Heroes: the Army
"...We got across the river; and hit the bank on the other side, but the bank was above the head of the man in the front of the boat, and the boat hit it, dropped back a little bit, spun, and suddenly capsized. The river was moving very rapidly, and was icy cold. I remember thinking to myself, here I've been swimming all of my life, considered myself to be a better than average swimmer, and in all likelihood I was going to drown..."
John M. "Dick" Skene
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. F., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942-1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: PFC., Silver Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Washington, DC
Dick "John" Skene: Experiences with Fox Company!
From: Dick "John" Skene, Houston, Texas.
Experiences with Fox Company
[118-01] This is John M. (Dick) Skeen, searching his memory to recall his WW2 experiences with Fox company, of the 405th Infantry, 102nd division in Germany, during WW2. It is difficult, indeed, to recall, after 46 years, the events, names and places, particularly places you are not familiar with. During the war, we often moved about at night -- on long marches in the dark, or even in the daytime. And very often, you were not aware of the names of small towns that you passed through, unless you stopped for a period of time.
The big adventure seemed to start with a last fling in New York. We had already been alerted that this would be the final passes that we would receive, and that we would be confined to Camp Kilmer until we sailed for overseas. I recall a fast -- moving evening, starting out in Greenwich Village, getting sick on the subway, flagging down the last bus back to Camp Kilmer, and finding someone asleep in my bunk when I got there, with only a couple of hours until it was time to get up and go on K.P. The next day was a long one, and I would not recommend such a celebration just before you are to leave on an extended trip aboard ship.
We sailed on approximately Sept. 12, 1944, on the John Erickson, which was the sister ship of the Swedish ship Ripshome. The ship weighed anchor at night, and we woke the next morning to find ourselves in a large convoy, which seemed to grow as the day went on. The trip was broken up by bridge games, shipboard orientation, evacuation drills, K.P., and other varied assignments. I remember our submarine scare -- destroyers raced around the perimeter and through the convoy, laying smoke and dropping depth charges. The exploding depth charges sounded quite ominous, as you sat on a bunk, below decks, and waited for any instructions or commands to be issued. We had been briefed in indoctrinations to remain put, with exceptional emphasis placed on keeping silence. Presumably, this helped our destroyers locate the attacking submarines and/or made it more difficult for the enemy to single out troop ships while he was submerged. We never did find out just what the scare was all about, or if any ships were damaged, or if a German submarine was actually encountered.
We stopped overnight, after approximately 13 days on the high seas, in the port of Weymouth, England, and went on to Cherbourgh, France the following day. Division records indicate the 102nd Infantry division disembarked in France on September 25, 1944. I recall the weather as being cool and wet. Once we assembled off the ship, we were trucked out of the Cherbourgh area to somewhere in the Normandy hedgerows, near St. Mary Gleece. Once off the trucks, we struggled on foot with full field packs and all the gear we could carry to our assigned designated bivouc areas, where we pitched pup tents. Of memory during this day in Normandy, are the apple orchards, rolling hills, open fields and hedgerows, plus the damp, cool, often raining weather. Sleeping on the ground resulted in very active kidneys, and [119-02] before long the latrines that had been dug were overflowing. There were hikes over the rolling hills around the countryside, and some of the more unluckier personnel were elected to search uncleared areas and hedgerows for mines or boobytraps. On the entertainment side, there was always touch football, some horseshoe pitching, and an occasional movie. And, when time permitted, some of us walked to St. Mary Gleece, and conversed with the French people. I particulary remember one of our platoon members, Richard Coudira, from Louisana, discovered he had difficulties communicating with the locals in his Cajun French, but he seemed to do better than most of us in getting stories out of the people.
Another diversion that some of us experienced was assignment for the Red Ball Express. That included trucking supplies, ammunition, and such to the front lines. And those people assigned served usually as truck drivers, and/or as guards for the supplies that were trucked to the front combat areas. Some of our people came back with interesting adventure stories about the Red Ball Express duty.
After almost a month in the fields of Normandy, our visit there ended, and about October 20, 1944, we boarded "40 and 8s", that's 40 men and 8 horses, these are boxcars, for a long slow rail trip to some point north of Auken, Germany, near the German Seigfreid line. The trip was long and very slow -- two or three days at least, and the quarters were cramped. I particularly remember going through the rail yards of St. Logh, France, and seeing the wrecked frames and parts of railroad cars hanging from tall telephone poles. The bombing and heavy weapons devastation at St. Logh had apparently been extremely severe. Some of the fellows managed to exchange their cigarettes for French wine and/or whatever they could get their hands on. Some of the stuff probably was German schnapps - at any rate, it had a high alcoholic content, and I'd seen it burn in a mess cup with a pale blue flame. I'm sure those who drank too much of the stuff regretted it later. Daily personal business on this trip had to be handled outside the crowded boxcars - and quickly, either on the run or during a short stop. The long, uncomfortable ride finally ended somewhere between Heirling, Holland, and Freilenburg, Germany. I seem to recall that when we got to the area where we were to bivouc, it was raining cats and dogs. We moved into a patch of woods to bed down, and knowing that we would be moving out shortly, didn't dig much in the way of foxholes. Sometime during the night, we were greeted by Nazi propaganda broadcasts, welcoming 102nd Division to the war. Also, during our stay in this patch of woods, we were bombed once with propaganda leaflets. I had a sample of one which is the steel helmet. It talked about "you might be wearing a felt hat instead of that helmet". And then there were others that mentioned "your neighbor back home was going out with your wife" -- that sort of thing. [120-03] The next morning we were literally blown out of bed. A battery of heavy artillery, probably 155 mm., opened up within a hundred yards of us to do a good morning to the Germans. But since we hadn't known they were there, it gave us a pretty good start instead. Apparently, about October 25, 1944, we moved up into the front line positions. I'd always understood that we had replaced elements of the 2nd Armored Division. But the 102nd Division history book says we replaced the 41st Armored Infantry battalion, which may or may not have been a part of the 2nd Armored. At any rate, trucks took us as far as the small town of Freilenburg, which was as far as they were going to go, according to the driver, and they let us out. From this point, we had to pick our way through the town and out into the bunkers, which comprised the German Siegfried line. The area we occupied consisted of cement bunkers and trench and earthen works that had been dug in and around these bunkers. Our movement into these positions had been done in the dark, so we were generally unfamiliar with the surroundings. A large, central cement bunker became our command post, or CP, and two of our three squads were placed in the trenches extending out and away from this central bunker. About this time, Sgt. Leara, our platoon sargent, made me his platoon runner. My assignment was to stay in the CP and carry such communications as he wished out to the squad leaders in the trenches, or to run such other errands that he might require. My first experience as a platoon runner was not a very good one. Sgt. Leara asked me to go outside and locate a particular squad and have them come in in groups of two to get a hot meal which had been brought up to the CP from the rear. I left the CP and started out in what I thought was the correct direction. And after proceeding a short distance, I stumbled over something and looked down to find I had hit an unexploded shell, or "dud". I'd already come about 30 yards, and was getting kind of concerned - I could not see anyone, I could not hear anyone. But I proceeded on a little further, till I was finally challenged by one of the fellows I recognized from the 3rd squad in our platoon. His name was Masteo Francesco. As I got closer, I could see he had his gun pointed dead at me. The other man in the trench with Masteo Francesco had kept him from pulling the trigger, thank goodness, as it became evident that I was approching their defensive position from the direction they would have anticipated the Germans attacking. I'd made a complete circle around our central bunker and was coming in at our defensive positions from the wrong direction. Later, when I received the division history book, I attempted to look up Masteo Francesco in F Company, and found he was no longer listed there. But I did find him under Headquarters Company, and I've always wondered when and how and why he was transferred.
