Remembrances: James Jochen: Military Service
This part of my life was such a wrenching departure from the kind of circumstances, routines, duties, and events which I had, thus far, experienced, that I have more memories of these times than, probably, any other time in my life. For this reason there is probably more detail to set down than might be of interest to the reader. Yet, I have a vague notion that there may be some therapeutic value to me by having made record of these recollections. Therefore I have made no effort to 'reign in' the tendency to ramble, and I beg the indulgence of any reader of these pages.
Early on the morning of December 1, 1943, I looked forward to that day's schedule. I was going to report to the San Antonio downtown branch of the U.S. Post Office, so that I could join a group of other individuals and be transported to the induction center for final evaluations as to fitness for military service. This day would end the indecision as to what my life was going to be like for the next several years. All bets were that I, more than almost anyone else up for military service, would be rejected because of my physical handicap of chronic asthma. This would place me back in college in January, and I would spend the next several years finishing that work. By that time the war would be over, and everything would be on the way back to normal. Life would be good.
By late evening of December 1, 1943 it became necessary to rethink all my plans, as I had been accepted for military service, sworn in, and had orders to report for service in 30 days. I called my parents to update them with the good news of my acceptance, and it was more a job of convincing than updating. They just could not believe that what happened had really happened. Since I had no pressing personal affairs to settle, I offered to continue working at the Frost National Bank until Christmas, and that offer was accepted. During that final 3 weeks of work my concentration level was somewhat less than before, and I had to do a bit more hunting for errors than I was accustomed to doing. My brief career with the Frost National Bank was finished.
The Christmas holiday season of 1943 was different from any I had experienced up to now. My thoughts were not of fun and games and holiday cheer. The tone of the family observance of this Christmas was definitely muted, and it was almost a relief to have it over. My reporting date was January 2 since there were 2 holidays during the 'personal affairs' period. I said my goodbyes to friends and family and boarded the train for San Antonio at about 2am January 2. Arriving at around 6am, I caught a city bus to that familiar, by now, rendezvous spot, the U.S. Post Office, downtown branch. I was welcomed by the other members of the group already gathered for that day's journey to Ft. Sam Houston. At around 8am the trucks arrived, and we were loaded for the trip. Arriving at the post and de-trucking, we were greeted by the 'old soldiers' who already had army clothes to wear and had, perhaps, 2 weeks of army service behind them. We got the standard cheers and jeers, welcome chants, and the traditional "You'll be sorry" yells. We were double checked to make sure that all who were supposed to be present, were here. Following this we were moved to the quartermaster building for the issuance of the clothing and equipment that would get us started into our military career. We also visited the barber shop for the first 'G.I.' haircut. A 'G.I.' haircut is simply the absolute and total loss of all the hair on one's head. We were told it was for the purpose of eliminating the need for a comb. One less item of personal care would advance the war effort greatly, they said. We were assigned to a barracks building, a bed within the building, and instructed as to how to prepare our civilian clothing and effects for shipment home. We were shown the proper procedure for making the bed presentable when not in use, and we spent several hours practicing this until the instructor was satisfied we were proficient.
I had been surprised, earlier, when we were taken to the mess hall for the noon meal. The variety and quality of food was so much better than I had been led to believe, so that lunch was a pleasure, and I looked forward to the next meal. Some of the inductees learned a hard lesson at that first meal. The lesson was 'take all you want, but want all you take'. Several of the 'freshmen', when they finished eating, had more food left on their tray than what was considered acceptable. They were immediately assigned to the duty of cleaning food trays. Needless to say, there was very little food left on trays after that demonstration of 'consequences'. Fortunately for me, I had already been briefed by a friend who had preceded me into the service prior to my induction, on this tradition of 'waste not, want not'.
The next period of approximately 2 weeks was spent getting immunization shots, viewing training films, receiving instruction in very basic military lore, working in the kitchen, doing guard duty at night (basically fire watch), and generally taking the first small steps in the direction of becoming militarized. We were taught how properly to wear the clothing we had been issued. We were taught how to salute and to whom the salute should be rendered. We were taught how to march in a military formation, change direction, and how to halt, as one. We were not permitted to leave the post during this period, but the Post Exchange and the movie theater were available to visit. We were encouraged to write home to let families know we were still among the living and faring well. Guard duty and K.P. (kitchen police) were the only 'work' activities to which we were exposed. Guard duty consisted of walking an assigned route during the 'off-duty' hours, keeping an eye out for any forbidden activity or fire. Guard duty began at 5pm and ended at 5am the next morning. Enough guards were on duty so that all routes were covered, and each guard need walk only 2 tours of 2 hours each during the shift. That left 8 hours for sleep, in theory. The practice was to ask if anyone wished to volunteer for guard duty. Each time one did guard duty, he was removed from the duty roster for the next K.P. call. I volunteered for guard duty at every opportunity, as I did not fancy kitchen work. We also learned about 'police call'. The lights were turned on at 5:15am. Immediately upon arising and doing the quick brushing of teeth and washing of sleep from eyes, the beds had to be made, the floors swept and mopped, cigarette butt cans emptied, and the latrines cleaned. 'Police call' was next. All personnel gathered outside the barracks and marched to the area assigned to that building for 'policing'. The group formed a line at one end of the area and moved slowly toward the other end, picking up every cigarette butt, scrap of paper, stick of wood, or anything else that was not a part of the natural environment. If the person in charge of the group, following behind the moving line, found anything that had been missed, the process was repeated until nothing could be detected as having been missed. It was plainly evident, from the first day, that the military fervently believed in the saying 'cleanliness is next to Godliness'. Breakfast followed these early morning chores, and then the day's training activities began.
We had been given to understand that this period of time was necessary to complete our processing and for making the determination as to where we were to be sent for basic training, so that we could become true soldiers. More than a few of the group, felt that the period was merely to make a final test of the character and mettle of the men to see if it were worth the effort to send us to a basic training location. A few members of the group who had special experience or skills were soon removed and sent to special schools so that critical skills could be enhanced, and the individual was made more valuable to the military. The waiting did, finally, come to an end. Around mid-January there was THE roll call. A group was being selected for movement to a training site. For security reasons we were not told the departure date or time, nor the destination or mode of transportation. We were told only to be ready to move with no more than 30 minutes notice. This particular group numbered approximately 250 men. We did not have long to wait. That same evening we were loaded onto trucks and taken to a rail siding where several railroad cars were parked. After loading and a final headcount, a switch engine hooked onto the cars and towed us off the post to where a train, with a number of cars filled with soldiers was waiting for us. Our cars were added to the train, and we were off to glory. We later learned that the train had originated on the west coast, picking up additional cars of troops as it traveled eastward. We still had no inkling of where we were headed. This was true adventure for these 'country' boys who, for the most part, had never been very far out of their home county. Our train was composed of nothing but cars filled with troops, so it was not necessary to make any stops except to take on fuel or water for the steam driven locomotive. There were several stops, sometimes for several hours, to permit other rail traffic to pass. As the trip continued and we were able to read signs on the depots as we passed , it became evident that we were headed east. We slept in our seats as best we could. Food was sandwiches and water. Coffee was available for those who chose. Breakfast was a cold egg sandwich. This was a far cry from the comfortable and sumptuous mess hall to which we had become accustomed. The train continued eastward through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and, finally, Georgia. We pulled into Camp Wheeler, Georgia, near Macon, the capitol city, shortly after noon of the third day of travel. Military buses carried us to the area of the 9th Training Battalion, where we were broken down into groups of 50 for assignment to a training platoon, within a training company of the battalion. The group I was in became the 2nd Platoon in Company C of the 9th Battalion. The battalion consisted of four companies, A, B, C, and D. Each of the companies consisted of four platoons. Lt. Ward along with Sgt. Weaver and his two assistants, Cpl. Floyd and Cpl. Meadows was in charge of our platoon. Our platoon was composed of men from all parts of the U.S. and all ages from 18 to 40 were represented. This was the case throughout the battalion. Our 17 week course of training was about to begin.
The 17 week training cycle was in progress for 15 training battalions simultaneously, each of the battalions being in a different week of the cycle. Each week of the cycle was conducted by a group of specially qualified instructors who repeated it each week to successive battalions of troops. As groups of troops arrived over the course of several days, a battalion was formed and organized into the structure that it would maintain for the entire cycle. Following completion of the training cycle, the graduates would be processed for dispersal to their next destination after a period of leave to visit their family at home. A number of infantry divisions were, at this time, in the process of being filled to full strength at various locations in the U.S., while undergoing advanced training for combat duties. Many of the trainees, just graduated, were sent to these 'divisions in advanced training'. Other graduates might be sent overseas to join units already engaged in active combat. Casualties needed to be replaced. Still others were sent to specialist schools such as communications, cooks & bakers, medical technicians, etc. Those who had several years of college training, especially if they had been in R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs, might be found to be qualified for officers training school. It was even possible for a select few of the graduates to be held back at the training facility to become instructors' assistants or instructors for oncoming trainees.
During the several days that our battalion was being filled with new arrivals and being organized into the 4 training companies, platoons, and squads, we received additional items of equipment which we would need for training purposes. Each individual received a Garand M-1 rifle, a bayonet, a gas mask, a cartridge belt, a canteen, a mess kit, a first aid kit, a small shovel called an 'entrenching tool' for digging a foxhole, and a steel helmet for the helmet liner which we already had. We also received a 'shelter half' which is half of a small tent to be joined with another half furnished by your 'buddy' who then shared the tent with you. With the shelter half came a rope, a collapsing short pole, and wooden pegs for raising the tent. Time was spent in further practice of marching techniques and movements. We were taught the military methods of carrying and handling the rifle while marching. Calisthenics were a part of each day, and short hikes were taken to get everyone 'limbered up' for coming attractions. We practiced erecting the tents. We scrubbed the barracks. We policed the area. The military firmly believed 'idle hands are the playthings of the devil', and we NEVER sat around doing nothing except for the 10 minute 'smoke break' every hour and after the work day was finished. The official day's end was observed by 'Retreat', which is a formation of the entire battalion, with all commanders reporting the status of their groups, and the bugler blowing the 'retreat' notes while the flag was lowered. The barracks were constructed with a second floor, and each building was able to house an entire platoon of 50 trainees. The several non-commissioned officers assigned to each platoon occupied small private rooms in one end of the building. The platoon was organized into 4 squads of 12 men each, and 2 platoon guides. 2 squads occupied each floor of the building, l squad on each side of each floor. A further step was taken to appoint one trainee member of each squad as the 'squad leader'. The squad leader had no 'official' standing or authority, but he was expected to sort of be the 'in-house mother hen' to the other 11 men of that squad. I have no idea as to what criteria was used or how a selection to a leadership role could be made after only a week of random activities. I was selected as one of the squad leaders, and, as such, I was given a cloth armband to wear. The armband bore corporals' stripes and signified that the wearer was an acting squad leader. The greatest benefit accorded the acting squad leader was that he was eliminated from the duty roster and was never assigned K.P. The acting squad leader did get assigned to guard duty, but did not walk the tours. Instead he was in charge of the guards who did walk the tours. The acting squad leader was expected to see that all members of his squad did all their chores in timely fashion, kept their bed and personal area tidy, knew the serial number of their rifle, kept the rifle clean, were ready to go at 'go' time for any activity, and generally did everything they were supposed to do, and did nothing they were not supposed to do. My squad had several individuals who were clearly adults. I am certain that I was the youngest member of the squad, having volunteered for immediate draft at registration. Even so, the group accepted me as their 'leader' and we never had any problems of any kind. With all these organizational activities behind us, we were ready to be launched into the actual training cycle.
