PART TWO: TOWARD THE RHINE
6. Stopping for Gas in Commercy: An interesting fact concerning World War II is spelled out by our stopping at Commercy. General Patton, as many who relate his activities and the activities of the Third Army now say wanted to keep going because we were moving rather quickly with his spearhead. It was his idea to continue as he believed that we could, within a few days, cross the Rhine and be on our way to Berlin.
He was alone in his judgment, because General Eisenhower had to deal with the British general, Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery was, like Patton, quite an egotist, and wanted all the glory for him and his troops. He was in the north, and he wanted to make most of the attacks and receive credit for them. So there was a constant battle that had to be adjudicated by General Eisenhower as to whether the supplies went north to Montgomery or south to the other troops, including the Third Army under General Patton.
At this particular point, Patton was overruled, and he was not permitted to have gasoline to travel on. The gasoline and supplies instead began to flow to other parts of the line, particularly to the north. In his spite over this, General Patton decided to drive the units until they ran out of gasoline. We ran out of gasoline near Commercy in open fields with no cover, so our artillery pieces were simply put in position with a clear view from above. We covered them with netting, of course, or various other types of camouflage, disguising our position. All the vehicles were covered, if we had enough of the camouflage nets to do it. So there we were, out in the open.
We had been there only a day or two when we noticed, one day, that a shepherd came by our area with his flock of sheep. We were interested in the ease with which he could maneuver them. He and his dog seemed to lead these sheep. He simply whistled a little, and the dog directed the sheep. We were quite intrigued while watching this shepherd. You must understand that we were in the region called Alsace, an area that had been under dispute between the Germans and the French for centuries, and at this time was held by the French. But we knew that there were many German sympathizers in Alsace. Most of the names near there were of German origin. So, we watched this shepherd, and then the next morning, as I awoke, I heard what I thought was one of our liaison planes, our little Cubs, flying. I got out of my pup tent and looked up and watched him for a little while as he flew around the area. Then it occurred to me that it didn't sound exactly like a Piper Cub. And then it dawned on me that the wing was wider, larger than on the Piper Cub. By that time our antiaircraft men had spotted it, and we all, at the same time, came to the conclusion that we were watching a German liaison plane, called a Storch, flying freely around, looking at our positions. As the antiaircraft artillery went to work, and after discovery, he quickly got out of the area and was gone. This is not the end of the story, however, because later that day, toward midday, we saw the results of what the Storch had seen, and what we always believed were the results of the spying done by the shepherd, because 51 German fighter planes attacked our positions in the open field. They flew in strafing missions over us ("strafing" meaning to fire their machine guns at the ground troops from a low level) for maybe five to ten minutes. And then our P-47s arrived in the sky and we stood and watched the dogfight in the air. Several of the ME-109s went to the ground in flames. I did not see any P-47s go down.
Thereafter I had a great respect for the P-47s and their pilots. They were members of the 8th Air Force, and seemed to be able to handle those ME-109s, even though, on this occasion, they were outnumbered. Soon the ME-109s that were still in the air left for home.
We learned thereafter to look with a jaundiced eye at any people who wandered close to our area, and wanted to find out more about them, because we were sure that the shepherd had been spying on our position and had tipped off the German troops.
While we were in position in Commercy, I was able to go into the little town. Business had resumed after it was captured by the allied troops, and there I found a little pin, about an inch and a half in diameter, with many, many stones on it. I'm sure they were just glass beads of some kind, very colorful, in a dark setting. It looked a little like a dark plastic, but we didn't use much plastic then, so it was probably tortoise shell or some other material, darker than amber, and it was very attractive, with the stones in a swirl position from the center out. Later I was to mail that to Eleanor as a gift, and it arrived safely, just in an envelope. She had it until many years later when, while we were living in Strathmore, we were burglarized and a burglar got the pin, and we never saw it again. But it was purchased in Commercy.
At the town of Dieulourd, the troops of the XII Corps crossed the Moselle River and established a bridgehead. This was on the 13th of September. It was not an easily held position. The engineers who put in the bridge had to rebuild it many times, and fought, sometimes hand-to-hand, against German troops to hold that small position. But hold it they did, and as a result, shortly after the 13th we were able to take our artillery across that bridgehead to the other side of the Moselle.
In 1990, when Eleanor and I were touring on a bus trip of Europe, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch. It was about a mile and a half from the position where we had crossed the Moselle River. Unfortunately, the bus was getting ready to leave right after lunch and there was no opportunity to go over and see the site. But, I stood there and looked at the tree line along the river and realized that many years before I had been in that same area, under different conditions.
It was about this point in time, I think just after we had left Commercy, that our Battalion Commander decided that the men should finally have a warm meal. He decided that it would be a breakfast, because it could be served in the dark, before dawn, by our cooks. Our cooks had been working on trucks carrying ammunition, but they still had their equipment with which they could cook and set up a field kitchen. So, several mile somewhere back behind us, they set up their field kitchen and cooked a breakfast and brought it up to us under cover of darkness. Since I was in charge of the guns, the senior officer at that point, I decided that I would be the last to eat, so I directed everybody through the chow line. They were all rejoicing that they were having hot oatmeal, and they
even had some butter to put in it, which made it better for most of them. They were eating in the dark. When I finally got into the line, light was beginning to come, just ever so little of it, but some light was beginning to show. When I got my oatmeal in my mess kit I took it back over to where I was going to eat, and took a close look, and discovered that it was just covered with weevils. So, we had oatmeal with meat on that occasion. Even that
good, because we had been using C-rations, which were just simply cans
about the size of a small tomato sauce can, with various types of food
called beef stew, vegetable and beef stew, and a few other things. No matter
what it was called, it always tasted the same, and that wasn't particularly
good. In addition to that, we occasionally had what was called "ten-in-one".
