Remembrances: Albert Hirsh (HQ Co. 2, 355th Inf)--Memories of Things and Wings
Strange, isn't it, how incidents remain sharp in one's memory but the places of these occurrences fade into a shadow within the mind. So, if I tell about the things I saw and remembered during the war and fail to tell exactly when and where it was seen, blame it on my age. Blame it on a war we were in fifty-six years ago. Blame it on time passing us by since it all happened. Call it, if you will, one of the many rewards of longevity such as being forgetful, eyeglasses, a receding hairline, and dentures. After all, the time we spent in France at Doudeville wasn't yesterday. I can remember picking up the red dyed, wood bullets that the retreating German Soldiers had discarded. We concluded that to get hit with one would be worse than a dum-dum bullet, if that is possible. The wood splintering would get into the blood stream and enter into the victims system making it almost impossible to clean out. It would only be a matter of time until a splinter would find a place in the anatomy to cause a most painful death. This was one of the first things we saw that gave insight into the cruel mind of the Germans. I had placed the bullet observation into the distant part of my memory until now. I have never read about anyone else ever mentioning them but I am sure others knew and saw these bullets; concluded that they weren't important. But they are; showed the nature of the beast. If I should be wrong about the red, wood bullets use, please correct me. Until then it stands as a devil's device.
We were about ready to leave Doudeville when our truck, a small weapon carrier for our 57mm Anti-Tank Gun, hit a personal mine. Thankfully, only the driver was on it at the time and he was unhurt. It sure ruined the vehicle. He had a tender affection for that truck and had the name Miss Creedmoor, name of a town near Camp Butner, painted on her. It's sad to think Miss Creedmoor was lost so early in the campaign. Better her than the driver. What if he had gotten out and stepped on that mine? He was so lucky and we all knew it. The truck that replaced ours was a big two and a half ton tuck and our 57 mm A/T gun being pulled behind always reminded me of a big fat lady with a fox fur around her neck, dragging a reluctant Boston Bull pup. The truck worked well except it wasn't as easy or quick to get into and out of that replacement as the smaller weapon carrier.
So off we went up the Mosel with the fat lady and the 57 mm right behind. Gradually the war came closer as we traveled further into Luxembourg. The seven or eight smoldering German tanks parked in a line at the side of the road were a puzzle. They didn't look as if they had been worked over by gunfire so the simplest guess may be that they had run out of gas and gave up. Or it could be that they decided they had enough of the war and it was time to surrender. It was most comforting to see smoke curling from the turret instead of their guns. The truck kept climbing up the steep road and suddenly there appeared a field of short grass with dragon teeth and pillboxes with one set behind the other. It was easy to see that one pillbox would cover a section of another along with their murderous field of fire. All was quiet now and this section must not have seen any action. I say this because of their excellent condition. Evidently the flank had been breached and the entire line had to give way. It was something to see, though and tip your hat to whomever neutralized that fortification.
The first German town to be taken by American troops was Aachen. This was the gateway to the German country. We, up to now, had been traveling the Mosel Valley. It was here the 89th was first engaged with the Nazi troops. There was a rather large sign, just outside the border "You are now entering Germany through the courtesy of such and such Engineer Company of such and such Division." I felt able to see a part of history by being here. It was like being on a tour; at any moment we might be expected to pay a price for viewing. There wasn't much left to any of the towns and the smell of burning damp wood hung heavily in the air. We could see they had been leveled and battered by intensive artillery fire.
It must have been a few days later that we were told to hang out at this rather large building and wait for further orders. That structure turned out to be a brewery! Every face in the squad had a smile. Of course, we tried the beer and darned if it wasn't green. The beer drinkers in the squad said it needed to be aged. How do you age beer in a hurry? Someone said he had heard that, at one time, they would send whiskey out on sailing ships to age quicker. It was the rocking motion that would do the trick. Hey, that truck we were on was rocking like mad. Why not load the beer on the fat lady and help the beer to age? We moved the beer kegs all the way to the rear of the truck and the ammunition in front of the beer. Now, we could understand why a two and a half ton truck had a definite advantage over a smaller vehicle. Off we went with a happy look on our faces and happy dreams in our head. Each motion of the truck only improved the beer and our morale. We rode for days, securing the supply line, ending back at that brewery again. Hey, it was time to taste the beer, kids. We tapped the keg and guess what, it was still green. We left the stuff there and pulled out a few hours later. Mark that noble experiment a failure.
