Heroes: the Army
"... As we began to move up the hill silently, I could see some of our rifleman about a hundred feet behind us quietly slinking forward. I knew they would be walking over my incinerated body in a short while..."
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Anti Tank Co., 406th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: T-5, Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1924
- Entered Service: Minneapolis, MN
My Time with the Ozarks...
I was a member of the Anti-tank company of the 406th Regiment of the 102nd Infantry Division of the American Army during World War II.
We crossed the Atlantic in a convoy of forty six Liberty ships. Interspersed and cutting in and out between the Liberty ships were a number of fast small destroyers, looking for submarines. The Liberty ships were small, and poorly constructed, the hulls being welded rather than riveted. We heard rumors that in a convoy prior to ours, one Liberty ship fell apart in the high seas. The men were left to drown because it was too dangerous for the convoy to stop and present itself as an easy target for any German U-boats that were lurking in the vicinity to sink the remaining ship.
Many of us were very sea-sick. I vomited for 10 of the 12 days it took our ships to cross the ocean. I lost at least 15 pounds of weight. Fortunately, I met a man aboard ship who had recently entered our company, Dick Wollaston, who brought me canteens of coffee and oranges each day. Without his help, I would have ended up in the ship's hospital, as did quite a few of the men. I am eternally grateful to Dick.
Dick and I became close buddies. He was not one of the men, like myself, who had been in The Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) for engineering at various universities. The army thought it could use trained engineers and devised a program of university concentrated work for young men especially selected from their scores on a selection test, called the army general classification test. I assumed that high school or college records may also have played a roll in the selection.
I went through two quarters of the program, each quarter lasting three months at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C, Each quarter's work was the equivalent of one year of full university training -a concentrated grueling course of math, chemistry, physics, history, English, military science, and physical education. 50% of the entrants either failed the courses and were dropped out of the program or chose to resign and were reassigned to their original outfits. Those remaining had completed one-half the full training of an engineer.
Apparently there was a sudden change of plans. The army urgently needed men for a newly conceived attack upon Germany. Those remaining at various universities were taken our of school and sent to the infantry for a few miserable months of further training as infantrymen. Several thousand former ASTP students and I were sent to Camp Swift Texas to join the 102nd Infantry Division of a total of approximately 15,000 men.
We entered combat in Europe about many weeks after D-Day, landing in the port of Cherbourg, after 12 days at sea in a liberty ship. We walked down a gangplank without a shot being fired at us. The west side of France had been conquered already following the invasion.
The first mission assigned to the approximately 30 men of the fourth platoon of the anti-tank company, known as the mine platoon, of the 406th regiment was to clear the beach around Cherbourg, which was still heavily mined. We assumed this was done to allow for more ships to land in the excellent port, bringing more equipment to our troops, although we were never told why we were assigned to pick up the dangerous mines on the beachfront. Wasn't there room enough for a large ships, such as ours, to enter the harbor as it now stood without risking the lives of men in picking up the 16 lbs. of explosive contained in each mine?
The minefields along the beach ran hundreds of yards and were marked with signs, "Minen," warning the German defenders that the beaches were armed and to avoid the dangerous area. Our excellent platoon lieutenant, Felice Ippolito and equally fine platoon sergeant, Robert E. Collins, discovered that if the signs were slightly tilted one way, they were live fields. If the signs were tilted the opposite way they were fake fields, scattered among the live ones. This allowed the Germans utilize the safe areas if necessary and to limit the numbers of mines over such an extensive area.
We were taught to carefully feel beneath each of the Kraut Teller mines for booby trap wires which were fastened by stakes hidden below ground to some of the mines, causing them to explode if they were lifted. There were also hidden small anti-personnel mines interspersed between the.
Larger ones, which were set off by camouflaged trip wires by anyone walking in the mine field. These were powerful enough to blow off a GI's arms or legs, or head if he were stooped over in the act of lifting one of the larger mines. The larger 16 pound mines were intended to blow to bits, not men walking on them, but a sufficiently heavy enemy tank or truck which ran over them with all its occupant soldiers, exploding, in addition, any ammunition those vehicles carried.