During training we did use off-duty periods at nights and on week-ends to visit the Post Exchange (P.X.) and the Service Club. The P.X. was the government version of Wal-Mart with the addition of beer. The P.X. beer was a less potent version of 'civilian' beer, and anyone in uniform could purchase beer. There was no question of I.D. for age verification. Almost anything one could dream up a need for could be purchased at the P.X. at very reasonable prices. I had never acquired the taste for beer, so it made no difference to me. The Service Club was a social center, sort of, where one could visit and just 'hang out', write letters, shoot pool, play dominos, or read books and newspapers. On Saturday night, about once per month, there would be music for dancing. Young ladies from Macon and other nearby towns visited the Service Club and spent the evening with the soldiers, socializing and dancing. The U.S.O. also had a presence at the Service Club. On a couple of occasions, there were U.S.O. entertainment shows presented, usually on an outdoor stage on the parade ground with attending troops seated on the ground. There was more entertainment and other social activities ongoing than one had the free time to spend on it. There was also the option of taking the bus ride to Macon or other nearby cities on week-ends, but those areas were just about as crowded with military personnel as was the camp, so that it was hardly worth the effort. I think that I might have accompanied a couple of buddies once on a trip to Macon for the specific purpose of having a steak dinner. I do not recall a second visit to the city. The army did make an honest effort to maintain the morale of the troops. Considering the various circumstances of the men taken from their life at home, suddenly, and thrust into a totally foreign environment, my observation was that the morale was excellent.
At least one or two days of each week's schedule of activities were set aside for training that could be done indoors. These days were always set up for the last days of the week. In the event of rain on Tuesday, for example, the Friday schedule (for indoor) was moved up to Tuesday, and Tuesday's schedule was then done on Friday. This helped us a great deal since our training was beginning in the dead of winter, and rain, snow, sleet, and ice were no strangers to Macon, GA. The 17 weeks of intensive training covered a multitude of subject matter and activities. Military courtesy, military justice system, military hygiene, food service, water purification, first aid, calisthenics, marching, obstacle courses, hiking, bayonet use, map reading, camouflage, and training films by the dozens.
After a couple of weeks of training, marching, and walking to all activities, it was time to evaluate. We left the barracks area one morning and viewed a couple of training films, followed by some calisthenics. Then we marched to one end of the parade ground to the edge of the woods where a trail had been cut into the woods. We set off down the trail, and as soon as all were off the parade ground and into the woods the order was given to 'double time'. This means breaking into a trot which is just about twice the speed of normal marching. We are carrying our rifles, as always, along with the other gear that hangs from the ever present cartridge belt. So we trotted for a couple of hundred yards, and I was breathing pretty hard when we returned to 'quick time' or regular march/walk pace. After we walked about one hundred yards we got the order to 'double time' again. At
of this trot, I was panting, and still pretty winded even after the subsequent walk. This alternating trotting and walking went on for a couple of miles, and I was just about at the end of my rope when we finished and broke for a rest period. Several of the older fellows had to have medical attention for cramped leg muscles. We all made it, but there were only 2 or 3 true athletes in the group who had enough breath left to jeer at the rest of us. When we emerged from the woods and stopped for the break, all I could do was fall to my hands and knees, head to the ground, and gasp for air. Lt. Ward sidled over to where I crouched and asked if I were going to recover. I didn't even look up, but just nodded weakly. He chuckled and moved to the next victim.
About mid-cycle we began weapons training. We spent days learning to disassemble and reassemble the rifle until we could do it, literally, blindfolded.. Then we had to learn the military method of holding the rifle for firing while standing, sitting, kneeling, or in the prone position (on your belly). Hours were spent practicing and coaching each other in proper execution of these firing positions as well as learning to squeeze the trigger slowly instead of pulling it suddenly. Then we had to learn how to sight the rifle in order to hit the target. All this was in preparation for going to the firing ranges to actually fire the weapons. Some of the trainees had never been close to a gun of any kind, and there was more than a little anxiety when it came time to go to the firing range. The majority, like me, had been exposed to the 'hunt' from an early age onward, and we looked forward to firing the rifles. The M-l Garand rifle is a .30 caliber weapon, semi-automatic (fires one round each time you squeeze the trigger) weapon, and weighs about 9 lbs. The clip holds 8 rounds. A good rifleman can hit his target at a range of 500 yards easily. At the firing range safety of all personnel was the highest priority. No ammunition was issued to anyone except by the instructors at the firing stations. Each person firing was watched carefully by a coach, another trainee, whose duty it was to observe closely whether the shooter was forgetting any detail of the previous training which might cause his score to suffer. I found the most frequent error committed was the tendency of the shooter to pull the trigger and flinch, thus jerking the rifle at the moment of firing. This, inevitably, caused the target to be missed. Squeezing the trigger slowly and deliberately, so that one could not know when the rifle would fire, thus eliminating the flinch, produced satisfactory results, just as the training had predicted. Each shooter fired initially at a range of 100 yards. Three rounds were fired without adjusting the sights so as to determine whether the rifle was sending the bullet high, low, left, right, or on target. The sights were then adjusted to bring the bullet to the bullseye, and several confirmation rounds were fired to assure that correct adjustment had been applied. The targets were arranged so that a pit crew could lower the target after each shot, glue a paper patch over the hole, and raise the target for the next shot. The targets were approximately 10 ft. above ground level, and the pit crew was protected from stray rounds by a dirt embankment which was nearly 20 ft. thick and approximately 8 ft. in height. The pit crew also had a long pole with a round metal piece, painted black, on the end of the pole. After each shot was patched and the target repositioned, the pit crew used the pole marker to indicate to the shooter where his round had hit. Having 'zeroed in' the rifles, all trainees were given practice at shooting in the various positions that we had been taught, as well as at the farther ranges of 300 and 500 yards. Every trainee had to fire until he had achieved the minimum 'qualifying' score. The surprise was how well the group did as a whole. A few were rated as 'expert' riflemen. Like me, the majority were rated 'marksmen'. Yes, we received a small medal denoting our status as riflemen.
The M-l carbine is also a .30 caliber rifle, but it is approximately half the size and weight of a Garand M-1 and has a much shorter effective range as the cartridge is much shorter. It is also semi-automatic and uses a clip of 15 rounds. It is intended for use by those personnel who have other, special equipment to carry, such as radio equipment, ammunition for machine guns or mortars, and the like. A Garand would handicap these personnel with its additional bulk and weight. We were given similar training on the M-1 carbine as we had received for the Garand. On the firing range the carbine was fired at 50, 100, and 300 yards. This session of firing was merely to familiarize the trainee with the weapon. Firing scores were kept for information purposes only.
The Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) is a .30 caliber, automatic (keeps firing as long as you hold back on the trigger) weapon, weighs 18.5 lbs., has a carrying handle, a small pair of folding legs mounted on the forward part of the barrel, and uses a 20 round magazine. The BAR fires the same cartridge as the Garand. The purpose of the legs on this weapon is to facilitate its firing from the prone position. The weight of the magazine with the additional rounds of cartridges would make it difficult to handle without support of the legs. Each squad in an infantry rifle platoon had one BAR-equipped soldier. He was the squad leader's personal machinegun on foot. We received training and familiarization firing with this weapon.
The Browning M1919 .30 caliber machinegun, customarily called a light machine gun, is another infantry weapon on which we were trained. In WW II this machinegun was mounted on a tripod for firing. Belts containing 250 rounds of ammunition fed the gun. These cartridges are the same as used by the Garand. This type machinegun is air-cooled, and cannot be fired continuously for an indefinite period or overheating will occur, and the gun will jam. 20 to 30 round bursts, or less, with 10 second pauses between bursts is the recommended rate of fire. There is a similar machinegun which is water-cooled and can be fired for as long as the ammunition is fed to it. That weapon is referred to in the military as a heavy machinegun. A crew of 5 was required to serve the light machinegun. A gunner, assistant gunner, and 2 ammunition bearers were directed by a Sgt. who was in charge of the crew. This gun fired at the rate of 550 rounds per minute with an effective range of 500 to 600 yards. On the firing range the instructors were hard pressed to maintain the discipline of the recommended firing rates. When the person firing the gun could see the target literally flying to pieces, it was difficult to release the trigger.
