My name is Jim. My story begins here, when I was an 18 year old soldier in the horrible disaster we call "The Second World War." These are the events that led to my writing this blog sixty years later.
Read on, share my journey, and join the global team of humans who have discovered what went wrong in our human history and are working to correct it -- while there is still time.
|Strategic location of Alsace|
It was dawn of the frozen morning of January 2, 1945 in a snow-covered forest in the northern region of Alsace, France. I was lying asleep on the hard ground, fully dressed in several layers of U.S. Army winter uniform. The clothing had kept me from freezing during the night, but as the daylight woke me I found that my muscles and joints were stiff and sore from the cold. As my eyes blinked open I wondered where I was, and why. Raising myself on one elbow I looked around, saw five other huddled forms, and then I remembered.
From dawn of New Year’s Day our American force had been fighting through a seemingly endless, snow-covered forest in a furious battle with an attacking German force, and by sundown we were exhausted. Seeking a place to spend the night, six of us young Pfc’s. (Privates First Class) in an "A" Company light machine gun squad had climbed part way up a high, steep hill to a small clearing in the trees. On reaching it we found a shallow depression which overlooked the junction of three narrow roads; from the size and shape of the depression we judged that a concrete bunker had been built there by the French to control the roads but had long since been destroyed by the occupying Germans.
|American soldier peering across a snowy field, 1945, Battle of the Bulge.|
That same evening "B" Company had taken positions on a hillside across the road to the right of us, and as the morning mists lifted we looked over to see what they were doing. They were some distance away, but we could see them moving among the pine trees in their overcoats, batting their arms to get warm. Then we suddenly realized; overcoats! We don’t wear overcoats! They were enemy soldiers. We had lost contact with our own "A" Company, and now "B" Company was gone; we were alone in enemy territory, and probably surrounded!
The events which had led directly to our plight had begun two and a half weeks before, during what became known, because of the shape of the battleground, as The Battle of the Bulge. It was fought during the coldest, snowiest winter "in memory," and involved over a million men: 500 thousand Germans, 600 thousand Americans, 55 thousand British, plus contingents of Belgians, Canadians, and French.
|The "Bulge": dotted line shows how far the Germans advanced.|
By the fall of 1944 Hitler's generals had seen that defeat for Germany was inevitable, and some of them said the Western Front should be allowed to collapse and all of Germany's force be used to hold back the Russians. They thought it better that Germany be overrun by the Western Allies than by the Reds. But Hitler, the insane, murderous, fascist dictator, believed himself to be infallible, and that if he and his Third Reich were to fall it would be because the Germans were unworthy of his leadership; he felt that if this proved to be the case, there was no reason why Germany and Germans deserved to survive him. Against the advice of his generals he personally planned what he thought to be a master stroke.
By a surprise attack they would break through the weak Allied sector in the Ardennes Forest in Luxembourg, then race across Belgium and capture the great port of Antwerp, thereby splitting the Allied armies in two. While the Allies reeled back, the Germans could race back across Germany and defeat the Russian offensive that was expected to begin early in 1945. The German generals said the plan could not succeed, but Hitler overrode them. Using its extraordinary organizational skills the German high command scraped together most of their strategic reserves, some taken from the Eastern Front, to form a formidable force of 38 divisions, including two Panzer (armored) armies, the Fifth and Sixth. They waited for a period of bad weather to come in and ground the Allied air forces, and early on the morning of December 16, 1944, they struck.
Under cover of heavy fog, the 38 German divisions advanced along a 50-mile front, after armored units had overrun several First Army units, which had been given no warning about the enemy buildup. By Christmas Day the "blitz" attack had driven 60 miles, almost to the Meuse River. On the way they had surrounded the town of Bastogne in the southern Ardennes. Ordered to surrender, the Commander of the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne gave his subsequently famous reply: "Nuts!"
|"Refugees evacuate the Belgian town of Bastogne while American troops |
hold the town against the power thrusts by the Germans."
Heavy fog continued to prevent Allied planes from giving much-needed air support to Allied forces fighting on the ground. In spite of having no winter clothing or boots, being short of ammunition, food, and medical supplies, no artillery or tanks, freezing in their foxholes, and being horrendously bombarded by artillery with heavy losses, the 101st held out from December 20 to 26 and not only slowed the German Fifth Panzer Army, but stopped them--because it kept them from capturing American fuel dumps on which the Germans had counted.
To the great joy of the Allied ground forces, on December 26 the sky cleared--permitting Allied fighter–bombers to range everywhere over the battlefield and give them support, including dropping supplies to Bastogne. Several allied armored divisions crashed into the Germans’ northern flank, and Third Army units fought their way through the Germans’ southern flank to reach the encircled troops at Bastogne.
|airdropping supplies to Bastogne. From |
On the German side, the General Staff wanted to order a fast retreat but Hitler insisted that their troops try to hold every inch of frozen ground. On the Allied side, Patton wanted his Third Army to drive northward and cut off the German troops still in the Bulge, but Eisenhower refused him and ordered the troops to push the enemy back inch by inch through the frozen fields and forests. The hardships of the men fighting on both sides were horrible. A veteran later said the feeling was that if you were lucky, you would be hit in the leg, because if you were hit in the arm you would be bandaged and sent right back into the line; but if you were really lucky you would be hit in the head, because in those terrible conditions it was easier to die than it was to live.
The casualties were enormous. By mid-January the Germans had been pushed back to where they had started from--and had lost 100 thousand men killed or wounded, 110 thousand men taken prisoner, and some 800 tanks and most of their remaining aircraft destroyed.
|Medics at Battle of the Bulge. From http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?168880-The-United-States-Army-Thread/page29|
"Field Marshal von Rundstedt pulled a large force out of the battle and sent them against us..."
When the Third Army had moved northward to relieve Bastogne and help stop the enemy advance, it had left a large gap. To fill it units from the Seventh Army, including my armored infantry battalion, had raced northward. This meant that our defenses there were spread thin. When Field Marshal von Rundstedt saw that his attack in the north had failed, and that our defenses south of the Bulge had been weakened, he pulled a large force out of the battle and sent them against us in a final effort to break through. His plan was that even if this new attack did not break through our Seventh Army, it might cause the Third Army to return south, and this would relieve pressure on the German units deep in the Bulge as they fought to withdraw without being cut off and trapped.
The German counterattack hit us before dawn on January 1, 1945. All that day they fought to break through us, and we fought to hold them back. My unit was the 62nd Armored Infantry Battalion of the 14th Armored Division, which formed part of the Seventh Army. Infantry, tanks, and artillery need each other for protection, so our Division included three battalions of each.
The year before...
We land in Marseille; our journey to the snowy hillside, and beyond
The year before, on August 15, 1944, the US Seventh Army and the French First Army had made an amphibious landing near Cannes in southern France, and from there they had fought northward up the Rhone Valley. The Third Army had come from the north, and the two Armies met near Dijon on September 15.
|Amphibious landing, Allied Invason of Southern France.|
After the amphibious landing near Cannes the 14th Armored Division, of which I was a part, landed in the nearby port city of Marseille, and became part of the Seventh Army. Marseille had been occupied by the Allies, so when we landed there our troopship was able to tie up at a pier.
With our duffel bags over our shoulders we walked down the gang planks and were trucked to a large, muddy field outside of the city where we set up our two-man tents and stayed for a week.
"The show was pathetic and I felt sorry for the ladies..."
We were allowed to take the electric train into town, and this was an exciting adventure; there were soldiers and sailors everywhere, wearing uniforms of many colors and countries. One wet night some of us went into a place where we had been told that naked ladies put on a show in order to entice customers to partake of their trade. The show was pathetic and I felt sorry for the ladies, especially since I knew that people had to do whatever they could to get money for food. Just as the performance ended the MPs came in the front door and we went out the back door.
"What I saw in his eyes really scared me..."
On another night I was passing the entrance to an alley and heard someone screaming, so I walked in to see what was happening. There were three G.I.s (U.S. soldiers) holding a screaming, writhing fourth one down on the wet cobblestones. I asked one of the holders what was wrong, and he turned to me and said that the guy was their buddy and they could take care of him. He said that the screaming one had seen too much combat. As he talked we were looking into each other’s faces, and what I saw deep in his eyes really scared me: the horrors of war, the shadows of death, heavy tiredness and sadness, and pity for me--the young, green recruit.
Our Division was split into several units, and from Marseille my unit went northward by rail up the Rhone Valley to Epinal. The Germans had taken all of the good rolling stock so we were riding in WW I boxcars. The train kept stopping, waiting, and starting, and the trip lasted three days. We ran out of food so I jumped down and pulled a rutabaga out of a field and ate it raw. It might have been all right by itself, but I drank some canned grapefruit juice with it and was really sick for about three days.