And, of course, there again, it was out of cans. But it would be enough
rations for ten men for one day. We were getting a little tired of those
rations, so, even oatmeal with meat was a pleasant change. We didn't get
any more hot meals from the cooks until the war was over.
7. Events in Arracourt: The next move after we had left Commercy was to a place still in Alsace called Arracourt. I will have many things to tell you about our stay in Arracourt. We arrived there about the 14th of September, and spent the last half of that month and into October there. Many things took place that affected us. Arracourt is recorded in the history books as the site of one of the largest tank battles of World War II. This battle actually started with an attack on C Battery of 191 FaBn by German Panthers. It was repulsed, and I'll be telling that story in a moment.
In that tank battle, one of the combat commanders from our side was Col. Creighton Abrams, who later became the leader of all ground troops in Vietnam, and was Chief of Staff of the Army before his early death due to cancer.
The memories of Arracourt are bittersweet. Many of them bitter, but, nevertheless, some of them were lighter moments. I'll try to tell you about these, although some of the bitter ones have to be included to provide some accuracy for the record.
We were in two different positions with our battalion in the Arracourt area. The first position was occupied on September 14th, or thereabouts. Shortly after we went into position, with our guns pointed primarily to the north, we were alerted to move forward. We were told that the 4th Armored Combat Command, which we were in support of, was going to go on the offensive. It would be on the road, and we would be left in our position for a while to cover their advance, and then later be given march orders that we might follow them. That meant that of the three batteries that were a part of the 191 FaBn, C Battery, where I was then located at the guns as the Executive Officer, and therefore the officer in charge of that position, was to the rear and on the right, on the east side of the position.
To our right, just a very few hundred yards, there was a hill, really kind of a ridge, with two pronounced rounded tops and a saddle in-between them, and we were in front of that saddle. On the edge of one of those hills was a forward observer. My memory was that the forward observer was from B Battery. He was on one of those hills, and he sent in a report that there were German tanks approaching his position and this saddle. They were getting very close, and he was very urgent, so he gave us a fire command, and the entire battalion was to turn in that position.
155 howitzers are not easy to move. They're very heavy. I gave the orders to the four howitzers in our battery to go right over 1600 mils (that's an artillery measurement of angles, and 1600 is one-fourth of a circle) which meant that we were moving, essentially, from north to directly east. That meant, literally, picking up these very heavy artillery pieces and turning them around a quarter turn. That's not an easy thing to do, and it's not normally a very fast thing to do.
When I gave that command, it alerted all of the cannoneers to the fact that the danger came from their right, and almost their right rear rather than in front of them, they were willing to make that turn. Then, when I completed the command, and told them to load charge one, which is the very smallest amount of powder that we could use to fire the howitzers, they knew immediately that their target was very close, because charge one would not carry the shell very far.
Our battery was the first to fire. What we did was fire a very slow projectile, at a very low charge, a short distance over that little saddle. It was traveling at such a slow speed that we could actually watch the projectiles in flight as they left the howitzers, and as they traveled toward the hill. The forward observer on the hill looked down into the saddle and actually saw the shells go over the saddle at a point lower than he was. An almost miraculous thing took place. Some of our early rounds actually hit the lead tank.
You've got to remember that this is not a rifle that fires a very accurate round or a very high velocity. As a result, there is generally a lot of dispersion of the rounds, and they may fall anywhere within 50 yards of your target, the idea being that, as they land in a pattern around it within that space, that they're going to hit something eventually. But for one of these rounds to hit a tank was a most unusual event, and it did literally do that.
Earlier I quoted General John Lentz, who was the Commanding General of the XII Corps, in which he made reference to this particular action in which we scored not only one, but two direct hits on the lead tanks. The forward observer reported that when the lead tanks were hit, they stopped, of course, and the tanks behind them stopped. The tank column, which was not apparently fully aware of what was ahead of them, began to believe that they were into a very heavy defensive position, and that they would have to take another look at what they were going to do. They stopped where they were, perhaps to hurriedly ask themselves what their next move would be. By this time, the 4th Armored Division tank column that we had sent on the road north had turned around and was on its way back. As it came back in, it eventually engaged these tanks.
The tanks, by the way, were new German tanks. They were under the command of a general who had been given a direct command by Hitler himself, according to some documentation I have from a book about Hitler and his generals. This direct command had been given to him after Hitler had relieved the general who had been leading that part of the front. He told him to attack and to annihilate all of the troops in that area. So, we know now, after the war, that on Hitler's command they were about to come over
that little swale between the two high points, and within probably the length of two or three football fields they would have been right on our battery, and would have begun their job of annihilating the enemy.
Let me remind you that I said that the tank battle that followed became the major tank battle in Europe, and brought to the knowledge of the higher authorities of our Army the work of then Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams, who was in the 4th Armored Division, so that he began to stand out as a leader. This was the battle that brought him his first great recognition.
While we were at this same position, the first one we occupied at Arracourt, we underwent a heavy bombardment by German artillery. The bombardment included not only our battery, but B Battery of the 191 as well. B Battery received the brunt of that, and the most casualties, several lives being lost. One of those who was killed in that attack was the Commander of B Battery, Capt. Willaford S. Swan.