The 60 mm mortar was probably the least familiar weapon on which we trained. This mortar is the infantry commanders' personal artillery piece. It can hurl a 3" projectile as far as a mile effectively. When the projectile falls to earth, it explodes and shatters into several hundred fragments, inflicting great damage. The mortar looks like a short stove pipe, open on one end. The tube is set on a steel base plate, open end pointed upward at an angle of from 45 to 75 degrees depending on the distance to the target. The tube, about 30" in length, is supported by a pair of legs, detachable. The assembled weapon weighs 42 lbs. The projectile is shaped like a small bomb with 4 fins on its tail. An 'increment' of sheet-powder is attached to each fin. Depending on the distance to the target, the gunner removes one or more of the 'increments' before firing. Normally the mortar crew is to the rear of any combat action, and is not able to see the target. The combat commander needing support fire from the mortar crew, communicates via radio the target description, the location, and the approximate range. Since the mortar crew cannot see the target, aiming the mortar is done by sighting on a reference stake driven into the ground to the front of the mortar position. Adjustments for distance or left/right are done by resetting the sight and then re-aiming at the reference stake. Once the mortar is set up, the assistant gunner simply inserts a projectile into the tube, fins first, and permits it to slide down to the lower end of the tube where it strikes the firing pin. This ignites the 'firing cap' just as a rifle cartridge is actuated by the rifles firing pin when the trigger is pulled. The flame from the ignited firing cap causes the sheet-powder increments to explode, hurling the projectile out the tube toward the target. Until this instant, the projectile is not 'armed' and cannot explode, even if dropped accidentally. However, the sudden change of direction which occurs upon the projectile reaching the bottom of the tube, then suddenly being thrust in the opposite direction, acts upon an internal safety pin, arming the projectile for explosion the next time its nose collides with anything, usually the earth. Rarely does the projectile hit the target on the first attempt. Corrective information is communicated to the mortar crew, and subsequent rounds are 'talked' onto the target. A Sgt. directs the actions of a gunner, assistant gunner, and 2 ammunition bearers. There are larger mortars used by the infantry, but the 60 mm version is the only one transportable without a vehicle. We were amazed at the ease with which target damage can be inflicted by aiming at a stake driven in the ground in front of your position. It was comforting to know that this 'artillery piece' was available on call by troops needing help.
The training on and familiarization with these several different types of weapons occupied the better part of 6 weeks of the cycle. It was intended that it should give the trainee the necessary knowledge and confidence to use any or all of the weapons effectively if he were called upon to do so. It was repeatedly stressed that in the heat and confusion of a combat situation, one never knew when he would need instantly to fall into place to assist with the use of a weapon other than his own.
The ability to read, understand, and interpret a military map is most important, and the individual soldier must have this knowledge. Normally the platoon leader, the platoon sergeant, or the squad leader would be in possession of the maps appropriate to the mission, but it must be recognized that these leaders may become casualties at any time, and some other person will have to take over the leadership role. That person must be able to understand the maps so that the unit can continue to its objective without being delayed by getting lost. We are all familiar with the standard road maps that we use on our vacation trips, business trips, etc. A military map is entirely different in that it covers only the 4 or 5 square miles of the immediate area in which any given unit is operating, often much less. Each and every terrain feature, highway, secondary road, even trails, bridges, railways, buildings, churches, rivers, smaller streams, sloughs, wooded areas, and anything else that could be recognized when viewed is included on the map. In addition to these identifiers, there are the elevation lines which are drawn to connect all points on the map which are at the same elevation above sea level. A line is provided for every 10 ft. of elevation change. With practice, one can easily deduce whether the slope of a hill is gentle or steep, where the lay of the land is flat, or where one could probably cross an area using a gully or slough. A favorite exercise the instructors used was to give the trainee acting squad leader a map with several check points indicated as well as an objective destination, typically a mile or two distant. The squad was then sent on 'patrol' and had to use the map to guide itself to each check point where an instructor would be stationed to verify the squad had found its way. The squad was expected to conduct its patrol under the assumption of the possible presence of enemy personnel at any time or place on the way, so all the strategies and techniques of movement on foot had to be observed. After several days of practice with successively more difficult problems, we had several nights of doing similar exercises in the dark. Of course, light of any kind is invitation to sudden death at night in a combat zone. We had to learn repeatedly to cover the map reader completely, so that he could use a flashlight to plot the next several hundred yards to travel via compass reading. Blankets or tent materials were used for the 'cover ups'. Demonstrations had been conducted at night for the purpose of showing the effect of striking a match at distances of up to a half mile. In the dead of night a match being struck looks like a small explosion even at that distance. It is easy to get turned around in the dark, and more than one squad had to be hunted down after getting itself lost. I never managed to get my squad lost, but on one night problem, one of the men stumbled and fell into a creek we were following. We made too much noise in the rescue process, got ambushed by the 'enemy' and were taken prisoner. On nights when we did training exercises of any kind, we feasted on coffee and doughnuts in the mess hall upon returning to the barracks area.
First aid was a subject that was greatly stressed in our training. Every combat unit has trained medical personnel with the troops continuously, so that casualties can be tended immediately. However, it must be recognized that medical personnel cannot be everywhere at once, and the likelihood of any given person to need to give first aid to a buddy is always present. We were shown many training films produced by medical teams. These films covered every conceivable scenario and every kind of injury from hangnails to lost limbs and what procedures to follow in the absence of the assigned medical personnel. Each individual soldier was issued a small first aid kit which was carried in a pouch that was then attached to one's cartridge belt. The basic philosophy stressed that when rendering first aid to your buddy, you used his first aid kit, not yours.
Troop control under combat conditions was another important phase of training. Radio communication was provided all the way down to platoon level for infantry troops. However the radio systems of WW II were definitely not of today's quality, and were prone to damage, because the transistor had not yet been perfected, and radio systems depended upon vacuum tubes for operation. Therefore it was required that a system of hand signals that everyone understood and to which everyone could quickly react should be taught. This system was taught and practiced at length with platoon and squad problems which required groups of individuals to interact, maneuver, and deploy using no communication other than hand signals. Night movements were particularly difficult, because of the necessity for silence and the absence of lighting. Since the cardinal sin for infantry troops was 'bunching up', we were taught to stay just barely within sight of the man ahead, permitting any signaled instruction to be passed on. When a number of troops are gathered into a small area making a group target, this is an engraved invitation to a watching enemy to shower the group with automatic weapon fire, or a grenade. The standard teaching was to keep at least 5 yards distant from any other individual while in a possibly hazardous area. Normally the platoon leader, an officer, had a radio, and there would be one other radio within the platoon, for use by the squad or group judged most likely to have use for it. At least that was what we were taught.
Having spent about 15 weeks learning all the basic military lore considered essential for the making of a soldier, and having become familiar with the weapons we were most likely to need the knowledge of, we were ready for the final test. This test consisted of making a back pack of all the necessities to survive and moving out into the far corner of the military reservation for a 2 week 'camping trip'. During the 2 week period we would put to use all the information, strategies, tactics, weapons, survival techniques, whatever it took to continue living. Fortunately for this cycle, by this time it was late May, and cold weather was long past. I recall that we did have one occasion of a heavy downpour one day, and some minor difficulties with wet clothing and gear. During the previous weeks, there had been many occasions when we had meals in the field instead of the mess hall in order to save travel time for the noon break. Now, 3 meals every day and no mess hall in sight, we experienced 'roughing it' to the extreme. Many of the meals were 'C-rations' or 'K-rations', which were the packaged or canned ready to eat meals furnished when the cooks cannot get to where the troops are located. It was a good experience, but it did try the souls (and appetites) of many.
During this period most of the time was spent experiencing combat type situations and problems which were set up by the instructors. Sometimes we were cast as American troops, and at other times we were the 'enemy'. Blank ammunition made the situations seem more realistic, but we despised the blank ammunition, because, for some reason it made the rifle barrels very hard to clean properly. Out in the field it was difficult, at best, to maintain the weapons in a reasonably clean condition, and the added burden of 'sticky' carbon in the rifle barrels was just that much more work. The instructors, during this period, were paying particular attention to our ability to remain clean enough to stay healthy. A sick soldier is a drag on his group.
An interesting interlude during the 2-week bivouac was the gas mask training. We had seen training films demonstrating the proper way to don the mask, blow all the trapped air out so as not to breathe any contaminants with the first breath, and then proceed with the task at hand. We had also practiced these maneuvers with the mask, but not in the presence of real gas. There was a 'gas chamber' available for just this purpose. The chamber was possibly the size of a double car garage with no windows and no lighting inside. There was an entrance door and an exit door with luminous paint for identification. The procedure was to select about 2 squads, have them don their masks and walk them through the tear-gas filled building to prove that the gas mask would protect one from contaminated air. After that brief trip and with masks still in place, the group was returned to the building and told to remove their masks, then quickly exit the building. The purpose of this was to prove that there really was gas in the building. Of that there was no longer any doubt. There was much coughing, sneezing, and watering of eyes for the next 10 or 15 minutes, but the effects of tear gas are minimal once you are no longer exposed to it.
There were several problems set up which did involve live ammunition (no blanks). The ammunition was totally in the hands of the instructors and strict safety precautions were in place, as a wrong move by a trainee would result in death. One of the problems involved movement of a maneuver group to a position at which the 'enemy' engaged the group with machinegun fire. The trainee group was required to cross an area approximately 50 yards in length by crawling on their bellies. There were barbed wire obstacles to slither beneath, and all the while the machineguns were firing real bullets at a height of 3 ft. directly over the crawling bodies. The ammunition belts were loaded with every fifth round a tracer, so that there was no doubt in one's mind that the bullets were real…and very close. Actually, the machineguns were set solidly into very substantial wood frame support structures, so that they could not accidentally move in any direction. There was no danger to the trainees as long as nobody panicked and raised his body. I did have one member of my squad who was not as mature as he might have been at that age, and he did require a bit of extra attention. I made sure that he was within reach as we made our way through this exercise. I often wondered if he survived the war. At any rate there were no casualties that day, and we all breathed a bit easier when the last group finished.
Another exercise that bred some nervousness was that which was to familiarize us with the use of hand grenades. We had several hours of training with dummy grenades earlier in the cycle, but it was chiefly in the technique of throwing the device. A grenade should not be thrown like a baseball, because it is too heavy, and it can damage the shoulder or elbow if thrown improperly. We were taught that the grenade should be grasped firmly in the throwing hand, the body, somewhat crouched, should be rotated so that the empty hand, extended, is pointed in the direction of the target, and the arm and hand with the grenade is straight and extended in the opposite direction. The grenade arm is then kept straight and rotated like a catapult upward and toward the target, releasing the grenade at the proper time. Following release, the thrower needs to flatten himself in a protected position, or he may become a victim of his own grenade. The dummy grenades had neither the arming lever nor a safety pin, so that part of the exercise had to be 'pretended', which is not like reality by any means. A grenade is approximately 4 inches in length and 2-½ inches in diameter, sort of in the shape of a very small football. It does fit easily in the hand of an adult. An arming lever is made onto one end of the grenade, and is held in place by a safety pin which has a ring on its end so it can be pulled just before throwing the grenade. It is intended that the grenade be grasped firmly in the throwing hand with the arming lever against the palm to hold it in place when the pin is pulled. As long as the arming lever is held in its place, even with the pin pulled, the grenade cannot explode. As soon as the arming lever is released by the act of throwing the grenade, it flies off the grenade, actuating an internal firing device that ignites the fuse string. An audible 'pop' can be heard as this occurs. From that instant it takes the fuse 4 to 5 seconds to detonate the grenade. When trainees are exposed to the act of throwing real grenades for the first time, there is always the concern that someone will somehow manage to drop a grenade after pulling the pin. For this reason the practice is conducted with the throwers in an oversized foxhole so that a second person can be in the foxhole to observe every move being made, and be on the alert for a mishap. The grenades are thrown out and over an embankment, so that the fragments cannot harm anyone on the grenade range. In the unlikely event that a grenade were to be dropped in the thrower's foxhole, the two occupants simply scramble out, giving the alarm and crawling away. The grenade explodes harmlessly in the foxhole, and the thrower has a lot of explaining to do, probably followed by some extra duty, and a lot more practice at throwing dummy grenades. We had no dropped grenades that day.