"It was a rough ride, but we were young..."
|Half-Track tank. From Bryan Bell's blog:|
An Infantry Platoon Leader in Patton's Army
In Epinal we got into our vehicles, called "halftracks." They had wheels in front and tracks behind so that they could negotiate rough terrain and keep up with the tanks and self-propelled field artillery. The halftracks had a closed cab in front and an open rectangular metal box in the rear with a bench seat along each side. The driver and the two sergeants sat in the front and the other nine of us in our machine gun squad sat facing each other on the two benches with our legs squeezed between each other’s. It was a rough ride, but we were young. A 50 caliber machine gun was mounted above the cab, and our three 30 caliber light machine guns were mounted on the armored sides in the back.
"The people lined the main street and cheered us... "
My Company "A" was made part of a Combat Command which included tanks, and we rolled eastward along a road in a long column. I can not remember whether it was when we were going through Epinal or through some other town that the people lined the main street and cheered us and handed us gifts of fruit, wine, and flowers.
"I tried to crawl completely into my helmet..."
We kept rolling eastward, and after a while a German reconnaissance plane zoomed very low directly along our column, but was out of sight before we could fire at it. Shortly afterward an artillery shell burst to the right of us about 100 yards away, so the column halted and we jumped out of our halftrack and into a ditch by the side of the road. A second shell burst nearer, and then a third nearer still. I suddenly realized that the bursts were in a direct line toward me, and that if there were a fourth one it would land right where I was. In the States I had thought about the possibility of being wounded, but this was the first time I realized that I could get blown into pieces. I tried to crawl completely into my helmet, and just then a shell zipped right over me and exploded on the other side of the road. No men or vehicles had been hit, so we rolled on unhurt. But I had a new and sinking feeling about the future.
I do not remember where it was that I first saw a dead German soldier. He was lying on his face on the ground and his skin was gray like his uniform. I was very shocked and felt a sickness in my stomach because I realized that he was a person. He was middle sized and looked just like us, except that he had on a different uniform and he was really, really dead, because somebody like us had killed him. I thought that the war was almost unbelievably horrible and inhuman.
We soon learned that our first mission was to fight our way through the Vosges Mountains, which we did. The road climbed up and down with many switchbacks across valleys, and these were the Germans’ favorite places to fell trees and build roadblocks. At one point our side of a wide switchback in the road was blocked and enemy soldiers were firing on us from the other side of the valley. Our tanks were equipped to move the block, but would not have been able to proceed past it for fear of the deadly German anti-tank bazookas. The tanks fired cannon shell after shell at the enemy, but they were too well dug in for direct fire to hit them. We infantrymen could have circled around behind them, but we had a better idea. Our mortar squad came up and lobbed two shells up into the air so that they fell down into the foxholes. I was astounded to see that immediately some 30 soldiers leaped up with their hands raised high. They were escorted back as prisoners, a bulldozer tank cleared the way, and we moved on to the next roadblock.
|Topographic map of Alsace from Wikipedia. It shows the mountains we went through, and where we came out at Colmar.|
Much of this area is now a protected nature reserve.
After several days we emerged from the mountains onto the Plain of Alsace, and after the war I learned that this was the first time in history that an attacking force had been able to pass through the Vosges when they were being defended, as the mountains were a natural fortress. However, as I write this I realize that we were just lucky. At this time the German High Command could not spare even one tank to defend the south of France. They were all needed in the north and on the Russian Front. In the mountains even one Tiger tank could have given us a very hard time, because it had a bigger cannon than our tanks had. But it was good training for us green troops, and it was scary, because we thought there was a tank with the dreaded 88 millimeter cannon waiting around every turn in the road.
|soldiers in Colmar. (From lonesentry.com, a|
collection of photos and documents)
"Hotdog, I've been hit...."
In one town where we dismounted I was walking along the side of a building when I heard a shot and felt something hit my pant leg. I thought, "Hotdog, I’ve been hit, and it doesn’t even hurt, and I’ll be sent back!" But the bullet had hit the wall and a piece of something had hit my pant leg without even tearing it. What a disappointment. And I couldn’t find the sniper.
When we reached the town of Barr a terrible mistake was made, because it was reported that it was unoccupied. Instead of having us dismount and go in first as infantry, they let some tanks lead. When we went through the town in our halftracks it was a sight I shall never forget. What had been four or more moving Sherman tanks were now stationary, fiercely burning hulks, with blackened corpses halfway out of the turrets, their skulls and wrist bones blanched ghastly white. The enemy soldiers had hidden in buildings on both sides of the narrow main street and had waited until the tanks had entered the town; then they had fired their bazookas all at once at short range. The missiles were designed to stick to the side of the tank and burn through setting the tank on fire inside and burning to death the entire crew. All of the enemy soldiers escaped.
"Five minutes later a sniper's bullet hit him in the testicles..."
Once when the column halted on an exposed road our First Lieutenant walked past our halftrack and we asked him why he had a strap fastened from his helmet to his jacket. He said, "Because when I have to run like this, and my helmet falls off like this, I won’t have to stop and pick it up." Five minutes later a sniper’s bullet hit him in the testicles, and we heard that his scrotum swelled like a balloon. We really liked him and were very worried about his wound, but we heard later that he was going to be OK.
"Tracer bullets were making bright red and orange lines as they flew overhead."
Another time we had to dismount on a completely dark night and hold a line across a large open area. It was muddy and there were puddles of ice cold water everywhere. Harold and I set up the machine gun and lay down beside it. I said that I was not going to take cover in a puddle no matter what. Then enemy machine guns began to fire, and tracer bullets were making bright red and orange lines as they flew overhead. We were irresistibly drawn up off the ground to watch them when somebody yelled, "Stay down! Grazing fire!" and I rolled into the nearest puddle. It was a German trick; they fired the tracers high to make us rise up, and fired regular bullets low to the ground to hit us.
Then we heard tanks moving. They always made a lot of noise, with their tracks clanking, and their engines roaring as they constantly shifted gears. But for some reason you could never tell by the sounds in which direction they were moving, whether they were coming at you or going away, which was scary. Then it sounded like the screaming of all of the demons of hell as the Germans fired a fusillade of rockets from the Wofflewerbers, or whatever they called them. We called them Screaming Meemies. Nothing else happened where we were, and we left just before dawn. A crazy night.
|"K" Ration was designed for light weight, high energy.|
|Dragons' Teeth (fortification). Photo from Wikipedia.|
We kept moving northward until one day Lester, who had the best eyesight, said, "Oh my God!" What he had seen were the "dragons' teeth," the concrete anti-tank spikes running row on row in front of the German defenses called the "Siegfried Line." We dismounted and walked toward them, why I shall never know, until suddenly the ground all around us began to erupt with mortar shell explosions. We had seen trenches along the road, so we raced for them and dived in-- all except my best friend, Tommy, who had had both his legs blown off and was killed instantly. We stayed in the trenches all day and watched huge flights of our bombers passing high above us toward Germany.
"The eerie red glow of three towns burning..."
After dark we walked back to our vehicles and bedded down. We were high on a hill, and again I saw a sight I shall never forget: the eerie red glow of three towns burning in the distance. It was deathly quiet and totally surrealistic. The next morning a company of infantry occupied the area and began digging in. They were green, and some were locating their foxholes under trees, so we warned them not to because of shells bursting in the branches, which we called "tree bursts." As we climbed into our halftrack and sat on the benches facing each other, and Tommy was not there any more, I will not attempt to describe my thoughts and feelings, and will say only that I was in shock and very sorry that he got hit and was dead.
At this point our Battalion was in the northernmost region of Alsace, and it was December 30, 1944. We knew what had happened in the Bulge and were expecting a German assault, so "A" and "B" Companies moved to a defensive position in a snow-covered forest. Although the ground was frozen we were able to break through the crust, dig two-man foxholes, and cover them with logs and earth. My "A" Company machine gun squad was two men under strength because of one dead and one sick, and the rifle, mortar, and machine gun squads in other companies of the battalion were also under strength because of men killed, or wounded, or sick, or frostbitten.
New Year’s Eve we were on special alert, as there had been enemy forces attacking on our flanks and an attack was expected at any time on our own position. Covered in snow on this moonlit night, the terrain was thought to be in our favor, as we could observe without being seen. Yet at 3:00 AM on New Year’s Day a signal flare was tripped in "A" Company’s sector at the barbed wire, and its light revealed a large enemy combat patrol, clad in white, which had advanced to within 50 yards of us without being seen. We fired on them and called on our self-propelled artillery, which was behind us, to fire forward of our position.
After the barrage our investigating patrol went out and had just returned when a terrific enemy artillery barrage was brought to bear on our position. Fortunately our well-roofed foxholes prevented us from having casualties, but the barrage was followed by the advance of enemy tanks and infantry. Having no tanks nearby we withdrew and called our artillery to fire on them. This caused them to withdraw, so we counter-attacked. We fired at anything we saw in front of us that was not a tree. Then we got too far away from our defensive position and pulled back.
This see-sawing back and forth continued all through the day and we became greatly fatigued. The various units in our force intermingled and lines of communication broke down. How many men on either side were being wounded or killed was unknown to us.
