that I sent is reprinted here and is postmarked in Germany as January 23, 1945.
"Dear Mom and Dad, I hope it wasn't to much of a shock for you when you received that telegram. It has been hard for me to think of you worrying when actually I have been safe and well all this time. I was captured with a large group of others. Cline was also captured but is also o.k. It is cold here but we aren't doing anything and are able to stay inside the barracks most of the time so it isn't so bad. We are being treated as well as can be expected. The chow is plain but we receive Red Cross packages which really help out. We are supposed to receive 1 package a week but sometimes we only get one to 4 or 5 men if the packages are slow in coming. Life is not so bad here. The days are short and time goes fast. I think and pray for you always. Home is actually all I think of. Here's hoping all this will be over soon. Love, Joey."
My mentioning Bob Cline in the above letter turned out to be most fortunate. My parents quickly sent a letter to Cline's parents in Flint, Michigan. It was the first word they received that Bob was alive and well rather than "Missing in Action." My folks also sent them a photo copy of the above letter.
It saved Bob's family a great deal of anxiety.
That started a correspondence between my Mother and Bob Clyne's Mother that lasted through the War and for a few years after as well.
The Government was very slow in giving my parents official word that I was a POW.
They received the following telegram on April 11, 1945. It read:
"The Secretary of War desires me to inform you that your son PFC Joseph G Hilbers Jr. is a prisoner of war of the German Government based on information received thru the Provost Marshal. Further information received will be furnished by the Provost Marshal." Signed Ulmo, The Adjutant General.
For the record let me include a few more of the post cards which I sent home. On January 25, 1945 I wrote two cards. The first read:
"Dear Mom and Dad, Hope you are well. I am O.K. Don't worry about me. The food here is plain but you can live on it. We are being treated O.K. Last week we received one Red Cross Package for seven men. Of course, the thing I miss most is food. Time goes fast here. I am not doing any kind of work. Don't forget I want letters and packages. Hope you went to the Red Cross. With love, Joey."
The second card written the same day, January 25, read:
"Dear Mom and Dad, I hope you have received the two cards and one letter I have written so far. I am well and I am getting along O.K. Of course I am waiting eagerly for a letter from you. I hope you did not have to wait to long before you found out I was a Prisoner of War. I can imagine what you went through. With love, Joey."
As it turned out I never did receive any letters from my parents or packages either. They sent some but they never arrived. At home they had received special letter forms from the Red Cross which looked little different from the ones I sent them.
All were returned stamped: "Returned to Sender By Direction of the War Department. Undeliverable as addressed."
The last card my parents received from me was dated February 9, 1945.
Everything I wrote my parents after January 10
was a lie since I was very sick for much of the time
past that date. I marvel now how I had the strength
to write as much as I did considering my physical
Chapter 11 A very sick soldier
One afternoon I started feeling very ill and took to my bunk. It was still early in January. During that night I had a really high fever. I recall that I would waken as from a dream and reach for my canteen. The ice cold water in the canteen would clear my head temporarily and then I would be back in a semiconscious state.
I had a hard time making roll call in the morning and our barracks Sergeant suggested I go on sick call. This I did and was finally ushered into a bare unheated room where an American medic took my temperature.
On reading this he told me to be seated until the doctor could see me.
Let me explain a little about Prisoner of War Camps. When at all possible you are under the control of your own senior officers or noncommissioned officers. Prisoner of War Camps of all nations work on this premise.
Services such as medical attention are also provided by one's own personnel, who are also prisoners, whenever possible. At Stalag IVB the medical staff, doctors and medics, were all from the 82nd Airborne Division, captured in the ill-fated Arnhem campaign championed by British General Bernard Montgomery.
The problem at Stalag IVB and probably most of the Camps during that period was a lack of medical supplies. The personnel were highly competent and trained but without basic medicines there was often little they could do.
When I did see the 82nd Airborne Doctor, his quick diagnosis was Lumbar Pneumonia. I was immediately moved from my barracks to what was termed the hospital, actually just another barracks with single bunks with the usual covered straw mattress. In the regular prison barracks the bunks were always double decked.
I remember little of the next week or so. I continued to have the high fever and the pain on my left side was such that I could not bear any pressure against it. I could eat almost nothing, certainly not that dark German bread ration.
The doctor came by each day and the medical orderlies faithfully took my temperature morning and night and recorded it.
I was just about as sick as one can be without dying. I was delirious much of the time and took little notice of what was going on around me. I could eat almost nothing. For the patients here breakfast was hot oatmeal, sometimes just with a dark coarse sugar, other times if Red Cross parcels were available, it was served with Klim, a powdered milk product which often was included in the parcels.
Somehow they knew I was Roman Catholic, although I do not remember telling anyone so. However religion is one of the things listed on Army dogtags. There was a French Priest that came by to see me a few times. He spoke only a few words of English.
Stalag IVB, like all the prison camps, had a thriving black market. The currency was cigarettes. I had only one thing I could sell and that was my watch. I gave it to one of the medics and asked him to trade it for whatever food products he could find. He came back with an American K ration chocolate bar. These were thick bars and supposedly full of high energy. He also had some cigarettes left over from the transaction and these I divided up with him evenly.
I remember nibbling on that chocolate bar, seemingly for days. It was the only thing I could keep down. My daily ration of German bread I could not touch so on one of the Priest's visit I told him to give it to others. By this time I had about five days worth stacked behind my head on the bunk and I had been too sick to even think of them.
One day, after the doctor's visit, one of the medics came by with a large mug of water and six tablets. He told me they were sulfonamides and the last six tablets they had. He carefully made me take all six with lots of water and told me I must drink plenty of water for the next few days.
Whether those six tablets were the difference between dying or getting well I do not know.
Drinking lots of water was no problem for me since my fever kept me constantly thirsty. And I still had my canteen. However it did make more work for the orderlies. GI steel helmets were used almost exclusively for bed pans and while I would do almost anything to keep from using one, some days during this period I was simply too weak to get out of bed.
About one third of the patients in our barracks-hospital had chronic dysentery and to accommodate their constant activity the barracks had a closed-in porch. On this porch was located a portable latrine which looked much like a sedan chair. Like a sedan chair it had long handles, both front and back, so it could be moved about.
The barracks had one stove which was at the opposite end of the room from me. The amount of fuel allotted to the barracks was rationed so that generally there was no heat at night. Remember it was mid January and very cold. To conserve heat the shutters would be placed over the windows during the night but this did not entirely solve the problem.
Because it was such a hardship on the men with dysentery to go out to that cold porch at night the moveable latrine was placed inside the barracks during those hours. There were a good many bunks in the barracks and the aisles very narrow.
The placing of the latrine therefore required a good deal of thought.
Logic dictated that it be placed among men who would object the least or whose condition was such that it really didn't matter.
Those men in the worst condition were in my corner of the barracks. I was among them sometimes lucid, sometimes in what I can only describe as a high fever induced stupor. So every evening at dusk the latrine would be placed next to the four bunks in my corner.
The odors, the noises, the constant comings and goings as well as the groans of men suffering the worse kind of intestinal cramps, I will leave to the reader's imagination. And all of this was taking place probably no more than three or four feet from where I lay.
At this time I could only lay on my back or right side because of the pain on my left side. Fortunately when laying on my right side I had my face to the wall.
The remarkable thing was that I was in such poor shape that I didn't care, complain or really give it much thought. It was just the way things were. Obviously they had selected the right place for the latrine.
It was about the middle of February when I finally was over the worse of the Pneumonia. The pain on my left side was slowing receding and while I was still running a fever nightly it was not nearly as high as before and I was again thinking clearly.
For a reason which was never explained orders came to move to a different barracks. By now, though very weak, I was able to move about from my bunk. On moving day an old four wheel wagon was provided for moving the men. Those that couldn't walk were placed in the wagon. I elected to walk, hanging on to one side of the wagon. It was pulled by the medics and some volunteers from the camp.
It was a raw winter day, overcast, snow on the ground and a cutting wind. I was wearing all my clothes including my overcoat and wool cap but still felt the cold keenly. We really did not have far to go. I would guess no more that two or three hundred yards but it seemed a long way that day.
Our bedding, we each had been issued two coarse fabric blankets, was moved for us. I remember that during that whole month I was completely dressed in bed except for my field jacket and overcoat which served as an extra blanket.
The new barracks could hardly be distinguished from the one we had just left except that it was larger and had upper and lower bunks. Perhaps the "hospital" had more patients and needed more space. This time I was assigned an upper bunk. The main result of this move is that my fever immediately climbed again. In fact I ran a fever every night for the next month.
However I was not as sick as before and I did have some appetite. In fact I really began to look forward to the oatmeal which we were still being served for breakfast as well as the bread and noontime soup which again was almost always rutabaga, occasionally turnip.
On Sundays we were given a thin potato soup. This was considered a real treat. At home I would never touch a turnip and I didn't even know what rutabagas were until I reached the prison camp.
As I pointed out earlier my clothes were still in a sorry state because of the coal dust. One day an Orderly suggested something might be done about it. Since I still had some cigarettes he said I could probably get someone to wash my clothes for me using the cigarettes as payment.
I readily accepted, and except for my overcoat, everything came off and was handed over for a much needed cleaning. I don't know for sure but believe it was a Pole or Russian who did the actual washing and received the cigarettes in payment.
Certainly he had a big job on his hands. My underwear was unspeakable and the longjohns no better. While all of this did not help my physical condition it did help my morale greatly. The month I was in this barracks I was in bed almost all the time getting up only infrequently for nature calls or sometimes the noon meal. I was still very weak and had no energy at all.
All this time in bed did one thing for me. It was the best possible treatment for my frozen toes. The blackness wore away and new nails could be seen growing but very slowly.