Another time of nervousness was experienced with yet another occasion where live ammunition was involved. We were instructed to form the platoon into an attack configuration, move out from our initial position toward a ridge which was suspected might be defended by the 'enemy'. We were told that when we reached the ridge, we should pause just short of the crest, get down on the ground and wait for artillery to fall on the other side of the ridge to cause problems for the 'enemy' if there were any present. The artillery was to be real live shells that would be fired from a couple of miles behind us, falling on the suspected enemy positions approximately 100 yards to our front. Again, the artillery pieces were carefully positioned and sighted, and fired this mission every week, so they knew exactly where the shells were going to impact. The only imponderable in this scenario was the possibility of a shell that was slightly less than perfect in manufacture. If this ever happened, the shell might fall either long or short. Long is OK. Short could be a disaster if it were short enough to fall among the troops. This was the subject of conversation on the night prior to the day on which the exercise was to be performed. The next day we moved out 'on the attack'. The distance to the ridge was approximately a half mile, and the instructors moved with us and had us perform several appropriate maneuvers enroute. Finally we reached the point of pause and flattened ourselves short of the ridge crest, waiting for the artillery support. The signal for the artillery was given, and very quickly we heard the whine of the shells passing overhead with the accompanying explosions on the opposite side of the ridge. There were no short rounds, and we successfully routed the 'enemy' following the barrage. We were congratulated on our spectacular victory. This exercise was the final problem of the 17 week cycle….we thought.
We finished this exercise in the late morning, and we were told to take the afternoon to rest up for the return to camp and the barracks. Late that afternoon the information was passed down to us that the enemy had blown all bridges on our route back to camp, and the route we would have to take would be longer than we had expected….in fact, we would probably be walking all night….carrying everything we had brought with us. It should be understood that infantry does not always move on foot exclusively. There are times when it is necessary to transport troops by train or truck in order to be where you are supposed to be at the time you are supposed to be there. However, in the infantry training camps, there is no transportation other than the two legs with which everyone is equipped. From the time we got off the buses that brought us to the 9th Training Battalion area about 18 weeks ago, not once did we ever move from one place to another in any manner other than by foot. Never! This was part of the training plan, and it was not only excellent as a means to enhance our physical condition, but also firmly implanted into our minds that walking is part of our life in the army, and that it is the natural thing to expect. However, at this point, our longest hike might have been 8 or 10 miles, with most of them 5 miles or less. But there were very few days that we did not march at least a couple of miles, even if it was only to the theater for a training film. Now, on this last day of training, we are facing a march, at night, with full packs and rifle, of 25 miles or more. This was going to be 8 to 10 hours with a few minutes rest about every hour. The further good news was that anyone who was unable to complete the march would have to repeat the entire 17 week training cycle with the next group of trainees. This was certainly serious incentive to put forth maximum effort.
Fortunately, most of us had taken to heart the invitation to rest as much as we could after putting our gear in order for the move back to camp. When the word came down that the return was to be via the 'scenic route', we saw fit to redo the packs for extended marching, making sure that the carrying straps were adjusted perfectly, and that nothing inside the pack was positioned in a manner that would rub a blister or a bruise during the hike. After a light meal and a short rest to settle the food, we set out shortly before sundown. It was walk about an hour, and rest about 10 minutes. The thought that training was over and this was the last effort did serve to buoy everyone's spirits. On this march it was 'route step' which means that the group formations are maintained, but everyone walks in the most comfortable manner without trying to 'keep in step'. Talking is allowed as long as it does not get boisterous. Having a swallow of water now and then from one's canteen is OK, but smoking is out except during the rest breaks. The time passed rather quickly since conversation could be carried on, but around 2am almost everyone's water supply ran dry. It was early June and the conditions made for water consumption. The canteen is a quart capacity, not enough for this trek. God smiled. As we stopped for one of the rest breaks, some sharp eyed soul noted an abandoned shack just off the road. Better than that, there was a well in the front yard, and it actually had water in it. The bucket was quickly lowered to sample the water. It looked and tasted fine, so there was a rush by all to refill canteens and quench our thirsts on the spot. We had water purification tablets as part of the first aid kit. We quickly passed the word up and down the line to the rest of the troops to watch for the well. This was like getting a second wind during a long race. We began seeing evidence that we were nearing camp at around daybreak, so we knew that another hour of walking would do it. As we entered camp into view of other trainees, we were called into march formation, so that we looked like veterans instead of trainees. I guess we all felt pretty proud of ourselves at having successfully completed one of the army's most rigorous training courses in the book. We did not lose a single person on the march in spite of several having to be helped by others carrying parts of their gear toward the end.
The next few days were spent doing random work details in our area, as well as at other locations on the post. On one occasion several of us were selected to take some equipment from our area to another location at a far corner of the post. It was much too bulky to carry, and there was a truck sent to be loaded with the cargo. After loading the cargo we were told to 'mount up' into the truck with the cargo. This would be the first time in four months that we would be riding in a motorized vehicle, and I actually had a brief feeling of guilt at the prospect. One of my friends confessed to having the same reservations. We had, of course, been able to have an occasional trip into Macon on a Saturday evening or Sunday, but a bus ride to town and back, maybe three or four times, did not count. On a Sunday morning one of my friends challenged me to accompany him back to that 2 mile trail through the woods, the one which had nearly done us all in on that occasion early in the cycle. We had no rifles and no gear so we agreed to skip every other 'walk' period. The course was so easy this time around that we decided to run it a second time. I did not realize how much my physical condition had improved during the cycle. Even after the second time around the trail, I was barely breathing hard and certainly not tired.
During this period, after training, the wait was for orders to be received sending us to our next destination, including a trip home for a 10 day leave plus travel time from Camp Wheeler, to home, thence to ultimate destination. The orders came in dribbles, with those whose home city was farthest distant getting the head start. The platoon of 50 dwindled at the rate of 5 to 10 each day. Almost everyone was headed for Ft. Meade, Maryland. Ft. Meade was known to be a staging area for troops headed for Europe as replacements. Troops continually arrived at Ft. Meade for processing. As troop transport ships came available the appropriate number of men were selected. My orders came after about a week of anxious waiting. Sure enough, final destination was, as I expected, Ft. Meade. I said my goodbyes to all the friends in the platoon, packed my duffel bag, and set out for home. I boarded a bus in Macon, and made it back to Schulenburg in a bit over 2 days.
I had not realized it at the time, but I had added about 35 lbs. of muscle in the right places during that 4 months, and I had not had a single incident of asthmatic seizure. My parents could not believe the change in my physical condition. The army food and the continuous physical activities and routines had seemed to agree with me. I spent the 10 days leave catching up on visits with relatives and friends as well as having several enjoyable fishing trips. The leave time evaporated much more quickly than I thought, and before I knew it, I was boarding a Greyhound Bus again, heading back east, once more. It was not nearly as easy leaving on this occasion, as the time in the army had made me realize what was really happening as well as what might happen. When I had left to be inducted, it was an adventure into the unknown, somewhat exhilarating. Now, however, I had an inkling of what was in store and what could happen. I didn't want to think that this might be my last look at the home town and all that it stood for, yet that morbid feeling could not be put aside completely. No exhilaration now….just trepidation. The trip to Ft. Meade took almost three days. Several other trainees from other training camps were on the final leg of the bus journey. We shared experiences and discovered that there were very few differences in the training cycles, camp to camp. We left the bus in Baltimore and took a city bus to Ft. Meade where we checked in and were assigned to a barracks to await further instructions.
Again we who had just arrived, were in limbo for the time it took to process us for determination of next assignment. At this point, none of us were even aware that congress has just passed a law requiring the military to hold all individuals not yet 19 years of age in the continental U.S. until that birthday was reached. For this reason, our thoughts were focused entirely on the expected ocean voyage, seasickness, submarine attack, and other happy possibilities. Our time was spent, as usual doing guard duty, K.P., as well as other work that needed doing. After about a week, orders were posted with our names among the hundreds, and we were instructed to pack for a trip. Curiously, some of the men in the group told us they had already been on a troop ship, but were taken off, because they were not yet 19. This was when we noticed that all the men on this list were 18 years of age, and now we knew the reason. So, being rocket scientists, we thought it over and figured out that we were not going overseas just yet. But where, then? Again, security forbade discussions of troop movements. Later that day we boarded military buses and were taken to a rail siding to board a troop train. Finally we were on our way, but not being familiar with the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, it was hard to guess what direction we were headed. We stopped several times during the night for other train traffic, and, after a bit, it became obvious that we were headed generally south. The thought struck me that it would be ironic if, after making the journey from Texas to Maryland, we were headed back to somewhere near Texas. Of course that was not the case, and the next morning we saw that we were in North Carolina. We arrived at Camp Butner, near Raleigh, the state capitol, about mid-morning. A convoy of trucks was waiting at the railroad siding. As our names were called, we boarded the trucks and learned that we were joining the 89th Infantry Division. The trucks carried us to the areas of the various battalions to which we were to be assigned. In WW II a United States infantry division was composed of 3 regiments of infantry troops, 4 battalions of field artillery, a combat engineer battalion, a medical battalion, division headquarters personnel, and several assorted small units of special troops. These special troops were a reconnaissance troop, a band, a signal company, a quartermaster company, a military police platoon, the chaplains, the PX, and the finance group Each of the infantry regiments was composed of regimental headquarters personnel, and 3 battalions of infantry troops. Each infantry battalion had its headquarters personnel, and 4 companies of infantry troops. One of these companies in each infantry battalion was called a 'heavy weapons' company. It consisted of a number of the large water-cooled .30 caliber machineguns, several .50 caliber machineguns, and a number of 81mm mortars. All these larger, bulkier, and heavier pieces of equipment, together with their larger ammunition carriers, were far too heavy to be carried except by jeeps with trailers. Each of the other 3 companies in each battalion consisted of 3 platoons of infantry troops, and 1 'weapons' platoon. The 'weapons' platoon consisted of 3 60mm mortars and 2 .30 caliber light air-cooled machineguns. The 'rifle' platoons each consisted of 3 squads of 12 men each. Each company also had its headquarters personnel, supply personnel, and cooks. In round numbers an infantry division numbered a total of approximately 15,000 troops. An infantry division is commanded by a major general (2 stars) and assisted by a brigadier general (1 star). Each regiment is commanded by a full colonel (bird), and each battalion-level unit is commanded by a lieutenant colonel (silver leaf). Company-level units are commanded by a captain (2 bars), and platoon level units are commanded by lieutenants (silver or gold bar).