I had a memory of Capt. Swan that I wanted to share with you, which is one of the happier things, and it's what I call one of the sacred moments that I like to remember from the war. As I was preparing to go to Boston Harbor, to go on the ship that was to take us overseas, there were a number of others along with me. Two of us were officers, and the others were enlisted men. It was our job to go on the ship a day or two ahead of time and to get our quarters ready for our men when they came on. So, just about the time that I was to go get on a truck to drive from Camp Miles Standish to Boston, right after breakfast, I was handed a Gideon New Testament. A New Testament was given to each man who was about to leave for overseas duty. As I proceeded to the truck to load up, I passed Capt. Swan. I have reason to believe that he was a Christian man, not a particularly wild sort of person, and a rather quiet person. But my memory of him then has stuck in my mind, because he had taken his New Testament and walked only a few feet and sat down with his back against a building, and as I passed him, I took note of the fact that he was spending his time reading the New Testament. I like to think about this when I realize that Capt. Swan didn't live through the war, and I hope that his family came to know that he was finding comfort in the Scriptures at that time.
In the midst of that shelling we had all dug foxholes to get into. I, of course, first of all, jumped into a foxhole. When the shelling started, one other man jumped in with me. I didn't pay close attention to him, but he seemed to be fully dressed. I did not notice that he was not wearing his helmet. After the shelling, he got out and picked up his helmet, which was right at the edge of the foxhole, without even realizing that he was picking it up to put it on his head. In the excitement of the motion, he imagined that he had the helmet on all the time. A few minutes later, someone saw him and said, "What happened to your helmet?" He took the helmet off, and he had a hole on each side of it where a shell fragment had gone all the way through. Now, that's a rather shocking thing, to take your helmet off and find that the shell fragment had gone through one side and out the other side.
But, of course, we finally reconstructed what had happened. It was up on the edge of the foxhole above ground, of course, and there it had been hit, and he hadn't even realized that it either had come off as he fell into the foxhole or he took it off, but he hadn't been hit.
During this shelling, I saw a man go down not far from where I was, so I crawled out and went over to him as the shelling was continuing. He had been hit in the chest, and I got the emergency bandage out that we all carried and began to treat him. He was one of our antiaircraft gunners, and he was, I think, not fatally hurt; although, he was taken from us, I think he would have lived from the wound.
While I was there I noted one of our men, his name was LaHood, he was a Tec 5. I noted that he was running around checking on men, although he was not given that responsibility. He was not a sergeant in charge of a section, but nevertheless, in the midst of the shelling, was looking for people who might be hit, and trying to help them. When I saw him, he saw me about the same
time. He came over and proceeded to do as I was doing, giving aid and help to a wounded antiaircraft man. I thought it was a particularly brave act for him to be out trying to do this. He managed to do it without being hit himself. Later on, when the opportunity arose, I was able to recommend him for a Bronze Star, which he received for his bravery at that time.
As a result of that shelling, it was decided to move to new locations, so we went to our second position. This was in a much more open area, so we needed to put up camouflage nets over the guns and vehicles. It was at this position that one of the more ludicrous events happened in my career, and I can look at it now and laugh about it because I think it was truly funny the way it worked out.
One of the things that we had to put up with, besides the enemy, was the weather. I think I never before saw such rain. I never had seen so much mud as I saw during that September in France, and especially in that second position we were in, in Arracourt.
There was a sergeant in our battery whom the Battery Commander wanted to chastise for some reason. I've forgotten the reason it was done, but he decided to remove him as thesergeant in charge of one of the howitzers, which was a section, taking that job away from him. He even busted him, as we called it, down from sergeant to PFC. There really wasn't a place for him, it was a difficult position for him to have gone from chief of section to be just a cannoneer on one of the guns. He really was a man who had a good mind.
He was not a particularly gregarious person, I guess, or at least he didn't try to make close friends with all the men, but I saw his worth, and his value, so I asked if I could take him into my section, where he would help me with the commands. He did the recording of the orders, and helped supervise our little command post. So, the former Sergeant, Howard Schimel, began to be a part of our small section of men.
He and I decided it would be a profitable thing to help each other a little bit by constructing a dwelling. We were on the side of a hill, where two hills came together, so there was kind of a little draw. They were very small hills, just rises in the land. We started digging, and decided to dig what we called our hotel. We made it plenty large, enough for two sleeping bags, and a very roomy place below ground. When we got it deep enough, we went out and found straw, grass and hay out in the fields, and put it down in the bottom so we would have a "mattress" to put our sleeping bags on. Then we hauled logs and covered it over, making a very fine dugout of our dwelling place, with an entry that one had to stoop down to get into, because you really couldn't stand up in it. You could sit up in it; that is, on the ground or on your sleeping bags.
We had constructed this, and it was going to be the way that we got through the heavy rainfalls when we didn't have to go out and direct fire, and do things of that sort. But the rains came, and they were very heavy. What we didn't reckon on was that the little draw that came down between the two little hills that rose there would become a river itself as the water flowed down. It soon ate away the side of our dwelling. During the night I woke up. I began to notice that the bed had a different feel to it.
It wasn't just the softness of straw anymore for a mattress. I suppose in this day and age I would have immediately recognized that what I had was a waterbed, because the water had risen up in this straw, the straw was about four inches thick, and the water was at least that deep. I was just floating in my sleeping bag on top of that straw and water.
I reached my hand out and felt down to see what it was, and put it straight into all this water. Of course, by this time Schimel was awake, too, and we both got out of our sleeping bags. Trying to keep from getting very wet, we took our helmets off and put them down on top of our sleeping bags and sat on them. That put us a little bit above the water, while the rains continued pouring outside.
One of our friends had come over earlier in the evening and asked if he could share our hotel with us. We had told him to go dig his own, that he wasn't welcome. He, evidently, hadn't found a dry place, so he came later into our wet dugout, thinking he was going to force his way into our hotel and sleep where it was dry. He plowed right into this water and ended up getting soaked.