During one of the times when we were pulling back a man whom I did not know sat on a log and said he didn’t care what happened, he wasn’t moving. Just then one of the extremely rapid firing German automatic pistols, a "burp gun" as we called it because of the sound it made, was fired nearby. "Br-r-r-r-r-r-r-rp!!!" The man sprang from the log and said, "Let’s go!" As we had been ordered to withdraw to our defense line we did so and held it.
"I always wondered what I would have done if the grenade’s pin had come all the way out..."
Another incident wired permanently into my memory is that when I first scrambled out of my foxhole to attack I grabbed two cardboard tubes containing hand grenades, and while walking along at a swift pace pulled one tube apart too fast. It popped open, the grenade flew out and fell on the ground, and to my horror I saw that the pin had come almost all the way out of it. My hands were numb with cold but I managed to pick up the grenade, push the pin back in, and stow the grenade in my fieldjacket pocket, all while walking quickly along, holding a 30 caliber machine gun on one shoulder, with my carbine slung over my other shoulder. I always wondered what I would have done if the grenade’s pin had come all the way out, as there were men all around me.
|American patrol moves toward German tank. From|
"...the iron monsters..."
At one point in the battle a member of my squad fired our bazooka and broke the track mechanism of a German tank. However, its guns kept us pinned down while another tank came and dragged it away. We thought it was a very brave act by the tankers, but were disappointed at not having been able to capture the tank. Nevertheless, it is a frightening feeling to be pinned down by a rapidly firing tank cannon, not knowing if another tank will suddenly come clanking and roaring right at you, and I was quite relieved when the iron monsters went away.
"no one knew... where he ought to be."
By late afternoon units on our right and left flanks had been forced to give ground to the enemy, so to prevent our being encircled the order was given to withdraw to secondary defense positions. As we walked along a narrow forest road our column was suddenly strafed by an enemy plane, but we leaped off the road and the machine gun bullets missed us by a few feet. We were surprised that the Luftwaffe still had pilots and planes to send against us. By this time it was evening and everyone was exhausted. It had been a terrible, chaotic day and, as was usual during a fight, it seemed that no one knew what was going on, or who was winning or losing, or where he ought to be.
As I've said, six of our machine gun squad had managed to stick together. We were all about 19 years of age, and all Pfc's.
"We ate some 'K' Rations and went to sleep..."
As it grew dark we climbed a hill, found the aforementioned depression, and took cover in it for the night. We ate some "K" Rations and went to sleep, but around midnight were awakened by the noise of moving tanks and firing. From then on the night passed very slowly and was a frightening time, with the sounds of unseen tanks coming and going, and the darkness being pierced periodically by the bright red lines of tracer bullets sailing around. Then down on the road below us there was the sound of running feet, followed by shots, and then right below us someone moaning.
We could see nothing, and had no idea of who was where or why. It seemed the moaning would go on forever, but finally it stopped and I went to sleep again.
At daylight on January 2nd I awoke with the others and found that the hillside across the road to the right of us had been vacated by "B" Company and was now occupied by the large force of enemy soldiers. We kept down out of sight, and could do nothing but watch and wait. After a while all of the overcoated figures climbed down the hillside to the road below us and walked along it in our direction. There were many of them, and we did not know how many more of them might be nearby, so we were very relieved as we thought they were leaving the area. To our great alarm however, as they arrived below us they began climbing the hillside directly across the road from us.
There was room on the side of the depression for only two persons, so Louis and I lay on our stomachs peering over the edge while the other four kept out of sight at our feet. It was clear that the enemy was unaware of our presence. They were laughing and calling to each other as they climbed up the wooded hillside, sometimes slipping on the snow. Louis and I looked at each other, and asked each other what in the hell we had better do. We did not know why they were climbing the hillside, but we figured that if they got to a point higher than our hiding place they would see us. Having nothing to hide behind we would have to engage in a fire-fight with a greatly larger force, or surrender. The former course was suicidal and we thought the latter might be too, as we had recently heard of the atrocity committed up north, where Nazi SS troops had massacred over one hundred Allied prisoners in an open field.
We assumed that our forces had pulled back and that we were alone in enemy territory. We had planned to wait until nightfall, and then try to slip through and rejoin our Company, but this new development destroyed our plan. Louis and I selected a certain place on the hillside being climbed by the enemy soldiers and agreed that if they climbed that high we would open fire. He would take the left, and I the right. I trained the sights of my carbine on the man highest up on the right, tightened my finger slightly on the trigger, and waited.
"We had seen many horrible sights..."
As he climbed I thought to myself, "My God, I am about to kill a man! How did I get into this?" It was not that killing and death were new to me. We had been in many fire-fights, and had seen many horrible sights: close friends wounded or killed; soldiers on both sides bloody, maimed, dead, bloated; the blackened corpses halfway out of the turrets of the burning Sherman tanks; horses and cows with parts of their legs blown off, screaming, stumbling backwards with wildly terrified eyes.
I had fired at many targets, from our moving halftrack and from on foot. But I had never known for sure whether or not I had hit or killed anyone. It had always been so chaotic during a fight, with so much running around, and terrible noise and explosions, and smoke, and stench, that it was impossible to know exactly what was happening... and we always left immediately afterward, going on to the next fight and leaving someone else to count and dispose of the corpses.
This was very different. Now, I was looking directly at another person, who was laughing and full of life, and I was quietly, consciously, preparing to kill him in cold blood... to shoot him in the back without warning. But if I did not kill him, he was going to kill me.
"Anyway," I thought, "I am supposed to kill him. I am a soldier, and he is the enemy, and I was put in this uniform, and given this gun, and trained to kill him. This is what they sent me across the ocean to do.
"But I don’t even know this guy. Who the hell had the right to put me in this position? Why did I let them put me in this position? Because I was ignorant and naive. But that was then and this is now. You can’t let Louis and the other guys down. You can’t be a yellow coward. OK. Do it. But on one condition. If you get out of this, if you get home again, you will work the rest of your life to make sure that no one will ever be able to put you or anyone else in this position again. Now squeeze!"I squeezed the trigger and through my sights saw a figure slump. I squeezed again and he fell to the ground and slid a short way down the hillside, leaving a dark track in the snow. Louis had fired at the same moment, and I saw a figure to the left fall and slide a way down. Louis had to hit them only once with his M-1 rifle, but with my carbine I had to hit them twice. It evened out though, as my clip held more bullets than his. We both kept firing as fast as we could move our sights from one figure to another, and the other guys handed us new clips of ammunition as we needed them.
As Louis and I fired, I had a feeling of great excitement and elation. It was not because I was killing persons, because once I had begun firing they were no longer persons, but dangerous, feared, highly-trained, weapon-using enemies. The excitement and elation came from having made and carried out the decision not to be immobilized, not to be helpless, rather to have had the ability to take our lives into our own hands, and to fight for our survival, and to be doing it effectively, even though we thought we would probably not live to tell the tale. Put somewhat differently, once it was clear that someone was going to do it to someone, I was very glad that we were doing it to them rather than they doing it to us.
As we kept firing, figures kept falling, and sliding, until there was no more movement on the hillside. Most of them had not been hit, as they had taken cover behind trees and rocks. We stopped firing and I laid down my carbine and put the machine gun up on the edge. If anyone moved I put a burst of fire at him.
As we were wondering what could happen next there was a terrific explosion on the hill occupied by the enemy, followed by two more such explosions. Suddenly the enemy soldiers began moving and I fired a burst with the machine gun.
"Cease firing, cease firing!"
At that moment, to our great amazement voices from down the road to the left shouted, "Cease firing, cease firing!" and all of the enemy soldiers on the hillside stood up with their hands raised above their heads. We thought it had to be a trick, but they had seen something we could not yet see.
|Sherman Tank, WW II|
After a few seconds we heard the roar of engines and the clanking of tracks, and around the bend in the road came a most welcome and beautiful sight... two Sherman tanks, followed by men wearing fieldjackets and carrying rifles. The explosions on the enemy’s hill had been from shells fired by the tanks’ cannons. The leader of "A" Company, Captain Iannella, had made it back to our line and had found about 10 men, including the battalion cooks, and had obtained two tanks from down the line to relieve us. Caught in a crossfire between our two forces the German force had no choice but to surrender or be annihilated. I felt guilty that I had fired a burst before I knew they were trying to surrender, and hoped I had not hit anyone, though I thought I had.
We learned later that all along our battalion defense line there had been heavy fighting through the previous day and night and that morning. About 20 "A" Company men had held out in a shallow trench near us. A lieutenant had tried to find an escape route but was wounded by rifle fire and fell to the ground. A sergeant ran out from the trench, reached the wounded man, and brought him the several hundred feet back to the trench. Amazingly, neither he nor the lieutenant were hit by enemy fire aimed at them.
When our tanks arrived, the enemy soldiers who had had these men pinned down were also caught in a crossfire, and surrendered. Infiltrating enemy patrols had forced "B" Company to fall back to new positions during the night, but with the aid of 4.2 mortars they held out. Many of our men were killed, wounded, or missing, but except in one place we had been able to hold the line against a numerically superior force. The men of Headquarters Company and "C" Company had held the town of Bannstein during fierce infantry fighting, but were forced to abandon it when German tanks came and began smashing down the buildings in which they had taken cover. A section of Headquarters Company was surrounded and cut off completely, and the fate of the men was still unknown.