The 89th Division had been reactivated for duty in 1942. Following organization and building of Camp Carson near Colorado Springs, CO, the unit trained its personnel, then went on maneuvers in Louisiana in 1943. Many of the unit personnel were then transferred to various other newly activated divisions to organize and train personnel. The 89th was then refilled with trainees and the cycle began again. The 89th and 71st divisions were then reorganized into experimental 'light' divisions to determine whether infantry troops could function with absolutely no vehicles except the bare minimum of command vehicles for the very uppermost commanders. These 2 divisions went on a maneuver exercise in the Hunter-Ligget Military Reservation in California in early 1944. After a test period, the experiment was called off, and the 2 divisions were ordered to reorganize to standard division organization status once again. The 89th was sent to Camp Butner, NC in late spring of 1944, and almost immediately great numbers of the personnel were transferred out of the division to overseas duties as replacements following the Normandy invasion. This, too, was a necessity dictated by the congressional action which suddenly called for 18 year olds to remain in U.S. training assignments until their 19th birthday. The 89th retained enough officers and non-commissioned officers to have a satisfactory cadre to receive the recently graduated basic trainees, we 18 year old people, to refill the division to full strength. This was the situation as we arrived at Camp Butner in July, 1944. Old guard of the 89th were steadily leaving, and 18 year old personnel were taking their place.
I was assigned to Co. K, 355th Inf. Regiment. Captain J. E. Brown was the company commander. I requested assignment to the weapons platoon as either a mortar crewman or a machinegun crewman. It so happened that I was assigned to the machinegun section. Lt. John Adams was the platoon leader. He sent me to report to S/Sgt Ross Harlow, the machinegun section leader, who introduced me to Sgt. Tony Smazenka. I joined Sgt. Tony Smazenka, Pfc Joe Liszka, Pfc Peter Strickland, and Pvt Don Koth to round out the crew of No. 1 gun. .Liszka and Strickland were probably mid to late 20s in age, Sgt. Smazenka was mid-20s, and, of course, Don Koth and I were 18. In the evening of that first day in the 89th S/Sgt Ross Harlow, Sgt Tony Mongonia, the crew leader of No. 2 gun, and Sgt. Tony Smazenka, No. l gun crew leader, took all of the machinegun crewmen down to the beer garden. The beer garden was different from the PX in that nothing was available there except beer and pretzels. Most of the tables and benches were outdoor, and the ambience was definitely informal. The purpose of this soiree was to introduce the several newcomers to the 'old timers' who had arrived earlier. Of course, some had been with the 89th for many months. As I have mentioned earlier, I had never fancied beer as an entertainment medium, and I don't believe that I had ever drunk an entire bottle of beer in my life. At the beer garden it was evident that if I were to be a member in good standing with the machinegun crew members, my view of beer was going to have to change. I had several good coaches to help me to understand the many benefits which accrue to one after having peered into a beer bottle and being able to see the bottom of the bottle, unhindered by the presence of beer. After a couple of hours of pleasant camaraderie and the unobstructed view of several beer bottles' bottoms, it seemed wise for me to beg off further bottle inspections and concentrate on fellowship. None of the other machine gunners had trained at Camp Wheeler, but the experiences of all were very similar to mine. The entire group was very congenial, and I looked forward to the prospect of further training with them. We also learned that 5 or 6 other infantry divisions, still in the U.S. were somewhat in the same situation as the 89th. Many of the older, experienced personnel in these divisions were being withdrawn and shipped overseas as replacements for casualties. Then the 'stripped' divisions, here in the U.S., were being refilled with trained personnel who were not yet 19. Further information was that those within a couple of months of 19 were being sent to the division which was next (we guessed) on the list to move out to an overseas assignment. The underaged who were within 3 months of 19 were being sent to the division which was second (again a guess) on the list to move. We quickly began assessing whose birthdays were when. Most of our birthdays seemed to be in October and November, so we concluded that we had most of the rest of 1944 to remain in the U.S. That was a comforting thought in that we had probably about 6 more months to learn a lot more about how to stay alive. Who knows, maybe the war will be over by that time.
A lot of the training we were given was review, but there was still opportunity to pick up on details we might have missed on the first time around. The atmosphere was different in that one felt a definite sense of belonging, almost like a family. You felt that there were closer ties to one another that would be strengthened by the continued association in 'post-grad' training exercises, and, more important, if and when the 'family' finally did encounter the 'real world' of military combat operations. We became intimately familiar with the mechanical details of our machinegun, and how to make it perform dependably. The familiarization we had in basic training was helpful, but there was much more to learn. We studied the strategies of how an infantry commander might employ our weapon in support of his troops, both in offensive and defensive postures. We learned, the hard way, how to dig a foxhole for a machinegun position, as well as how to prepare a field of fire for a defensive position. A lot of shovel and axe work was involved, and it was summertime in Dixie. The beer garden's popularity thrived. We had numerous problems of maneuver with, and in support of, the rifle platoons in various scenarios of circumstances. There was an entire mock-up village built for the purpose of having the troops practice house to house 'clearing' missions. We had several longer exercises which required us to spend 2 or 3 or 4 nights out in the field engaged in mini-maneuvers against other troops of the organization playing the part of the enemy. And sometimes we were the enemy. Military training is like training a football team in many ways. There are endless rehearsals of responses to every possible scenario of enemy action; and further practices for initiating various offensive actions to overcome enemy forces. We spent a lot of time on the firing ranges with the machinegun as well as with our personal weapons. Surprisingly, we used live ammunition (no blanks) on a number of the practice maneuvers. These particular exercises were always laid out in settings where the people doing the firing would not be likely to hit anyone unless someone made a serious error as to where, exactly, he should have been at a given time. There were always sufficient monitors strategically placed to prevent such accidents. Supporting the riflemen in the simulated house to house exercise was enjoyable. We worked with each squad as they went through the procedure. Our job was to provide cover fire for the individuals as they moved from building to building. We were actually firing over their heads into the overhead parts of the buildings 'keeping snipers pinned down' as the riflemen proceeded. After having supported all 9 rifleman squads of Company K we found that we had expended over 1,000 rounds of ammunition. We soon learned that it is no more difficult to clean a machinegun after 1,000 rounds of fire than 10 rounds.
We learned that life in a functioning military organization which is structured and outfitted for a definite mission, is much different from life in a basic training organization. There is more flexibility and even occasional application of common sense. The officers and non-commissioned officers are more tolerant of their men, and more cordial as well. In the back of everyone's mind is that nagging idea that 'maybe old Joe will have to save my life some day'. As we completed our 6th month in military service, we were automatically promoted from Private to Private First Class. This came with a pay increase from $50/month to $54/month, not a princely sum, but in 1944, the added $4 would pay for an additional Saturday date during the month.
We always had Saturdays and Sundays off after a Saturday morning inspection of the barracks and all our weapons for cleanliness. By noon meal time we could be spic and span ready for a trip to Raleigh or other nearby city, or to just hang out at the PX, the beer garden, the theater on post, or the service club. Several of us journeyed to Raleigh one Saturday and decided to go for a swim at one of the public swimming pools. While frolicking in the pool, we met a group of young ladies who were also having a swim that day. That was a very fortunate meeting. It so happened that the ladies were student nurses at one of the training hospitals in Raleigh. Following the swim, we had dinner, and were invited to accompany the ladies back to their dormitory. The dormitory had a visiting area with card tables, a pool table, ping-pong tables, and a lot of other student nurses. We had struck gold. The rest of our time at Camp Butner was enhanced by our entrée at the ladies' dormitory. We introduced others of our group who were at liberty to pursue feminine companionship, and we were heroes to the younger set in Co. K.
In late October we came to learn that our earlier deductions as to when the 89th would be scheduled for movement overseas might be on target. The rumors began to float, and one day I was called into the headquarters building for a conference. It seems there is a mountain of paperwork involved in moving a unit out of a stateside camp, onto a ship, and into another country. Every piece of that paperwork needs to be typewritten…with copies. Apparently I was the only other person in the 175 men of Co. K, other than the several who were already in the supply section and the personnel section, who could use a typewriter effectively. I was told that I would henceforth be temporarily detached from my present assignment with the machinegun crew. My new place of business would be a table with a typewriter and a chair and lots of government blank forms of many varieties. My only duty would be to operate the typewriter as directed by the company First Sergeant or the Supply Sergeant. When I was not needed for typing, I would assist with the added activity in the supply room. Much of our equipment was being replaced, and each man's property record had to be adjusted as the replacements were issued. One example was the half-tent, standard for years, was being replaced by a sleeping bag for each individual. The combination of shoes supplemented by canvas leggings was replaced by so-called 'combat boots'. Many equipment records had to be updated, some redone. Since all the bulky equipment was to be crated, identified, and accounted for before it left the base for shipment with the troops, shipping documents had to be prepared for every box and crate. I was happy to have been chosen for this task, as the weather had turned chilly, and I would be inside all day every day. God had smiled once again. This duty did last through the entire month of November, and then all personnel began getting a final 10 day leave at home prior to shipment. My leave time came in early December. I don't know if it was coincidental, but it did occur just as my temporary job came to an end. Of course we had all been briefed as to security as soon as the division had received its official orders for movement. Censorship of mail had begun, and no mention of the movement was permitted in conversation at any time. Persons going on leave home were warned to remember security considerations, even within families. It was hard to pretend all was normal while at home on leave. In light of the news reports of the military actions on both sides of the world, there were certainly suspicions on the parts of the home folks as to our destiny, but we managed to keep it out of conversations. The leave was uneventful. All of my classmates and friends were, by now, either in the service, or engaged in the war effort some place other than home. As before, I had very serious reflections as I prepared to return to camp, This time I knew for sure what was in the cards. The only unknown was how bad was it really going to be. The only consoling thought I could muster was 'I sure wasn't going to be alone'. I returned to camp just before Christmas. On December 28 troop trains began moving the 89th out of Camp Butner. A total of 25 trains carried the division northward to Camp Myles Standish, near Boston, a staging area for overseas shipments. We spent several days at this location while the convoy of ships was being assembled. My recollection is that the 89th needed 5 of the ships in the convoy. The rest of the ships were loaded with other supplies and cargo headed for Europe. The temperature hovered around zero the entire time. It was exactly at this time that the 'battle of the bulge' had begun, and our imaginations were placed in overdrive as to what we were headed for. There was snow and ice everywhere as we loaded up to board ship, but God and the army wait for no man. The clock was ticking and the curtain was rising on the next act.