My memory of the weather during our first few days on line was that it was cold, damp, and just generally disagreeable. [121-04] A second incident comes to mind which occurred during our stay in this bunker in the Seigfreid line. We received word that a German patrol or German soldiers attempting to desert or surrender had crawled or infiltrated off to our right, between our positions and those of the next unit to our right. They had been spotted by someone, crawling through a beet field, trying to get through our lines. Sgt. Bloscoe, who had been my squad leader in the 2nd platoon, was designated to lead a patrol, which included myself and two others, on a mission to find these infiltrators, and if possible, capture them and bring back a prisoner. We were supposed to intercept them. I don't really recall whether I volunteered for this patrol mission, or was volunteered. But at any rate, we started out, crawling through a beet field in the general direction of where these Germans had last been seen. I remember, once or twice, after cleaning off my glasses so I could see a little better, that the beets started to look like the forms of people laying out there in the field trying to hide. And we had more than two alerts, both false, that we had spotted these infiltrators. The four of us crawled around for a considerable period of time, with the net result being that we did not find anyone. And, we subsequently returned to the bunker empty -- handed. During our continued stay in this position, we were intermittently shelled by the Germans. Mostly it was mortar file. Occasionally a round would land pretty close, and it became advisable not to stand in the doorway of the bunker, or you might get youself blown down the stairs. Apparently, the first F-company soldier was killed during our first or second night on line. His name, as I recall, was Kittendorf. He had been a member, as I recall, of the 1st platoon, and the word was he had been hit my mortor fire. When I wasn't assigned as Leara s platoon runner, I was normally a member of the 2nd squad of the 2nd platoon. The platoon sargent was Leara, the squad leader was Sgt. Bloscoe. I believe the second in command at that time was either John Ostman or Al Hodden. Other members of the squad included Frank Radke, Bill Vete, John Stevali, Bill Tideback, Cecil Boehl, Jim White, and Oscar Boostos. Perhaps Denny Walsh and Molina.
Somewhere during this period in time it became apparent to us that we were involved with the British 9th Army and the British troops of General Montgomery. I have a recollection, in my job within the CP as platoon runner, of a British patrol departing for our positions to scout out the Germans, and if able, they were to bring back a prisoner. I recall the group of Britishers, particularly a large red-haired ruddy fellow, who was the sargent leading this patrol. They wore the tams and the the typical British outfit with the patees. They blacked their faces before starting out on their patrol. I also particularly remember the big burly sargent who led the patrol, as he was badly burned by German flare, which lit on him while he and his group were down close to the river. That was the river [122-05] Woerm which winds by the town of Gelenkurchen, which is the largest town immediately to our front. The sargent's only comment on his return, after being treated for his wounds, was that "It was a bit hot out there laddy". He was, however, burned pretty badly, and I do not recall whether they were able to get their prisoner. I do remember that from a lookout position in our group of trenches and bunkers, we watched the flashes and the flares and the noise of the firefight that was going on close to the river at the time the Sargent was burned by a flare. We never did hear very much about the results of that patrol mission. While we remained in this particular position, we did have an opportunity in alternate turns to go back to a mine in Holland to get a shower bath. Also, I remember moving about during the daylight hours to the different positions, heavy weapons and other people in F company or H company looking over their positions and their fields of fire, toward the German lines.
Finally, the time came for the division, or the U.S.forces, to move forward. As it turned out, the 84th Infantry Division was selected to attack the Germans through our positions. Their objective would be to encircle and/or take the large German communications center, which lay directly ahead of us in the City of Gelenkurchen. I remember the 84th Division soldiers moving through us in their attack. And there was plenty of shooting and artillery fire from both sides. The evening following the attack, we were pressed into service to go out onto the battlefield to pick up the dead and wounded. It was one of the most heart -- wrenching jobs I've ever had to do. We went about our task in the moonlight, admidst the cries for help and groans from the wounded, trying to find, quickly, those who were wounded, so that they might be saved. I recall picking up one young fellow with the help of two others. This young fellow was long gone, but he must have weighed a ton. We carried him back to the aid station, which was set up in a cement bunker where they were collecting all of the dead and wounded for evacuation to the rear. Most of the night was spent searching for those that we could hear. You couldn't see very much out there, but you could certainly hear the groans, the moans, and the cries for help. It was one of the worst experiences I had during the course of the war. Shortly after the 84th Division's attack through our positions, we were called upon to move forward and to relieve them in the defensive positions they had set up in and around Gelenkurchen. We moved up in the dark. A new CP was established in an old house. Our foxholes and trenches and earthworks extended laterally out from the old house, generally in a north -- south orientation. Some of the foxholes and fortifications and the earthworks that we occupied may have been built by the Germans, and some of them may have been dug by the 2nd Armored and/or 84th Division. I remember that there were at least two dead German soldiers close to the house who had not yet been [123-06] picked up after the 84th Division's attack into this area. Our platoon ended up in a general line of foxholes in an apple orchard. The foxholes were about 25 to 30 yards apart. I recall one fortification in our platoon area, which was occupied by our squad, was a covered bunker -- a pretty stout bunker. It apparently at one time had been used as a machine -- gun position. We had wires running up and down the line that would tie into the company CP in the old house. I recall Sgt. Bloscoe was frequently out trying to fix the lines, as communications were often lost if someone stumbled over the lines, or walked on them, or whatever. I remember several incidents which occurred while we were in this apple orchard position. The first one that comes to mind occurred shortly after we had taken over these positions from the 84th Division. I remember being in a foxhole with John Stivali and as was customary, we took turns standing watch at night in the the dark. The apples falling off the trees in the apple orchard would hit the ground with a thump, and of course there were other noises to go along with the apples and limbs falling off the trees to raise the hair on the back of your neck. You always had visions of a German patrol trying