Wes Brown: Appraoch to Zwickau

Eastern Germany, April 17, 1945

We moved rapidly in the early morning across open, rolling country in pursuit of the enemy. I looked back at my platoon minutes after going over a rise. The squads, in diamond formation, were dispersed, as were the men within the squads. The dispersed formation seemed larger than a platoon. They looked like veterans and I was proud of them. Somewhat later, I saw a German position on a knoll. I hollered to the enemy, "Kommen sie hier," and waved them toward me. Pfc Ralph Elhard, one of my German-speaking soldiers, repeated my actions. They came running toward us with their hands in the air. Shortly thereafter, I saw a German soldier standing in a shallow foxhole with his hands on his hips. He accepted my invitation readily.

The Germans were deployed in depth. They could have delayed us; instead they surrendered in small groups. The platoon maintained its rapid march. If my command did not induce enemy soldiers to surrender, I dispatched a rifle team to influence them, and I kept the platoon moving. At one point I told myself that if I continued to send out rifle teams I wouldn't have a platoon left. The teams never had to fire a shot. Either the Germans were waiting to surrender or the initial surrenders lead the others to surrender as well. I told myself that the German Army was falling apart.

The terrain changed. The platoon was now in two columns on a road which cut through dense woods. A clearing of about thirty feet existed on each side of the road. Suddenly, a group of German soldiers sprang to their feet with their hands in the air. They were at the edge of the woods directly to my right. My scouts had missed them and so had I. I looked at them and was thankful they were not in a fighting mood. I motioned them to the rear with my thumb. They picked up their rifles and ran at port arms between my columns. I thought how the men in the rear were having a souvenir field day.

The woods eventually gave way to rolling country again. Within a mile we encountered enemy fire from both a hedgerow and a rise that were about two and four hundred yards to our right front and left front respectively. I saw three individuals beyond the hedgerow who were walking slowly toward it. I lifted my field glasses and identified them as civilian men in their late forties or early fifties. Their heads were down and their faces were grim. Their hands held rifles. I raised my carbine and began firing. The Germans ran for and made the hedgerow without being hit. A tank that was assigned to the company had moved up behind me. Its commander had seen my target. He raked the hedgerow with his machine guns. My right squad poured sustained fire into it. We moved forward without opposition. I expected to find bodies behind the hedgerow, but all I found was blood. My left squads were now a hundred feet or more ahead of me. I ran to join them. In doing so I passed eighteen year old Pvt. Eugene Fiala. He was laying on his back with his left leg drawn back and his right ankle on his left knee. Under different conditions one might have thought that he was taking a ten minute break. The color of his face told another story. "Hang on, Fiala," I called, "the medic is coming."

Rifle grenades ended the action. Our prisoners were a few teenage boys and a number of older men such as the three I had seen earlier. Their only item of military clothing was a soft field cap. They had been given the caps and rifles and told to hold their position to the end. A boy of about fourteen shook so violently that I felt like comforting him. He had not fired a shot. Later I wondered if the German men could have been veterans of World War I. Quite possibly they were.

We were soon on the march again at our former pace, but my earlier enthusiasm was gone. I had several casualties. Word came over my walkie-talkie that President Roosevelt was dead. Under normal circumstances I am sure that information would have saddened me. Now I felt more for my own losses than I did for a far away president.

Ahead I saw a large body moving towards us. My field glasses indicated only that the individuals were unarmed. This group shouted and waved their arms repeatedly and their excitement increased as we drew nearer. When we met, I learned that they were allied prisoners of war, mostly British, who had broken out of their compound when their German guards fled. I had never heard nor seen such joy. It was contagious and it lifted my spirits. Before long we left them behind and an updated casualty report gave me an additional boost. Fiala was dead and Elhard was wounded, but the rest had been only nicked and were still with me. We pushed on.

In the afternoon we came within range of German artillery with their shells passing overhead. I told myself that sometimes it was better to be up front. I would hear that T/Sgt Richard N. Campbell, platoon sergeant of a following platoon, was killed when a shell fell on him.