So, we had to vacate, and there was no place to go. Once we were outside we were in, as I say, one of the heaviest downpours I've ever witnessed in my life. It was, of course, in the middle of the night. It was dark and we were not doing any firing. The Germans weren't interested in getting their artillery pieces going and they weren't on the move because there was too much mud and water.
Everything had come to a standstill because of the rain. We only had one intruder come into our battery position that night, and that was a cow which was shooed on out of the position. She was lucky that she was sent on, because there were occasions when they were shot as intruders, in order that they might be barbecued later around our fires.
But, at any rate, this cow got away safely. When I got out, I had only one place to go out of the rain, and that was to sit in my Jeep. Now, my Jeep was under a camouflage net. These nets were very heavy. The netting was spaced about two inches apart, and woven throughout it were pieces of burlap of various colors, to give it the camouflage effect from the air. So, I crawled beneath this covering, which was held up by posts around and above the Jeep, and sat in the Jeep, and just let it rain.
During the night the rain became even heavier. The burlap became soggy. The whole net became so heavy that it pushed itself through the poles, and fell over the Jeep, and there I sat with this wet burlap all over me. I could have moved if I'd wanted to, but I had no place to move to, so I just sat there 'til dawn, soaking wet, with the rain pouring, engulfed in this netting over my head and over the Jeep that I was sitting in. I don't remember where Schimel went during the rain. He was not with me in my Jeep, so he found some other place to sit. He was probably as wet as I was.
I look back on this and I am thankful for moments like that, that we can laugh about, because it did add a little bit of light to the heavier aspects of the war. Schimel and I were to have another nighttime experience at another time, but I'll tell it now. It could have been serious, but it really was not. And, again, it provided a little lighter moment.
On another occasion we decided that we would hook our pup tents together, end to end. They had eyelets and little buttons, so that could be done. He slept in one end, and I slept in the other. At that particular position we had decided, since it was very cold, that we would heat this tent that we had constructed. So we found some old ammunition tins, metal boxes, and we made a stove out of them. We made stovepipes out of some shell containers. We proceeded to build a stove inside one end of our tent, and have it warm while we slept.
Well, this really did provide warmth, and we were enjoying this, when we both awoke with a start to discover that our pup tents were on fire. I was at one end, and Schimel at the other, and we each made for the ends to try to get out. But, of course, we had pounded the stakes down very securely, most of the way, so it was not easy, and by this time the tent was on fire. So, while we were pulling at this burning tent, we both succeeded in burning our hands, but we got out all right.
It wasn't funny to all the others around because we were in blackout conditions and a fire was not acceptable to anybody. So we began to get all these yells from people in various positions, "Put out that fire! Put out that fire!" Which, of course, was our desire, too, but for other reasons. We just didn't want all of our things burned up, and we took what we could out of it. I, however, had come out of it without my shoes on, and I had to find them in the dark, after we got the fire out.
I had some leather gloves, and they had been lying beside my sleeping bag. We were sleeping, by the way, fully clothed, except for shoes, so we hadn't had to dress. When I went back to the fire in the daylight, I discovered that the leather gloves had become so dehydrated that they were about half the size that they were originally.
Meanwhile, he and I had jumped in the Jeep with our burned hands and made our way to an infirmary nearby. We got our hands treated, and got back without anybody else seemingly understanding what had happened to us. But we had lost some of our equipment, and while I did find my shoes, we lost some other things in it, but not of any great consequence.
I want to interrupt this discussion of what was happening at Arracourt for a little while to get to something a little bit different, a little lighter, because soon I'll be discussing some rather serious personal events that happened at Arracourt, and I'd just like to make a little break for that time, and for the persons reading this. It would be better to have a change of pace anyway.
So, I want to return from the September date to August the 29th, which, coincidentally, is exactly 55 years to the day before the time that I am recording this.
On August 29th, 1944, I was still an Executive Officer. C Battery was assigned to a particular operation, to an armored battalion, separated from the other two firing batteries at our battalion. For this operation we went one evening into position on the edge of some woods, just outside the little city of St. Dizier. We understood that there were enemy positions in the city, that German soldiers were there, who were prepared to defend the city. During the night, we fired quite frequently into St. Dizier, in an effort to dislodge the German defenders.
The night being finished, and the authorities, the senior officers, being of the opinion that the German troops were leaving the city, as indeed they had, it was determined that we would go back on the road and proceed on through the little city.
The normal operation for me at that time was to ride in a Jeep, directly ahead of the first of the four howitzers that were a part of our C Battery. Our column was moving rather slowly as we went into the city, and I want to say to you that it was very common for the residents, who were, of course, not German, at that point to come out to our columns to greet us, and to shower us with flowers and sometimes wine, which they called cider. And since I was not averse to tasting it in those days in my life, I did.
But, I can assure you that very little of it had much alcoholic content and it tasted more nearly like vinegar than anything else that I remember, so I didn't try it very often, except to acknowledge their gift.
On this particular day, we were moving quite slowly, stopping frequently, as the head of the column got stopped for one reason or another; perhaps to clear out some enemy positions that might have still remained. At one of those moments, as we stopped, two ladies approached my Jeep. One was probably in her sixties, the other one, perhaps, in her thirties. The younger one was able to speak some English, enough that we could understand her quite well. The older one carried a bouquet of flowers.
The younger one explained to us that this was her mother, and that during the night our artillery, probably the very howitzers that were right behind me, had fired into the city, and in the shelling it had destroyed her home. But, in the destruction of her home, it had also dislodged the German soldiers who had occupied the town, and they fled the city. The flowers were brought as a gift. And, since I was at the head of this small artillery column, I became the recipient of the flowers, because she wanted to express her appreciation to us for driving the Nazi soldiers out of the city.