At one moment, as I cautiously walked down what I thought was the established safe pathway between rows of hidden mines, being careful to look for hidden anti-personnel mine trip wires, Sgt. Collins, supervising our work, yelled at me, "Stop! Don't move!" I froze with one foot in the air. His face was white with fear. "There's a mine right ahead of you," He redirected me to the beginning of a row of mines that were to be removed. Though it was unlikely that the big mine might have blown up from the pressure of a foot-step, we wanted to avoid that possibility.
I continued to uncover and lift my share of mines. With my heavy winter gloves off, I carefully felt with one bare finger completely under and around each mine. I then double checked with another finger before I lifted the mine from the ground, expecting to be blown up any second.
As we were working, I noticed Joe Marinello, the joker of our platoon, pipe lit and smoking away, in the row behind me and about 25 feet from me, digging up a mine, He swooped quickly and carelessly under it with a gloved finger, hardly, if at all, completing the full circle around the mine, rapidly plucking it from the ground, and going after others.
I yelled at him, "What the hell are you doing, Joe? Be more careful." I showed him how I was examining each mine.
He replied, with his usual grin and a twitching of his pipe that he was getting ready for his birthday party. The boys had decided to give him a birthday bang. All the mines from one section were to be piled in a corner and blown up in his honor. After about 20 mines were piled up in one corner of the section. A few of the men went into a deep trench, which the Krauts had dug to defend the mine-field against an invasion, perhaps 80 feet behind the pile of mines. Most of us backed off six or eight hundred feet and were in the open when the mines were detonated.
I heard an enormous explosion and saw boulders as big as a jeep shoot high into the sky at least a hundred feet as I threw myself to the ground. I noticed, as I went down, a series of explosions ripping up the ground sequentially, moving from one mine field to the next as far as I could see. Those of us in the rear, now lying face down in the ground, tried to protect our heads as stones and mud splattered on our helmets and bodies. Then we ran to the trench to help our buddies, whom we feared had been killed by the concussion. They all emerged, emotionally shocked and trembling, but fortunately uninjured. The trench was deep and the shock wave had passed harmlessly over them.
The mine fields that blew up unexpectedly through sympathetic detonation - a term the lieutenant taught us on the spot-surprised everyone. The enormous initial explosion had set them off. We knew there were additional mine-fields further down the beach, but we did not know how far they extended. I suspect that even the lieutenant had not expected the cascade of explosions. Now our work for the day was over, our mission unexpectedly accomplished, without an injury.
Later we heard that a lieutenant of an engineer platoon had been injured, his arm blown off by a hidden anti-personnel mine as they cleared another field inland.
Whenever our squad of eight men had our 50 six pound mines with us in the truck which we sometimes rode forward into France and Eastward, I thought of Marinello's birthday party. I know all of us dreaded our truck hitting a mine or even having a single bullet penetrate the truck and striking a mine, which would have blown up the entire truck, though none of us ever spoke of that possibility.
One day when we were truck in the truck loaded with mines far into Germany, the truck stopped in a little town and parked next to a brick wall. Suddenly, above us appeared several German fighter planes strafing us. We could hear their bullets ricocheting off the walls around us, as the squad of six of us in the back of the truck and our driver dove out of the truck and ran for cover toward other houses. It was safer to take a chance on being hit by gun-fire than being blown to smithereens. Luck was with us. Our truck was untouched.
FIRING CAPTURED GERMAN ROCKETS BACK AT THE KRAUTS
After crossing deeply in Germany, we came to a major barrier, the Rhine River. Our engineers attempted to seize a bridge to cross the river. Some outfit, probably our own division infantry, had captured a load of rockets left behind by the fleeing enemy.