to sneak in on you in the dark. At any rate, one night, there was so much noise in one particular direction that it got me to the point where I pulled the pin off my hand grenade, and awakened John Stivali and alerted him to the possible presence of someone close to our foxhole. We were both peering off into the dark, trying to see what we could, if anything, and both ready for whatever might occur. We saw this dark shape coming towards us, and were really anxious for a few seconds until we heard a "moo", and discovered that our unwelcome visitor was a cow wandering around through the orchard in the dark. But in the excitement, I dropped the pin to the hand grenade, and we spent several anxious moments alternately digging around in the dirt trying to find the pin so we wouldn't have to throw the grenade out. My best recollection is that we finally found the pin, put the grenade back in safe condition, to the relief of both of us. The second incident which occurred during our stay in the apple orchard happened again at night. I was getting kind of hungry and had decided I'd run and see if I cound beg, borrow, or steal a bite to eat from the people in the platoon CP. And I passed by the next foxhole, where I believe Bill Veet and Frank Radke were supposed to be. I found no one in the hole, and assumed they had already gone in to eat and decided I'd wait for them to come back. So I crawled in the hole and, as luck would have it, I fell asleep. Finally, Bill and Frank, who had been up the CP getting a K ration or whatever they could get to eat out of the people up there, came back towards their hole. And Bill Veet told me later, they had worried about the Germans having sneaked in and gotten into their holes. They could hear me snoring from 20 yards away. It was a good joke, but a the same time it worried the devil out of me &emdash; it didn't [124-07] sit too well -- because if they could hear me, certainly the Germans could. It would worry me the rest of the war whether I cound dare sleep or not. Frequently, I think, we would sleep almost with our eyes open. In fact, I've been accused many times of snoring after I was wide awake. I think we got to a state, off and on, where there wasn't an awful lot of difference between us being asleep or awake. We were dead tired. It was almost like being in limbo. There were a couple of instances of German patrol activity. One patrol attempted to infiltrate or catch a prisoner, as we often did, by coming up on the north end of our line. Apparently, this patrol came up on a foxhole or a machine -- gun position occupied by some members of our 4th platoon. I was told later that Sgt. Bishoffe had killed two of the Germans with his machine gun. On another night, John Stivali and I had been moved down towards the end of our defense line into the covered bunker which had previously been a machine -- gun postion. A German patrol came in. We had what might be called a fire -- fight, though he Germans were doing most of the shooting. We were just laying there, hoping they didn't know where the heck we were. The Germans crawled in close and just sprayed the whole area with their schmizers and whatever other automatic weapons they were carrying. I assume since they didn't draw our fire that they either ran out of ammunition or got tired and withdrew, which didn't hurt our feelings a bit.
We occupied this defensive position in the apple orchard for what seemed like a considerable period of time. I remember when, in the daylight hours, there were no snipers apparently within easy range, we were up and around from one hole to another visiting, playing cards occasionally. And we were able to get into the city of Gelenkurchen on one or two occasions. On one occasion I came upon a bunch of G.I.s in a bank, trying to open a safe with an M-1 rifle. It becomes difficult, in this period, to recollect the sequence of events as we moved around a lot, either walking or riding from place to place in trucks, mostly at night, although occasionally we did make daytime advances. You do have recollections of a number of things that happened, but it is very hard to put them in their proper sequence. The next thing about my recollection that occurred was an assault or an attack backed up with tank destroyers and artillery in the area somewhere near Gerensquiler. I recall efforts were underway to take a German pillbox. It was a typical cement bunker, and was occupied by a machine gun. It was about this point that Sgt. Bloscoe was hit in the arm and he left the war for a goodly period of time. I also recall seeing Sgt. Delwoe, whom we'd had closer association with back in Camp Dix during training, rallying people, I believe it was G company, for an assault on this pillbox. heard later that he was killed during the fighting. After hopping around, via truck and/or walking for what seemed many days, we ended up on or about Nov. 21 in an area near the small German town of Beeck. Here we were again to [125-08] move in and take over for the 84th Division defensive positions, with the idea of possibly conducting a frontal assault on the small town of Beeck itself later on. We hiked what seemed like miles across mud, rough beet fields. The going was pretty tough. I recall coming up on a small hillside, after we had been intermittently shelled by mortar fire and seeing Capt. Peterson there, looking over the front lines with some of the members of his staff. Also, once we had passed beyond Capt. Peterson and his people, we suddenly came under fire from a sniper. We raced forward to occupy the foxholes that were laying just ahead of us, and in the process, John Stivali, who was close to me, was hit in the wrist with a bullet. Three of us ended up in one foxhole, that was Bill Veet, John Stivali, and myself, and Bill set about using his first aide packet to wrap up John's wrist. The sniper who had been shooting at us had been shooting some tracer shots and we had an idea, approximately, where he was. It also turned out he had shot and killed another of our group, Molina. But, we did not find out about this until later. The three of us in the foxhole, after getting John's wrist bandaged up stayed low, kept our noses in the mud, stayed out of the line of fire from the sniper. About this time, Jim Hanson came up to our hole and was standing right beside the foxhole before any of us realized it. As I turned and saw him, and started to yell for him to get down, one of the sniper's bullets, a tracer, passed thru the raincoat that was on the small pack that was on his back. Jim dropped to his knees and about the time he dropped to his knees, another bullet came across and hit him in the helmet. He dropped down -- he'd been hit. But the bullet apparently had entered the helmet, pretty well torn up the inside of the helmet liner, the top part, and gone out without seriously wounding Jim Hanson. That was about as close a call as anyone cound hope to survive. I don't think we would get much disagreement if we said that Beeck was bad news to the 405th Infantry Regiment.
We were in these positions long enough to become aware of the awful noises of the German 88 mm guns which were being used as anti -- tank and/or anti --personnel weapons in this encounter, and the Nedlworfers, which was a rocket type of weapon. They made the darned awfullest noises you could imagine. The 88 was almost like a bowling alley. You would hear the noises long after the shell had exploded behind the lines. It was one frightful weapon.