I lost a great deal of weight. When I was captured I weighed 160 pounds but after two and one half months I could not have weighed more than 125 pounds. It was very painful for me to lie in one position for very long because of my hip bones digging into me.
After one month at this location we were to be moved again.
The Russians were closing in and Stalag IVB would be
Chapter 12 Hospital at Leipzig
When the evacuation from Stalag IVB took place in March of 1945 I was still quite ill. My fever would still climb each night then drop to normal during the day. Moving about was very much of an effort.
Those of us from the hospital were loaded into the usual German box cars. We had no idea what our destination would be. The only efforts made for our well being en route was some straw on the floor. There were only about a dozen of us in each car. It was the last we saw of the American doctors and medics who had tried so hard to provide for us in the previous months.
I cannot remember much of this journey or how long it took. Only one incident stands out in my memory. I was still troubled with bouts of diarrhea. It was night and we were stopped at a siding once again. The door of our car was unlocked and partially open.
There was an old man with a rifle as our guard and he was standing alongside the tracks. I indicated to him that I had to relieve myself and he motioned me out of the car.
When I was finished I tried to climb back into the car but was too weak. Seeing this the guard called to the other men in the car to assist me. Two grabbed my arms to pull and at that moment I fainted.
I don't believe for long, maybe 30 seconds or so. When I again knew what was going on I was still being pulled from above. The guard seeing that this wasn't working called some men out of the next car and between them shoving and those above pulling I crawled back inside.
Our destination was Leipzig and we arrived there on a day that indicated that winter was receding. We were transported to a building quite close to the railroad tracks which appeared to be a two story factory. It had whole banks of metal trimmed small paned glass windows much like those seen in the U.S. during the same era.
Once inside we found ourselves in a real hospital. The whole second floor was one huge ward equipped, not with bunks, but real hospital beds with mattresses. The beds were also equipped with the mechanical apparatus to raise the patient to a sitting position.
After an examination by a doctor I was assigned one of these beds. This was a new doctor. He spoke English fluently but I never did learn his nationality. Here for the first time the doctor wore the familiar white jacket of his profession.. At Stalag IVB our American doctors were just in their uniforms during examinations or on their daily round visiting patients.
This place had served as a POW hospital for a long time before our arrival. It was well organized and the patients included both British and Americans. While at Stalag IVB almost all the patients were victims of disease of one kind or another. Here we had many with actual war inflicted wounds. This was especially true for the British and American airmen and more arrived during my stay there.
The food was somewhat better than I had experienced before but the portions were very small. I can only remember Red Cross parcels being distributed once or twice and then divided among five or six men. German transport was breaking down throughout the country making distribution of the Parcels ever more difficult.
I think this Hospital saved me. I was there only a short time when my fever disappeared for good and I was able to leave my bed and more around a bit. But we had some very sick people here. I became acquainted with an American soldier, my own age, who was only two beds away from me.
I believe he also had Pneumonia. He did not arrive with our group from Stalag IVB but was already in the Hospital when we arrived. He was very weak and when I was able to get out of bed I would go over to visit with him.
He was from Texas and a fine young man. But one morning I noticed that his bed was empty. The orderly explained that he had died during the night. I felt very badly about this although our acquaintance had been brief.
The most memorable thing that happened here was an air raid we experienced. The RAF, which always flew at night, staged a raid on the railroad marshaling yards adjacent to our Hospital. No effort was made to move us to a shelter. We just stayed in bed while the bombs exploded. We could see the flashes through the darkened panes of our factory style windows.
None of the bombs exploded close by but they did start a good many fires which brightened the whole sky. Then we had a tremendous explosion very close by that blew out many of the windows scattering glass over the beds and blankets of some of the patients. I was far enough away from the windows on that side of the building that no glass reached me.
Amazingly no one in our building received even a scratch from all that flying glass. Being tucked in bed under blankets had offered the needed protection.
The next morning two RAF airmen from that Raid
were in our Hospital. Both had received injuries from
hard parachute landings. One of the men revealed to
us that our Hospital was well known to the RAF, marked
on their maps as a POW site. The huge explosion was
from burning box cars filled with ammunition and
Chapter 13 The Hospice
About the middle of March a group of us from the Hospital were judged to have recovered enough to be moved. We were loaded onto a quaint bus that was actually powered by charcoal gases. This was one way the Germans coped with the fuel shortage that was now widespread.
The charcoal burning unit was in a small trailer attached to the rear of the vehicle. Surprising to us was the fact that it actually worked. We were driven to the outskirts of Leipzig on a fine sunny Spring day.
Our destination was a group of brick buildings located on a hilltop, surrounded by farm land. This was a Hospice for convalescing POWs. It was on this short ride that I met one of the finest men I ever encountered in all of my Army life. His name was John McGrath and he was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had been with the 9th Armored Division and his unit was one of many committed in the effort to hold St Vith. The effort failed and John was captured.
At our new home (if it had a name I never learned what it was) we were assigned to one of the buildings. They were not large but each was a complete unit. Outfitted as barracks they contained upper and lower bunks with each bunk being double width. Two men shared each of these double bunks. The room also included a long table with benches on both sides which would seat 14 or 16 men. Across from the table was a large iron stove.
Just inside the entrance to each barracks was the latrine and a wash room. Our barracks had bunks for 20 men. We were the late arrivals at this Camp. Here was a diverse group of men; POWs from Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the U.S. They even included a couple of Greeks who had fought with the British 8th Army in North Africa.
Most seemed to be in better physical condition than we late arrivals.
I was no longer ill but I was very weak and with the food we were receiving there was no opportunity to gain back any of the weight I had lost the last three months.
John McGrath was a tall man, over six feet, and like me, now would have made a good double for a scarecrow. He had also been very ill and was now in the convalescent stage.
John and I became partners and buddies in this Camp and shared the double bunk together. John was a good deal older than I, age in the early thirties, was married and had a young child at home.
With the double bunks this pairing of two men was the norm and developed some very wonderful friendships. In British Army slang such a close friend or buddy was a Mucker. And so John and I became Muckers.
With a good deal of time on our hands we soon learned almost everything about each other. Being older, John had gone through some tough Depression years when he first graduated from High School. And being older he also had many more experiences to relate than I did. For me there was little to tell. I went right from High School into the Army at the age of 18.
He had held a variety of jobs. One was with a collection agency and he had some very amusing stories about attempts to repossess automobiles from people that had missed their car payments.
I learned all about how he met his wife, Mildred, their courtship and their life together before the Army took him away.
The British soldiers in our barracks had their customary initial reserve but we found our roommates from the Dominions were much like ourselves. We were quickly accepted which was very necessary. In such a small barracks we were together 24 hours a day; sleeping, eating and using up the daylight hours in that one large room.
On sunny days that were heralding Spring we were allowed outside the barracks which were set in a small compound. Every morning we were mustered outside to be counted by a German guard. The whole compound was surrounded by a high wire fence but an escape attempt was a remote possibility for we all had physical infirmities of one kind or another.
One American soldier was an example of courage for all of us. He was blind. How this injury occurred I never learned since he was not in our Barracks. But in the Compound he was always cheerful and always smiling. A few of his fellow soldiers were with him, guiding him when exercising in the Yard. His demeanor in the face of such a disability was truly remarkable.
This Camp had a British Officer in nominal command but the Germans were more in evidence here. The German Officer commanding was the perfect cartoon caricature of a Prussian military person. He was very short in stature but strutted around our small Compound like he was The Kaiser reincarnated. He wore Cavalry boats which didn't just shine but positively gleamed.
The few times I saw him, when we were in the exercise yard, he always wore an expression of extreme displeasure and disdain which seemed to say, "Look what scum I am forced to command."
Some of our British comrades had been prisoners for years having been captured in the Fall of France or, in the case of a couple of our Canadians, in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid of 1943.
However their stories of Prison Camp life in the first years of their captivity were not bad. For one thing Red Cross parcels came regularly and included uniforms, blankets and other amenities besides food. And they kept a formal military atmosphere in their Camps.
There were no thefts in the Camps. Certainly I experienced none in any of the places I was kept. One Englishman did relate an interesting story of a thief at a former Camp. Things disappeared on a regular basis for some time but finally the thief was identified and caught.
After what amounted to a trial by other prisoners, it was decided to throw him in the latrine and lock him out of the barracks. In cases like this the Germans never interfered. They left policing of such incidents to the prisoners themselves.
In this incident the British commander alerted his German counterpart to what the punishment would be. The Thief had a rope tied around his waist to keep him from drowning in the muck. In he went and when pulled out was released.
It was during a period of inclement weather and all barracks were barred to him. He pleaded with the German guards but they ignored him. It was a lesson that demonstrated that theft of any kind would not be tolerated.
Our mattresses here were the usual straw stuffed into a porous type of rough cloth. It made a great home for both lice and bed bugs. It was the first time in my life I had ever encountered either of these critters. John and I were not alone with this condition of crawly things in our clothes and bites from the bed bugs each morning.
Aware of the problem the Germans gathered a group of us and marched us a short way to what looked like some kind of industrial plant. Here we were allowed to shower and our clothes placed in a room where they were blasted with high pressure steam.
This process did alleviate the problem with lice but nothing could be done about the bed bugs. The delousing of my clothes did have one unfortunate result.
On a leave in London I had with me a small fixed focus camera which used Kodak 828 size film. It is no longer used but then Kodak marketed it as a film, slightly larger than 35mm, in an eight exposure roll.
I used two rolls of film while on this 48 hour pass but there was no opportunity to ever get the rolls developed. And censorship forbid sending undeveloped film in the mail.
Unfortunately I forgotten the rolls were tucked in one pocket of my Field Jacket, or it may have been I did not realize just what the delousing technique would be. At any rate the result was that the two rolls of exposed film were irretrievably lost.