No account of combat should ignore the role of the Medic, the Aid Man with each platoon who went under as much fire as anyone, but without a weapon to protect himself. When someone was hit he or someone near would yell, "Medic!" and would expect him to come running over to staunch the flow of blood, stick the morphine needle in to numb the pain, sprinkle the sulfa powder on the wound, splint the broken bone, or do whatever was needed. I did not realize it until I was writing this, but the fact that we expected him to come, regardless of the danger to which he had to expose himself, was the highest tribute we could give him. Too many of these unprotected heroes died in their attempts to save others.
The blog where I found this photo (see link, above) has a very moving tribute to medics.
Shortly after the enemy attack had been launched we had been told that a regiment of infantry was to arrive soon to relieve our battalion, and they happened to arrive shortly after the German force surrendered. They were excited to see so many prisoners, but they had not yet been in combat and to their eyes the scene of dead and wounded men was horrible. But those of us who had just come through two hellish days of fighting for survival could see only that one more bad time was over, that we were still alive, that we were finally being relieved, that we might get to go someplace where we could sleep, eat, and get dry and warm, and that these poor dastards relieving us hadn't yet learned how to take care of themselves and were going to get the shit kicked out of them by the Krauts, but that there was nothing we could do about it. (About half of our words were very obscene but very satisfying.) We learned later that this is exactly what happened to them.
"...our dream of eating, sleeping, and keeping warm came true"
Leaving the infantry regiment to replace us we withdrew to the village of Ingwiller, where we had outpost duty for a week and our dream of eating, sleeping, and keeping warm came true. We had hot meals at the battalion portable outdoor kitchen, and stayed in a big, old, wonderful farmhouse owned by an unforgettable farmer named Irgen. He was about 50 years old, with sparkling eyes, red cheeks, and tousled red hair. He was full of life, quite jovial, and seemed really to like us and to consider us his boys. He gave us delicious apples, cider, and schnapps.
|The village of Ingwiller in a warmer, more peaceful season. The area has been preserved as part of the|
North Vosges Nature Park, a designated Biosphere Reserve, and is now a popular hiking destination.
Irgen spoke English fairly well with a German accent, and we asked him if he thought of himself as being German or French. He replied, "I am Alsatian. When the French come, I speak French. When the Germans come, I speak German. If the Chinese come tomorrow, I will speak Chinese. But I am Alsatian." As I write this, I realize that he was too much of a gentleman to add that with our coming, he was speaking English. Irgen was what the harassed people of Europe had to be - a survivor.
"Irgen made him drink his share..."
I was 5 ft/8½ in tall and weighed 140 pounds; Irgen was about my height but heavier, and quite strong and nimble. He led six of us up two flights of stairs to a big loft under the roof where apples and other fruits were drying, and gave us down comforters; two of us slept on a bed and four of us on the floor on straw mattresses. Each morning while we were getting up Irgen would come up and make everyone take a drink of schnapps, insisting that it was good for us. It was strong stuff, and after the fifth day Louis said he couldn't take it any more and hid under the bed. When Irgen came up he poured the five of us glasses of schnapps, and then wandered around the room saying, "Ver’s der Looie? Ver’s der Looie?" Louis was about my size, with red hair and gold wire-rimmed spectacles. Irgen found him under the bed, pulled him out by one leg, and made him drink his share while sitting on the floor in his long johns.
On January 12, though numerically far under strength, the Battalion was again committed to combat. It was the first time that the units of the Battalion had all been together, and the first time that we had all been under the command of our Battalion Commander. We thought that all of us being under our own officer would be better for us than when we were split into units under other officers.
Before dawn we climbed into our halftracks and moved toward the enemy line. As the daylight came we dismounted and found ourselves in the midst of a great expanse of rolling farmland covered in snow; on orders, we spread out across an open field behind a wide crest. The Captain of "A" Company was leading the advance, and on his signal we moved up toward the crest. Upon reaching it, he called out to us to halt and dig in. The commanding officer of the battalion, a Lieutenant Colonel, had stayed behind, but at this point he came running out to us and I heard him say to the Captain, "Why’d you stop?!" The Captain then called out, "OK men, let’s go!" The Lieutenant Colonel then ran back to where he had come from.
"... the last command I heard..."
Ahead of and horizontal to us lay a valley. The land went in a long slope downward, at the bottom of which it rose again in a long slope upward. We left the crest and started down the open slope in a spread-out formation about 200 yards wide. I was in the front of the formation, near the Captain, and when we had descended about 50 yards we heard an ear-splitting roar behind us. We looked back and saw the entire length of the crest disappear in a cloud of dirt and smoke. I was so shocked that for a second I could neither understand nor believe what had happened. Then I had the terrifying realization that we were caught in a trap, and that the explosions behind us were the first volley of the most horrendous and concentrated German artillery barrage that I had ever seen. The Captain yelled, "All right men, no one’s been hurt yet! Keep going!" We kept going, but the line of explosions swept down the slope in a moving barrage right onto our entire formation. The last command I heard was the Captain yelling, "Get those automatic weapons going!"
"I had no idea what he was firing at, and never found out..."
Harold, who two days before had rejoined the squad, immediately threw the machine gun tripod to the ground and took the prone position behind it. As Peter came running over with a cannister of ammunition I set the machine gun into the tripod, then fed the belt of ammunition into the breach as Harold worked the cocking mechanism and began firing. I had no idea what he was firing at, and never found out, because after a few seconds he was hit in the throat by a piece of shrapnel and crawled backward away from the gun. In a state of shock, and not knowing what else to do, I crawled behind the gun and began firing at what appeared to be something or someone in the distance, but there was so much smoke and flying debris I could not be sure.
A few seconds later there was a terrific explosion to my immediate right; my steel helmet was blown off my head, my wire-rimmed spectacles were blown off my face, and there was a loud ringing in my ears and the taste of blood in my mouth. It felt as if someone had hit me a stunning blow square in the face with a big, hard boxing glove. After the ringing toned down a bit I found that my right eye was closed and my right hand would not work; but I figured I would survive. I remember thinking that after what I had done to the enemy, I could not complain that he did it back to me.
But just then another shell burst immediately to my left and shattered both bones in my left leg below my knee and above my boot. My leg flipped around in the air for a few seconds, bending at the break. I remember being angry because it seemed to me that having been hit once was enough, and that hitting me twice was going too far. In retrospect, I remember that I was hitting them twice with my carbine, so now I know how they too must have felt. From the extreme way my leg had been flopping around below the break I assumed the artery had been severed, and that I would bleed to death.
Using my left hand, I pulled out my boot lace and tried to use it as a tourniquet, but I was wearing heavy clothing and was not able to twist it tight. I pulled the hood of my fieldjacket over my head and lay back in the snow. Lying there I remembered that we were instructed to destroy our guns to keep the enemy from using them against us. The only thing I could think of to do in my condition was to try to hold back the trigger of the machine gun and burn out the barrel. I began firing, but suddenly a bullet just missed the top of my skull and snapped the hood of my fieldjacket back off my head, and I got the message. I stopped firing, pulled out my handkerchief and waved it back and forth a few times in a token of surrender.
"I thought, Now it’s my turn."
By this time I was quite tired and weak; I must have felt totally helpless, abandoned, alone, and terrified, because I remember calling out for my Mother. Finally I assumed I was going to die, so I gave up and lay back in the snow, feeling somewhat ashamed at having waved the surrender flag. At that moment I remembered the American volunteer in Hemingway's story about the Spanish war, For Whom the Bell Tolls. At the end of the story he too had his leg broken by enemy fire, and lying on the ground behind his machine gun he could feel his heart beating against the pine needles as he waited for the moment when he was to die. I thought, "Now it’s my turn." and closed my eye and went to sleep.
|Half-track equipped for medics. From|
I was not rescued by "our side" though.
The sound of shots being fired wakened me. I was very surprised that I was still alive. It occurred to me that the Germans might be going around the battlefield shooting men they thought to be near death, so I decided to look very much alive. I raised up on my left elbow and through my left eye saw a German soldier with a rifle. He came over and beckoned to me saying, "Kommen Sie! Kommen Sie!" I pointed to my left leg and said, "Kaput! Kaput!" He became quite excited, gestured with his rifle and repeated, "Kommen Sie! Kommen Sie!"
"...with the consent of our captors they picked me up."
At this point out of the corner of my eye I saw some men coming with their arms raised above their heads. I did not know if they had been wounded. I called to them and they came over, and with the consent of our captors they picked me up. I think there were four of them, and two of them made a seat by interlocking their arms and began carrying me to the enemy line. For a while they took turns carrying me in this way but it was very difficult for them and for me; my left leg kept swinging back and forth at the break in the bones, causing me to feel extreme pain, and I kept reaching down with my left hand to hold onto the top of my boot in an effort to keep the bones from grating against each other.