There was some confusion in this position which we were occupying. There was a foxhole ahead of us, and my recollection is that a fellow name Lapison was in this foxhole, and he had been wounded rather badly in getting there. Off to our right, across a little draw, we could see men scurrying around a bunker. We could not determine whether they were a part of our own forces or the Germans. They were supposed to be a part of our own battalion, the word was given us, but frequently during fighting things got very mixed up. Finally the word came up to us that we were [126-09] to prepare to make a frontal assault, and we should fix bayonets. At this point, our rifles were full of mud. Chances of them firing were remote. You would almost have had to urinate on them to get them to shoot. All in all it seemed like a pretty helpless position to us. Here we were, three men in a foxhole, one fellow not very comfortable with a bullet hole in his wrist. We were to follow British tanks, which were in route, from the information we received. We were to follow them on into the city of Beeck. Pretty soon, one of the tanks approached within 50 yards of our foxhole, and rolled up ahead of us another 50 yards. All of the sudden we heard an anti -- tank weapon go off. The next thing we knew, these British tankers in their yellow tank suits and black tams were hopping out of that tank from all sides -- the bottom, top, whatever. I didn't know those tanks had that many exits. By the time they got out of the tank, and I'm not even sure how many of them got out, the ammunition in the tank started to explode, and we had a real set of fireworks right in front of us. The second tank moved up behind the first, which was on fire and exploding, to get off a couple of shots, but it had hardly moved 10 yards beyond the first tank when it was hit also. We hadn't been ordered to advance, and the order to get out of the foxholes and follow any tanks never came. The planned attack consequently was cancelled. Thank God. It turned out we had apparently run into a Panzer Division, which had been reassigned to the Ardennes area and was in route there they participate in the German defensive, which began in the Ardennes, and became known as the Battle of the Bulge. We were finally relieved by another outfit and taken to the rear to celebrate what was to be our Thanksgiving dinner of turkey. That was one of the worst hikes I've ever been on. At night, walking back, dead tired, stumbling over the beet fields in the mud -- it just was God -- awful. We walked back to what must have been either Immendorf or Woriken, which seemed like miles. I'm not real sure how far it was. We passed a burned out German vehicle with a soldier on it who had a hole right through him. It looked like an anti -- tank shell or something had just pierced him. The weather was cold and I don't believe there was any snow on the ground at this point in time, but it was frosty cold, damp, wet, just plain miserable. We finally got back to the rear area, dead tired. I was greeted by someone I knew from ASTP, with the pleasant news that he thought I'd been killed. As it turned out, there was another man in the 3rd battalion, I company, named Leif Skeen, who had been killed during the fighting around Beeck. It was a real treat to get out of the mud and just sit down for awhile and enjoy the turkey and trimmings that they had brought up for the troops.
We weren't back very long and we returned to a trench position in the Beeck area, further to the left than the positions we were originally in. I recall we occupied a trench for perhaps a day. We were expecting to move out of this trench, moving to the rear or to another area after [127-10] dark. As it turned out, the Germans managed to slip in, and set up a machine gun under one of two tanks out in front of the trench that we were occupying. This machine gun pretty much raked the area around our positions. Finally it came time for us to move out. So we followed the trench down to the end, and as we got up to get out of the trench to head for the rear, the German machine gun opened up. The bullets were whistling all over us. Apparently, as we came out of the end of the trench, we might have been silhouted against the backdrop of the sky for the German gunners. At any rate, it was here that a fellow out of one of our platoons, named Mesaway, was hit, and I later found out he had been killed. He had been just ahead of me in the trench climbing out. At this point in time, I remember being so darned tired that I just didn't give a damn. And, I think every now and then, the people who served in the Infantry kind of got to this state of mind. They were so tired. One step just came after another. It just didn't seem to matter. Again, when we got to the rear, we were shuttled around between small towns, relieving other troops in defensive positions, and occasionailly participating in a walking type of advance. I don't recall there being any real severe resistance on any of these advances.
Another incident that comes to mind, is moving in to another one of the defensive trenches to relieve some else. The people we relieved advised us that at the other end of the trench was a cement bunker or pillbox, still occupied by the Germans. We only occupied the portion of the trench that really led up to the German positions. We had moved into this position during the daytime, and had a chance to look around a little bit. We could see the German pillbox, but we saw no signs of activity. The area was generally inactive, and reasonably quiet. I do recall that Col. Bishoft, commanding officer of the 3rd battalion, came up to check things out in out positions up there. We kind of leisurely settled into this new position, enlarged a foxhole leading off the trench, so we could lie down when it came time to take a little snooze. Some of us took off our gear, which included my canteen, and laid it up on the side of the trench. We posted guards, and took the usual turns at night. Came the early dawn, all hell broke loose. A German patrol, apparently thinking the Americans had pulled out, had come on down the trench line, ostensibly from the pillbox that they still held, and got in amongst the troops in the trench. I heard that one of the German soldiers actually fell over Greenburg, who was a member of the 2nd platoon. Everybody was scrambling for weapons, and pretty soon everybody was shooting. Capt. Weygan showed up near our foxhole, hollering and yelling and shooting along with the rest of us. I don't even know how many people were wounded on our side or the Germans in that little encounter. I think it was pretty much a standoff, and in the surprise and confusion of the whole episode, there was probably very few people injured. I do recall, after the mess was over [128-11] with and we halfway settled down, reaching up to get my gear that had been put on the side of the trench, which included my canteen. The canteen wasn't much good anymore, it was full of holes. I do recall towards the end of this affair, seeing a red cross flag from the German pillbox, and it went out onto the battlefield and back. But I couldn't see who was carrying it. Apparently, no one fired. Apparently they did have a wounded man out in the open somewhere that they retrieved and carried back in to take care of him. Another episode during this period of time, when we were taking turns relieving one another, in portions of the German Seigfried line, we were behind some of the old German fortifications, down beside them. And, we'd been hearing armor from over in the German area. Our commanders decided we'd put on a little show of our own. So, they had our tank destroyers and the few tanks we had ride up and down the road to make it sound like we were bring armor in also. These tanks that were driving up and down the roads during the day and night were actually behind a hill, which shielded them view from the Germans. And the Germans didn't have any artillery spotters up in the air, or aircraft to speak of during this period of time.
When we weren't occupying trenches or foxholes in outdoor positions, we frequently were in reserve positions back in the town, and we became cellar dwellers. Frequently the upper portion of the buildings had been destroyed by artillery fire, and the cellars were usually the only habitable part of a building left. Needless to say, candles and flashlights were much in demand. After continued stay in the cellars, most of us were marked with black around our noses or around the eyes. It might be pertinent to point out at this time that the Germans put up a lot of vegetables -- such things as green beens and cherries, and wines, which were always stored in their cellars. When we were fortunate, we would run across supplies of these foods left behind by the people who had fled. The Germans might have killed half of the American Army if they had left behind poisoned food, to say nothing of poisoned drink. Another episode comes to mind -- we'd moved on back to the cellars and at a later date we were moved up again to replace elements of the foreign infantry that were in a trench position. This position was particularly unique in that the Germans occupied a high bluff that ran almost parallel to, and several hundred yards away from the trenches, which were our lines. The Germans held the high ground -- they could look almost down on the Americans who were in these fortifications. We were warned by the prior occupants to watch out for snipers, as they could slip in and get a pretty good shot from the high altitude directly in front of us. At the foot of this little bluff were houses that stretched off to our left into a fairly sizable town. I don't recall the name of the town, but I suspect it was in the vicinity of Prummen. After a short stay in this new position, and not having been shot at, we began to get [129-12] bolder and moved around alot. We decided to enlarge our foxhole. We went back to the little town behind us and picked up a potbellied stove to help take care of the cold and also to occasionally cook on. We dug out considerable additional space. I believe that John Stivali, Bill Deet, and Bill Tideback -- there were four of us sharing this hole at that time, which was right off of the trench. One time while we were back in the town gathering additional materials to make a living comfortable, the Germans unleashed a mortar barrage on our foxhole. Apparently there had been so much activity there, and they had seen so much dirt and what -- not, they decided we were trying to put in an artillery position and/or a mortar battery. At any rate, there were alot of near misses but they didn't do much damage to our new hole. We finished it out and even had a covered top for portions of it for sleeping at night. I do remember while we were in this new location that we did have snow on the ground. I don't recall if we had snowsuits while we were there. But at one point in time we were issued the white coverings -- white for the helmets and white for the upper body and legs. I don't recall when we quit using it or if we used it very frequently. I think that it was used mostly on patrol work or daytime movement around in the snow.