The camera I had thrown into the creek along with my rifle before walking up that hill to surrender. Later I regretted this action. If I could have kept the camera from the Germans it would have been saleable in the Prison Camp black market. Fortunately both John and I did hold on to our leather wallets while the delousing process was taking place. My GI gloves, which had leather palms, were in my overcoat pocket and became a useless shriveled mass from the super heated steam. As things turned out this was no loss.
This was a British POW Camp and we Americans were a small minority. John and I were the only Americans in our barracks. Some of the British soldiers had been in the peace time Army and were captured in 1940 when the Germans swept through France.
These men still continued their army routine and indulged in what John and I considered unnecessary "spit and polish". They took great pains with their clothes but then their uniforms were certainly in better condition than ours.
None of them ever said anything to John and I about our total lack of military bearings or physical appearance but I am sure that privately they thought us a couple of slobs.
We just dismissed their "spit and polish" as: "Well, what do you expect from someone in the Regular Army", privately of course. But also I think it was important to keep a routine when imprisonment extended for such a long period of time. And most of them were older. I was, by several years, the youngest man in our Barracks.
We never discussed the War. I think the British had talked themselves out on the subject years before. The only time the subject came up was if we learned that some German city or place name had been taken by British or American forces.
Food and what we would do when we were liberated were the main topics of conversation. No one ever talked about women. It is a fact that sexual thoughts and desires disappear completely in the mind and body of a starving man. This complete lack of sexual feelings was very disturbing, especially to the married men. Less so for me since I was single and had no one waiting for me at home. Anything pertaining to sex was the last thing on my mind during this period. We were all sexually impotent because of our physical condition.
All our waking moments, and our dreams too, centered around food. John and I would discuss fictional menus or what great meals we had experienced at home or at some restaurant.
A few books were available to us at this Camp. I recall I read James Hilton's "Random Harvest" and that the German censor had cut out a few pages. When I got home I read the book again and determined the censored pages concerned references to Hitler and war clouds that were gathering.
We did have a Church of England religious service on Sundays. John and I were Catholic but we always attended anyway.
Occasionally in this Camp we came in contact with French or Russian laborers from the surrounding farms. And they often had some type foodstuff to sell, usually just rough grains. And the currency was again cigarettes.
Some of our fellow prisoners would grind these grains to make a rough flour, mix it with water, add a bicarbonate of soda tablet and then bake it in the coals of our stove. The result was an extremely heavy bread-like substance often still with strange particles. Nonetheless it was a welcome addition to a diet of rutabaga soup.
John and I thought this an excellent idea. The only possessions we had left of any value were our leather wallets. We inquired as to how to go about selling these wallets for cigarettes and then in turn perhaps buy some of this rough grain. Some of our fellow prisoners, veterans of Camp Life, knew the drill and we followed through with the plan and the transaction was completed.
I cannot remember how many cigarettes we received for the wallets but it was enough to get us enough grain for three or four batches of homemade bread. I use the word bread loosely.
We had an English soldier in our barracks who was a wonder at making serviceable cups, pans, and plates from old tin cans. We bartered a couple of our cigarettes to buy one of his pans for baking and some free advice on how to grind our grain into a flour.
This project was a success, or at least we thought so. It certainly was good busy work. However I would not have recommended our bread to anyone who was not starving.
We were hungry all the time. The only thing we thought and talked about was food. In actual fact at this time we were receiving only enough food to keep us alive, barely.
For breakfast we would receive a thin slice of German dark bread and a cup of their infamous ersatz coffee. To go on the bread we were either given a very minute cube of margarine or a bit of a thick red jam which some of our old Prison hands said was made from beets. However I have never heard of beet jam, either before or after this experience.
Our main meal was at noon and was the inevitable rutabaga soup. For variation we sometimes had turnip soup. Occasionally potato soup which was considered a special treat.
Once John and I were assigned KP duty. On that day it was going to be potato soup. So as to waste nothing the cooks would half boil the potatoes and then our job was to scrape the skins off. Then the potatoes would be put back into the pot. Peeling the potatoes would have been too wasteful. We were told that it was the custom to give these scrappings to those on KP.
The skins had blemishes, eyes, spots of unidentified materials, but it did not matter. We ate them with great relish.
We did receive a few Red Cross parcels in this camp but they were divided between so many men that each received a very small portion. If the package contained the powdered milk called Klim, that was saved for the general mess. One thing we did receive each day was a steaming mug of English tea served with the Klim powdered milk in English fashion.
I developed a taste for tea mixed with milk and continued to drink it English style for many years after.
All John and I possessed were the clothes we were wearing when captured. Sorely missed at this camp was a towel and there was no way of obtaining one.
Spring had arrived so we decided to cut off the legs of our longjohns at the knees, sew them together and we would have something for drying after our daily wash.
A knife was borrowed from the kitchen to cut the underwear. Then we found a kindly soul who allowed us to use his sewing kit. Our stitches left a lot to be desired but it was functional and we were pleased with the result.
We picked up a good deal of English Army slang from our roommates. The English called rutabagas 'Swedes'. I have no explanation for this name. In Scotland rutabagas are often called 'Neeps'.
We had a very talented English cartoonist in this barracks. In his travels through POW Camps he had managed to keep his sketching paper and a tin of water colors. His cartoons always pertained to Camp life. Two I remember to this day.
In one he depicted a diner, in formal attire, sitting at a table lavishly set with a waiter placing before him a magnificent game bird with all the trimmings. The diner tells the waiter: "Damm it, I ordered Swedes."
Another cartoon depicted a bride and groom standing in front of the Minister at the Alter. The Minister is saying: "Do you take this Mucker...".
One memorable incident in this Camp was how we received some news from home and the progress of the war. It was a warm sunny day and we were all outdoors in the Compound. A huge formation of B 17 bombers flew overhead, streaming contrails at their thirty thousand feet height. As they reached Leipzig the flak became intense and we saw at least two of the planes receive hits and start their plunge to the ground.
We watched for parachutes and saw at least two had managed to escape from one of the planes. That afternoon one American, a waist gunner, was brought to our Camp to begin his life as a POW. He was unhurt and very grateful to be alive. Many of his crew had not been so fortunate.
He did have a harrowing experience as he landed. A group of German farmers gathered around him with their shovels and pitchforks and acted in a very belligerent manner. Fortunately for him German soldiers arrived on the scene at that moment and chased the farmers away.
He had been in the U.S. just two weeks before. His crew had flown their bomber to Britain and the raid over Leipzig had been their first operational flight. He was able to give us an up-to-date picture of how the war was going for both the Allies and the Russians.
He was also a fresh link with Home. A few days later he was whistling a tune in the Compound and we asked him what it was. His reply was: "You haven't heard 'The Trolley Song'? "Ding, Ding, Ding goes the Trolley, Clang, Clang, Clang goes the bell". He explained that it was currently Number One on the Hit Parade from the movie, "Meet Me In St. Louis", with the song being sung by Judy Garland.
It was enough to make John and me very homesick. We did receive word that President Franklin Roosevelt had died. This of course was big news on the German radio and was relayed to us by the German guards.
The British soldiers, always ones for formality, made it a special point to pass on their condolences to us Americans on the loss of our leader and Commander In Chief. This was on April 12, 1945.
If we had not been so hungry at all times this Camp could not be called a bad place. No one was ever mistreated in any way. And considering we had a mix of so many different nationalities and cultures we got along together very well.
With the exception of that Ass of a German Commander, our German guards were correct and often friendly. Of course they all knew that, with the way the war was going, in a very short time our roles would be reversed.
About this time we received word that the American Army was very close
and should reach us in a few days. You can imagine our excitement and anticipation at this news.
Chapter 14 Liberation
April 17, 1945 started as any other day for us. We had our usual morning roll call and breakfast. However word soon spread throughout the Camp that the German Commander had packed up and left. This word could only have come from the disgusted German guards.
About 10 a.m. some unwelcome shells screamed overhead to explode just beyond us. The Germans immediately moved us, and themselves as well, to a long ditch which was roofed with timbers. These supported the dirt that have been removed from the ditch.
Until the shells started exploding I did not know it existed. It had been made as an air raid shelter. And its existence saved our lives.
Soon the shells were on target exploding in the Compound. For us it appeared that we would killed on the day when liberation was so close. For myself I brooded that I had gone through much for it to end like this. It seemed an eternity but the shelling finally ended. For us POWs it was a 15 minute nightmare. Later we learned that a German Feldwaval or Sergeant from our Camp resided with his family in the Village below the Camp. It was he who informed the Americans that they were shelling a POW Camp.
With the shelling stopped some American soldiers appeared and for us the war was over. Upon leaving the shelter we could see that nothing was left of our barracks. Made of brick they were now a heap of rubble.
This was disturbing to some of our room mates since they had kit which they would have liked to have kept. For John and me it meant nothing. We left nothing behind in that rubble except memories.
Rather indignantly we inquired on what the shelling was all about. Did the Compound look like a military target? A Second Lieutenant explained that they were just dropping 81 MM mortar shells ahead of their advance to discourage German resistance.
Free men at last John and I walked down the hill to the small farming community which up to now we could only look at from a distance. We soon were talking to American soldiers who were from the 28th Division. This was the very Division we had relieved in the Ardennes four months before.
Some of them said it was lunch time. It was about noon, and invited John and me to join them. They opened a box of ten-in-one rations. These were new to John and me. They were the latest field ration replacing the K and C rations were the subject of much griping by soldiers everywhere.
The soldiers just moved into one of the German houses and took over the kitchen for lunch. This made John and I rather uncomfortable. We were not used to going into someone's house uninvited or acting as conquerors. We never saw the owners, and assumed they had fled before the Americans arrived.
That lunch was a banquet for John and me while our hosts asked countless questions about how it was being a POW and our treatment from the Germans. It was very hard to keep from overeating but in truth our stomachs limited our intake of food for many days.