Once again, we rode off into the sunset. This time the riding was slow due to the roads being choked with German Soldiers. Entire Nazi Companies, or what was left of them, were on the road walking to surrender. They were a sorry lot looking as if they hadn't had food for quite a while. They walked to surrender with one of their men at the head of the column holding a white flag. All stayed well on the road and none dared to walk off on the side. After all, this was where the mines were and they knew only too well since they were the ones that planted them. The Germans had gotten rid of their arms, helmets, anything that could be viewed as aggressive. The fight was gone from these men and they were content to be surrendering to the Americans rather than the Russians. This was going on over the entire western front. The war was over for these Nazis but not for us. We had a long way to go.
It was a beautiful night with just enough chill in the early spring air to make me wish the warmer promise of the season would hurry. There was a problem. The problem was the German Nazis in the woods we were in, on this evening. We were to be in the woods with them, we learned. That could make things sort of crowded. It would be better, we thought, if they slept out in the woods and we retire for the night in some German home. Besides, it was dangerous; the Nazi had a bad habit of booby-trapping to excess. There we were on this spring night, with a bright moon. We were told, we would be getting a guard detail. All of us were grumbling as any good soldier would.
There we were, all together, when we looked far into the woods and saw a bright blue light, the size of a flashlight. Who would use a flashlight at a time like this? It was weird I tell you. That light started moving toward us, getting larger by the second. The glow and the motion of that devil's device, whatever it was, mesmerized us. It came closer and closer. The noise we hadn't heard before became louder and louder until it seemed to be almost on top of us. We hit the ground in Unison. Then that satanic thing began to gain altitude and we could see it silhouetted against the moonlit sky. That fiendish tool looked like a small airplane with a jet engine. It continued to climb and then made a graceful arc flying, very business like, off in a straight line. This was the V-1 bomb that raised so much havoc in London during the War. The British were able to solve this threat by flying along side of it; then putting pressure on one wing of the device until it would dive into the channel. Hopefully, it was also the demise of this one.
We looked for and found our helmets again and awaited new orders. The new orders found us again in a German citizen's home. I could never feel sorry for the ones put out of their homes. They, at least, had their home and life after we were gone.
Speaking about taking over houses brings me to the next incident. As I said before, it was early spring. We had just heard the order to load up 'cause we're moving out. It was a cold morning and I do believe there was frost to prove it. When they said, "move out", some of the troops must have thought they meant, everything. The boys liked comfort so took the locals' quilts and blankets to protect their delicate health. They looked so cute and cuddly all wrapped in the light blue, delicate pinks and pale peach colors of the comforts which were pulled up over their helmets. Now, as I see it, there was nothing wrong with this picture. However, some big blow hard, big wheel officer happened to be riding by. He did not see things in the same light. He started ranting and raving. After reminding us there was a war going on and to get rid of the extra baggage, he rode off. I sort of wondered if he might have been averse to one color. Perhaps, it was that delicate peach? We'll never know for sure.
Things were going well, we were moving right along. "The German Air Force was Kaput", the Big Brass had said so but----, well let me tell you of this incident.
On this particular day, we were bouncing along merrily in the back of our truck. Our thoughts were of nothing special, trying to digest our breakfast of yummy "C" rations. We were lazily dreaming of what delicate noonday goodies they might bestow on us for lunch. (Aw, not stew again!) And then, in the distance, we saw a plane, just about the height of the trees. As it came closer, we saw its lights blinking in a gesture of friendship, we thought. After all our High Command said the Germans had no Air Force. The problem was...the Germans didn't know it. The Brass should have told them instead of us. The lights the pilot was blinking were machine guns!
We realized the whole column was being strafed and it was bedlam getting out of that truck. The guy in front of me wasn't able to find a toehold on the tailgate and I was looking over him, telling him to jump. From my vantage point I watched the ground in front of us being laced with bullets. Don't think I wasn't aware of the ammunition loaded in the back of our vehicle. As the bullets came closer, I knew that just one more burst from those guns, there would be one heck of a great big bang as the ammo was hit and me with it. We poured out of that truck as if it were an Olympic event. But for some unknown reason, there was no blast, just quiet. So this is what it's like to be dead, I thought, with only quiescent instead of the excitement here before. The reason for the tranquility was ridges in front of us that the plane had to rise up to get over. We collected our helmets, once again, which just happened to fall as we got the "heck out" of our truck. The ordeal was over. We were wiser knowing the Nazis still had planes with blinking lights. Someone should have mentioned to the Brass they were full of malarkey.
Things were moving along. We crossed the Rhine that was hiding the sins of the Nazis in the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp. The 355th had liberated this torture camp for the world to see Germany in its true light.