I cannot forget that lady. I don't know how I would have reacted under the circumstances, but I think for most people it would be extremely difficult to thank the people who had destroyed your home within the last 12 hours. I'll never forget that experience.
it remains one of the pleasant moments of the war to remember such a person,
and to realize that neither she, nor her family, were injured, there were
very few casualties in that particular action, and that we could proceed
with moving on through the town and getting on with our business.
8. Unit censor: Another much lighter anecdote that I'd like to insert at this time involves the fact that I was designated a unit censor. There were two of us, who were officers in this particular battery, called unit censors, and it was our responsibility to read every letter that left our unit to go any place; most of them going home, of course.
This was really not a pleasant job. I don't know how any of you hearing this story would react to it, but it's not pleasant to know that you're reading personal letters. Many of these letters were being written by the men to their girlfriends and fiancées, and in many cases their wives, and they would be very personal. They knew, of course, that we were reading their mail.
It became necessary to do this, and we established the ground rules very clearly. They could not discuss locations by name. They could not discuss operations in any detail. The truth of the matter was that our 191 Battalion, being a separate battalion that was used in support, wherever support was needed, had remained on the "secret" list all the time that we were in combat. It was understood that if we were to reveal where we were, it would indicate where there was a need for such medium artillery, usually either an operation beginning, or one that was underway, or had just concluded, and it didn't seem in the best interest of all concerned at that time to divulge such information. So, we were under very heavy wraps, so to speak, and could not say much, except very personal things.
Some of the letters, as I indicate, were so personal that it was embarrassing to read them. At times I felt as though I had no business doing that, but I was required to do so. Fortunately, very few of our men ever put anything in the letters that could be censored or cut out, in which case we could literally cut out portions. In some cases we could blot out portions, or a word or two, but I had very little of that to do.
My object in bringing this up is to tell you about two soldiers in particular, and the nature of their letters. One of them was a young man who had decided to marry his girlfriend just days before we left to go overseas. I soon found out, in reading his letters, what the terms of the agreement were when they were married: She was to leave her home and go, for the duration of the war, and live with his parents. That was made very clear to her. And the reason for it was made clear, that he didn't want any other men in her life, and he trusted his parents to watch her.
It became apparent to me that his mother was writing to him. While I didn't see her letters, I saw the results of her letters, as he would write to his wife. His mother was, apparently, giving him a day-by-day account of what his wife did, or did not do, and when she was with them, and when she was not with them. If she didn't stay close to them, so his mother could watch, his letters were such that he continued to criticize her for these actions, and to be very abusive, really, as to what she ought to do, and how she ought to live. There were times that he would enumerate various commands, one through eight or ten, or whatever they were. She was to do this, or do that, or refrain from this, or refrain from that. I didn't look forward to reading his letters. I thought it was a most unusual relationship between a husband and wife, and I've often wondered how that marriage could have succeeded once the war was over. I would not be at all surprised if she didn't take him back at all when he came home.
The other soldier that I wanted to mention might have been in even worse trouble when he came back to the states after the war. He was one of the crew members from the antiaircraft unit that was attached to us, and we had to handle their mail as well. When he wrote letters, he wrote five of them to five different girls, scattered around the United States, and the letters were identical.
was no change in them. He would write five identical letters, and send
them to each of these five girls. To each one he assured her that as soon
as the war was over he was coming back to her, and they were going to get
married. These were amazing letters, and I was very tempted to offer some
advice, but that was not my job, and I would have been amiss in commenting
on anything that was in the letters, as long as it didn't break our silence
on the secret matters, so I had to send the letters on. But, you know,
I've often thought since the war that for that soldier, the war would only
just be beginning when he got back to the United States with five women
expecting him home to marry them.
9. Some Combat Associates: Another non-combat anecdote that I'll throw in at this point, before I get on with other matters at Arracourt, goes back to the subject of food. I've already mentioned the oatmeal with meat, which was shocking, but it did taste good nevertheless. And then I want to tell you about the fact that in our field rations, both C-rations and K-rations, there were various kinds of canned goods. One that was repeated over and over was canned corned beef.
Now, I like corned beef, to this day I like corned beef, but I got very tired of corned beef. It simply was a flavor I couldn't stand. So, rather than eat it, I would give it away, and frequently go without any meat in my meal, simply because I was so tired of corned beef.
One of my associates was Cpl. Edward (Jed) Jedrysiak. Jed was in the section with me where we had the fire control, and gave out the various commands to the guns. He worked with me very closely. He took note of the fact that I didn't like the corned beef. So, one day he came to me and he said, "You know, we found some potatoes, and I'm going to cook a dish for you that I know you will like."
Well, the thought of some fried potatoes sounded great to me, and I was really looking forward to that. The only stoves we had were little single-burner gasoline stoves, with a burner about three and a half inches in diameter. So, he fired up his little stove, and
I'm not sure what he used for a cooking pan, maybe an old mess kit, and he proceeded to prepare this meal. I didn't see it until he was ready to serve it, and he came to me and said, "Now, I know I have something you'll really like." As I say, I was looking forward to the potatoes. So, he served it up to me hot, and I looked at it in amazement, because the potatoes, cut up in little pieces, were all mixed into the corned beef. And I said, "Jed, you know I don't like corned beef." "Oh," but he says, "you'll like this because I put in a secret ingredient that really makes it good, and you'll like this." Being hungry and wanting something to eat anyway, I took a big mouthful of it, as soon as it was cool enough to do so, and it was the most awful tasting stuff I tasted while I was overseas. And I said, "Jed, what in the world did you put in this?"