The men of the 28th did a thorough job of "liberating" shotguns, cameras and other items from the Village and there was now an impressive pile of this merchandise. The soldiers told us to help ourselves if there was anything we wanted.
John and I looked at it and took nothing. At this time we had no interest in material things.
Soon we were informed that some trucks had arrived to take the American POWs to a rear area. Similar transportation was provided for our British friends who would be handed over to British Army authorities.
I don't believe we even had time to say good-by to our barracks mates or the soldiers who had hosted us for lunch. But that is the way in the Army in wartime. One meets people, often forms close friendships and the next day either you or they move on.
Much to my embarrassment I could not climb onto the back of the truck by myself. I did not have enough strength and needed a boost from on looking soldiers. It did not take much effort on their part. A few days later on a scale I weighed 124 pounds.
The trucks took us to a German airfield. All the installations at this airport had been reduced to rubble but the landing field was intact. We were told C 47s, the military version of the DC 3, would arrive the next day to fly us to France. After a day that was filled with excitement, personal danger and a myriad of new experiences John and I were exhausted.
The two of us stuck together like glue. Adjacent to the airfield was an empty German army barrack and we spent the night there. There was also an American Army camp close by. Thinking of food as usual we wandered over to the field kitchen. Here we struck gold. John struck up a conversation with the Mess Sergeant and it turned out they both were from Milwaukee.
The Mess Sergeant then had one of the cooks whip up some pancakes for us with big mugs of coffee. To us those pancakes tasted like the finest of pastry.
Back at the Barracks, which seemed to be a gathering place for a polyglot of languages and nationalities, someone had discovered a whole case of canned horse meat. The others were soon at work on these large sized cans. John and I were invited to participate in what the rest considered a feast.
We each had a taste of the horse meat, mostly out of curiosity, but it fared poorly compared to the pancakes which we had devoured. I found the meat to be coarse in texture and rather sweet in taste.
The next morning we were told that the planes would arrive in the afternoon. Being free men John and I looked for someway to spend the morning.
This barracks had a stable with some horses. John and I decided to ride the horses to explore the neighborhood. We and the horses were a good fit. They were just as anemic and emaciated looking as we were. With no padding on our posteriors the ride cannot be described as comfortable. Probably not for the horses either. The region surrounding the airfield was farmland with a few houses scattered about.
But it was on this ride that I saw the largest shell hole I could ever imagine. The shell or bomb had landed in a field and did no damage but the crater was immense. Two large size houses could easily have fit into it.
Our morning ride completed we again took advantage of the Mess Sergeant's hospitality for some more pancakes. He and John traded addresses and agreed they would meet in Milwaukee after the war was over.
The planes arrived about noon and we were soon winging our way to France. Our flight was uneventful and we landed somewhere close to LaHavre.
Here we were again put on trucks with a camp called Lucky Strike as our destination.
The lack of padding on our rear ends dictated that we stand in the bed of the truck rather than sit. The canvas was off the bed of the truck and we enjoyed views of the French countryside on a cloudless Spring day. As we passed through French villages we would wave to the people and they would shout greetings in French. We couldn't understand the words but did the meaning.
Camp Lucky Strike had been prepared to receive liberated POWs and was called a Repatriation Center. The next day we had the opportunity to shower and then were issued new clothing and a toilet kit. What a wonder this was. After four months I could finally dispose of that one pair of socks I had on when captured.
Our first meals of regular GI chow proved to be a disaster for almost all us POWs. Our stomachs and bowels were not used to real food and everyone soon had the worse possible cases of diarrhea. However the American medics were alert to this problem and gave everyone a bottle of paregoric with instructions to use as needed.
For some days after this soldiers could be seen, at all times of day and night, taking a swig from a bottle, and the bottle contained paregoric.
I expected to meet some people from my own platoon or company at Camp Lucky Strike but I didn't. The last time I saw Schell or any other members of my squad or company was on the March from Gerolstein. The one exception was when I was reunited with Bob Cline at Stalag IV. Then I became ill, went to the hospital, and never saw Cline again either.
I did have one unusual meeting at Lucky Strike. For latrines we had slit trenches, which the men straddled. When finished you kicked some dirt into the trench to cover up. Empty number 10 cans were used to cover the toilet paper if it rained.
Those first days, even with the paregoric, I had to make a good many trips to this trench. The officers had their own trench which was parallel to ours. Looking up while squatting I recognized the First Lieutenant from 82nd Airborne, who had been my doctor at Stalag IV. He was also squatting.
He smiled and said: "Well, I see you made it", paused and then said, "I didn't think you would". I said: "Yes Sir, I guess I have you to thank for being here."
That was all. We finished our business and each of us went his separate way.
John and I were still inseparable. Until our pay records could be gathered all the ex-POWs received $20 to buy personal items at the PX. Besides the PX there was always gambling going on--a crap game which never stopped. John and I decided to pool our resources, all $40, and try our luck.
About 15 minutes later we left the game broke. We just laughed about again having empty pockets. Nothing could dampen our spirits at this time.
At Camp Lucky Strike we were allowed to write letters home. During my months as a POW I had managed to keep some air mail stamps, which at the time cost 8 cents. Regular mail was free for all servicemen during World War II.
Using one of these well traveled stamps I wrote my parents. I will only reprint the first paragraph of this letter.
"Dear Mom and Dad, Well, here I am--a free man once more. After 120 days of PW life it sure is good to get some of that GI chow. Don't worry about me. I have lost some weight but outside of that I am O.K. Yesterday was quite an experience for me. (The next sentence was cut out of the letter by the censor). I should have a lot to say but somehow I haven't."
This letter was written on April 21, postmarked in New York on April 25 and was the first word my folks received that I was out of Germany and back in American army jurisdiction.
It wasn't until May 10 that my parents were officially notified that I had been freed from a POW Camp. The Telegram read as follows:
"The Chief of Staff of the Army directs me to inform you your son Private First Class Joseph G. Hilbers Jr. is being returned to the United States within the near future and will be given the opportunity to communicate with you upon arrival. J.A. Ulmo, The Adjutant General."
Chapter 15 Homeward Bound
We were only at Camp Lucky Strike a few days. Then trucks took us to the port at LaHavre and we boarded a Class 3 transport for our return to the U.S.
During the war years American shipyards built thousands of these ships which carried much of the material of war and personnel both in Europe and the Pacific.
Our 'accommodations' were much the same as I experienced aboard the Aquitania en route to Europe. But on this ship the food was much better. The bunks were the same, canvas for a mattress and stacked two high in the hold of the ship.
Our trip across the Atlantic had a few memorable moments. We were in a convoy with many ships and in mid ocean encountered a late arriving winter storm. For most of us this was our first experience with the fury of a North Atlantic storm.
For two days we were not allowed on deck because of the high waves and furious winds. Down below many were sick. To escape all this misery I found a place on a staircase landing beside a bulkhead and a door leading to the deck. And often John would join me. We had found a deck of cards and would while away daylight hours in this fashion. As I did outward bound on the Aquitania, I spent much of the 10 day voyage in this one spot.
One day during the storm one crewman opened the door and seeing me asked if I wanted to take a quick look outside. The answer was yes and as I stepped out I could see only one other ship of our convoy. It was a oil tanker and as it took the big waves water would rush over its bows almost half its length.
Our ship, being empty of cargo except for us POWs, bounced on the waves with much noise and vibration.
We were still in mid ocean when we received the news that the Germans had capitulated and the war in Europe was at an end. It was May 8, 1945 and VE day. On our ship the news was received calmly and without any visible celebration. For us POWs the war had ended on the day we were liberated.
As I wrote in another chapter the physical deterioration we had experienced made us sexually impotent. Even the normal erection which takes place during sleeping hours no longer occurred. And ejaculations which sometimes take place during sleeping hours disappeared as well.
With the vitamin capsules we received and the regular diet of GI chow these lamentable infirmities began to correct themselves aboard ship. Each morning there would be some cries of "Hallelujah" or "Wahoo" from some of the bunks. And we all knew the reason for the exclamations of joy.
After making landfall in New York we boarded a train that took us to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Here we had a Pay Day, were issued new clothes and had the opportunity to contact loved ones.
I sent the following telegram to my parents:
"Back in States, feeling fine, furlough soon. Love, Joey"
One incident occurred here of interest. There was a real barber shop at the Camp and John and I went there for the "works"; a shave, haircut and shampoo. During the shampoo my hair was coming out in the handfuls much to the distress of the barber. In fact this loss of hair was the result of having a fever for two months.
Personally I was unconcerned about my rapidly approaching baldness. At the time I just believed it a small price to pay when compared to what had happened to so many others, in combat or as a POW.
In actual fact my hair did grow back much to the relief of my parents.
It was here that John and I finally parted. As things turned out the parting was forever but at the time neither of us believed this. Traveling orders came through for us. John and a group, all from the Midwest, left on one train. Those of us from the West Coast on another.
Our train took five days to reach California delivering us to Camp Beale which was near Sacramento. The antics of some of us, now ex-POWs, on the train trip was rather amusing. At every stop there would be a general rush to find the nearest candy shop, bakery or grocery store.
It was very difficult to change a mind set that for months, and in some cases years, had focused on getting enough to eat. It took some time to come around to the realization that now all the things that prison camp dreams were made of was now readily available.
Our stay at Camp Beale was short and we soon had orders giving each of us 30 day leaves. Several of us, all bound for San Francisco, boarded a Greyhound bus which also had civilian passengers. Two of our number had been into a bottle of whiskey and became quite boisterous and disorderly and were still using "barracks" language.