We had a BAR position (Browning Automatic Rifle position) down the trench where one of us would stand watch at night. We had alot of extra ammunition so we would shoot it in the direction of the Germans just to be doing something.
I do remember another incident that occurred while we were in this position. A Danny Walsh, who was also a member of our platoon, was digging a foxhole, and one of those German snipers slipped in and put a bullet hole in his collar. Needless to say, for a few hours anyway, we were alot more cautious about showing ourselves or making a target of ourselves in the trench.
Another incident which I recall, which occurred while we were in these positions near Prummen, we were strafed by the first jet aircraft that I had ever seen. That strafing was pretty frightening, but the aircraft was quite interesting. This was getting close to the Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes push that the Germans made through the Allied lines. And they were showing their aircraft all along the front. We heard later that one of the aircraft that presented itself was shot down. The German that strafed us was flying quite low, and he didn't stay around very long. It was about this time that we went back into reserve again, which was in a town somewhere near Worm. We got passes to go back to the Dutch town of Maastrich, where we enjoyed a clean shower and a clean bed and a couple of well -- rounded meals. I do remember on my visit to Maastrich I lost my wallet. I sat down to play at a piano, went off and left it for a few minutes, and came back and it was long gone, which was very disappointing as it had pictures in it and a permanent drivers license from Hawaii, but also, fortunately, [130-13] very little money. I believe that the date of the visit to Holland was about December 9th, 1944.
We were in the rest area a very short time on this break, and found ourselves back online again, on the edges of the town of Worm, on the side nearest the Roer river. There was a great open expanse of land out to our front. When we were not on guard or some sort of other duty, we often had the chance to move around a little bit and to look over the town. I remember Bill Tideback and I took off one day to look over some of the buildings near our foxhole. We went into one and discovered it was a forward observation post for our American artillery. The artillery people had taken over the second floor, with their scopes and whatnot, and keeping a sharp eye on the Germans, and occasionally sending word to the artillery batteries on where to place their fire. The third floor of this building was in pretty bad shape, but Bill Tideback and I made our way up, and could see even better from the top, although there was no roof on the building. We spotted, at over 1000 yards, a couple of Germans, doing what many American soldiers were doing carrying goods from the town out to their foxholes. Bill and I thought that the range was proper -- that we might give them a start by taking a few shots at them, and we raised our rifles. But, one of the artillery officers saw us, and told us in no uncertain terms to put the rifles down and get out. He advised us that if we took any shots, that the German artillery would be down on us in no time flat, and probably make this building untenable as a observation post for the American artillery people. At any rate, the two of us put our guns back on our shoulders, and got out of there before we made any more enemies. We found our way back to our foxholes.
Later on, while we were still in this same position, I was volunteered to go on a patrol with half a dozen or more other people. Our objective was to crawl out in front of the lines where the Germans had their foxholes positioned, and hopefully catch a prisoner and bring him back. I think that there must have been at least ten of us. We were elected to crawl out over fairly open terrain, along a road, carrying wire with us for communications back for artillery support, or whatever else we might need. We were to try to get close to one of the German positions, fairly close to this road, and grab a German and bring him back as a prisoner. The night was fairly bright, with alot of moonlight. Things were fairly quiet, not much shooting going on. You could hear just about everything. The ground was hard and frosty and crunched when you moved -- you had to move very carefully. We crawled out until we were quite a ways from our line, in sort of like a BAR ditch along the edge of the road, pulling a wire with us, until we could finally hear Germans in their foxholes talking to one another, and clinking messkits. We crawled till we were within 25 or 30 yards of the German foxholes. I was back in the column, about 8th position, when the patrol stopped and [131-14] we were to hold positions. Something had gone wrong up ahead. I found out later that we had lost communications with our artillery people and our command post, so that we couldn't get any help at all if we had to get covering fire to get back to our lines, or could not get artillery or smoke or anything to help us catch a prisoner. At any rate, the sargent on the patrol made the decision to withdraw without trying to take a prisoner. We beat a hasty retreat back to our own lines. This decision may have been just as well. As the last group of people got up to run in to our own positions, a flare lit up the sky and small arms fire opened up. Someone on the German side had spotted us as we were retreating back to our own line. If we had been discovered out in the open, we'd have had a very slim chance of getting back without some of us being hurt.
Shortly after this event, we were back in rest area again, back about a mile or so behind Worm. We were back there for several days. It seemed as though everyone else were getting passes but we were not. It was about December 16, 1944. All in our squad except Frank Radke and John Stivali decided to take a quick trip back to the rear for the day and come right back. We won't go into the details of that little trip, but we suddenly discovered that the Battle of the Bulge had erupted and we hustled back to our platoon, discovered we were missed, and they put us on KP for the remainder of our stay in rest area, which was only for the evening meal, because we were back online the following day. It was about this time our commanders decided to put a little pressure on the Germans in our area, and a series of attacks were launched. We were spread out over open fields, and met very little resistance. We were walking, generally towards the Roer River. Our objective was to push the Germans back across the Roer River, and to isolate any pockets that might remain on this side. We'd participated in a walking attack against little or no oppostion, walking very slowly across wide open fields. The Air Force was in fine feddle, up ahead, strafing and burning and bombing the Germans on the far side of the Roer. We don't give the Air Force enough credit, in this state. We cheered them on when they bombed Gelenkurhen before the 84th had to move in on that city, and we frequently just watched endless trails of Bl9s, Lancasters, and whatever else was on its way deeper into Germany to drop its load. It was often after we had had a hard time with the Germans on the ground we saw the Germans catching it from the Air Force, the fighter pilots diving on them, strafing them, but we'd be out of our foxhole cheering and having a little party. At any rate, we were making this walking attack, and we were pretty spread out across open fields, and two of us off to one side spotted two deer. We raised our rifles and took a shot with no idea whether we could hit them at the great distance at which we were shooting. We didn't see them fall, and as it turned out, a short distance from where we had taken the shots, were told to stop and to dig in for the night. We [132-15] finished our foxholes and set up a defensive position with someone on watch and the two of us who had shot at the deer went back to see if we could find a trace of them. We wandered back to where we had seen the deer, while it was still daylight, and we came upon some blood on the ground, which looked like it was from a wounded animal. We followed it at far as a small patch of woods just a short distance away, but lost it in the woods, and it was a sad ending to our deer hunt.
