Remembrances: Joseph E. Hallemann--354th Battalion Executive Officer
Major F.S. Willis was a cherub faced Executive Officer of the First Battalion 354th Infantry.
He was well respected and ingenious which were the things that endeared him to
the troops. He was visible and he treated us boys as men. He came in and out of
situations and thus he comes in and out of this story.
Dawn was breaking as we deployed on the bank of the Moselle River where wisps of
fog hung over the water. We were silhouetted against a limestone wall. We were late. The
young Engineers who had returned the boats after delivering the first wave across were gone.
You couldn't really blame them for not waiting. The troops they were supposed to take were
not there and the Krauts were raking the area with machine gun fire. The tracers made the
fire ominous. The absence of the Engineers was not in the plan. They were
expected to go across with us and then return the boats. Our Company Commander
was in the lead, followed by myself, our Section Sergeant and the rest of the troops. The
Captain and the Sergeant each claimed the tracers were closest to each of them.
They were discussing waiting for the Engineers, but being convinced that they were long
gone, I jumped up and yelled, "Lets go!" and ran toward the boats. No heroics, just Infantry training
response. Besides, staying stationary against that light colored wall just didn't have any appeal
to me. I grabbed a boat and collected the rifles on my left arm as the men boarded. The Captain was
lying on the ground behind the boat. He must have been stepped on by some of those
entering the boat. I told him to get in if he was going along. He got in as I shoved off and
jumped in with my load of rifles. Somehow he got hold of a paddle, but his frantic paddling
resulted in turning the boat off course. Someone took the paddle away from him and the rest
of the guys got things back in cadence.
On reaching shore, I got out, held the boat and kept my left arm out so the men could retrieve their
rifles as they left. This was a first in, last out operation, so each got his own piece. I expected
to have to run to catch up as I left the boat. The Captain, last in was first out, prostrated himself on
the riverbank. All the others followed suit. As I started up the bank, someone shouted "Joe,
you better get your ass down before you get it shot off." I replied that they couldn't hit me because I
was standing sideways. (Although over 230 pounds and 6 feet eight, I was quite slim with a
28-inch waist.) This remark seemed to break the tension and we moved on.
We finally got to our initial objective. Here I had my first up close encounter with Major Willis, our
Battalion Executive Officer. He eloquently inquired, "Where the hell have you been?" He gave
a knowing look after hearing a short version of the episode at the river. He sent us scouts to the
area where headquarters was to be that night. We all knew the Major by sight, but this was our
first meeting within chewing distance. He did no chewing in our presence.
Thereafter, he often took a couple of scouts on patrol. It may be that sometimes he just wanted to
be the first one there. One of these patrols took us into a town where the streets were deserted.
No natives in the streets usually meant there were German troops around. We later found out
that the Germans pulled out shortly before we pulled in. This town was the home of a factory where
they made fuse timers for flack shells. I was the second story man when we went about making sure
the factory building was clear. I ran into some very heavy oak doors that I could not kick in. I backed
off to shoot the lock. The handle turned. The door quickly opened. It was a great relief to see Major
Willis with his 45 in hand. He and his driver went outside to check the area. Two scouts stayed
and went through the entire factory. We destroyed the fuse timers we found. Every workstation had
a glass-covered, framed picture of Hitler. Our rifle butts got a workout that morning. I liberated a small
drafting set, which I used for years. There was a large unfurnished hall in which hung a large painting
of Hitler in an ornate gilt frame. It was too high to reach and there was nothing to stand on. I put the
bayonet on the rifle and while holding the butt in my fingertips, jumped up and jammed it into the
bottom of the frame, dislodging it from the wall. We took the painting into the street and poured
some gasoline from a can off the jeep to form a pool within the frame. I lit a piece of paper with
my trusty Zippo and torched the picture.
With that, the street filled with young girls. They did not laugh or cheer. Some wore a wary smile, but
most had expressions of utter relief. They were Slavic slave laborers and had come out from barracks
across the street from the factory. We made these girls instant refugees and often wonder whatever
happened to them. As far as we could tell, they were alone in the town. Everyone else had left taking
most everything, including food, with them. This explained why there was no furniture in the factory.
Everything that was not bolted down was gone. The Krauts had a fetish for not leaving or throwing
anything away for fear of "a statement of charges." We returned to headquarters, leaving
the girls care and the pursuit of their "retreating masters" to others.
The scouts always pulled guard duty on the Battalion Headquarters Command Post (CP) and thus
saw the Major often. Our section strength was doubled when we received six replacements who
had been Air Force MPs. They were not very happy to have been given short Infantry basic training
and then sent to an Infantry outfit. One of these replacements was a big Irishman who in civilian life was
a Connecticut State Trooper. He drew the midnight shift with me when the CP was in a very large
house. We were both very tired and it was not very pleasant outside so we decided to go inside.
Mac parked in a love seat which he overflowed next to the door. I laid down on a carpet so
that the door could not be opened without bumping into me. It was not very long before we
had an encounter with the Major. He kept saying, "It's Willis," as he struggled
under 450 pounds. When we all got up he said, "You guys are pretty jumpy." He went
away and shortly came back with a fifth of state side whiskey which no doubt came from the
Colonel's ration. He did not drink. After sharing a few swigs, the Major went to his quarters knowing
that he was well protected. He was one great guy. We passed the bottle to our relief scouts
with their assurance that they would do the same.
When we returned to Camp Lucky Strike, we were engaged in redeploying units to the States.
Major Willis was in charge of disposing of all commandeered German vehicles. There is
probably no connection, but there were two young replacements without points that made
regular trips to the United Kingdom.
These trips went through Etretat where Francs in occupation money were exchanged for
English Sterling, which could avoid currency control. One day they decided that they wanted
to go home. They went home. The rest of us went to the 42nd and 83rd Divisions.
The good Major has faded away, but let us always remember him for the soldier that he was.