The 355th Infantry Regiment, of which I was a small part, loaded onto the S.S.Uruguay, an ancient merchant ship which had been converted to a troop carrier. The approximately 4,500 troops of the regiment found the quarters more cramped than anyone had experienced, even in military life. Metal and canvas bunks were stacked 5, sometimes 6 high. There was not much space between the bunks, but somehow we crammed all our gear into the tiny area and still found room to wedge ourselves in to sleep. Naturally, not many souls remained in this cramped environment any more than absolutely necessary. Most fled to the open decks during daylight hours. We tried doing calisthenics or just walking about in order to stay in some kind of physical condition. This did not work well, as we were crossing the north Atlantic Ocean in mid January, a time of perpetual high seas, and the pitching and rolling of the ship made it very difficult to remain upright unless one had support. Sitting down was the best position to maintain, in spite of the very cold temperatures. Two meals per day were served during the voyage. There was plenty of food, though a number of poor souls suffered mightily due to seasickness. My crewmate, Don Koth, was one of these, and I rarely saw him leave his bunk. The ship's motion, though violent at times, did not seem to bother me at all. During the hours of darkness we were not allowed on deck, because it was feared that someone might, thoughtlessly, try to light a cigarette. This would be equivalent to painting a large bullseye on the side of the ship for any lurking enemy submarine seeking a target. There was no hot water for showers, only cold salt water. Not many showers were taken. The monotony of the voyage lasted 10 days, and we finally entered the English Channel. The troop carriers anchored near Le Havre, France. Unloading the troops was scheduled for the night hours, so as to avoid the possibility of air attack with the troops out in the open with no protection. We had to climb over the side of the ship and clamber down via the rope netting provided into landing craft which ferried several hundred persons per trip. A number of craft were available, so a few hours work had us ashore. Unbelievably, the Red Cross personnel were there to greet us with coffee and doughnuts, in the middle of the night, in sub-zero weather, snow and ice everywhere. Trucks with huge, open-air trailers arrived to move us to our first destination for reorganization and recovery of all our crated equipment. The trip was brutal. Imagine, if you can, crammed into a trailer with a hundred other people, standing, traveling the roadway at 35-40 mph, snow falling, temperature at 20 below zero, and the wind tearing at your soul. The better part of 5 hours was spent in this rolling deep-freeze, and when we finally did get to the end of the trip, it was difficult to walk, as everyone was just about frozen. We had arrived at Camp Lucky Strike. But it was a 'camp' in name only. It had recently been selected as a site for incoming troops to do what we were about to do, reorganize. However the job of erecting tents, making walkways, and other facilities for the sustenance of life had only begun, and there were no tents, no streets, no walkways, nothing but a large open area, frozen and snow covered, utterly empty. Our duffel bags had not accompanied us, so we did not even have our blankets nor our sleeping bags. There was wood in the form of felled trees which had been knocked down by bulldozers preparing the area, so we began building fires to try to thaw out a bit, but those efforts were quickly discouraged as too dangerous, even at this remote location, hundreds of miles from any combat area. Observation from the air was always a consideration. The next day, after a virtually sleepless night, we did set about pitching the large 12-man tents provided. With 15,000 troops working feverishly, it was not long before a tent city appeared, as if by magic. Truckloads of cots were delivered, and the engineer battalion 'found' several truckloads of lumber that could be used to provide temporary, and very narrow walkways. The first few days, before the cooks kitchen equipment arrived, the food was 'C' and 'K' rations, sometimes heated with small wood fires in the tents. Just as the equipment began to arrive, truck after truck, the temperature took a freakish turn upward, and our field of snow and ice became a sea of mud. If, for some reason, one had to venture off the wood walkways, it was like walking in quicksand, sinking halfway to the knees. Every step was an extreme exertion. Unloading the trucks was a nightmare of terrible effort in the horrible mud, wrestling the crates off the trucks and into the appropriate tent. Several days of this labor were required to get this awful job done. Then came the tedious work of removing the protective coating of cosmoline (protective greasy coating for shipping) from everything. This, too, was accomplished, and a semblance of order was beginning to be apparent in Camp Lucky Strike. The kitchen was preparing hot meals, finally. Latrine facilities were provided. We, of course, had to use the individual field mess kits for eating, and our canteens for water, but we came to recognize a routine. Sadly, our first casualties were suffered here. Two men from another company in the regiment were killed when they stepped on mines which had, somehow, been missed by the mine-clearing specialists prior to our arrival. There was a hurried search of the entire area for more mines, but none were found in the occupied area. However, in several outlying areas nearby, several minefields were discovered by the 89th engineers, and over 1,000 mines were recovered.
We were now in a state of readiness, and several times we were alerted for movement eastward toward the areas where combat was in progress. We had accessed a hastily constructed area for test firing all our weapons. We did as much exercising and calisthenics as time allowed so that we could get limbered up for whatever happened next. The commanding general, the regimental commanders, and the battalion commanders were taken to the combat areas to visit with some of the 'engaged' units to witness first hand whatever activities could be helpful for indoctrination purposes. A number of us were given passes to visit the nearby villages, towns, and even the city of Rouen, a rather large city about 60 miles distant. One of my friends and I did visit Rouen one day, and we had a chance to try out our 'English to French' dictionaries in dealing with the merchants for souvenirs. On the trip to and from Rouen we were awed by the extent of the destruction which had taken place in the process of ousting the enemy from this area. The trip was accomplished by hitching rides with army trucks. The most memorable educational experience during the Rouen visit was the sight of the public comfort stations located right on the sidewalks of the city. They consisted of a small walled in area somewhat larger than a closet. However the walls did not conceal anything but critical areas. The person using the facility was visible from the knees down, and from the chest upward. We were dumbfounded to see French gentlemen using the trough provided inside the facility while having conversation with passersby on the sidewalk. All very nonchalant. We did not see anything that looked like similar facilities for women, and we did not inquire. On the return trip we got a ride with a British truck. Several British soldiers were also riding, and it was a very interesting conversation during that ride.
The order came, at last, to prepare to move out of Camp Lucky Strike. We packed up lock, stock, and barrel, and moved by truck approximately 50 miles into the French countryside, but near a railhead, and set up a bivouac area to await the availability of a train to carry us the 300 miles to the area near Mersch, Luxembourg. Oddly, Mersch had been the 89th Division temporary headquarters in WW I when the division took up occupation duty following the armistice. Since we were to be there for several days, arrangements were made for an engineer unit in the area to set up a huge shower facility at a small stream in the area. A large wood-burning water heater heated water from the stream and all personnel were brought to the facility, company by company. A large canvas tent enclosed the entire apparatus to protect the modesty of the showering individuals. This was mid-February. The last opportunity anyone had for an honest to goodness shower was at Camp Myles Standish in very early January. One cynical individual remarked that the reason for the shower, now, was that since we were headed for introduction to the enemy, our commanders did not want the enemy to be able to smell us coming. And not only did we get a shower, but we left our smelly clothing with the engineers who furnished everyone with fresh socks, underwear, shirt, and trousers. Some even fit. The shower was very welcome.
The train was composed of box cars called 40 x 8s, meaning that a car was meant to accommodate either 40 men or 8 mules. This nomenclature had been coined by U.S. troops during WW I. The trip from western France to Luxembourg took several days of stop-go travel. It was a far cry from the 'luxurious' troop trains of the stateside travel episodes. No creature comforts, period. No seats, no windows, no restrooms. Fortunately the 'stops' were frequent enough that there was no suffering for lack of restrooms on board. In spite of apprehension at what lay ahead, we were relieved when the final stop was accomplished, and we detrained for good. Our regimental trucks had arrived beforehand, and they transported us to the areas where we were to bivouac. Company K actually settled down in the village of Rodenberg, nearby. Since I had a very slight capability in the German language, Sgt. Smazenka sent me to canvas some of the villagers to see if I could 'purchase' any kind of food. 'Purchasing' from 'friendly' civilians was simply a matter of trading cigarettes and K-Ration candies for whatever was available. It had been several days of 'K' rations on the train, and everyone was ready for some 'real' food. I think I did come up with several links of sausage and a couple of loaves of bread for the hungry machinegunners. From that point forward, anytime there was opportunity, my duty was 'food prospecting'. We were a lot closer, now, than we had ever been, to where the real business was being carried on. It seemed prudent to dig a shallow slit trench next to where we slept, 'just in case'. A slit trench is a hasty, temporary shelter about 18 inches in depth and just large enough to lie down in if one needed protection. We learned that we had been assigned to General George Patton's Third Army, and were scheduled to move into the area presently occupied by his 5th Infantry Division near the Mosel River.
br> We stayed in Rodenberg a couple of days and then moved even closer to the action, actually crossing into Germany at Echternach, a border town on the Sauer River. Now we began to see lots of dead animals, destroyed vehicles, wagons, etc. There was destruction everywhere one looked. We reached our destination in the late evening and moved into some of the houses which still offered shelter. All the inhabitants had evacuated. We had received our ammunition before leaving Rodenberg, and we learned that our first possible encounter would take place the next day. That evening we spent diligently checking our weapons for the slightest hint of dust or dirt. I even wiped every individual cartridge in my carbine magazine. This would be no time for malfunctioning of any kind. Just about the time we were preparing to get a few hours sleep, the orders came to prepare to move out. Trucks had suddenly become available to carry us a few miles even closer to our objective, so we would start our activity sooner than we thought. At this point we could already hear the occasional distant 'crump' of artillery fire.