It was shortly after digging in that someone relieved us and we moved back. We ended up on the slope near a river. We were told to dig in defensive positions for someone else, in anticipation of a German counter -- attack. By this time I was pretty well bushed, we'd done alot of hiking around, and made that last attack, dug holes, and I had wet feet. I just felt lousy. I felt I needed to get something from the aid station, aspirin or something. I mentioned something about it to Sgt. Manashefsky. He told me that there was nothing wrong with me, and keep on digging the defensive positions. But in defense of Manashefsky, we had alot of cases of illness in the company. We were somewhat short-handed. We had alot of cases of trenchfoot. We had these rubber boots, and your feet would sweat, or get chilled or frozen, and if you didn't change to dry socks regularly, you were going to be in trouble. We spent the day digging these defensive positions, and when they were completed, the Sgt. told us to pick up our gear and move back to the CP in the town, in the cellar where we were going to stay, and that someone else was moving in to take over the positions we had dug. On the way back, we passed an aid station and I thought I'd run in and get a couple aspirin. I got in the aid station and the medics were busy with some other people, really badly wounded or sick, so I sat down and waited until someone came over and listened to me. Whoever it was popped a thermometer in my mouth and the next thing I knew, I was on my way back to the rear in an ambulance. They advised me they would notify the platoon of what had happened. We got back to the rear, and, in a large chateau, I believe this was in Belgium. It had been turned into a rest area for the wounded and sick. I was in a huge room with lots of other people who either had trenchfoot and/or bad colds or whatever. There were cots laid out all over the floor. Red Cross people were running around and doctors and nurses, taking care of the sick and injured. You weren't supposed to leave your bunk. They'd come by periodically with a little chart and pop pills in your mouth or give you some kind of shot or medicine. They treated cases like mine with the new sulfa drugs. I was up and out of there in about two days time -- I was well and on my way back. It was to have had a couple of good nights sleep, some good food, and a nice bed to sleep in, and I felt pretty good. I knew that Manashefky would be mad when I got back, but that was a bridge I would cross later on. When I got back, they were still in reserve, and we moved up [133-16] to a town called Lindern. The place was pretty well shelled. Alot of buildings were badly damaged, but there were enough that we were not digging foxholes, we were staying in buildings. Occasionally we would get shelled by Germans, mortars or artillery. I recall one day, Capt. Al Schwaback, INE officer, appeared with a truck, waving a towel, inviting those who could to join him -- they were going back to get some showers. It was about that time that the Germans started shelling the town, and the shells were dropping all over the place. The driver and Al Schwaback were anxious to get going. So he gave one last warning that he was on his way. Those who made it hopped on the truck while it was moving on its way out of town, because that driver wasn't staying around to have any more of the shelling, and neither was Al Schwaback. I missed a shower that day. I couldn't get my stuff together fast enough. We moved around a little bit after this, after Lindern, and we ended up in a town named Flowverick. We stayed for some period of time, waiting for the main assault to go across the Roer River. While were in Flowverick, I received some gifts from home. One was a hunting knife, which I'd been asking for for a considerable period of time. It was a beauty. And I also received a course on radio -- a small booklet which I could read and carry in my packsack without much trouble. I remember alot of armored vehicles moved into Flowverick. Tanks, plus the wheeled, armored vehicles. They always had better rations on the vehicles than what we had. Most of what we carried on our backs was K rations. We had one fellow in our squad who was always out to swipe a couple of these C or better rations from the armored people, which he would cook up for the rest of us. It got him into a little trouble because one of the armored people caught him lifting a case of C rations off his tank. We were in the town of Flowverick for a few days, when suddenly the word came that we were to be crossing the Roer River, and that we would be in the assault wave. We had been through a dry run on river crossings while we were in a reserve position, and paddles these Navy assault boats. They'd hold about 16 or 17 men. They were very unweildy. We also discovered that these Mae West life preservers that were furnished were not much good -- they wouldn't fit around an infantry man with all his gear on his back. But if our boat capsized and we all fell in the river, they would probably serve to keep you afloat if you could latch on to one. The Roer River in normal times was a very narrow river, but the Germans, sensing that this was a good point to make a stand, had opened the dam upstream, and increased the current to over 8 miles an hour. The river had considerably widened out in several places where the land permitted it, and was deeper in its central portion.
The Allies Drive for the Rhine
On March 12, 1945, LIFE magazine ran an article on the crossing of the Roer River. This article was by LIFE photographer, Geroge Silk who took some dramatic photographs of just one small part of the crossing. If you wish to read this article and see the haunting images, click on the link below. This article offers an insight into what the men of Co. F experienced.
Finally, the time for the assault came, and we moved up in the dark, somewhere between Lenox and Worsdorf. It was obvious the Germans had zeroed in on the potential crossing points, because as we approached the river we could hear the [134-17] mortars dropping right in what had to be the area where people were attempting to make crossings ahead of us. There was a steep road down to the area near the river. Engineers had boats ready. There were about 15-16 of us in a boat. I remember thinking to myself that this was too many people for this size boat in the type of river we were trying to cross, where the current was so swift. I also had alot of sympathy for the engineers who had been down there for a considerable period of time, getting others ahead of us across. And, just before we got to the river, another barrage of mortars landed right in middle of the stream. We managed to get into the boat, get it into the river, and start across with the paddles. Most of the people in the boat had laid their Mae West life preservers in the bottom of the boat. We got across the river; and hit the bank on the other side, but the bank was above the head of the man in the front of the boat, and the boat hit it, dropped back a little bit, spun, and suddenly capsized. The river was moving very rapidly, and was icy cold. I remember thinking to myself, here I've been swimming all of my life, considered myself to be a better than average swimmer, and in all likelihood I was going to drown. All of us were carrying extra bandoliers of ammunition, and satchels for the bazooka ammunition, and whatever extra supplies we could. These were to be dropped on the opposite bank for the troops following us to pick up, or to be used as reserve supplies. It was totally confusing, the first moment in the water. My helmet was gone quickly, and I was struggling to get the bandoliers of bazooka and rifle ammunition off of my shoulders. The water was over my head and I kept going down and bouncing off the bottom and coming up to get a breath, all the time working to get this stuff off my back. On coming up one time, I saw one of the Mae West life preservers floating by and grabbed it with one arm, which I had free. I was then able to get the rest of the stuff off my back my packsack with my new hunting knife and all was swept off and down the river. By