We GI's were rarely informed of any details as to what had happened or what we were to do next, except for the immediate future. I never could understand if this was to protect information from being revealed if we were captured by the enemy, or if this represented the relative contempt that commissioned officers had for the ordinary men, so called "GI' s." I always felt it was an error to fail to make us feel more of part of a "team," made up of officers and men who were striving jointly to achieve victory, (as the Israeli Army did after the formation of the new state in 1948.) This would have added to a spirit of greater responsibility and caring for the welfare of the outfit on the part of the men, rather than the frequent sense of oppression, and even sadism directed toward us, especially during our training in the States. The relative alienation from the upper echelons worked to our detriment.
But we did not go into combat with those who trained us in the States. They remained behind safely in the States to train others.
Under that conditions of combat, each man new his life could depend on the lowliest soldier, and the attitude on the part of nearly all non-commissioned and commissioned officers toward the GI's changed considerably. Our exceptional platoon lieutenant and sergeant were solidly behind us.
The captured rockets were each about 10 or 12 feet long filled with an estimated two hundred to three hundred pounds of explosive. The rockets were fired from their crates, propelled by rocket engines, set off by an electrical firing device. My platoon, was assigned the job of firing this new weapon because we presumably had been trained in the use of high explosives. I have often thought of how poorly we had been trained in the use of enemy weapons.
We carried the 18 or 20 rockets to the coal tunnels at Krefeld, a town at the foot of the west bank of the Rhine. We set the rockets to face eastward to fly over the river. We could run back deep into the tunnels, if necessary, to shelter us from any artillery fired back at us.
Lt. Ippolito,who was a trained engineer, calculated how to set the rockets up to be fired on the town just on the other side of the river Each rocket carried a leading war-head, the detonating device that set off the explosive when it hit a building or the ground. The eight or ten inch long metal cap war-heads were screwed on to the front end of the rocket just before firing. The rockets could not be aimed in any precise way. They simply fired in a straight line, descending in a predictable arc.
We backed away some 60 ft or more from a rocket lying in its wooden crate and aimed slightly upward to cross the Rhine before it was fired by the lieutenant. Upon firing, the rockets trailed a column of fire which we could clearly see and follow. The rocket lifted into the sky, made a loud grotesque howling sound as it traveled through the sky, and landed approximately a few miles away, exploding in an enormous fire-ball as it hit a building or the ground. The town across the Rhine was elevated above the river so that we could clearly watch its course of flight. A building of virtually any size was blown to bits if hit. We assumed that enemy soldiers occupied some of the buildings, and though we saw white flags emerge from windows in the town, continued to fire the rockets. (I believe we would have stopped firing had we been certain that only civilians lived in the town, but we knew that the enemy had strong forces left and was waiting to destroy us if we tried to cross.)
When one of the warheads did not screw on easily, Marinello nonchalantly took out his pliers and began to hammer on it "to loosen it a little." A few of us in the mouth of the tunnel, along side him, horrified by his risk-taking foolishness, yelled at him to stop, "And put your damned pipe out, too!"
Marinello, was a carpenter who could make anything needed out of wood in short order. He carried a bandoliers of small tools in addition to a skull with a brain that lacked judgment (he was by no means retarded), pipe tobacco, and cartridges of ammunition in his ammo belts, and the standard equipment all of us carried: 4 hand grenades attached to his jacket, and his rifle. He felt he needed to entertain us with his antics and words, no matter what our situation was.
A few days following our rocketry, we crossed the Rhine over a captured bridge and continued eastward.
The Night I Knew I Would Be Killed
I had an inexplicable sense of invulnerability as we went into combat. Is it related to the human being's sense of egocentricity that we, each of us as individuals, are the center of the universe -- that all that takes place in the universe centers on my existence? Not only, as Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage and we the actors on it," but each of us is the leading actor before the whole world for eternity.
The first time we entered combat, and often after that, I had a sense that I was watching a movie, a war movie of the First World War that so fascinated me as a child. Each Saturday I went to the movies with my older sister. I could hardly wait to see the occasional war movies shown. Now, in the midst of a war about which I had only read or seen on the screen, I had a surreal sense that I was again viewing a movie. At the same time I knew that it was real. The sense that I was exempt from death, that I was going to live through the war and return home intact usually kept me from panicking, even when shells exploded close by and hit others down the road from me as we moved on foot into a shell torn town. Yet, when I heard the just-wounded scream and weep in pain, and someone yelled, " Medic," my heart pounded in my chest and a sweat came over me. I awoke from my unreal interlude. I became an ordinary mortal, like the ones just hit. I knew I could die.