He said, "I knew you didn't like corned beef, so I thought I could make it tastier by scattering bullion powder in it." Now, if there was anything that I hated more than the canned corned beef, it was the bullion powder that came with every one of our meals. I never did like brothy-type soups, and I'm not sure that this bullion powder had ever seen any beef, but it had a horrible taste of some kind of a preservative, and I thoroughly disliked it. So, Jed had succeeded in putting two of the worst things he could give me in with the good potatoes, and spoiling them. I forgave Jed in time, but I fired him as my personal cook. I took care of my own meals thereafter.
To add a little more human interest to my accounts, I want to share with you another very pleasant interlude that I had while I was waiting for our column to move for some time in France. I remember the setting well, you see many pictures of the French countryside with long rows of poplars along small straight roads, and that was the kind of setting, kind of out in the country. I wrote about this to Eleanor in a letter, and I'm simply going to quote from this letter which was written on September 5th, 1944:
I mentioned in my last letter that I am running out of stationery, and I would still have none except for an interesting experience I just had. We have been parked most of the day in a row of tall poplars beside a country road, not far from a fair-sized little French city. A young mother and her two little children were strolling by a few minutes ago. They live in the city and they were just out for a walk. I could not resist those children, so I walked over and spoke to them. The little girl, just able to stand, with platinum blonde hair, big blue eyes and a captivating smile, was the most adorable little baby you could imagine. I took her in my arms, and she seemed perfectly happy. I found some candy in my pocket, and you should have seen her eyes light up when I put one in her mouth. The mother wanted to give me something, and apparently had only one item, which she was carrying in the baby buggy. Guess what it was. Right. This stationery.
I don't know how she happened to have it along, unless she had stopped somewhere in the country to write letters. Furthermore, I have no idea how she realized that I might want it, but she certainly hit the nail on the head."
Well, one doesn't expect to have such pleasant moments during wartime, and the activities of war, but there are times that make it pleasant. And, as I mentioned before, along with all of the tragedy of war, there's always some humor and some lighter moments that help you along. My own belief is that God intersperses this so that you will be able to handle whatever comes along.
That little girl would now be, as I record this, about 57 or 58 years of age, and I do hope that she had a good life. It would be nice to know the outcome of the story, but we don't always meet people again after such occasions.
I must introduce you to two of my closest friends during the time I was in 191 FaBn. One of them figures very prominently in this account that I'm about to give you. Along with the time in April of 1945, when I received word that my brother had died in Denver, it constitutes one of the saddest moments for me during the war.
One of these friends, whom I will tell about later in connection with other incidents, was Lt. John Liljeberg, who was from Amherst, New Hampshire. John and I served all the same period in the 191 FaBn, and we did many things together, both in the states and in combat. I'm going to leave the story of John until later, when I get to a point where he and I were more deeply involved in our combat experiences.
At this point, I want to introduce you to Roberdeau Drury. Bob, as I called him, was a native of Colorado. He grew up in Southern Colorado, in and around Alamosa and Trinidad. Without any question, Bob was my closest friend in the military. We served together in the same battery. John Liljeberg, whom I mentioned, was in another battery, although, we did have many things we shared. But Bob and I served together in the 191 FaBn.
Bob joined it after I did, and we both went over and served as first lieutenants during the war. I had my rank before Bob, so I was senior to him. I was the Battery Executive Officer, being second in command to Capt. Ralph WeHunt, who was our Battery Commander. Since Bob was my junior, it meant that he had the next highest position among the officers in the battery. In that third position
he served as Reconnaissance Officer, but in combat that term really became forward observer. So, as we went into combat, Bob Drury was our first forward observer, and served in that capacity up to this time that I'm going to mention.
I want to go into our background together to show you that we were close, and to tell you a little bit about him, to help you to understand him a little better. At some point prior to the time that I knew him, while he was in the Army, he was stationed in Tennessee. In Tennessee he met a young lady and fell in love with her.
She fell in love with him, also. I don't believe they were together a long period in Tennessee, but when he came to California, the correspondence caused their romance to blossom even more, and the decision was made that she would come to California and they would be married. She was to meet him in Los Angeles, and there they were to find a place to get married. Then they would come up to Camp Roberts, where we were stationed, and live in Paso Robles.
Prior to leaving to get married, Bob went out to find some living quarters. He couldn't find any. He did find a location on the back of a lot where the woman who owned it said that she was about to build a small apartment.
Without even a building on the spot, Bob paid a down payment on his rent with the understanding the building would be finished by the time he came back and brought his bride. It so happened that when he returned, the building was not finished, but the woman expected them to inhabit it nevertheless. It had not been partitioned, so that it was only one large room.
I, of course, met his bride, Virginia, as soon as they got to Camp Roberts, and I came to know her, and realized that Virginia was quite different from Bob, in many ways.
Bob showed little interest in churches, and did not go to church with any regularity, if at all. Virginia, on the other hand, was a dedicated, church-going Methodist, and she was very serious about her Christian faith. Before we left for Europe, Virginia asked me to encourage Bob to attend chapel services. I promised to try, but there were few opportunities during combat to go to church.
Back in Camp Roberts, at one time Bob had been given special duty for about three weeks, in which he was to help oversee some firing tests with machine guns. He was beside these machine guns every day, all day long, for that period of time. He came out of that experience with a hearing loss. It was so pronounced that when Virginia called him on the phone from home, he had to have someone listen and give her message to him because he couldn't hear over the phone.
Bob should not have gone overseas with a hearing loss being that severe. He and I went together to get our physical tests prior to our going overseas. The physical was given by Maj. Leathers, who was our battalion's doctor.