this time, one of the members of my platoon started floating by. He was in bad shape. It was a fellow named Thompson. I grabbed him and pulled him onto the preserver with me. I had no idea how far down the river we'd been swept. I wondered at the time whether the Germans occupied the bank on their side, and whether we had any forces on the bank on our side, because if we were able to get to shore, we would prefer to come out on the American side of the river. Its a good thing this assault was done in the dark, because the Germans could have picked off many people that were floating down that river. Finally, we came to a point where the river curved, and there was a pile of brush on the American side that jutted out into the river. We managed to grab hold of this. I held on the Thompson and the preserver, and found another fellow had already washed up on this, and he was able to help me get Thompson out of the river and up on to this bunch of brush. It turned out he was one of the engineers [135-18] that had been working on the crossing, and going back and forth across the river for some reason. The three of us made it to the shoreline, and headed upstream, where we had fallen into the river. In route, we could hear the mortars up ahead falling in on the troops that were still trying to get across. We were walking along the bank, and I heard calls from the river. Looking out, I found two fellows who were within 5 or 10 feet of the bank. With some branches and whatnot, we were able to get them out of the river also. I don't know what happened to Thompson, after we got to shore. I thought he was with me, but he had disappeared. Later ran into him up at the aid station. We followed the river back up to what was then the town of Lenox, which meant we'd come quite a ways downstream in that current, and we were directed toward an aid station, where they were taking in the wounded and those who had fallen into the river, and issuing dry clothes, and in general fixing them up. I ran into a couple members of our squad in this rest area. Frank Radke was one. I don't recall offhand who the others were. We took stock at that point and of those who had gotten on that little boat, he and I and Bill Tideback, possibly Al Hawton, were the only ones we knew who had gotten out of the boat. I don't know whether the ones who were missing were killed by enemy fire or drowned in the river. Our history book says there were no drownings, but I seriously doubt that. At any rate, John Stivali was missing, Bob Dryer was missing, Bill White was missing but we later found he was a prisoner. Bill Veet was missing, but he was also, we heard, taken prisoner. Jack Sloan was missing. And there was one other fellow who I have a picture of in my scrapbook. I cannot recall his name. He was missing. We exchanged tales while we were in this aid station. As time went on, someone came in finally, and started making efforts to organize the groups so they could rejoin their units. They outfitted us with dry clothes and new weapons and equipment. We also had a hot meal, and then got together with others and headed for the front lines. I don't recall much about the fighting that ensued when we rejoined our units, but I do remember that a German counter -- attack with tanks gave the 3rd battalion of our regiment a pretty bad time in and around Bosler. After the activity in our sector died down, we had a little time. We had noticed four German tanks not too far from our positions. So, Bill Tideback and I went over to take a look at them. Each had a small hole, obviously made by the German 88mm gun, which was bad news for tanks. I looked into one of them, and it was awful, what it had done to the interior of that tank, and the people in the tank. But all we got out of that little adventure was a new respect for the German 88mm gun, and -- a case of C rations which we found on one of the burned out tanks.
It wasn't long till American tanks had gotten across the river in force, and we were instructed in one assault to follow them. That was when I learned a good lesson. You [136-19] don't want to be near one of those tanks when a German Tiger(with an 88mm gun on it locates the tank. In addition, we learned to use the small phone on the back of the tank to communicate with the driver, so if we saw an enemy weapon that he may not have spotted, we could alert him quickly. Don't know when it was, the American forces got the 90mm gun, but when we first saw it, it was on the tank destroyers, and not on the tanks. This weapon did not have the high velocity of the German 88. It would certainly do alot of damage to a heavier German Tiger tanks, but it wouldn't punch holes in them. It would knock the turret off, disable it, or knock a track off, or whatever, but it didn't punch a hole in it.
Once across the Roer river, our lifestyle changed a bit because we were in good farming country. And, a young fellow from Iowa named Bob Vance had joined our group. He was a pretty good hand at cooking chicken and cooking up stuff with the K rations, making them taste alot better than we'd ever known they could taste. We were able to go in a couple places where it looked like the Germans had just left their dinner laying on the table. As I said earlier, I think the Germans could have killed half the American Army if they had poisoned the food they left behind. Bob Vance gave me my first lesson in how to wring a chicken's neck, and pop it into a pot of water, and pick the feathers. He taught most of us city boys how to do things like that. It was probably about this time we all started to gain some weight.
The assault across the Roer had the Germans on the run. Our commanders didn't give us much breathing room either. They had us hot on their trail, following the armored forces, and in some cases, bypassing pockets of Germans to be mopped up by those behind us. I remember going across fields, coming to a farmhouse, keeping our weapons aimed at the farmhouse, shooting out all the windows as we passed by. And, at one farmhouse we stopped because we had sensed that there were some people there. We found a large number of people in the basement, mostly civilians. Any prisoners that were taken were immediately shuffled off to the rear. I remember we spent a little time in one of these places where a large number of the Germans finally came out of the cellars to surrender. And, after we had disposed of these people, handed them over to other people to take back to the rear, we were rushed off out into the open again, and at this time I was in the wrong positon in our squad. I was where Oscar Boostos should have been and he was where I should have been. I remember seeing a shell, it could have been a mortar shell, lay in almost at Oscar's feet and explode. Bobby Gonzales, the medic who was attached to us, ran over to Oscar, just for a minute. Then, he took the rifle, stuck it in the ground, hanging his helmet on it, and came back over to join us. Everything was pretty disorganized. The point from where the mortar shell had been fired was off on our right, and the direction that we were moving, we were going to bypass the Germans that were in that general area. [137-20] The days ran into each other as we moved across to the Rhine River. We were either on the move, sometime following tanks, which wasn't my favorite occupation, but other times resting in houses. We seldom dug holes unless we were caught in the open. I recall seeing a little bit of the German Lufthofter at this point, and actually watched from the ground a couple of dogfights that the Germans had with our aircraft. I remember one American or British aircraft that had been damaged in a dogfight, that flew back over our lines, with a German hot on our tail. By the time he got there, he realized he was over the wrong troops. Everybody was shooting at him, with machine guns, rifles, whatever. He turned around and took off. The American plane was not running very well but he managed to go behind our lines if he had to come down.
We ate alot of eggs, green beens, cherries, a little schnapps here and there in our march from the Roer to the Rhine River, as we visited the various cellars along the route.
