Remembrances: Gerry Stearns--More Souvenirs

I climbed into the German third-class railway car. My three-day pass to Paris that began on VE day had come to an end and I was headed back to my outfit in Thuringia. Third class was a standard European compartment with a sliding door from the narrow corridor. Two benches at right angles to the corridor faced each other with three (or four) seats on each bench separated by armrests. The seats and armrests were of wood, a blond oak. Approximately the comfort level of present-day airplane Tourist Class. There was an enamel flip-sign on the wall: Raucher (Smoking) and on the reverse Nicht Raucher (Uh-uh). What a great souvenir! I took out my Boy Scout knife, opened the screwdriver blade and began to work. Hours later, when I de-trained and re-trucked the sign was still on the wall--those third-class cars were built for the ages!

When I arrived at How Company I got updated: for three days and nights German soldiers had streamed in from the east surrendering to us rather than to the Russians. My new assignment was to drive a Military Affairs officer from village to village, picking up weapons that the local civilians had been ordered to turn in. What great souvenirs! Handsomely engraved shotguns and swords with scabbards. No SS daggers or the like, just expensive-looking civilian stuff, but equally lethal. I have no idea what happened to any of the weapons we collected; I know only that I neither now have, nor have ever had, any of them.

I did bring home a Walther P-38 pistol, the standard side arm of the Wehrmacht. (The famous Lueger, which dates back at least to WWI, was so finely machined it was said even a speck of dust would jam it, making it a little risky for combat use). I told people that it had been given to me in Austria by a guy in the 83rd, formerly of the 355th. He had two P-38's and thought they wouldn't let him take both home. The 355th had captured the Walther factory and he had picked parts right off the assembly line and put them together using a parts manual. (Dick Mathews, of the Oregon Historical Society, who is helping with the writing of the history of the 353rd, corrected me recently--some other division, not the 89th, not the 83rd - had captured the factory.)

More recently, I ran across a story by Phil Leveque from the 354th recounting another one of his bouts with the Establishment. He'd been shipped from the 89th to the 331st and knew nobody in the new outfit. Naturally, they gave him the least desirable assignments, beginning with: "My first duty was guarding an empty warehouse. It had been used to assemble Walther pistols and some parts were still there. It was feared the non-existent 'werewolves' who were supposed to be Nazi fanatics hiding in the Alps would attack and get the pistol parts." That's close enough to my version, Dick).

I loved that pistol even though it had its ugliness: one pistol grip was a military black, the other, was a tawny yellow, like a lion's coat. The slide had one number; the receiver another. But it felt solid and powerful in my hand. I'd fieldstrip it and oil it every so often, and then practice aiming and dry-firing. I never got around to buying any 9mm rounds and never fired it. I still have the customs declaration with the signature of an unknown captain and the ID number I selected from the two available. But, I don't have that pretty baby now. There's a complicated explanation of why not. Read on.

I may be the only GI that never actually saw Ohrdruf. I do have the distinction, however, of having slept in the apartment of the Mayor in the bedroom in which he shot his wife and himself, I discovered later, when I asked about the blood on the walls. (The son of the organizer of the Ohrdruf documents in the Memorabilia Room in Tacoma told me there was some question of the manner of the deaths of the two: was one or both hanged? I don't know. I do know the blood was there). I needed a German-English dictionary and binoculars so I took theirs. I told this story in The Rolling W a while back and that I'd given the binocs to the Salvation Army years later when I bought state-of-the-art glasses for myself. I still have the Langenscheid dictionary, even though we have a new, easier to read copy.

What does this have to do with the pistol? My wife was never very comfortable with it around which she pointed out once that I was as fond of words as I was of that piece. I eventually sold the P-38--about the time our son was born--and immediately bought the newly published Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary-- Unabridged, which is a frequent source of joy. I still miss the pistol, especially since our son grew up and left home several years ago. (I think he has forgiven me for the sale possibly because as an artillery officer he can make more noise, but from time to time he'll bring up my selling of the '68 Mustang).

Money is always a good souvenir for the traveler in foreign lands. My prize specimen of Army years is the EINE MILLION MARK REICHSBANKNOTE. If I had a million mark banknote today (Friday, 2/17/01), it'd be worth $452,400. Unfortunately, this one is of the series of 20 February 1923 and it's pretty crude, and printed only on one side. I remember stories (in history books, dammit, that was the year I was born!) about the inflation when people carried suitcases full of high-number bills just to buy a loaf of bread. I also have a Reichsbanknote for 1000 marks dated 21 April 1910. I doubt it's worth anything now despite its really elaborate engraving, but I suspect it was pretty solid before the Kaiser decided to take on all Europe in 1914.

Less worn are a couple of "Funfzig Groschen" (fifty cents) bills issued by the Allied Military Authority in Austria. They are printed "Serie 1944," but I doubt they were actually used before 1945. I have a number of those beautifully colored, beautifully engraved, watermarked small denomination French franc notes. I don't remember when I got them, but they were with the German stuff, so they were probably Lucky Strike-ish. I also have a couple of unexpectedly plain French franc bills, 3"x2 5/8", "Serie de 1944" which I think might have been printed for the French by the U.S. and which I believe we used during and shortly after the war.

One souvenir that jumped out at me during the past year was a card/pamphlet from some high-ranking general. I can't find it now, but I remember it listed guidelines for us conquering heroes in our relationship with the vanquished. And, I do believe that "fraternization" was still frowned upon, but without any threat of fines. One last souvenir is easier to remember, even if it isn't something touchable. After the three days in Paris and the efforts to detach the Smoke/Don't Smoke sign, I was dead tired. Because of the armrests on the benches in my third class compartment, it was impossible to stretch out and there was a guy or equipment on the floor between the benches. So, in order to sleep I balanced on my right hip in the nearly six-inch strip between the end of the armrest and the edge of the bench. After I reported back to the outfit I was aware of a spot on my right hip about 5-6 inches in diameter, which seemed like it had fallen asleep permanently. I waited a couple of weeks and then went on sick call. The battalion surgeon listened carefully to my story and then issued me a diagnosis from his civilian practice: I had "stenographers palsy." Huh? It seems there were employers, like insurance companies, who hired dozens of women to type papers--we've seen them in the movies--and organized them in long rows, one behind the other all, filling the room. They had to type, type, type, with infrequent breaks, and subsequently their bottoms developed those fallen-asleep pressure zones. I was not to worry; eventually the correct sensation--or non-sensation-- would come back, which it did. And best of all, for a words guy, I had a new word, or words.