One special night, my sense of unreality was untimely ripped away. My division had to overcome a difficult obstacle in order to move forward. We were just inside of the border of Southern Holland, near the small Dutch town of Heerlen. where Holland and Germany meet, headed eastward. On a hill above us were six or eight heavily armed pillboxes. We never learned the exact number because some were hidden from view. They were giant mounds of three to four feet of steel reinforced concrete, part of the German Siegfried Line build during the First World War and reinforced for the Second World War. The pillboxes, manned by eight or ten men, had narrow openings facing westward through which protruded machine guns and at least one 88 artillery piece. Each of the pillboxes was strategically placed so that it could protect itself and surrounding pillboxes with deadly fire in case of an attack even by a superior number of Allied soldiers. There probably were also interconnecting trenches in front of them for extra defenders, if needed. No tanks could approach them except from afar. The hills were far to steep for any vehicles to climb. The pillboxes were also well protected from our artillery and from bombardment by our planes. Their thick concrete required a direct hit by an airplane's heavy bomb to even damage them. Our heaviest artillery shells hardly chipped them.
Because my special platoon had an engineer lieutenant, who was well trained in the unusual use of explosives or other special warfare devices, apparently some colonels or generals, who would remain safe far from the action, had decided to gamble with our lives. They decided that we should attack the pillboxes by surprise in the middle of the night using flame-throwers. I guessed that when they were destroyed, much of the rest of the regiment of some 5,000 men would stream forward up the hill to capture the high ground and be able to descend rapidly to attack the enemy forces by surprise in the valley below. The low ground beneath the hill was at or near the entrance to German soil.
My platoon was selected for this suicidal mission. We had never seen a man held flame-thrower, much less being trained in its use. The only flame-throwing equipment we had ever seen was mounted on British tanks that formed our left flank.
A human flame-throwing team was made up of two men: one with a thirty pound (or was it forty pound) tank of gasoline strapped to his back, the other holding a fifteen or twenty foot of hose with a control nozzle at the end to spray flaming gasoline at the target. Our approximately sixteen pairs of men were to be the lead checkers in a deadly game, which reminded me of the board game of checkers I had played as a kid. As in the game, the leading checkers would inevitably be lost to the opponent. A flamethrower's burning gasoline is easily detectable. The surviving Germans, in any of the pillboxes who were not incinerated, would see the initial glare and open up with a withering fire of machine guns and artillery. The checkers out in front would be hit and burned to death by their own gasoline or otherwise killed by the defensive fire. The success of the attack was predicated on the hope that the pairs of attackers could successfully sneak up on each assigned pillbox and that all attackers could fire nearly simultaneously. We knew that such perfect timing was improbable. We would be discovered before all the enemy shelters could be destroyed.
A single leading scout was to signal when to begin firing. He would wait for the pairs to quietly move into position, estimating when he we were ready. He could hardly see where we were in the nearly black of the night.
If the initial pairs of attackers were unsuccessful in their attack on a pillbox, the second pair of checkers, shortly behind the first, would immediately attack to set it ablaze, or the second pair would move on to another pill-box attack that required help.
In their well-shielded shelter, it was likely that the Krauts would decimate most, if not all, of us.
Why in God's name had these officers concocted a scheme that would probably sacrifice the lives of most if not all of us on the mission? -- on the chance that the Krauts would be surprised. Once the attack began, there would be no place for us to flee, if the necessity arose, except into the trenches in front of the pill boxes which the Germans themselves had dug. There we would be still hopelessly trapped by their machine guns.