Reality was really beginning to sink in. It was some time after midnight when we detrucked and began the march toward the town of Ernst on the Mosel River with orders to 'take and clear' the town and surrounding area. During the night march on the road to Ernst, we occasionally halted and called in our own artillery to drop a few rounds on suspicious areas, such as wooded areas or buildings on either side of the road. This was faster than sending a patrol out to investigate and make sure we were not walking into an ambush. It began to break daylight as we approached the outskirts of town. We began hearing a new sound which resembled the sound that happens when one rips a sheet of paper in two. Soon the realization came that it was not paper being torn. It was the sound of enemy 'burp guns' being fired, but not at us. Other troops of our regiment were nearby and had encountered opposition on the way to their objective. The 'burp-gun', the nickname for the German Schmeizer Machine Pistol, had such a rapid rate of fire that one could not distinguish the sound of the individual rounds as they were fired. The sound was more like a very loud and raucous hiss. A welcome sight, when we got close enough to the town to see it, was white bed sheets displayed from windows signaling that the town was surrendering. What they were really telling us was that there were no enemy left in town, so that we would not call in artillery onto it. However, as we entered the town, we began to receive sniper fire and machinegun fire from across the river.
There was a village on the far side of the river and a couple of hundred yards downstream, and, obviously, it was still occupied by enemy troops who were to try to prevent our crossing the river. At this point the river was probably 200 yards wide. The firing from across the river, even though at quite a distance, was a serious hindrance to our checking out the town and clearing the areas around it, so it was decided to discourage this interference. A quick conference by Capt. Brown and the platoon leaders yielded a plan. As I understood it one of the machineguns and as many riflemen as could find safe places near the waterfront would set up a firebase to try to distract the enemy somewhat. About 200 yards downstream from the outskirts of town, on our side of the river, were several small outbuildings, almost exactly across the river from where the enemy fire was coming. There was a grape arbor in the area between the town and the group of small buildings. The plan included sending the other machinegun through the grape arbor to the small buildings, try to set up the machinegun. Being much closer to the enemy, it could possibly place more effective fire on them, than was possible from the town proper. When Lt. Adams told us of the plan, it sounded practical to me until our gun was designated to hustle down to the grape arbor and try to get to the buildings. Very quickly some very troubling questions occurred to me, such as how much concealment is there in a grape arbor at this time of year? How far did he say it was to the small buildings? How much protection is there behind an outhouse? Who knows whether there is an ambush waiting in the buildings? We didn't have time to hash out these unknowns, and suddenly we were on our way, dodging among the buildings to reach the edge of town where the grape arbor was situated. The answer to the first question was quickly obvious. Concealment was minimal. Not many green leaves on grapevines in wintertime. We waited a few minutes for our guys to begin firing to draw the enemy's attention to them, then started across the grape arbor as fast as we could run, carrying machinegun, tripod, ammunition boxes, and all the rest. With all the noise from the firefight going on back at the town, we felt that the distraction was working. About halfway across the grape arbor I came to a spot where the vines were particularly thick, and I stopped and crouched behind them to catch my breath. Very quickly I heard the snapping sounds of rapid fire over my head and I got a shower of shattered grapevine. I suddenly felt very refreshed, and resumed my run even faster than before. During the remainder of the run for the buildings, I did not feel the need for further rest stops. As the first two of the crew approached the buildings, they simply fired their personal weapons at the buildings to flush out anyone who might have plans for us. It turned out the buildings were filled with bags of various fertilizers and this gave excellent protection to us. Now we, too, were getting attention from across the river, but the buildings provided safety. The roofs of the buildings were not steeply angled, so Joe Liszka climbed up onto the one most accessible, set up the gun on the peak of the roof, and prepared to begin firing. Sgt Smazenka had been searching for targets with his binoculars and directed Joe to place fire on one that he thought was an automatic weapon in a window of a house. After engaging several more targets, the fire directed at us increased as the enemy now realized we were their nearest target, and that they were our nearest targets. As the incoming fire grew more intense, Joe, up on the roof, shouted down to Sgt Smazenka, "Hey, Tony, those s---s of b-----s are trying to shoot me!" Tony yelled back, "G-d d---n it, if you'd aim a little better, they wouldn't be able to!" In the meantime Capt. Brown had contacted the heavy weapons company commander and had him send a platoon of 81mm mortars to a position where they could begin shelling the village across the river.
The mortar shells began arriving onto the target, and the mortar guys had a good supply of white phosphorous projectiles with them. Rather than carry them back with them they dumped them across the river and set the whole village on fire. It did not take long for the firing from across the river to die down. Finally our artillery began dumping shells into the burning village, and as the enemy troops left for better places, Joe and his gun encouraged them with further attention. When everything quieted down, we made our way back to the town and rejoined the rest of the company. We had had our baptism of fire, and had survived. We learned that a couple of the riflemen had been wounded in the process of clearing some of the wooded areas where die-hards were hiding.
Sadly, we also learned that Herman Casey had been killed when the jeep in which he was riding came under fire in somewhat the same manner. In both cases the die-hards did pay the price. We learned later that all the activities of the 89th division, for the past several days, had been part of a larger plan to make the enemy think that the 89th was going to attempt a crossing of the Mosel. While this diversion was in progress, the 5th division, further up the river, did sneak across with little difficulty, and was already enlarging their bridgehead.
During the checkout and clearing of the town, someone had discovered a pen of rabbits. The rabbits, rather than be taken prisoner, committed suicide. In the spirit of 'waste not, want not' Sgt Smazenka and a couple of helpers converted the suicidal hares into a delicious stew. The house we had occupied had a generously furnished kitchen. Lt. Adams, while having some stew, commended him for observing the rule of conservation. This may have been the beginnings of the recycling movements so popular in today's world.
It would seem logical that a harrowing event such as a soldiers initial exposure to the intense emotions of being thrust, finally, into the hazardous situation for which he had been trained so thoroughly, along with the realization that his life's end could occur at any second from now on, would make the most long lasting impression in his memory. Many years later, in casual conversations with others who had similar wartime experiences, it seemed true that the most vivid memories of all were 'that first day'. Subsequent activities, frantic though they were at times, are not etched into the memory as firmly as that very first encounter. Of course there are recollections of the general run of things, day to day routines, but usually not much beyond flashbacks of brief, personal experiences within the framework of a day or of a specific activity during one day or another.
For the next several weeks, activities settled almost into a routine. One or another of the armored divisions would make a thrust forward as far as their fuel and ammunition supply or the situation permitted. Their methods were very direct. They deployed as widely as available roadways and other terrain permitted, and as they moved forward, they simply annihilated opposition or anything that presented itself as a target, and nothing that even looked suspiciously like a place of concealment was spared. In these forays it was recognized that enemy troops, in many cases, hid and presented no opposition. It was the job of the infantry to follow up on the armor and clean out any bypassed enemy as well as pockets of resistance that the armor was unable to reach. This was the general area of activity in which we were engaged. An objective or several objectives were assigned, and then the company commander sent his available rifle platoons on their separate ways, usually accompanied by a couple of tanks or tank destroyers. Sometimes we moved via truck; sometimes we walked; sometimes we rode on the backs of the tanks. 6 or 8 individuals could easily pile onto the back deck of a tank. The idea was to intimidate the 'die hards' with the presence of the tanks, so that they would perceive the folly of resistance and surrender. Alternatively, they might feel God was on their side, and take some kind of action to try to disable the tanks or the accompanying infantry, in which case they suffered the consequences. I have no recollection of any tank or tank destroyer suffering any damage while working with our groups. Now and then we came into the view of enemy aircraft, and usually they made one or two strafing runs at us without inflicting much, if any, damage.
Sometimes, even in the midst of the organized confusion of military activities, events occur that, in retrospect, call forth an appreciation of the ridiculous humor of the situation. On one such occasion, we were making up a vehicle convoy for a night movement forward to relieve another unit. Shortly before being ready to move out, someone heard a few words of conversation from the rearmost vehicles that seemed out of place. A cautious investigation revealed that several vehicles containing enemy troops had pulled into place at the rear of the convoy. We were made aware of the situation, placed ourselves into appropriate positions, and demanded their surrender. They were glad to oblige. Their plan had been to simply follow along as if they were part of the convoy. They were familiar with the road network in this area, and felt that, at the proper time, they could peel off and head for what they felt was safer territory. We explained that the safest territory for them was to their rear, and offered to show them the way to our prisoner collection point. After disarming them and providing an armed escort, they disengaged from our convoy.
This hit, run, and cleanup activity continued until we approached the large city of Worms on the bank of the Rhine River. The entire battalion was assigned to attack the city and secure it. We approached it during the night, and even in the dark one could tell that air corps bombers had been at work during the previous weeks and months. As daylight broke, we climbed aboard tanks and were prepared for a real battle. The city was devastated into rubble, and it looked like there could be many places from which the enemy could offer tough resistance. But we encountered no resistance, and the first sign of life, as we proceeded into the suburbs, was an army jeep with a tripod-mounted newsreel camera and a cameraman busily taking pictures of us as we approached. We learned that the enemy had fled the city during the night and had blown up the bridge which crossed the Rhine here. Reconnaissance by one of the other divisions had provided this updated information to the news camera crew, but, somehow, the information did not get to our division headquarters. There was a report of rifle fire on the outskirts of town near where we were. Our machinegun crew and a squad of infantry men were sent with a tank to investigate. When we reached the reported trouble spot, all was quiet. We spotted a tiny building several hundred yards distant. Using binoculars, Sgt. Smazenka saw smoke issuing from it. I suggested that it was an outhouse in which someone was having a smoke while attending nature's call. My suggestion was not regarded as relevant. Smazenka directed the tank commander's attention to the building, and agreement was reached that it was an imminent danger to us and, perhaps, the entire war effort. A round of high explosive from the tank eliminated the danger. We were saved. We did approach the remains of the building, and discovered that I had been right about it being an outhouse, but there was no evidence of it having been occupied.