One elderly woman complained to the Driver and he was going to order our drunken companions off the bus. Another soldier and I pleaded their case to the complaining woman and the Driver. We told them that they had been Prisoners of War and had been subjected to experiences that the average American civilian could not even imagine. And that their families were expecting them.
We didn't approve of their conduct or condone it but asked for some tolerance. Our plea on their behalf had the desired effect and they were allowed to remain on the bus.
Arriving in San Francisco I jumped aboard a
"K" Streetcar on Market Street, transferred to the
#10 Muni Bus, walked two blocks and pounded on my
folks front door. I was home.
Chapter 16 Homecoming
It was May 1945 and some of the young warriors were coming home. Bernard Webster and I grew up together, attending the same grammar school and the same church.
Only when I got back from Germany did I learn he also was a member of the 422nd Infantry, 106th division. He was in Company K and it was his Company that we watched across the Valley receiving tree bursts from 88mm Tank fire. He was one of those wounded that day.
He was hit by shrapnel high on the inside of his thigh. He and the rest of his Company were soon prisoners. He was taken to a German aid station with other wounded Americans. They laid there, wounded Americans and Germans side by side. The German doctors attended to them strictly on the seriousness of the wound making no distinction between friend or foe.
Other of my boyhood friends were also coming home. Jack Longmire lived across the street from me and we were good friends. He was a year older. He was a tail gunner on a B 17 at a time when casualties in the 8th Air Force in England were as high as 80 per cent. He arrived home the same time I did.
A crew had to complete 25 combat missions before being relieved and sent back to the U.S. In 1943 and early 1944 not many crews achieved that goal.
Jack's crew were on their 23rd mission over Germany when they were hit by flak. The plane had two dead engines and the pilot realized they could never get back to England. This raid had taken them deep into Germany so the decision was made to fly to Sweden.
The plane made a crash landing in Sweden but the 10 member crew was unhurt. Sweden was neutral in World War II and crews like Jack's were interned for the duration of the War.
Other of my high school friends were also on leave. Dave was a sailor on a destroyer which suffered a Kamikaze attack off Okinawa.
Bob was a Marine who had been wounded during the invasion of Saipan.
At this time none of us had reached our 21st birthday and we were all still single.
I'm sure our leave was no different than about 10 million others in 1945. I learned to drink scotch on this leave and found women as unfathomable as ever. For our parents, while happy to have us back safe and in one piece, I believe they viewed the changes that had taken place in each of us with apprehension and a lack of understanding.
We had changed. We were very reticent with civilians when talking about our war experiences. I am sure our fathers found this trait to be very frustrating.
Among ourselves it was a different story. We shared our experiences
truthfully and without any false bravado. We knew the true meaning of fear and terror and were not ashamed to admit it to each other.
Jack told how the ever increasing losses of bombers over Germany affected the men. Morale was at a low point and the airmen no longer made friends other than their own fellow crewmen. Losing friends became too painful. With every loss of a B 17 in their squadron or group they could see their own future fate.
Bob described to us in great detail the hell storm that greeted the Marines when they landed on Saipan. They lay there with their bodies pressed to the sand as the Japanese poured fire from every conceivable weapon at them. Some cried, others whimpered. He accepted his wound, almost with relief, as an escape from hell.
The Kamikaze that struck Dave's destroyer did not sink the ship. By sealing off some compartments damage was controlled. Unfortunately some of their fellow sailors had been trapped and died in these compartments. When it came time for repair parties to enter these places the carnage was complete. Okinawa is in the tropics and the heat made the job of removing the decomposing bodies a trying chore. Two of Dave's fellow sailors broke down mentally from the task and had to be sent home.
While on leave I learned that Bob Cline had been liberated and was on his way home as well. His mother sent us a clipping from the local Flint newspaper telling of his release.
The clipping is dated Wednesday, May 1, 1945.
"Pvt. Robert M. Clyne, 19, captured by the Germans Dec. 16 in the battle of the Belgium bulge, has been liberated by Allied troops in Germany.
"His parents, Mr. and Mrs. E. J. Clyne, received three letters from him Tuesday. One, dated April 19, said he would celebrate Christmas, New Year's and Easter all at once when he gets home. He was freed from Stalag VIII-A at Gorlitz.
"He said he was in a hospital, but it is not known whether he was wounded before he was taken prisoner. Pvt. Clyne wrote that the first thing he had to eat when victorious Allied troops overran the camp was doughnuts and coffee "something I had dreamed about."
Bob Clyne was not wounded before capture and when I saw him last at Stalag IVB he was still in good physical condition.
Later we learned that Bob Clyne was a patient at Battle Creek Military Hospital. Like so many of us, he became ill while a prisoner.
At home Bernie and I, through friends, met two other ex-members of the 106th division. Like us they were 19 years old and went into the Army directly from high school.
We were a group of peers and spent much of our leave together sometimes with girls if we could find them.
Now and then something would occur which would bring back unpleasant memories. Four of us took up golf. In San Francisco city owned golf courses allowed servicemen in uniform to play free. This was all the incentive we needed.
We were terrible golfers but with our carefree attitude the scores did not matter. We would just hit the ball as far as we could. One day we were walking down a fairway, all four of us in a group, when suddenly a sprinkler came on. A large stream of water came directly at us and we scattered like quail with every man for himself.
In a sobering moment we realized we had reacted exactly the same as when hearing the scream of an incoming artillery shell. It was every man for himself with no time or thought for anything but survival. Afterward we laughed about it and continued to play our usual game with scores generally hovering around 120.
Bob Clyne was the only member of my Company I had any contact with upon arriving home. I received a letter from him dated June 29, 1945. He was home at last but reported he was having some trouble getting "into the swing of things". He did report on a couple other members of our Company that he had corresponded with. One had been wounded in the legs and was getting a medical discharge.
Another, Walt by name, was home and had written Bob about his liberation by the Russians. Evidently many POWs remained at Stalag IVB and were not moved west as I was. Walt reported he was freed when four Cossack Guardsmen rode into the Camp.
Since no members of my Squad were named in the Casualty Lists I received from the Adjutant General I have always assumed they returned safely to the U.S.
I believe you have to be of my generation and only through actual experience appreciate the wonderful togetherness the American people had during those war years.
When my folks learned from my POW post card that Bob Clyne was captured with me they immediately sent a letter to his family in Flint, Michigan. However they did not have the family address so sent it to the attention of the Flint Postmaster.
He immediately called the Clyne family and they went to the Post Office to pick up the letter. I still have the letter the Post Master sent to my Mother telling her that the letter had been delivered to the Clyne family and also the correct mailing address for future correspondence.
During the War there was rationing at home. Gasoline, butter, sugar, meat and shoes were all rationed with each person getting a number of ration stamps each month.
When I returned from Germany almost everyone my parents knew gave some of their own ration stamps "to fatten up the poor ex POW" And this was true for the other soldiers that were coming home. In our house there was no shortage of butter or bacon or any of the other rationed items thanks to the generosity of friends and relatives.
Gasoline was a little harder to come by since we returning warriors were constantly out and about in some luckless parents' automobile. Once in desperation we added kerosene to the gas. As I recall it produced an unhappy effect on that particular automobile's engine.
Four of us back from the wars were graduates of Lincoln High School in San Francisco. One of us knew a girl that was still attending school there. So one day all four of us decided to visit the school.
At the school the Principal invited us to his office and asked what we had been doing and where we had been. I should mention here that when I was attending school my visits to the Principal's office were never that friendly.
Anyway he decided to call a Noon Rally for the whole Student Body as a means of welcoming some old Grads home. At the Rally we all said a few words about where we had been, keeping it as light and carefree as possible. I said something about how wonderful it was to receive the "Lincoln Log", the school newspaper, during my service overseas. I recall one issue followed me from camp to camp and was about six months old when I finally received it.
The Rally was nice but what we were really there for was to meet some girls. Bernie found the girl he knew and soon had the rest of us lined up for dates as well.
We decided to go all out and take our dates to what was then a famous restaurant in San Francisco called "Roberts At The Beach". It was a gala evening for the eight of us with the girls, all quite pretty, dressed in their finest and we of course in our best uniforms complete with combat infantryman badges and rows of ribbons. I don't believe any of us had been to the restaurant before since it was expensive and normally beyond our means.
When it came time for the check to arrive the waiter announced that the gentleman two tables away had picked up our check and wanted us to be his guests.
He had grey hair and his wife did too. To us they seemed old. A couple of us went over to his table to thank him. He said it was just a way to show appreciation for what we had done for our country and those at home. His wife complimented us on the lovely young women we had with us.
Chapter 17 It was a tough war for all of us
I made some good friends in basic training at Camp Callan and I kept up a correspondence with at least of couple of those that remained in antiaircraft artillery and were shipped to the South Pacific.
One of these friends was Nolan. My nickname was Scaff and his was Snaff. I do not remember how these nicknames came into being at Camp Callan.
He was a very good at writing letters and I am including two letters here in their entirety. They show that it was not an easy war for any of us. The first letter was written under censorship so he was very restricted on what he could say. The first letter is dated August 2, 1945. The second September 6, 1945 and was written from the Ryukyu Islands after the Pacific War was over and there was not longer censorship.
As a general rule the enlisted men's letters were censored by their own officers, most often as not by their Platoon leader. To mask where overseas soldiers actually were all mail was addressed to assigned APO numbers.
"You old son of a gun. I've been wondering all these months what in the heck happened to you and here all of a sudden I turn up with a letter from you saying you had been captured.
"I wrote you several letters but never received a letter from you. I am so glad that you are O.K. now and are at last free I'll bet it was pretty tough. I've heard a lot about their prison camps.
"As for myself I've been overseas going on two years now and have four campaign stars in my ribbons. I have been almost all over the Pacific. I can't count all the islands I've been to. I've been to such places as New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Guadalcanal, Guam, Mannus, Leyte and several others.