Dr. Leathers knew that both of us were determined that we were not going to let anything stand in the way of our going overseas with our unit. We would have been brokenhearted if we could not go. I remember the test quite well. The hearing test certainly was nothing sophisticated. All the doctor did was hold up a watch a foot or so from each ear, and as he moved it toward our heads he said, "Tell me when you can hear this watch ticking." I was amazed to find that, in his naivete, the doctor didn't catch on to what Bob did.
As the doctor moved the watch toward his ear, Bob said, almost immediately, "Oh, I hear that fine." I knew he was lying, and I knew he was lying for a reason. He really wanted to go overseas. He didn't want to be rejected, he wanted to go with the rest of us to perform our duties over there. We all lived together as officers in the battalion.
The doctor already knew about Bob's hearing loss, but he didn't mention it on this medical report. So Bob went overseas.
I mention that just now to say that when we got down to the maneuvers in Louisiana, a funny little incident happened that Bob laughed about a great deal, and thought it was really funny.
At one point we were practicing crossing a river with some infantry in some boats, I think they may have been rafts. Some of us were handed oars. We were to do our own rowing as we went across. Bob kept his oar in, and as he brought it back he, evidently, didn't have it deep in the water and he splashed water on an infantryman who happened to be sitting behind him. The infantryman yelled at him, "Don't do that again!" But, he did it again. He didn't hear the infantryman at all and he splashed him again.
This happened three times. Each time the infantryman yelled at him and said, "Don't do that again!" But he did. The reason, of course, was that he didn't hear the man speak to him.
So, Bob was sitting there innocently, not realizing anything had happened, when the soldier behind him took off his helmet, dipped it in the water and tipped a full helmet full of water over Bob's head and drenched him. Naturally, Bob was surprised, not knowing that anything like this was about to happen, and not having any inkling as to why it happened.
He saw the humor in it, however, and he laughed with all of us over the incident. Bob just laughed it off, and we went on with the exercise.
As I said, Bob went overseas then as our forward observer. Forward observers were somewhat expendable. We were told before we went overseas that there was a heavy rate of casualty for forward observers. Bob was our first one.
While we were stationed in Arracourt, France, there was a tank battle which took place, and our tank destroyers were involved in this. Bob was out as a forward observer.
He stood under the gun barrel of a tank destroyer, which I think fired a .75 mm shell. He stood underneath it, just in toward the vehicle a little. A tank destroyer was a track vehicle that was armored, but not as heavily as a tank.
Standing there, he could look across the distance at the German tanks, they were in direct line of sight. Bob brought artillery fire on those tanks, and stood there without taking cover while the tanks continued to fire at these tank destroyer vehicles. Bob proceeded in this venture in putting artillery fire on some of those tanks.
For that, Bob was awarded a Silver Star. The Sunday following that, long before the award was granted, of course, Bob came by my pup tent. It was a Sunday morning. I didn't know that there was a chapel service arranged nearby. We had no chaplain with a FaBn.
The only time we could have chapel services would be if we were close to a unit that had a chaplain, like an Army headquarters, or some larger unit that happened to have one. This time we were not far from a Third Army field headquarters, where a chaplain was stationed. Bob had heard about it. He came by my tent and he asked me to go to church with him.
Remember the story I told you about Virginia asking me to get Bob to church? On this occasion it was Bob who brought the subject up. We went to church.
To the best of my recollection, since there were very few opportunities to go to chapel, I believe this was the time that the service was underway, under the direction of a chaplain whose last name was Ray, from Texas. We were having communion. In the middle of the communion service, German planes swooped down on the area and began strafing.
We all took cover. There were no casualties among those that were near where I was, and as soon as the planes had left, we all went back to our positions and completed the communion service.
That was on Sunday following the week in which Bob had become a true hero and earned a Silver Star. Bob never knew about the Silver Star, because in two or three days after that, on the 25th of September, Bob was up on a hill with his radio operator, directing fire of the artillery, when the radio operator heard an incoming shell. He dove for cover, but Bob stood there, continuing to look at the target that he had in mind for his next fire order. Bob was hit and killed.
It was my feeling, and that of the operator who was with him, that Bob's hearing was the reason that he continued to stand, because the radio operator heard the shell and took cover, but Bob did not. I'm not sure that is true. We judged that at the time, but we also eemembered that when he was under shelling from the tanks that he stood his ground and continued his job. So, it may have been another act of bravery. I lost my best friend in the service in that way.
Bob was so well liked in C Battery that when the word of his death got back to us, there was general grief and terrible sobbing among the men at Bob's death. When it became necessary to get his personal belongings together, and to ship them out, everybody, all the men, enlisted men and officers alike, wanted to do what they could to help do it. When our first firing duties came after that, they all shouted, "We're doing this for Bob!" And they went to work, working hard at their jobs.
I might say that upon our return to the states, after Eleanor and I were married, we had occasion to receive a visit from his widow, Virginia, and we enjoyed that. She had gone to work for the American Red Cross, and was, I believe, stationed at a camp down in South Carolina. We later heard that she had remarried, but eventually lost touch with her.
she asked about the events, and I told her about them. And she, of course,
had already found out that Bob had received the Silver Star posthumously.
I could tell her something of the events about that, and also try to answer
her questions, because she really wanted to know whether his hearing loss
had anything to do with his death. To this day I don't really know the
answer to that, I could nly tell her as I just explained it to you.
10. Infiltration: There was another event that might not have been a particularly happy occasion. It was really an act of war, but since all of us in our unit survived it, and there were no injuries, we could look back on it and laugh about certain elements of it.
While we were stationed in Arracourt, a German contingent infiltrated our position. We never did know exactly what their idea was. I have read in books about it since, that these groups were traveling through, trying to escape from areas where they had been surrounded. But I don't think, considering the direction that these came from this particular night, that that was the case. I think they really were coming in perhaps with the intent of blowing up our guns, or attacking us as individuals.