This threw my carriers off balance, so finally one man took me on his back with his arms under my thighs; he was a good friend, named Al, from another platoon in "A" Company. Riding on his back I was able to hold onto him with my right arm around his neck and hold onto my boot with my left hand, but it continued to swing and was quite painful. Blood was dripping from my face onto Al's head, and I remember apologizing to him for this. He said not to worry about it. Although I was unaware of it, while he was carrying me he was suffering from a wound in his heel.
|After the war, I rode my bicycle into France,|
and took this picture of the bunker Al carried me into.
After what seemed a very long time we reached the enemy line and came to a huge concrete fortification; there Al walked along a narrow plank which crossed a deep trench, and we entered through an open doorway of steel. Once inside Al put me down on the floor against a wall and I passed out.
|Here I am in the late 1970s with Al, the friend who|
carried me off the bloody battlefield.
He had been a dancer with the famous Ruth St. Denis modern dance
company, and that is why he had the strength to carry me,
and the balance to make it across the narrow plank.
The following is from the Battalion History:
"The attack was begun across an open field in battalion strength. The Battalion was in the attack that was to have taken ground west of Hatten and Rittershoffen and suffered severely under the mortar and artillery barrages the Germans had in waiting, and released once the last man was exposed. The day was so bitterly cold that men froze to the ground where they fell, so there were few men to make the escape when orders were given to withdraw; it was here that "A" Company suffered the loss of the company commander, Captain Iannella, the man who had led the company through so much of its training and all of its combat. His loss was deeply felt, and for months was the cause of much speculation; no one knew (whether) he had been taken prisoner, wounded, or killed."Eventually I learned the rest of this story - and what became of the Company Commander, Captain Ianella. At the time when the barrage hit us, I was too busy setting up, loading, and firing the machine gun to see what was going on around me, except that the whole place was exploding, and that Harold had been hit. However, four months later the Captain and I were in the same Army Hospital in Chicago and he told me that he had been wounded and captured, and that he had seen several men cut and blown to pieces. He saw a sergeant next to him, his close friend, using both hands to try to push his intestines back where they had been before a fragment ripped his stomach open, a look of stunned bewilderment on his face before he fell dead. Then the Captain was hit and lost consciousness. In my own squad I know of four who were killed, including my valiant friend Louis, and some were wounded; some were made prisoner, and one that I know of managed to survive the barrage and make it back to our lines.
While I was unconscious on the floor of the pillbox someone bandaged my wounds and put a splint on my leg. At some point I heard someone yell, "Amerikanishe Panzer kommen!" I thought, "Great!" But no one appeared to liberate me, so I drifted off again. Later I was awakened by a German soldier who gave me a canteen cup of a warm, sweet liquid to drink. Then I was carried on a stretcher and put into the back of a vehicle along with other wounded men. The vehicle had a canvas top, and I could feel the weight of a man pressing down on me who was lying on the canvas. It grew dark as we bumped along, and I kept passing out and in.
"I was put down among a sea of other wounded men..."
After a while we crossed the Rhine River (though I was not aware of it) and finally arrived at an Army Hospital in Mannheim, Germany, where I was carried in on my stretcher to a very large room on the ground floor, and was put down among a sea of other wounded men on stretchers, many more German soldiers than American. It was a scene from Hell... men lying or sitting on the floor all over the place, in all stages of agony, injury, and dismemberment, some moaning, some crying out for help; red blood seeping through white bandages, and orderlies and nurses hurrying among us, trying to attend to those most in need; many of us waiting for surgery. I waited for a long time, passing out and in, and then it was my turn.
"...the doctors and nurses there seemed friendly and caring..."
I was taken to an operating room, and remember feeling quite relieved because the doctors and nurses there seemed friendly and caring during the few moments before I was put to sleep. They must have been these, and also competent, because I received excellent medical treatment, including having all of my wounds treated, and (presumably) the pieces of my leg bones put back together and my leg put in a cast. When I woke up the next morning I was in a real bed. I do not remember the room, but I think I was in clean white sheets with my head on a clean white pillow.
"Have I still got my leg?"
The first thing I thought was, "Have I still got my leg?" I was surprised and extremely happy to discover that it was still there, because I had expected that my leg would be cut off. My right hand was bandaged and splinted, and my head, right arm and right side were bandaged; my right eye was swollen closed and covered by a bandage, and I assumed it had been permanently blinded. In spite of my physical state, I was quite happy to be alive, and felt extremely fortunate and thankful to have been given such excellent care.
"As our building shook, we cheered our planes... which was not appreciated by our German caretakers."
The next day I was carried on a stretcher to a nearby unfinished concrete building and up two flights of stairs to a large unfinished floor open on the sides. There were four other GIs there, all of us on cots. Two of them were P-47 pilots who had had to bail out. One had a broken leg and the face of the other had been burned and he could not see. Administering to us periodically were a young orderly and a nurse who were friendly to us, and another nurse who was not. As she administered the blinded man she said in a bitter voice, "Hah! Drops in your eyes so that you can see to kill more Germans!" Our building was next to a railroad marshaling yard, which was an exciting place to be, because it was bombed several times by P-47s. As our building shook, we cheered our planes, an act which, understandably, was not appreciated by our German caretakers.
After three days I was moved to Heppenheim and put in a small room on the top floor of a three-story building which had held mental patients before the war, for which reason the windows were barred. There were four of us in the room: Barney was an infantryman about my age who had lost a leg; Joe was the P-47 pilot with the broken leg who had been in the other building with me; Michael was an RAF Lancaster Bomber pilot whose leg also had been broken when he had to bail out. I think that the two pilots were a little older than Barney and me. We were all unable to get out of bed, so all we could do was lie there and think and talk. Joe said he had just missed landing in a place where there were metal stakes in the ground to hold grapevines; a few feet away and he would have been impaled on one. Michael said the most dangerous part of flying a loaded Lancaster Bomber was taking off; if one managed to get it airborne it was a miracle. Barney said he was hit by cannon fire from a German tank, and that after hitting him the tank crewmen leaped out of their tank, ran to him, and apologized.
|This is Joe (in the middle)--the pilot who was with me in Heppenheim |
with a broken leg. He's reuniting here with his two brothers after the
war was over. All three were in the Service, in different branches.
The most important daily event was the arrival of meals. We were given very little food, and were always hungry. By that time Germany’s supplies were quite limited or gone. They innovated where possible, creating "ersatz" whatever. Mainly we had small pieces of ersatz bread and a cup of what was said to be potato peeling soup, but there were no peelings in it. We were so hungry that at first we agreed not to talk about food, as it only made us feel worse. But each of us was thinking about it all the time anyway, so after a week we changed the rule and after that food was about all that we did talk about. We made lists of every kind of food we could think of, and exchanged menus, and dreamed of what we could have when we got home.
A guy from a farm in Nebraska used to come in and visit us, and he would spend hours describing his mother’s cellar, in which she had ceiling-high shelves holding long rows of jars of food. "She would put green beans in four one-quart jars, or two two-quart jars, or one one-gallon jar, and peach preserves in....." He kept going through the entire stock of foods, dividing and re-dividing them, never losing his enthusiasm, as though in this way he could actually conjure it all up in our presence. Sometimes it seemed he would never stop, and his talking on and on about drove me nuts. Usually when males get together a main topic of conversation is females; in our condition the subject of sex was of no interest whatever, and was never discussed.
"It was snowing and cold outside, and we were cold inside. I learned later that it was the coldest winter in Europe in memory."
We received minimal medical attention; a man who I think was a French POW came occasionally to change our dressings, but he had very few supplies. I think he used rolls of crepe paper. Every night an old German soldier would come into our room and put a blackout shade over the window to keep our electric ceiling light from showing. Air raid warning sirens would sound day and night. The closer the planes were, the faster the sirens would go. Finally would come the long, steady note of the all clear, but only minutes after it had stopped there would again be the sound of the early warning siren, and the entire sequence would be repeated; fortunately, we were never bombed, although we sometimes heard the sound of bombs exploding and the firing of antiaircraft guns, and sometimes felt the building shudder. Each morning the old soldier would come down the corridor blowing a whistle, and would enter each room and remove the blackout shade. It was snowing and cold outside, and we were cold inside. I learned later that it was the coldest winter in Europe "in memory." Very fortunately there was a small steam radiator which was on sometimes, and that helped a bit.
"Hello baseball fans! It’s a beautiful day in Chicago, and it’s a lousy day in Heppenheim!"
A young GI from Chicago would come into our room sometimes, and upon entering would paraphrase a radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs (or White Sox?), saying, "Hello baseball fans! It’s a beautiful day in Chicago, and it’s a lousy day in Heppenheim!" Al, who had carried me on his back and saved my life, was there too, and he sometimes came to visit. He reported that a mutual friend, Paul, was also there. Paul had been hit by bazooka fire while leading a patrol on Christmas Day, and taken prisoner. After a month Al came in with the sad news that Paul had died. There were tears in Al’s eyes, as he said he had done everything he could to help Paul, but that his wounds had been terrible and at least he was not suffering any more. Shortly after that Harold came in, and except for having a sore and stiff neck he seemed to be doing OK.