"At the present time I am here in the Ryukyu Islands and have been since we first invaded the islands. I got my fourth battle star here. To me it was the toughest battle I was ever in. I had some pretty close calls.
"I know we would have some very interesting experiences to tell. I'm still going to make that trip to see you when this thing is over. Does the
invitation still hold good?
"We aren't doing much these days now that we have all the wreckage cleaned up and have built us a nice camp. This island is typical Japanese. The people must really believe in building tombs by the way they have built them here. You can hardly walk without running into one. The tombs are all full of Jars with bones in them. There are a lot of horses and goats here. The people are very short, averaging about five feet in height.
"For entertainment we play baseball and we go to the show at night. Say you fellows in Europe really had it on us as far as girls and places to go and sights to see. There is none of that over here. Next time you write tell me about some of the things you did while you were overseas.
"I could tell a lot of things but I'm still under strict censorship. You know how it is when you are overseas. Greenwood and Snow are still with me. Will was with us until last December when he was called back to the States to go to Annapolis. He finally ended up in the Navy.
"Sam Straus is in the Philippines, Nicholls in the New Hebrides and Leffen is in New Guinea. I've lost track of a lot of the fellows. These are just the ones I write to.
"Well Scaff old boy I'm sure glad they didn't knock you off. Take good care of yourself and write me soon. Thanks for the picture. I would send you one but I've never been where you could have one made. I hope to see you before long."
September 6, 1945
"I received your very interesting letter today and was glad to hear from you again. It also happened that they did away with censorship today and we can write what we want without letters being cut into paper dolls. All we do now is write a letter, seal it and drop it in the box.
"Well since you told me about your experiences I will begin and tell you mine. I left the States on May 7, 1944 and went straight to New Caledonia, the trip taking 25 days. When we got there we were put in a staging area where we were classified, briefed, etc.
"It was while I was waiting in this area to go to an outfit that they got me for temporary duty on a switch board. I pulled a few strings and got Greenwood, Snow and Will on with me." (These were good friends, all of us 18 years old, at Camp Callan.)
"Well, we did this for two months and finally one day they loaded us on a troop ship and said we were assigned to the 77th Infantry Division. It was with this outfit that I got all my battle stars." (In an earlier letter he told me he had four battle stars.)
"I was in a 40 MM outfit but we have small light guns built so we can move in with the infantry. We were the only AA outfit in the Pacific that was perfected to land in the assault waves and used as AA and infantry. Before it was over we had shot down 110 planes, second highest for a 40 MM battalion in the Pacific.
"Anyway we left New Caledonia on August 1, 1944 and we went to the New Hebrides Islands where we stayed for three days, then we were off again. This time we went to Guadalcanal staying there about a week. We then moved on up to the Marshall Islands.
"It was here that I first saw part of our large fleet. After being at Eniwetok for two days we then moved on. After we left we were attacked several times by subs and planes. But they didn't get a ship only some close
"On August 28 we arrived at Guam. Most of the fighting was over when we got there but we were in combat ten days before the Island was secured. During my stay on Guam we went on patrols and hunted out Japs from caves, etc.
"I was on Guam about a month then we got orders to move all of a sudden. Immediately we were loaded on ships and set sail, not knowing where. After being at sea for about 15 days they said we were going to a rest camp in New Caledonia.
"I almost fainted when I heard this because it hadn't been long since I came from New Caledonia and there was nothing there of interest. But when we were about three days from New Caledonia our orders were changed. We turned around and started in the direction of New Guinea..
"After several days we anchored at an island off the coast of New Guinea called Mannus. Here we all went ashore and got two beers and a can of peanuts. This was supposed to have been a fleet recreation center.
""Staying at Mannus only one day we started out again. By now we knew we were going to the Philippines. They had just landed at Leyte and things were going bad for our side. MacArthur ordered our division to come at once to reinforce the troops there, even though we had just been in combat.
"We were on ships and could be rushed there the fastest so they took us. We landed on Terragova Beach, Leyte on November 23. This beach had been cleared of Japs so we went ashore, reorganized and prepared for a surprise assault landing behind the Jap lines on the other side of the Island.
"On December 6 we loaded on LCI's, (Landing Craft Infantry), and started for the other side of Leyte for the assault. On the morning of December 7, 1944, landing early, we caught the Nips by surprise and were all over them before they knew it. But soon they gained their footing. For the next two months we had it pretty tough but finally beat them.
"By the way during all of our operations we never captured but 197 prisoners. The Japs always fought to the last man. The name of this place where we made this landing was called Ormac.
"After being at Ormac for two months we again loaded on LCI's and came around on the other side of the Island. This time we just knew we would go to a rest camp but to our surprise we immediately started packing our equipment for another invasion.
"In three weeks we were ready and began loading the boats on March 3, 1945. We were off again and this time we had an idea of how tough it would be because there no other place to go except the Jap home land or adjoining Islands.
"We, the 77th division, was selected to lead the way for the Ryukyu
Islands invasion and from March 26 to 30 we took ten little islands called the Karema Retto group. In these little islands the Japs had suicide boat harbors and our objective was to capture these before the main force moved in.
"After we captured these islands we loaded back on ships again and floated around until April 16. Then we invaded IE Shima where Ernie Pyle was killed. I saw him a few hours before he was killed. It took us ten days to take IE but it was tough. The island is only five by two miles and the Japs had 16,000 men here. When we finished we went over to Okinawa to help out there and after the battle we moved back here on IE.
"I guess you didn't have the suicide tactics over there. The Japs really went in for that and they did crash dive a lot of our ships. I almost got killed in the Philippines by a crash dive and when we came here almost got it several times on March 27.
"They hit our ship and I got a slight cut in my forehead but the Navy Doc fixed me up with four stitches. I also got a back fracture by a bomb in the Philippines but I'm in good shape now.
"There isn't much doing here now that the war is over. The guys really had it lucky in the ETO as for women and towns. This is no lie. I haven't seen but three white women in 18 months and the only town I've seen was Noumea, New Caledonia. There just aren't any towns on these rotten islands."
Since I was from San Francisco Snaff was going to meet me when he returned to the States but it didn't happen. As likely as not when he returned to the U.S. they shipped him home to Texas as quickly as possible.
My best friend at Camp Chaffee was Frank Gordon, called often as not Junior, who was actually quite close to home in Arkansas. He had kin folk in neighboring Oklahoma and his folks in Texas came up one weekend to visit and I had the opportunity to meet them.
I went with him to visit his grandparents and an aunt one weekend in Oklahoma and another weekend we went to McAlester, Oklahoma to visit his girl friend living there.
As I said earlier we were both still 18 and marking time till our 19th birthday at which time we would be shipped out.
Gordon's birthday was in August so he left Camp Chaffee before I did. We stayed in touch with letters, but of course my correspondence soon stopped. After I got back from Europe I had a few letters from him. Two I will reprint here which tell in brief his European experiences.
The first was delivered in V Mail as a means of shrinking the vast amount of mail of overseas soldiers and speeding up delivery as well.
Again I will reprint both the letters I still have in their entirety.
"September 26, 1944
"Hi, Brother Hilbers,
"Ha, guess where I am. No place but dear old France. Boy, do I get around. But I guess maybe by this time you are fast after me, huh?
"We haven't had any mail since we left Ft. Meade, and boy, we're ready for it. We left there the 10th. We sailed from Boston and landed in Liverpool. From there we went straight to Southampton, spending only one day in jolly old England.
"We landed in France on one of the original beachheads. since then, (19th) we have lived in pup tents, and from what they say, we will live in them from now on. Ah, me! We got our American money changed to Francs today. The French people are friendly, and eager to trade almost anything for candy, cigarettes and soap. (Don't get the wrong idea, m'boy).
"There are lots of peaches and pears around here, but all the apples are cider apples and not good to eat. We got passes to go into the nearest town last night. Let me know if Jones sent you your $5."
When Gordon stopped receiving any mail from me he contacted my family and had some correspondence with my Mother. When I did get home I had his APO address and wrote him of my experiences, and Bob Clyne's as well, since we were all at Camp Chaffee together.
The second letter I received from Gordon is enclosed.
"July 11, 1945
"Hi, Brother Hilbers!
"Well, so you finally got around to writing to me. About time, I might say. Back home hogging up all those furloughs--ya lucky dawg, Gee why 60 days, How did you stand it. If you need any help, just send for me.
"So you are sweating out the Pacific. Boy, you and me both. I've got the grand total of 41 points, and as best as I can figure, thats about what you have."
(When it came time to start discharging soldiers after the War a point system was developed that took into account the months served, time overseas, battle stars and decorations. A certain amount of points being granted for each. Those servicemen with the highest number of points were the first to be considered for discharge. But at the time this letter was written the War in the Pacific against the Japanese was continuing with no certain end in sight.)
"The Stars and Stripes say that the Second Armored Division will sail for the States in December. I believe I have a pretty good chance of beating the Pacific if I can stay in this outfit. I'm taking over Battalion mail clerk job hoping that will help keep me in the division.
"I'm really getting around over here since the war ended. I spent a week at the French Riviera last month, and I'm leaving for a three day pass to Paris the 14th. Not bad, huh? Boy, but I'd trade a month at either place for a day in the old U.S. The Riviera was strictly O.K. What the girls wear there isn't even enough to talk about, Whew!.
"We finally made it to dear old Berlin. The center of town is really beat-up. But the part that we are billeted in isnt hurt too much. The Russian soldiers are nice and friendly and all that, but gosh, what sloppy looking guys they are. These Germans really respect them though.
"I'm glad you and Clyne were not hurt. I came through in one piece too.
At times I had my doubts, though. All's well that ends well?
"You saw my girl in McAlester, didn't you? I'm still a-writing to her. I guess you are keeping the gals happy back there. Boy, it would take a whole platoon to keep some of these German gals happy. Egad, what a country!