Gone was the feeling that I would survive no matter now many other were killed. I even lost the coin toss against one of my closest buddies, Richard Wollaston, the guy who had brought me coffee and oranges from below deck when I vomited from sea sickness for eleven of the thirteen days we were at sea. The tank of gasoline was strapped tightly to my back. Wollaston was to hold the hose and shoot the gasoline. I thought: the guy who held the hose might be lucky enough to roll away quickly from his burning partner if he were hit. Now even that hope was gone.
My pounding heart told me this was the end. I was choked with fear. I wanted to run away or cry like a baby and beg them to let me out because I knew I would be killed, but a man doesn't do that. So I didn't say a word out loud. I cried inside of me without a sound or tears. I knew that someone inside of me -- my warm maternal introject, my mother would be more tormented than I. I was a man, yet still a boy, hardly 21. She would never forget me for the rest of her life, even though I was just a heap of ashes, five thousand miles away in some field in Germany.
My father and my sister would also grieve, as would my girlfriend. I knew her from high school classes and had dated her only eight or ten times during the last half-a-year before my army reserve unit was called into the service. Still, I felt close to this extremely bright attractive girl, who wrote me encouraging letters frequently, though she and I were largely still new to each other and had barely begun a romantic relationship. I was aware of my need to create and nurture another person to cling to, someone who would develop and house a warm and long-lasting feeling for my yearning loneliness.
We were ready to go. During the last few moments I wondered again, as I had much of the night. What would people say at my funeral after the army sent home what was left of my body, or my ashes, or at least over my empty casket? And in later years would anyone, beside my ever-grieving family-a former close friend or my girlfriend, now married to another man whom she had not yet met, or whoever attended my burial, or even an old acquaintance who had heard of my death-would they bring me back to life again in their minds, just for an instant, once in a while?
In the glow of a few candles before we emerged from the cellar of the bombed-out Dutch house in which we slept, I could see the fear beneath the coal blackened faces of the other thirty nine. Yet, not a single voice, even a murmur of protest arose to refuse. Not one of us wanted to be call a coward.
As we began to move up the hill silently, I could see some of our rifleman about a hundred feet behind us quietly slinking forward. I knew they would be walking over my incinerated body in a short while. My breathe came with difficulty from the heavy tank on my back, the climb, and the crushing dread within me.
Unexpectedly, our suicide forward scout crawled back and reported to us in whisper, "The closest pillboxes were empty!" He was sent back to look into the furthest ones. All empty!--abandoned the night before by the Krauts who had pulled back to a new line. The concrete domes were silent. It was unnecessary to fire a speck of flame. Again I cried to myself. We had received a reprieve from death.
Albert Schrut, M.D.
(Editor's note: Attempts were made throughout the text of the following story to place full names to the men listed in the story. For the most part, this is an educated guess and some names may very well be mistaken in their identy. The names were all taken from the division history book: With The 102d Infantry Division Through Germany, edited by Major Allen H. Mick. Using the text as a guide, associations with specific units were the basis for the name identifications. We are not attempting in any to rewrite the story. Any corrections are gladly welcomed.)
Interested in some background information?
Check out the related links below...
United States Army, 102nd Infantry Division
102 Infantry Division
History of the 102nd Infantry Division
Attack on Linnich, Flossdorf, Rurdorf - 29 Nov -- 4 Dec 1944
Gardelegen War Crime
Gardelegen: April 13, 1945:
Massacre at the Isenschnibbe Barn
American Battle Monuments Commission: WWII Honor Roll
National World War II Memorial
The above story, "My Time With the Ozarks, Anti-Tank Co., 406th Infantry", by Albert Schrut, PFC, 406th Regiment, is a result of e-mail messages received by World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of Albert Schrut, M.D. Our sincerest THANKS to Dr. Schrut allowing us to share some of these personal memories of the war.
We would also like to extend our sincere THANKS to Mr. Edward L. Souder, former historian of Co. F., 405th Regiment. His collection of stories of the "Kitchen Histories Project" series entitled, Those Damn Doggies in F, were responsible for bringing the stories of the men of the 102nd Division to the forefront.
Original Story submitted on 7 January 2007.
Story added to website on 28 February 2007.
September 5, 2002.
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