It was a very dark night. One could see some sky, but not very clearly. I was standing back of the guns. Try to picture these four howitzers spread out with about 200 yards between the first and the last of the four. They were not in a direct line, but a somewhat staggered line.
My position, equidistant from the first and last howitzers, formed a triangle about midway between them.
I was close to a little road. When I heard voices on the road, I heard the sentry from one of our gun positions yell, "Halt!" A voice in English said, "Oh, it's all right, we're just coming through." That puzzled me because there was no attempt to give a password or identify what group was coming through, so I listened intently.
Fortunately I had not lost my hearing at that time. The next I heard were the sounds of German being spoken, which tipped me off immediately that these were not our troops coming through, but German troops instead. I fell to the ground and I began to fire with what we called the "burp gun." It fired .45 caliber shells, and it had two 16-round clips. I succeeded in firing off both clips of this, and by that time a lot of firing was taking place. I realized that there was confusion among the infiltrators, but we didn't know where they went. We did find out in the morning that we were able to capture most of them. One or two had been killed, but they didn't advance any further beyond that point. Some of them tried to get into a field in order to sneak away, but we were keeping a close watch on them.
During this time, in the middle of the night, I was determined to stay alert to see if anybody started moving in my direction. I fixed my eyes on a figure. By crouching down, I could just see this figure in spite of the darkness over the sky line. I took my position close to the ground, with my gun reloaded now, aimed at that figure, and thinking that if it moved at all I'd begin firing again. I watched it all through the rest of the night, until enough daylight came for me to realize that I had zeroed in on a fence post. So, needless to say, I got quite a kidding from some of those around me.
Lest you think that I had been the source of the rounds that had caused fatalities among the Germans, let me tell you that there was a slope up toward this road, and then to the fence line that was just beyond it. In the morning, when everything had gotten clearer, we rounded up all of the Germans and got them off to a prisoner of war camp.
Then I began looking around. I could count most of my rounds in the ground. They had been fired into the side of this hill. I hadn't been firing high enough, so I did no damage. But some of the men in our unit said that just the fact that I fired had scared them and made them scatter.
One of the Germans, when questioned, said that they knew they were in trouble when the machine gun opened up. It wasn't a machine gun at all, it was just this little hand-held weapon which we called a "burp gun." Its .45 caliber shells were deadly, of course, but they didn't hit their mark.
That particular episode leads me to tell you about a PFC who worked in the section that I worked with most. He was the oldest replacement we received. There was a period of time when, during the war, replacements were needed so badly that they drafted men up to and including the age of 38, which seemed to me to be quite old. You must remember, I was only 24 at that time, and most of us were that age or younger. We had a lot who had been drafted at age 18, that started after the war got going, so we had some very young ones.
This soldier, John Nill, was an older man. He was 38, which was old for us, a very pleasant fellow. We used to insist that we not use titles with those we worked with all the time, and I tried my best to get him to stop addressing me as Lieutenant Whiteley. He explained to me that he really believed that in the Army respect should be shown to the officers, and that he intended to continue to address me that way, because he couldn't do otherwise. He felt that was what he had to do. And while I didn't like it, and I told him so, he was determined to always address me as Lieutenant Whiteley.
In the middle of this night, when we were infiltrated by enemy troops, I heard a quiet voice near me that said, "Whiteley, Whiteley, is that you?" And it startled me for a while. There were many who just used the last name, that was not uncommon in the Army, we called lots of men by just their last names, but among those right around me not many did, some called me by my first name, but this voice said, "Whiteley, Whiteley, is that you?" And I tried to figure out whose voice it was. I thought it sounded like John Nill, but he never had said Whiteley, it was always Lieutenant Whiteley.
So, in the morning, when I found out it, indeed, was him, I said "I was surprised, not shocked, to find that you would do that, because you always told me you insisted on referring to me as Lieutenant Whiteley." He said, "Well, if there were German soldiers around, I didn't want to identify you as an officer, so I dropped the lieutenant."
I think I've gone about as far as I can with the more serious things that happened at Arracourt, but I want to tell about another individual who was an associate of mine. We had constructed a little camper, as we'd call it now, on the back of a three-quarter ton truck. The Army had no vehicles like that, that were enclosed, but we wanted a place where we could use lights, so that at night we could figure our firing data, because that always had to be done.
We usually would receive the orders to us in terms of shifting a shell explosion a hundred or 200 yards one way or the other, to the left or right, or farther out, or farther in. And, of course, we had to transcribe that into commands for the guns, in terms of both vertical and horizontal angles, and then change it into firing data.
So, of course, at night it was difficult to do under blackout conditions. We had constructed this little building on the back of a three-quarter ton truck, like a camper. I didn't see any more campers until after the war, when they began to be popular, but that's, essentially, what it was. It was an enclosed vehicle in which two or three of us could get to do this figuring, and it became our kind of message center.
Our telephones went out to the gun positions from there. There was a radio operator in our battery, a T4 Sergeant, by the name of Carson Scarbrough. Carson was a guitarist. He was one of the National Guardsmen from Tennessee. He used to play the guitar and sing, and tried his best to sound like Roy Acuff singing "Wabash Cannonball," or "The Great Speckled Bird."
Somewhere along the line someone had found a violin. I never asked questions about how they got it, or where they got it, but they brought me the violin. So, Carson and I would get inside this little camper, when we were not busy with something else, and play.
a violinist, and I was not a fiddler. I had never even tried fiddling Tennessee
style. Carson used to try his best to get me to slide my fingers on the
strings, and give it that wailing sound that he was used to down in East
Tennessee. I don't think I ever satisfied him in that regard, but we did
have a lot of fun with our music.