"Well, I guess I better close this cause it
won't be long til time to take the mail. Write again
when you can. I'm sure glad you got back O.K. and I
hope you don't have to go to the Pacific. (Hope the
same for me, will ya. S'long now.
"Your old pal,
"P.S. Tell your Mother hello for me. We became
pretty good pen-pals while I didn't hear from you."
Chapter 18 A Benevolent Government
The Army did a very good job of returning Prisoners of War to the U.S. as soon as possible after liberation. Those that needed medical attention were sent to military hospitals. All things considered I recovered very quickly once back with proper food.
When we were liberated on the outskirts of Leipzig the blind soldier which I mentioned earlier that was in our Camp was whisked away to a hospital within hours after our release.
Camp Lucky Strike in France was designed a Reparation Center specifically for returning POWs. We were there only the few days needed to outfit us with new clothes and classification before we were on ships bound for the U.S.
The object was to get the returning men back to their families as soon as possible and the system worked very well.
When I arrived home I had a 30 day leave and while still on that leave had it extended another 30 days.
Following those two months at home I was sent to Santa Barbara, California to what was called "Army Ground and Service Forces Redistribution Station." Upon arrival here we were assigned to one of three resort hotels that the Government had taken over for the "duration".
I was lodged at the Biltmore Hotel which was an exclusive Hotel before the War. Indeed at this writing 56 years later it is still an outstanding Hotel property situated on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean between Santa Barbara and Montecito.
Here besides having all sorts of resort recreation opportunities we received physical examinations and interviews to determine what our next assignment would be. The Army had already announced that no POWs would be returned to combat in the Pacific. The European war was of course over.
My physical examination gave me a clean bill of health except for my feet which still showed the effects of being frozen. The doctor said a good deal of time would pass before they were really normal. He placed in my record "no long marches, no extreme hot or cold weather" and "no periods of long standing."
This meant to my great joy that I could say good-by to the infantry.
One of the things I was good at in high school was typing and while waiting for my 19th birthday at Camp Chaffee I was assigned as a clerk- typist in the office which was processing my fellow trainees for reassignment.
This was now on my service record so after two wonderful weeks at the Biltmore Hotel I was assigned as a member of the permanent personnel at the Redistribution Center. And went to work in the office that was doing the paperwork on the reassignment of other POWs.
The Resort complex at Santa Barbara was just one of several that the Army used for returning POWs. My friend Bob Clyne was sent to a similar installation in Florida.
The U.S. Army Air Corps had their own facilities for returning POWs and one of them was at some beach front hotels in Santa Monica. My neighbor and friend, Jack Longmire, the B 17 gunner who has been interned in Sweden, was sent here and often I would spend my weekends with the Air Corps in Santa Monica at their resort. I did stand out at this facility, not because I was an infantryman but because Corporals were such a rarity. The Air Corps was much more lavish with promotions and it was hard to find someone who was less than a Staff Sergeant. As the result I received a good amount of kidding on these visits.
At Santa Barbara I saw many of the men that I had traveled with from France to New York and then on the long train trip to the West Coast. My old classmate Bernie came through as well as the others that I had met in San Francisco on leave.
We were also receiving POWs from Japanese Camps and their stories were truly grim. No one captured by the Germans ever experienced anything like the hardships that were experienced by those caught in the Pacific war. The hatred that these men had for their Jap and Korean guards was intense and with very good reason.
In August 1945 the Army announced that all POWs would be promoted one grade. This meant that I moved up from Private First Class to Corporal. I still have the letter that announced my promotion.
"1. The Army has adopted the policy of giving special consideration toward promotion of soldiers who have been prisoners of war.
"2. The Army considers that you presumably would have been promoted during the past months had you not been a prisoner of war, and that you are qualified for the grade of Corporal.
"3. In recognition of your qualifications, and in consideration of the period during which normal promotion was not available to you, the enclosed Special Orders officially authorize your advancement to the grade of Corporal."
One rather amusing episode occurred when I first arrived in Santa Barbara. In town there was an agency that rented small motorcycles and we often would take these on tours of the surrounding beautiful Santa Barbara countryside.
On this particular day I was with another ex POW, Pat Fallahy.
Pat was taken prisoner in Italy. He was a member of a night patrol and somehow got separated from his comrades. Suddenly he found himself confronting a large group of Germans. They motioned him to lay down his rifle and he did so. Fortunately this group of Germans had a sense of humor and thought it quite a good joke that he would walk into their midst. He was the only one I knew that had been captured singly.
He was a prisoner much longer that I and had picked up a fair amount of German.
Now the U.S. was holding almost 380,000 German POWs in camps in the U.S. and it was decided to put them to work in agriculture where there was a great shortage of labor. The Geneva Conventions ruled that enlisted personnel under the rank of Corporal could be used for non-war related labor.
In Santa Barbara County there are many orange and lemon groves and one day Pat and I came upon a group of Germans with one guard all lounging under a grove of trees.
We came roaring by on our motorcycles and then promptly wheeled and came back. Pat, always with the humor of the Irish, jumped off his bike, shouting "Raus, Raus", and continued with a torrent of German cuss words.
The Germans jumped up and went back to work with all possible speed. We then explained to the Guard that we were just having some fun and in turn this was related to the Germans who also saw the humor of the situation.
We explained that we had been "Kriegsgefangens" (German for POW) in their country. We conversed with some of them the best we could considering the language difficulties. They wanted to know what parts of Germany we had been to and so on. All in all it was all very cordial. After all their war, and ours too, was over.
There was also a certain irony in the situation. We had been so happy to see the last of their country, and here they were waiting for the day they could return to it. I doubt that any of them were ready for the devastation they discovered when they finally did return home.
Army life at Santa Barbara was just about as good as it can ever get. The work was not demanding and our office included more civilian women than soldiers.
On weekends as often as not we would be off to Los Angeles with 48 hour passes.
The end of November the last of the returning POWs had passed through the Station and it was closed. I was sent to nearby Camp Cooke and received my discharge. It was December 5, 1945.
Chapter 19 A Civilian Again
When Bob Clyne said in one of his letters that "he couldn't seem to get into the swing of things" it described a good many of us. Especially those of us who went into the Army straight from high school.
In the Army I had no idea what I wanted to do in life except possibility go to college. This option became a reality strictly because of the G.I. Bill that gave all World War II veterans educational opportunities that otherwise would never had existed. Without the G.I. Bill it would have been financially impossible, not only for me but several million other veterans as well.
In early 1946 I enrolled at San Francisco Junior College which was in walking distance of my parents' home. And I was again living with them. This was a mistake. I didn't study and skipped classes on a regular basis.
I was not alone. Many of my friends were on the 52-20 Club, another benefit which allowed veterans $20 a week for one year. The idea was temporary income until employment could be found.
As far as my friends and associates were concerned it was a long vacation. We went to the beach, hung out at the local tavern and generally just loafed.
It took me several months to become serious about my future. My one semester at Junior College was a failure.
I had one boyhood friend who had been in the Army Air Corps and stationed at Kearns Air Force Base near Salt Lake City. When he was discharged he enrolled at Brigham Young University.
When he returned home that summer he discussed with me the possibilities of going to college there as well. I applied, was accepted and that Fall we both went to Provo, Utah.
I never dwelt on my experiences as a soldier or POW but occasionally something would bring some unpleasant memories to mind.
I learned to ski in Utah and one late afternoon I left the regular ski run at Timp Haven, now Robert Redford's Sundance, and moved through the forest on a short cross country trip. I was alone and moved cautiously through the conifer trees. It was early in the season and the snow was still sparse, with bare earth showing in a few places.
There was a long down slope and suddenly it resembled our outpost in the Ardennes Forest. It was only an hour before a winter dusk, the forest cold, silent and somehow full of menace. For an instant all the feelings of what had taken place in the Ardennes was upon me once again.
I shook off the dreaded memories and skied down the slope to the trail I knew was there that would take me back to the ski area.
What my letters home to my folks while in the Service did reveal was an intense interest on my part for the places that I visited. My Mother saved every one of my letters and I still have them.
Considering I was such a poor, inattentive student in high school the letters, when read today, display this interest and at least a hint of ability to put words on paper.
Which explains why I majored in Journalism in college and have followed a career as a newspaperman for 50 years now. It may seem strange but that 19 year old, weak, sick and starving POW went on to become a restaurant reviewer and a wine and travel writer.
Since that first voyage to Europe I have been back nine times. Now a 10 hour flight from Los Angeles and a big change from the six days and nights aboard the Aquitania.
Chapter 20 A Friend and Mucker Gone
John McGrath and I had developed such a strong bond as "muckers" it seemed improbable, at the time, that our parting at Camp Kilmer would be permanent.
But that is the way it turned out. We corresponded briefly and then it was just an exchange of Christmas Cards each year. He had a lot of catching up to do when he returned to Milwaukee. There was a wife and children and I believe he went into the insurance business.
I was busy in college and we were half a country apart.
My one opportunity to get to the Middle West didn't occur until 21 years later. By this time, two decades later, I was established in Los Angeles, married and with two sub teen sons.
In 1966 I took delivery of a new car in Chicago. This would be the starting point for a vacation trip to Canada. We took the Santa Fe Super Chief to Chicago, picked up the car and headed for Milwaukee.
Before leaving Los Angeles I had written John to say that we would at last have a reunion. I did not receive a reply but thought nothing of it.
When we got to Milwaukee I called his home and reached his daughter. She sadly informed me that John had died of a heart attack just one month before.
Chapter 21 The Old Ground
As I wrote in Chapter 6 it was 38 years before I returned to the Ardennes. In my rented Renault as I drove through Belgium, the signposts soon had names that had so much meaning decades before. Prum, Bleialf, Manderfeld, Malmedy, Bastogne and finally St. Vith, which was my destination.