About that time two things happened. I thought my right eye had been permanently blinded, but it opened up and was as good as before. Also, two US doctors who had been captured came around from room to room. One was a Major and the other a Captain, and we were very excited to see them, as we thought they would be able to help us a lot medically. However they had almost no medical supplies and so were not able to do much for anyone. The fundamental problem was that we did not have enough to eat, and the doctors could not remedy this. Day by day we were getting thinner, and weaker, and our bad wounds rather than healing were infected and draining. Our condition was so bad that the doctors would operate only when someone was about to die, because if they did operate he would most probably die anyway. A guy next door was screaming and screaming, and finally they took him away and cut off his leg. When he came back he sounded real chipper, and I said I thought he would be OK. Someone said, "He’ll be dead before morning." And he was.
I had to lie on my back. I could not turn onto my right side, because pieces of shrapnel had entered the right side of my skull, face, side, and right hand, and another piece had gone through the flesh in my right upper arm, and all five wounds were infected. I could not turn onto my left side, because the leg bones were sticking out of a hole in my cast. The cast was never changed, and as I lost weight, and my leg got thinner, the cast no longer kept my leg extended; it gradually shortened by two and one half inches, forcing the bones to overlap and be pushed outward through the skin on both sides. These areas became infected, so holes were cut in the cast so that dressings could be applied and changed.
After a while bed sores developed on my buttocks, where the bones pressed the skin against the mattress. From somewhere I obtained some kind of padding, and I spent much time shifting it around underneath me to take the pressure off the sore places, as resting on them became increasingly painful. One of the worst parts was getting on a bedpan, both because of my miserable physical condition, and because the German bedpans had sharp edges. I had a metal duck in which to urinate; I was always cold, and as the warm urine filled the duck I kept it between my legs to warm them. The problem was that I would then fall asleep and the urine would become cold, and would spill over me and the bed. For a pillow I had a small corrugated box, with printing on it which indicated it was from the Red Cross. This was as close as any of us got to receiving any kind of care package.
I began hallucinating...
After three months I was skin and bones, and began hallucinating; I told the other three guys that I knew it was ridiculous, but that I was turning to stone. It started at my feet, and was creeping up my legs; it was really frightening, and I thought that if it kept going it would reach my heart, and it would turn to stone, and I would die. Michael blurted out, in his marvelous English accent, "Quick man! Eat a bit of bread!" I did, and the comic relief caused me to stop hallucinating.
|American soldiers cross the Rhine River. Life magazine|
In fact none of the four of us was moved, because just then members of the US Third Infantry Division arrived and liberated us. When they came into our room they almost passed out from the foul odor of infected wounds; we were the first prisoners they had seen, and as they went from room to room they were at once joyous to have saved us, in tears at what we had suffered, and furiously angry at those responsible.
|Gen. Jacob Devers. Photo from my collection.|
Since the time I was hit I had been listed as missing in action and my mother and father and two brothers had been terribly worried. As soon as possible they were notified that I had been found, and this came as a great relief to them. My elder brother was a pilot, and so my family had him to worry about too... plus my cousin who had bailed out of a flaming bomber and was a POW in Germany... and so on. The terrors and suffering of war hit everyone.
The staff of the hospital in Paris brought me the food I had been dreaming of, and I could not eat it. I drank various colors of liquids, swallowed handfuls of multi-colored pills, and was nourished intravenously. The problem was that I had very little flesh on my bones, and my skin was dry and hard and difficult to penetrate with a needle. When they did get a needle in, the vein would slide away under the skin so that several attempts were required to hit it. Penicillin had just been developed, and this is what saved me. The catch was that it had to be administered by needle every three hours. I had so little flesh that the injected area would swell and remain swollen and sore, so they could not stick me twice in the same place.
After two weeks there were no more places to stick me, so I said to the medical officer, "Doc, I know penicillin is the miracle cure, and that it’s saving my life, but please take me off of it because I can’t stand getting stuck anymore." The doctor looked into my eyes and said, "Son, I have great news for you. They’re flying you home." This made me feel extremely happy. He said also that he had been designated to decorate me with the Order of the Purple Heart, and he put the medal beside me in its open box. I was embarrassed and told him I did not want it, as I should have ducked. He said I should accept it. He said, "It's how the people feel." This touched me, so I accepted it.
and the Captain's revelation
|(Gardiner General Hospital, from US Army Medical site)|
My parents came to visit me, and though they were extremely happy that I was alive, they were extremely shocked to see my condition. To look into my eyes was to see the terror of war and death, and if I were touched anywhere it hurt.
However I was given the best of care and was soon on the road to recovery.
|It didn't take me much time to put some weight back on, in the Army hospital.|
Bottom right, my injured left leg--still there, but shorter.
The Captain of "A" Company was also there in the hospital. His own story, which was astonishing, also gave me an unexpected and shocking understanding of what had happened to me. Capt. Ianella told me that he had been knocked unconscious by shrapnel entering his right shoulder, and had lain overnight in the snow and suffered frostbite in his hands and feet. He was picked up the next day by German soldiers and taken to an old castle where SS officers interrogated him. He would not give them information other than his name, rank, and serial number, so he was put in a cellar in a dark, cold, damp room. That night he was taken outside and made to dig what he was told would be his own grave, using only his left hand, his right shoulder having been mutilated by the shrapnel. Although quite frightened, he continued to refuse to give information, and next day was sent to a town where he was put into a boxcar jammed with other POWs. There were so many men in the car that they all had to remain standing.
On its way to a POW camp the train was strafed by American planes, and machine gun bullets hit the head of a man standing next to the Captain. The man’s head exploded with such force that pieces of his skull entered the Captain’s shoulder in the same place where he had been wounded by shrapnel. When the train arrived at the next town he was taken to a hospital and placed on a stretcher on the floor. There were so many wounded that he was ignored for two days and was dying. Finally a young woman found him and gave him soup and for a period of several weeks nursed him back to a reasonable state of health.
When he could walk well enough she gave him clothing and food and helped him to escape. He worked his way westward and while going along a road finally heard the sounds of battle. Then he spotted a German antitank gun and crew and went off the road and around them. Soon an American tank column appeared and he managed to stop the lead tank and warn them about the danger ahead. He climbed onto the tank in order to point out the place where the antitank gun was concealed, but a rifle bullet ricocheted off of the tank and hit him in the same place in his shoulder where he had been hit twice before. When finally his shoulder was operated on they pulled out pieces of shrapnel, skull, field jacket, and the rifle bullet.
Then he told me what had occurred on the morning of January12 before we advanced against the enemy. He said he had been on personal reconnaissance of the enemy positions before the rest of us arrived, and had realized that if we followed the existing plan we would be advancing exactly as the enemy would like us to. Along the far slope toward which we were to advance they had constructed three concrete and steel pillboxes about 200 hundred yards apart. Between them they had placed a row of tanks, dug in and painted white so they would blend into the snow. Observers in the pillboxes had an unrestricted view of the entire area in front of them, and were able to direct the fire of the tanks’ cannons, and could probably bring the fire of mortar emplacements to bear on any point within the range of their binoculars. If we followed our plan of attack we would be advancing across open, snow-covered terrain which offered us no cover. In our dark uniforms, against the white snow, in broad daylight, we would have been perfect targets for the enemy observers.
Captain Iannella said that on returning from his reconnaissance he went immediately to the commanding officer of the battalion, the Lieutenant Colonel, and reported what he had learned about the enemy's position. Our objective was to be the high ground west of the towns of Hatten and Rittershoffen. The Captain requested permission to reach the high ground by going around the enemy’s defenses since if we went as planned we would be decimated by artillery fire and would have to withdraw without having even begun to reach our objective.
The Lieutenant Colonel looked at his watch and replied that the Captain had his orders, and that he had 5 minutes to have his men begin the attack. Stunned, the Captain again made his case; the Lieutenant Colonel again looked at his watch, and replied that he now had three minutes to have his men begin the attack. The Captain made one final plea; the Lieutenant Colonel took one final look at his watch and replied that he now had only one minute to have his men begin the attack, and that afterwards he would be court-martialed for resisting orders.
The Captain told me he figured that if he refused to lead us he would be relieved of his command, and someone else would be made to do it who was unaware of the trap; so he decided he must. He said to me, "Well, I couldn’t let you men go, and stay behind; I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself." I do not remember if the Captain told me his reason for going against orders and having us halt and dig in when we reached the crest; perhaps he hoped that the Lieutenant Colonel would come out, see the situation, and change the plan, but this was not to be.
"I was totally devastated."
There are no words to express what my thoughts and feelings were as the Captain talked; I was totally devastated. I can say now that, of course, when we men of the Battalion left the crest and walked down the slope we did not know what we were being sent into. We were prepared, as always, to meet and to fight the enemy, and knew as always that some of us might be wounded or killed. But we assumed, as always, that we would have a fighting chance... of winning... of surviving. We assumed, as we had to in order to keep our sanity, that even if our leaders could not allow themselves to think of us as persons, they would have to think of us as their means to victory, and, if only for that reason, would not knowingly waste us, would not knowingly trade our lives for nothing in return, as to do so would be to hurt their own program and to help that of the enemy.