Was it now or was it before this time we were on the road once again? It really doesn't matter. What matters is the following even took place. I know each and every man remembered the Nazi plane that nailed us a short while before. On this day, not one, but two planes hopped over the trees to bear down on us. We scrambled and got the heck away from the truck. The line opened up with a volley of withering fire. This time one of the planes, which happened to be ours, a twin fuselage with two Allison Engines, had been hit pretty bad. The other must have been hit also but was able to function. That twin-engine job tried to climb to a higher altitude but it just wasn't able to make it. Both engines were out and it must have been about two to three hundred feet in the air. The plane was in a flat spin when the pilot ejected. His chute was trailing as he hit the ground. The other plane returned and just seemed to hover over the place where the pilot lay with the unopened chute still attached. It was like a bird that was watching over its fledgling. He seemed to be standing still, then circled and flew away. I didn't go over to see the fallen pilot. The boys that did said this was his first flight out, he must have told them before he died.
If we were supposed to have air support, why weren't we told? Did the Air Force tell the Ground Force or were we never informed? Somewhere there was a lapse in communication but in telling the next of kin about friendly fire there would be no relapse. Someone, somewhere is placing a gold star in the window as a tear falls.
We continued rolling toward the east of Germany, getting little if any resistance. One of the last bits of action I can recall was when an artillery piece opened up on us and for a while stopped our company. By now, we learned to hold our helmets on our heads because we were tired of picking them up. And besides they are nice to crawl into when being shelled. (How come the Krauts didn't have this problem? Even their corpse had helmets.) We deployed into a field and waited for the shelling to stop. The shooting did stop after a while. Then, we learned that one of the men had been hit in the hand with a chunk of shrapnel. The Medics took care of him in a hurry. Weeks later we learned he was in England. We continued moving on toward the East wondering when we would leave Germany and be able to go home.
The night was as dark a night as I could ever remember. The sky gave no hint to where it met the horizon. Everything was concealed in black secrecy as we set up the gun and waited for the dawn. The soft, cold gray glow of the faint morning light revealed a plaza with a large imposing, stately building at the distant side of the square. This was the Railroad Station and the Post Office for the city of Zwickau. Looking at that large empty square in the dim morning light one could easily visualize, in their imagination, lines of the unfortunate and hear the soft shuffle of ghostly feet slowly walking toward the waiting box cars in the railroad yard. An a child murmuring "Mamma, hold my hand". The endless ghost line kept moving, shuffling on and on. So it was, they did as they were told, they obeyed and then they died, "but never again"
The depot that once stood with such pride and grandeur now was a witness to the defeat of that same hate inflamed Nazi Army. The 89th Division had taken over the square. Germany was once again to be a proud nation, free of the shame the Nazi had brought.
There was more to be done in the way of liberation. Nearby, in one of the buildings, were Russian slave laborers stacked from floor to ceiling. They were still regimented and if we gave food, beef stew "C" rations; it was accepted and distributed by the head person. There was a tank car in the railroad yard with a large skull and cross bones painted on it. This is what they called "Vodka". This international symbol for poison didn't deter the Russians in the least. They would have their Vodka even though that stuff was rocket fuel. So, we liberated the Russians along with many other items like daggers and flags with Swastikas.
How long did we stay in Zwickau? I can't remember exactly. It was, perhaps, only two days and then were on our way. I believe it was near the end of April. Earth was again forgiving Man for his aggression. The air was warmer and the trees and shrubs just waiting to burst into bloom. A perfect day until we got stuck behind some tanks that kicked up a plume of dust covering the landscape and everything like a brown blanket. It seemed as if we were following them for miles when at last the dust stopped. The scene before us appeared tranquil deserving of a calendar picture. On the side of the road, which skirted the woods on our right, was a small meadow with a quaint little home at the far side. Off to the right of that house stood a single tree, about halfway between the house and the road. Evidently, planted there many years before to give shade to the livestock during the summer. But there was something terribly, horribly wrong with the vista. The tree had the carcass of a horse draped across its top branches. There in the meadow, not far from the tree, was a horse with its intestines hanging out and the poor animal was still trying to walk. Further away was a second horse, crippled and in pain. A man came out of the house carrying a rifle and the column kept moving. That is one scene that I remember along with many, many others but wish I could forget. One must wonder what kind of mind would inflict pain on an animal that only knows to obey and work for their master.
The next place we came to was a village called St. Nicholas on the Mauldin. It wasn't much of a place, just another stop on the way. We were eight miles from the Czechoslovakia border. A few remaining diehard SS troops were between us and the Russians, who had taken up positions on the other side of the border. There we were just waiting. Then, one day in early May, THE WAR WAS OVER.