In St. Vith I checked into the Hotel Pip-Margraff. Then on an afternoon walking tour of the town I found the Division Memorial which has been built in a park setting.
Showing the Lion which was the insignia of the 106th Infantry Division the Memorial has a plaque which reads:
"Dedicated to the memory of the men of the 106th Infantry Division, U.S.A. who gave their lives during the Ardennes Campaign (Battle of the Bulge) December 1944."
The Memorial and Plaque was erected by the 106th Infantry Division Association in December 1959.
This part of Belgium is rolling hill country with large meadow areas divided by forest. It is a rural setting with farms and small villages.
Only a few miles from St. Vith is Schonberg where the surrender of the 422nd Regiment took place. This was my destination the next morning which fortunately was a beautiful day with Autumn crispness in the air and bright sunshine.
Schonberg is very small, too small to be called a village, rather just a collection of farm houses. Here I took a few photos and then followed a road which climbed through forest and meadow to the top of a ridge.
When I first decided to visit the Ardennes I had little hope of finding the place where our outpost was located. And when I actually got to St. Vith I could see that it would be virtually impossible to find. The reason is that in this part of Belgium timber is one of the harvests. Patches of forest are planted and then harvested, usually about 30 years later.
So the landscape is changed at least once every generation.
However when I reached the ridge above Schonberg I immediately recognized the large stone barn where the Germans had kept us during that very long afternoon of December 19, 1944.
The farmhouse and the barn had not changed. Below the ridge was the large open meadow stretching down to the valley where we had started our attack. It was hard to comprehend. The beautiful scene of rolling hills, wide green meadows and towering forest, all under a bright autumn sun compared to my memory of what had occurred here that December morning.
The German tanks and infantry held the ground
I was standing on while my Battalion was moving up the
open slope toward them. It could not have had any
It all came back as clear as it had only happened yesterday.
"Hey, wake up, you two, You awake?"
"Now listen, Krauts are on the ridge above us and roaming around. Put on your shoes and keep awake. I've got to tell the others."
"You heard Mac? "
"Yes, damn, this was one of the few times my feet have been warm in days."
"Listen to that Kraut, his finger sure is twitching."
"No getting away from it, I hate the sound of those burp guns."
"What's happening, Schell?"
"The Germans are between us and the town we are supposed to reach, spread out on the ridge above us. According to the Lieutenant we are to attack up the hill as soon as it is light."
Heads down in the soft earth as bullets crack through the trees. The Lieutenant is hit. Should have kept down. We're going nowhere. Too many Germans, too much fire.
"So we couldn't make it to the ridge, what happens now. Sarge?"
"The Germans have too much stuff on the ridge. Now the plan is for the First Battalion, and that's us, to go down the valley and try a flanking movement. B Company is leading the attack and the third platoon is point for the attack when it takes place."
"Why are we always so lucky?"
"Its not that bad for us. Our squad is going with the first platoon in reserve because we're short two men. Now look, you two stick close to me. I want that B.A.R. close by. Hilbers, you have the extra clips for it, right?"
"Yes, four of them."
Here we go, out of the timber onto those damn open hillsides. What kind of attack is this. Where's all those fancy battle formations we knocked ourselves out on in the States. Look like a bunch of sheep. The Captain's problem, not mine. This weather is lousy, snow melted anyway. If the artillery gets us here, we've had it. Schell is O.K. Mac is shuffling along like he was home. I stick with them I will be O.K. Don't like this country, rolling hills bare of everything but grass. Timber on the hilltops, fir trees I guess. Lots of water around, between the hills, in the ravines, might make good cover if they aren't zeroed in. This overcast makes everything so damn gloomy and depressing.
"O.K. You two. We wait here until our boys get out in front. We follow this ravine right into the road that goes into the town. The Captain saw some tanks. You still got those grenades, Joe?"
"Still in my pack"
There go the Kraut machine guns again, way above us though. We'll be O.K. if we stay here in the ravine. Can't see much though. If the bullets get close I'll go into the creek. Christ, eighty-eights, right up ahead too. Now we get it. Also dropping stuff in the timber we just left. They've spotted our guys.
"Medic, medic, pass the word back, get some medics up here. Bazooka men, up front, there's tanks, bazooka men up front."
It's over almost before it began. Our guys walking up the hill with their hands resting on their heads like they all had headaches and hangovers. Guys you've trained with, ate with, slept with and gambled with. We didn't have a chance. Just like sheep, not knowing what we're doing or where we're going. Haven't been scared, strange, not now, must be stunned.
"A guy from C Company says the orders are to surrender."
"Mac, I'm throwing my rifle into the creek. You might as well chuck the B.A.R."
There goes the rifle, not a shot fired today. Might as well throw my knife in too. I won't let a German get it. Gift of Edna Street, Monel steel from Kaiser shipyard, made by Bill across the street, leather sheath made by the lady next door. Now its in a creek in Belgium. Dump the camera too. Try to keep the rolls of film Larry and I took with the girls in London.
"We might as well go up guys."
Up the hill, the war is over for you. A German is up ahead searching each man. The hill littered with discarded equipment, rifles, gas masks, entrenching tools. Look at those German tanks, god they're big.
"How's it going Joe?"
"Can't say, Clyne, glad to see you're still in one piece."
"You better hide your watch, so the Germans can't find it."
"Any of our boys get hit?"
"Yeah, they were shooting at us with the eighty-eights. The Lieutenant got it in the leg, Spears hit in the right side, Savo and Novak are dead, Sunshine got it too."
"Who did the surrendering"
"The Major got it over the radio from regiment, so that was that."
"I didn't fire a shot today, did you?"
"Word is the Germans have two divisions going through the town we were supposed to reach. The road is just jammed with their stuff, bumper to bumper."
"Who caught it in the trees?"
"K Company, they really got it bad. We've lost some others, but I don't know who. Hilbers, I was really lucky today."
A German Non-Com is shouting at us. Guess he wants us to move faster.
I stood there for a very long time. A man came out of the farmhouse and waved. I waved back but made no effort to approach him or attempt a conversation. There is little doubt that he had seen others like myself standing on that ridge and remembering.
I then sat down on the grass and started crying. I do not know why.
It had happened so long ago. In the 41 passing years I had a difficult time remembering the faces of the men that died under German guns that day.
Perhaps because now the landscape was so pastoral and tranquil. Or because on this very ground on that December day I lost my innocence and youth. It was here that I learned what war is really like, to hear the cries of wounded and dying men as well as the screams of shells overhead. And to know defeat.
But most of all to learn that events do take place which are completely beyond your control. They are overwhelming. You are trapped and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
I took several photographs from that ridge. Where I was standing there is a road junction and a signpost which points to Ameischeld. I was alone and used the time exposure function on my camera to take self portraits on the ridge, beside the Renault and then at the signpost.
The photographs show a man very close to old age, grey hair, a frontal bald spot, (this time the hair will not grow back) and a wide white mustache.
For awhile I considered walking down that long sloping meadow toward the valley. Then decided not to. It was all over and done with. Four decades had passed and memories were the only thing that remained.
I returned to St. Vith and my hotel. That evening I had a few cocktails and a splendid dinner. The next day I planned on seeing as much of the area as I could with my car.
But that was not to be. In the morning a thick fog lay right down to the ground. There would be no sight-seeing this day.
My plan was to follow our line of March to Gerolstein and then to Koblenz and on to Lemberg.
I have already described how it felt to look at Gerolstein once again. As I moved into Germany I left the fog behind and again it was an autumn day filled with sunlight. As the fog lifted so did my somber mood. I was once again just an interested tourist and this is the way I viewed Koblenz.
Situated on the Rhine River it is a very pretty City and this time I could admire and enjoy those "castles on the Rhine."
I continued through Koblenz to a small village further up the river. The town was Braubach and here I found the Rheinufer Hotel and Cafe located on the River edge. I had long since forgotten the few German words I learned as a POW. Fortunately I found someone at the Hotel who spoke some English.
Checked into the Hotel I then walked to a Riverside Park that was adjacent. It was Sunday and the Park was filled with local people enjoying the fine weather. The Park also had a landing for tourist ships and ferries that ply the river from one town to the next.
I took one of these pleasure boats for an afternoon ride. It took us down river back to Koblenz. There was a German band aboard for entertainment and I sat on deck, enjoyed a late lunch and a bottle of excellent German beer.
During the War I never really hated the German people. As soldiers we knew that the Germany of Adolf Hitler was evil and had to be destroyed. As a POW I did not come in contact with the SS or ardent Nazis. The German soldiers I met did not appear to be much different from us.
That Sunday afternoon I noticed how many women my age were in the Park by themselves or in groups of two or three. Few older men were to be seen. Proof that a whole generation of German men had paid the ultimate price for Hitler's Third Reich. The women too who were destined to spend a lifetime alone.
I had one experience which left me with pleasant memories of Braubach.
In early evening I walked into town and finding a public phone tried to call my wife in Los Angeles but with no success.
Three German women my age watched my efforts and indicated that particular phone was "kaput". They spoke no English but led me to another phone two full blocks away that did work. I thanked them and thought it as a great kindness that they would go through such trouble for a foreign visitor.
The next morning I located the road to Lemberg. As I remembered it climbed steeply out of the Rhine Valley. Lemberg still has the railroad marshaling yards and they were the only thing I could remember about the town.
What I did do in Lemberg was find a German meat market with a wonderful variety of German cold meats and sausages. I bought more than I could possibly eat for a roadside picnic later in the day.
Leipzig, where I was liberated, was in East Germany. I could not go there. Actually I no longer had any desire to continue my quest anyway.
I pointed my Renault south toward France and a
journalism assignment in Champagne. My odyssey was