"To learn that it had all been avoidable was more than I could stand. I buried it deep down..."
The realization that our battalion commanding officer had sufficient information to know the consequences of the plan, and followed the plan anyway, was the greatest shock of my life. He could see that we would be advancing across open terrain into certain disaster. He could see that our dark uniforms against the white snow in broad daylight would be perfect targets. If he could not himself see the pillboxes and tanks, he should have believed that his combat-proven Captain had seen them. From our previous encounters with the enemy he was aware of the deadly accuracy and terrible destructiveness of their artillery, and that we could not possibly pass through their field of fire and reach our objective.
And yet he refused to change the plan. It numbed me. To think of our walking trustfully down the slope... of the terrible scene when the explosions tore us into bloody pieces... of the indescribably horrible suffering which followed... and then to learn that it had all been avoidable was more than I could stand. I buried it deep down in the unknown recesses of my mind.
Only many years later was I able to let myself remember the Captain's story, and deal with it, and even then it was frightening, painful, and extremely difficult to do so. But finally I could ask myself, "Why? Why did our commanding officer do it?"
The quote from the Battalion History states, "The Battalion was in the attack that was to have taken ground west of Hatten..." etc., indicating that our attack was part of a larger one. Apparently the Lieutenant Colonel had orders from his commanding officer that as part of a larger plan his battalion was to attack at a designated hour, and he was going by the clock. Since he told the Captain that he would have him court-martialed for what he, the Lieutenant Colonel, thought of as resisting an order, perhaps he feared that if he asked permission to change the plan he would himself be court-martialed for resisting an order. Perhaps he felt that he had to be able to report that he had followed the plan.
But in view of the new information he had received from his Captain’s personal reconnaissance--that his own battalion was about to be destroyed by an enemy artillery barrage--why was he not able to order his battalion to take a viable route to reach the objective? And why, as I later learned, was he promoted from Lieutenant Colonel to full Colonel?
"These were the vital questions..."
Before I could let myself kill the man on the hillside, I could agree to it only on the one condition: that if I got home I would work the rest of my life to end war and make sure that no one would ever be able to put me or anyone else in that position again. The knowledge of the position the entire battalion had been put in on January 12 made me not only reaffirm my vow, but make it stronger. My questions were:
How many other times during the war had "mistakes" like this occurred?
To how many groups of brave men?
To how many groups of brave men?
Why did people let these persons acquire such power over them?
Why did the people of nations listen to persons who told them they should pursue a policy of aggression against the people of other nations instead of cooperating with them?
Why did they let such persons dictate their lives, and send them to their deaths?
I had met so many wonderful, brave, loyal, sharing, loving, intelligent persons during the War. Why had we not been able to live our lives together in peace as we would have liked to?
What are the real forces which determine the course of our destiny?
Are we their helpless victims?
These were the vital questions, and I was committed to finding the answers.
|A joyous visit by Capt. Iannella in|
Berkeley in the late1970s.
Build a better shoe, and the world will...
|1923 ad for Martin Larson Shoes. He had been|
designing shoes for soldiers since the First
World War, and held many patents.
Then someone told me about Martin Larson, a man right there in Chicago, who made a shoe that slanted down toward the toe so that it was much less noticeable. I bought a pair and was very relieved. In fact, in comparison to many, many other wounded, I felt extremely lucky. Actually I felt lucky to be alive at all.
After 16 months I was discharged from the hospital, and from the Army, and I returned to my home in Indianapolis. My physical wounds were not completely healed, but had reached a state where I could dress them myself. My left leg and right hand were working well enough, and the two and one half-inch shortening of my leg was compensated for by the built-up shoe from Martin Larson.
My education begins
Although I was healing physically, during the time in the hospital and after returning to my home I was quite nervous. All I could think of was that we must never have another war, and that I must help to create a world where people would work with rather than against each other. Most people told me that the war was over, and that I should forget about it and go on with my life. They did not understand that I could not forget the war, and that working to create a peaceful world was the only way I could go on with my life.
So it was time to begin to keep my vow. But how?
I realized that I did not know how, and that I must begin by obtaining information. My education had been interrupted by the war, so it seemed that I should pick up from where I left off and see where it would lead. Before going into the Army I had been one year at Indiana University, and thanks to the GI Bill I was able to return to the university in the fall of 1946.
During the first semester I learned three things: my nervousness made it very difficult for me to concentrate on the subject matter in my courses; IU was not the place to find the courses I needed; and there was another university which was the place for me. That discovery came as the result of reading an article in Look Magazine. It began, "By the time you read this I will be in school in Bern, Switzerland on the GI Bill." GREAT! I really did want to return to Europe. I had been jerked out of the war, and not having been able to be there at the finish, I needed closure. Also, I felt uncomfortable in the States except when I could be with another combat veteran, and that did not happen very often.
Research into educational possibilities showed me that the place for me was the University of Geneva and its affiliate, the Graduate Institute of International Studies, in Switzerland. I learned that to enroll in the University I needed to have completed two years of college, and I had to be able to understand and speak French.
During my second semester at IU I took French language courses and made the necessary arrangements with the Veterans Administration and the University of Geneva. Its rules were that if I passed the examinations after the first year at the University I could attend both it and the Graduate Institute for the next two years and if I passed the final examinations, I would receive an MA degree in Political Science and International Organization.
"I boarded a ship and made my second crossing to France..."
|Liberty Ship. Only two still remain.|
As we came in to the northern French port of Cherbourg it was shocking to see the many sunken ships with their rusted topsides sticking out of the water.
From there I went by rail to Geneva, and it was quite exciting to be actually traveling across France and seeing the sights along the way.
After getting settled in Geneva I took courses in the French language in the University’s summer program for visitors, and began the regular courses in the fall. They were in French, and I found I could understand well enough, but could not take adequate notes. Fortunately the practice was for students to earn a little money by typing their notes and having the office of the concierge of the University sell them to the needy and give the money to the note-takers.
|Cafe de Flore, Paris|
I passed the first year exams, and in the summer of 1948 I attended the French language course at the Sorbonne in Paris. The existentialist movement was in full swing and everyone from everywhere sat in sidewalk cafes under bright-colored umbrellas, and read newspapers, and argued, and drank everything, and smoked strong cigarettes, and wore berets and sandals, and the men wore beards.
On the first leg of my trip to Paris I took a train part way, and then rode my bike through my old battlefields. That's when I found the large concrete pillbox I had been carried to, and it was an eerie feeling to be standing there alone in front of the steel door; with no soldiers, or guns, or tanks around, and no explosions. However, after I had returned to the road and was riding my bike again, there was a very loud explosion nearby. BOOM! Without thinking I crashed my bike into the ditch and covered my head with my hands. Then I realized that the war was over, and found that some French workers had set off explosives to blow up a pillbox a short distance away. It was twilight by then, and the road entered the Forest of Haguenau. As I rode along I kept half expecting to see a German tank come roaring and clanking out of the trees with cannon and machine guns blazing. No tank appeared, because World War II in Europe really was over.
I still have some photos I took during that bicycle ride, showing some of the places I've described in my story. I hope to post those later on.
|In 2012, the University of Geneva's Graduate Institutes will merge|
to create an academic centre at the planned Peace House.
This seems a fitting postscript to my time there.
"I was able to downhill ski!"
My three years in Europe were wonderful in four ways: I learned much of what I needed to about the causes of and cures for war; I made many good friends, both Swiss and from other countries including the US; there were so many art museums and other wonderful places to visit; and I was able to downhill ski! I had always desired to, but after being injured had thought this would be impossible. However, after riding a bike up and down hills in Geneva for many months my leg seemed to be strong enough, and a Genevese bootmaker was kind enough to copy my left shoe and make a pair of ski boots. Just getting up into the incredibly beautiful Swiss and French Alps would have been wonderful enough, and learning to ski down them made it fantastic! I wasn’t the greatest skier on the slopes, but I really enjoyed doing what I could.
|The University of Geneva when I was a student there.|
(from my collection).
All that was the good part, but I continued to be very nervous and usually very lonely. Actually I realize now that I was a mental and emotional basket case. I was full of wonderful love and hope on the one hand, and full of terrible anger and hate on the other. This Jekyll/Hyde conflict made my life a manic tragedy. I over or under reacted to everyone and everything.
The crippling thing is that when one is emotionally disturbed and upset... from anger, fear, anxiety, or whatever... one can not listen to others. Consequently one misunderstands, makes wrong assumptions, misinterprets what is occurring, and can not think or behave rationally. And that only makes things worse.
"I was not diagnosed as having PTSD until 2003..."