Later we were gathered at a central area to await trucks to transport us to a rear area for a brief rest period. We were scattered up and down the roadside, passing the time, and I thought this might be a good time to disassemble my carbine and give it a good cleaning. I was in the process of doing this when I heard the anti-aircraft wagons begin firing. An anti-aircraft wagon had 4 .50 caliber machineguns mounted so that all 4 were aimed and fired simultaneously by the gunner. At a distance of a half-mile or so, the sound is like that of a hard, driving rain falling on the metal roof of a building, if you are in the building. Usually a truck convoy of any size, 20 or 30 trucks, will have an anti-aircraft wagon both at its front and bringing up the rear for protection against enemy aircraft. When I heard the sound of the firing, I moved myself around the tree under which I was sitting, cleaning my carbine, so that I was on the side of the tree opposite from where the sound was coming. Sure enough, an enemy plane buzzed over, strafing the road along which we were scattered, then turned and strafed in the opposite direction. We had all taken cover upon hearing the sound of firing, so nobody was injured, but of all things to be concerned about, I realized I had been thinking "That so and so has probably blown dirt all over my disassembled carbine", which I had abandoned in the scramble to hide behind the tree. And he had.
On another occasion we were, again, proceeding via truck, wooded areas on each side of the road, toward the town of Pressburg when we came to an abrupt halt. The lead vehicles in the convoy had, fortunately, spotted an enemy group with an anti-tank gun on the outskirts of the town, defending the road. They had hastily given the signal to back up to a point out of sight of the defenders. Nevertheless, the enemy began firing at where he thought we might be, into the treetops so that the shells would explode overhead and the fragments would damage the vehicles as well as the troops. We quickly left the trucks and sought protection in the woods, while it was being decided how to neutralize this 'problem'. The distance was a bit too long for rifle or machinegun engagement. I was as flat as I could be in the ditch by the road, when I happened to look up to see Col. Harris, the regimental commander, calmly striding down the road toward the front of the column to see what the holdup was. He was about 6' 6" tall, and he looked as tall as an east Texas pine tree to me, cowering in the ditch. I was somewhat embarrassed, but not enough to offer to accompany him. Before he got out of sight, our mortar fire took care of the 'problem'. One of my friends, John Searle of the mortar section, had hustled his mortar up to a position from which he could engage the enemy gun, and with the first round landing fairly close, the 'problem' chose to abandon their gun and flee. Because of the woods, John had had to expose himself to the enemy's view in order to be able to fire the mortar. Fortunately, he was able to fire before the enemy sighted their gun onto him, or else they didn't see him. At any rate John received a citation for bravery and skill for his action.
Our General Patton and the British General Bernard Montgomery had little use for each other, dating back to the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily, 2 years previous. They were engaged in a duel of 'one-upmanship', trying to outdo each other at every opportunity. In late March, General Patton learned that General Montgomery was planning a huge operation in the north to effect a crossing of the Rhine River by several infantry divisions. It was to be a media event with extensive paratroop involvement, bombardment from the air, as well as overpowering artillery support. The event was to be witnessed by Prime Minister Churchill and General Eisenhower. All this in spite of the fact that the 9th Armored Division had already captured the only remaining undamaged bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen, and American troops were rushing across the river as swiftly as traffic permitted. But General Patton could not live with the fact that General Montgomery was going to get huge publicity by virtue of his operation. General Patton issued orders to three divisions in his command, the 5th, the 87th, and the 89th to make immediate preparation to cross the Rhine at, not one, but three, points in the general vicinity of Frankfurt. The crossing area designated was the absolutely worst area possible for such an attempt, as the enemy side of the river had practically no landing area. The 'bank' of the river was a 1,200 ft bluff, almost straight up for miles up and down the river. The theory was that the enemy would never dream that anyone would be stupid enough to try a river crossing in this impossible situation. The river was 250 to 300 yards wide and swift due to the spring thaw. The assault crossing was to be made in paddle boats, the only craft available on such sudden, short notice. The crossing was to be made on the day after General Montgomery's media event. The crossing was made as scheduled, but with serious losses. God had smiled on my regiment, as it was designated to be the 'reserve' regiment. The other 2 regiments of the 89th made the assault shortly after midnight on the designated morning. The enemy was waiting for them with a lot of firepower, and several hundred casualties were suffered in spite of heavy support by tank cannon fire and whatever else was available on our side of the river. The paddle boats made for slow progress across the river, and, thus, were prime targets for the enemy. A number of the boats were sunk, and many troops drowned, loaded with equipment as they were. But in the end our troops prevailed, and by noon General Patton could announce to the media that his troops had crossed the Rhine north of Frankfurt in the vicinity of the famous Lorelei Rock as well as 2 other nearby areas, and were moving eastward against scattered resistance. That afternoon my regiment followed across the river in navy landing craft, now arrived and available, passed through the assault troops, and continued the attack. Almost 50 years later in 1992, I learned that one of my high school classmates, Billy Lux, was a member of the 87th division, which crossed the river that same day only a few miles north of the 89th division's positions. At the time neither of us had any way of knowing we were that near to each other at a historic moment.
On Easter Sunday we happened to be in a brief pause, and many were able to attend religious services hastily conducted. That afternoon, the word came to prepare to move. The 4th Armored Division had made a successful thrust many miles eastward, and there was immediate need for infantry to back them up to protect their rear areas from counterattack. We loaded into a truck convoy and set out just as darkness fell. It was raining, cold, and miserable. Naturally on these convoy operations in 'questionable' areas, there were no tops on the trucks, so that the troops could bail out of the vehicles as quickly as possible when fired on. Sometime after midnight, the convoy halted briefly, having encountered a roadblock of tree trunks and utility poles which had been constructed by the enemy. The tanks of the armored division had simply blown a hole in it and proceeded. Experience with similar situations had taught that enemy troops often permitted strong forces to pass through their defenses, then returned to defend against subsequent traffic which might not be as formidable. We, therefore, were on high alert as we approached this suspicious area. I had got up from my seat, kneeling on it with one leg over the sideboards of the truck, in preparation for going 'over the side' if need be. I felt the truck lurch, and felt an impact of something hitting me, and then nothing. I was out cold. I didn't know it, of course, but my war was over.
I regained my senses the next day. I was in a medical tent fastened to a stretcher. When a nurse noticed I was awake, she spoke with me briefly to make sure I was able to respond. I asked what my situation was, and she replied that I was in an evacuation facility, that I had head injuries and a compound fracture of my left leg between the knee and ankle. She reassured me that in all probability, while the damage was severe, no permanent impairment would result. She gave me a shot of morphine, and I went back to sleep. The next time I awakened, it was dark again, but I saw what I thought was a figure I recognized. I called out to attract the attention of the familiar one. It was Captain Lucius Curry, the personnel officer of my battalion, who had also been the company commander of one of the companies in my training battalion at Camp Wheeler during basic training. He had been transferred to the 89th Division at about the same time all of us 18 year old trainees had arrived at Camp Butner in North Carolina. He came to where I was, and we had a brief conversation after I identified myself as a former fellow member of the 9th Training Battalion at Camp Wheeler. I asked him what had happened to me. He said the information they had was that one of the trucks had driven over a land mine and that there had been others injured, but they had been treated and released with very minor injuries. It was Captain Curry's duty, as personnel officer of the battalion, to see that home folks were notified of deaths or injuries to troops, and to write a brief letter of explanation when the injuries were serious, or when the victim was a fatality. He assured me that he would tend to this promptly, and urged me to write home as soon as I was able. About 50 years later, upon being reunited with John Searle, one of my comrades of that Easter night in 1945, I learned what really happened to me. Apparently as our truck, with me astride the sideboards, passed through the partially demolished roadblock, the truck sideswiped a portion of it, colliding me with it, and knocking me back into the truck. A medical aid man happened to be in the truck with us. He stopped the bleeding, immobilized the broken leg using my carbine as a makeshift splint, and gave me a shot of morphine to lessen the effect of possible shock and to keep me unconscious. When the convoy stopped to refuel, I was transferred to a medical jeep and transported back to the evacuation facility in which I woke up the next day. Of course, Captain Curry did his duty faithfully, and my parents received the customary form telegram, followed by his letter of inaccurate information.
Later that evening, I was given a spinal anesthetic, the broken bone was set properly, and a plaster cast was applied. The next day I was transported , by military ambulance, to a more extensive facility to await evacuation to England. After several days of waiting, an ambulance convoy transported a number of evacuees to an airstrip where we were loaded onto C-47 transport planes which had been outfitted with stretchers, and we were off to a hospital at Oxford, England. Another, more critical, examination of the injured leg indicated that all was well, and a new, more permanent cast was installed.
About 15 days passed, and I joined a group for transfer back to the U.S. We boarded a hospital ship and the voyage took another 10 or 12 days. We docked at Charleston, South Carolina, and spent about a week at a receiving hospital while processing to determine the final destination hospital. That having been determined, I was put on a hospital train headed for Hoff General Hospital in southern California, near Santa Barbara. By this time it was late May, and the California climate was wonderful. Santa Barbara is near the Los Angeles and Hollywood area. We had quite a few celebrities visiting and entertaining. Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny and his group, and others visited. After my injuries mended sufficiently, I was given a 30-day 'convalescent furlough' to spend at home. I hitched a ride on a military transport plane from a nearby airbase to Amarillo, Texas.
From there I went home by bus on crutches, leg still in the cast, and surprised my family, showing up at the door just in time for a meal. The reunion was a happy one. I found I could manage to drive the family car, even with the left leg in the cast, and without automatic transmission. I was able to entertain myself with fishing trips, accompanied by my brother or friends, visiting about with nearby relatives, and just resting, reading, and listening to the radio.. Toward the end of my 30-day leave, I wired the hospital, requesting a 30-day extension of my leave, which they granted. There was no pressing reason for me to be at the hospital, taking up valuable space which someone else might need.
The war in Europe had ended about the time I arrived back in the U.S., and the war in the Pacific ended while I was at home on leave. Immediately all rationing was ended, and life took on a completely different scene. It was like everyone was heaving a huge sigh of relief. But, finally, the leave time expired, and I boarded the train back to California and the final period of hospitalization. Observation of my leg continued, and my time was largely my own to spend as I liked, as long as they knew where I was. In mid-November the cast was removed for the last time, and I was told to stay on crutches temporarily. By Christmas time I had been transferred to Ft. Sam Houston, having shed the crutches in favor of a cane, and I was able to spend the holidays at home.
Some of my classmates had returned from their various services. We had not lost a single member of my high school class. During the final weeks at Ft. Sam Houston, one of my high school classmates, Larry Cornelson, appeared at my barracks one day. He had arrived on post for processing, and we made several trips into San Antonio to visit with some of our feminine classmates who were employed in civil service work. Vernon Blohm, another Schulenburg native, also contacted me while he was being processed for separation. I was separated from the military on January 29, 1946. The great adventure had ended where it had begun.