Now it's clear that I should have been receiving therapy in a Veterans’ Hospital; the outside wounds had been recognized, and treated, and had mostly healed, but the inside wounds were still raw. We were expected to move on, and I thought nothing was wrong with me that I could not handle myself. Big mistake! PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, was not recognized and described until much later, and I was not diagnosed as having this "disorder" until 2003, after I had lived with it for most of my life. Finally knowing what was wrong with me, and the cause for it, and that it was "socially acceptable," and receiving some counseling--and mainly, writing the journal this blog is based on --helped me enormously in working to overcome PTSD. (More on this in Part III of this blog, now in draft form.)
|RMS Mauretania, built in 1938. (from Wikipedia )|
Back in the States I tried to work for peace. I went to Washington, D.C. and got on three Civil Service registers, each of which qualified me for a position I was seeking in the State Department’s Division of Exchange of Persons. While waiting for it, I worked in the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, but after several months I was told that there was no more funding for the State Dept. position I hoped for. Later, I learned that was a lie. Later, in another post, I'll explain more about this. In any case, when I was told there was no funding for my position I went to New York City and found a position with a non-profit agency working for peace.
"The great hope was that the UN would bring peace, cooperation, and prosperity to the people of Earth..."
|Eleanor Roosevelt holds poster of UN Declaration of Human Rights|
(from Milestones in United Nations History)
After this the the section of the UN on which we were depending to prevent war, the Security Council, could not even begin to fulfill its mission.
The failure of the Security Council after WW II and the onset of new wars made it an extremely depressing time for those who were continuing to work for peace. I felt that I... that we... had reached a dead end. I was down and almost out.
The Turning Point
Then in the spring of 1957, in a corner drugstore (pharmacy) in Greenwich Village, I noticed a fifty cent paperback book titled Evolution In Action. Out of curiosity I picked it up, began reading, and could hardly believe my eyes. This was the knowledge I had been seeking! And finding it was the turning point in my life.
|I still have the book. It's held together|
with an elastic band.
Because we ourselves create the ideas which form our culture, I saw immediately that ever since our human ancestors began to create ideas to live by, we humans have been guiding our own human course, creating our own human destiny! We do not have to be victims of forces beyond our control: to stop war we have only to create ideas to achieve that. But to do that, we must begin by recognizing the natural evolutionary system, in order to find our place and role in it.
To begin, our evidence shows that the Universe was a highly compressed ball of energy which exploded (the Big Bang) and created the area which we call "space." Within it there began three phases of change one after another, each phase having its own, unique method through which change occurs.
During the first (non-living) phase were formed the galaxies of stars, planets, etc., the method of change being mainly through a simple, very slow process of physical and some chemical interaction.
The second (living) phase came out of the first phase with the emergence of the building blocks of life (at least on planet Earth). The method of change in this phase is through biological mutation guided by natural selection, and its rate of change is much, much faster than that of the first phase.
The third (human) phase came out of the second phase with the emergence of our first human ancestors. Its method of change is through transmissible cultures combined with conscious purpose, and its rate of change is again much, much faster. Thus the main unit of change in the human phase is not biological, but the stream of culture.
All three phases of the universal Process of Change (evolution) continue to occur today.
This entire concept of the Universe as being a Process of Change was new and very exciting to me, but two special features of the human phase were the most exciting of all, and I felt held the greatest promise for all persons on Earth.
The first of these features of the human phase is that the method of change is through "transmissible cultures combined with conscious purpose." As noted, this is special because we now know that the culture consists of the ideas by which we live, and that we ourselves create these ideas; therefore we humans have been, and are, creating and guiding the course of our own human destiny! During most of our human existence we could not be conscious of these facts, but now that we are, we can purposely create ideas which will enable us to correct our present self-destructive course! That is, we can if we acquire the information necessary to creating the appropriate ideas.
The other special feature of the human phase of evolution responds to this need because it enables us to see that this human phase is our actual Human Story, and Huxley’s model enables us to see why, how, and when it began. This enables us to follow our Story from then into the present time and see what actually occurred along the way, and that reveals what we need to know today: how in the human beginning people created a successful culture and put themselves on a successful course; how their descendants inadvertently changed their culture into an unsuccessful one, and put themselves on the self-destructive course on which we, their descendants, find ourselves today. The possible happy result of our having acquired all this information is that we can use it to create the ideas for a new culture through which we can again put ourselves on a successful course.
My first problem became that, although I had located the point where our story began, I could not follow it from then because I did not yet have the necessary information. After much research, thinking, and writing I did find it and began to write a summary of our Human Story. Having completed it I find that it does show how humans put themselves on a successful course, lost it, and can now regain it, and that this information does include the cause of war and how it can now be eliminated, and at the same time shows us not only the cause of war, but the basic cause of all of our manmade problems, and how we can overcome it and them, and can at the same time can regain our successful course and prosper.
In the summer of 1981 my wife Mary Lue and I went to Europe for a vacation with our two daughters, Karen and Jill, aged 20 and 17. For nine weeks we backpacked in France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, and England, and had a wonderful time.
|Here we are in Switzerland.|
"We told stories and bonded..."
The four of us drank beer and talked and talked until the café closed, and then went to a bar and drank beer and talked and talked until the bar closed. We told war stories and bonded. One of the things Phil told us was that he had been a crew member of a B-17 Bomber and that after several missions on the same plane he had been called for other duty and missed the next mission. During it the plane was hit by enemy fire and exploded in flames killing all on board. He joined another crew and flew more missions, but even so he suffered from a feeling that he should have been with his buddies. In an effort to recover from this feeling, when the war was over he searched military cemeteries until he found the graves of each one of his crew. They had been identified by their dog tags. He decided to live in Germany and took a position with Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper based in the city of Darmstadt, and there he met and married Rena.
They asked us where we were going, and we told them that from Geneva we were going to Italy, Austria, Germany, and England before returning to the States, and they said that during our travels we must stay at their home in Darmstadt. We accepted their invitation. Then we went to their hotel room and got our daughters and the two families said auf wiedersehen.
|Germany's "Romantic Road"|
Florence, Venice, and Salzburg were wonderful, and so were the old towns along the "Romantic Road" in Germany.
Then we went to Darmstadt and to the home of our new friends. The next day was beautiful so they invited us to go for a drive. As their VW Flatback held only five people, Phil stayed behind and Rena drove the four of us to Heppenheim where I had been a POW. I got out and walked alone through the front door of the reception building into which I had been carried on a stretcher. Bearers had put down my stretcher on the floor just inside, and when I stood on the spot where I had lain in lonely misery I knew it had all really happened. Eerie.
Rena drove us to her old home town nearby and showed us the graves of her young school friends who had been killed during a bombing raid. When the sirens sounded they had gone down into their cellars with their families for safety, but fire bombs burned the oxygen out of the air and they were all suffocated. Instead of going into their cellar Rena’s father took his family up into the hills and they all survived.
The graves of Rena’s schoolmates were together in one section, and looking at the grouping of the headstones I imagined a school room of students sitting at their desks next to each other, full of life and hope. Hearing the story and seeing the graves of these innocent victims of war made us feel very sad.
In the same cemetery side by side in a row were six graves of German soldiers, and seeing their headstones standing next to each other in a line made me think of them as comrades fighting and dying together for a cause they had been misled to believe in. As a soldier who had killed other soldiers, seeing these small monuments which had been carefully placed there by those who loved these dead men, gave me a very sad and strange feeling.
However, sharing these deep emotional experiences made the five of us survivors feel very close to each other.
|The Mosel Valley, river and vinyards. from Wikipedia|
Then Phil drove us across a bridge to another town and turned up a winding driveway to a two story stone house and parked the car. He led us to the front of the house and up some stone steps onto an open porch where a man and two older and two younger women were sitting. They looked up at us in surprise, so Mary Lue and I were embarrassed because we felt that we might be intruding on their Sunday afternoon quiet time.
"...he said in German, 'so was I!'"
But of course, they and Phil were good friends. He approached the man and they shook hands and exchanged a few words in German. Then the man spoke in German to the four women and they all rose and the younger of the two older women, who was the man’s wife and the mother of the two younger women, welcomed us in English and we all sat down. Phil asked me what battle I had been in when I was wounded, and when I told him the man’s eyes widened and he said in German, "So was I!" We had actually fought against each other. Phil was equally surprised because he had not known this.
Suddenly everything changed. Everyone relaxed and smiled, and they had to see where I had been hit in the leg. Then they all went into the house and came back with trays of food and drink. The grandmother did not speak English but as the mother, Helga, did we began to have an exciting conversation. Then the man, Wilfried, took me by the arm and led me upstairs and showed me his war souvenirs. He understood English a bit and spoke a few words, and I knew a bit of German. He was two months younger than me and during the war had been in training as a glider pilot and then was put in the infantry. Toward the end of the war he was captured by American soldiers and picked up some English from them as a POW.
|Restaurant inside Castle Landshut, Mosel|
Our Darmstadt hosts showed us some more sights in and around their city, and after a week we said auf wiedersehen, hugged goodbye, took the bus to meet Wilfried, and drove with him to Trier. Helga was already there so we all had lunch, visited Roman ruins, and then had another emotional parting and we four boarded the train for England.
|Our friends Wilfried, Helga, Phil, Phil's cousin Gerda, and Rena|
Note to readers: To continue reading, click below on HOME. Then see Blog navigator in right hand column, and click on Part Two: The new Human Story