I have a very vivid recollection of our encounter with a German tank on the fringes of Muchengladback, a city in the German Roer area. I remember someone yelling tank and all of us hitting the ground, just about the time he opened up with his machine gun. I crawled behind a type of pole. It was a fairly tall utility pole built of laced iron. I could hear the machine gun bullets just above my head nicking the pole as they went by. You could see out in the fields -- there were open fields between me and a trench to my left -- you could see the dirt kick up as the machine gun raked the field. Off to my left, there was a radio operator, with a pretty good sized radio, and we asked him to call back to artillery and see if we could get an artillery barrage put on the German tank that was holding us up. Fortunately, he hadn't been hit, nor had his radio. He told us he had gotten the message off. But nothing happened. Either the artillery was busy with other chores, didn't get the message properly, or were having trouble with their coordinates. The trench I was talking about ran towards Muchengladback and where the German tank was, and Frank Radke and someone else who was up at the lead with him, were up closer to the city, and I know at that point in time he was wanting someone from the back to bring up the bazooka to give us a fighting chance to get rid of that tank. But there wasn't much of a way that one of us was going to get up and run across that open field. I had no idea where Lyle Munger was, who had the bazooka. He could have been in the trench or he might be in the open and he might have been hit by the machine gun fire as he raked that field. I later heard he'd been killed, and I always assumed that he'd been hit by machine gun fire in this action. The German tank finally withdrew into the city of Muchengladback. We were able to continue our advance. I moved over toward the trench looking for Munger and the bazooka but didn't see either. Frank Radke and some of the forward elements of our squad [138-21] and platoon had moved into the fringes of Muchengladback in peripheral buildings, and the tank apparently kept on going it probably had been sent back just to create a delaying action for the infantry that was moving in on Muchengladback. At any rate, while I was in this trench with one other fellow, heading for Muchengladback, all of the sudden, the American artillery arrived. And it was awful. It covered the fringes of Muchengladback, where our people were already holed up in houses, and came right back over the trench where I was. On one of the airbursts, a piece of shrapnel spun into the trench about three feet from my head. As I lay there in the trench it just sizzled in the mud. Fortunately, the artillery barrage didn't last too long, and when it was over, and after I'd screamed my head off cussing the guys who were shooting at us, the rest of us who were still in the trench made our way into the buildings on the fringes of Muchengladback and rejoined the rest of the platoon. As it turned out, other elements of our regiment were on ahead of us on the other side of he city and they were still facing the Germans, and they set up defensive positions on the far side of Muchengladback as we walked from there to the next city which was probably Krefeld. So, we set about trying to find a place to bed down for the night in the houses in the city. I remember in Muchengladback, H company, who had those heavy weapons to carry, managed to capture a German halftrack and some other vehicles, because the following day they were carrying alot of their weapons on these vehicles. Some people were actually riding some of the vehicles. They turned our column into something that looked like a bunch of gypsies. It wasn't long before some of the officers thought this was a bad appearance, and took steps to relieve H company of their special modes of transportation.
Our next stop on the way to the Rhine River was at Krefeld. I don't recall too much about the fighting at Krefeld. I suspect that our battalion by this time was in reserve. I don't think the fighting was too severe, as I believe most of the Germans had withdrawn across the Rhine River, destroyed all the bridges, and if anyone was left at all it was just a delaying action to try to give them additional time to do the bridges in and get their people across the river.
In Krefeld we got a hold of some motor bikes and had fun riding them up and down the street for awhile. I'd never been on one before.
We moved out of the main city of Krefeld into a smaller town. And then we ran across a German halftrack, which we got running again. We were driving around a farm area in this German halftrack.
There was a period of time here when we entered into the intelligence game. Our battalion was designated to mascarade as the 79th Division. We were all ordered to take off our Ozark patches and put on the emblem of the 79th. The idea was to confuse the German populace on our side of [139-22] the river who were still sending intelligence information across to the Germans on the other side, by making them think the 79th Division was' in our area of operation. Great efforts were made to advertise that we were the 79th Division by trucking us around the countryside in areas where civilians could see us. I don't know how successful this ruse was. At any rate, the 79th Division was successful in its effort to cross the Rhine further up. While we were waiting for the Rhine push to start, we had the opportunity frequently to watch the American and British planes bombard the Germans on the other side of the Rhine. And believe me they took a pasting. Though I recall one night watching one of our B-17s hit by antiaircraft fire, catch on fire, and operate almost as if it were in slow motion, start a big circling movement, and finally crash to the ground. We could not see the people on board who might have escaped via parachute.
Once the Rhine River had been crossed, our armored forces punched well ahead of most of the infantry, and in effect, had to hold up for a short while till we caught up with them. From then on, we were either riding on the tanks, getting off to occasionally fight or do a little shooting, or we were riding in the large trucks. Our route took us northward, towards Beelfield and by truck by the city of Hanover. I still recall the devastation in Hanover -- it was another St. Lough as far as the bombing was concerned. The town was in total ruins. Somewhere along this route we had to get off the trucks and follow the tanks in an assault against some of the hard-nosed Germans who stood and faught for awhile. I was reminded by the first engagement of a prior incident, and to the best of my ability I stayed away from tanks that were under the fire of those 88s from the larger German tanks. My best recollection was that we only had one engagement of armor vs. armor, after crossing the Rhine River. I do recall another incident. We were walking through the woods to clean out Germans that might be occupying the woods, and we ran across a large number of escaped concentration camp people. They were in the typical striped uniforms. They were pitiful. They were starving to death. Some had apparently gotten away and been hiding in the woods, attempting to obtain food when they could. But they were a pitiful bunch, and we gave them what K rations we had, and they would get down on the ground and kiss your feet. I don't know whether thay were all Jewish, but they spoke more than one language. I suspect that a lot of them were Polish, some may have been Russians, or Jews from other parts of Europe.
I recall that we had one more firefight, or active engagement. We emerged from the the woods where we had run into the concentration camp prisoners, and we were near the site of one of the wars atrocities, in the city of Garlegen. We were advancing on a battalion front, and I looked off to our right and I saw someone with a white shirt and blue trousers running into the edge of the woods. I got down to [139-22] take a shot at him and Sgt. Leara came by and said don't shoot over there, that's G company. It was just moments later that one of our squad members just off to my right, Stryker, was hit in the back with a wooden bullet from this area. So the three of us took off for there. We could not find the sniper, or whoever it was that shot Stryker. I did not hear anything about how he had fared. He'd been hurt pretty badly, but I didn't see in the 102nd Division history where he'd even received a purple heart. In fact, I couldn't even remember the fellow's name until a recent reunion when Mike Bloscoe reminded me thats who it was. At any rate, we proceeded with our advance, and ran into a band of Germans who had been Air Force personnel, with no longer any air force. They were on the ground and fighting as infantry. Most of these Germans were very young, young kids so to speak, and they put up a pretty good fight for awhile. They killed Lt. Fletcher of the 1st platoon, which enraged two or three members of that platoon, because Fletcher was well liked, and he'd been with the platoon for a considerable period of time. I remember even Sgt. Bloscoe, our squad leader, who was back with us again, was pretty upset by this, because as they got close to their positions, these youngsters attempted to give up by standing up and yelling 'Comrad'. This is the last real firefight that I can recall.
We moved up into the outskirts of Garlegen and the next day discovered the atrocity of Garlegen. The SS hideous Gardelegen War Crime In a cement barn with wooden doors on both sides, we discovered the charred bodies of prisoners of war and political prisoners who had been burned alive by the S.S. It was a mishmash of prisoners, apparently, Germans, French, Russians, Poles, whatever. There was a fairly large prisoner of war camp in the general area. Some of the H company people got so upset when they view this atrocity that they went back into the town of Garlegen, rounded up the men, women, and children that they could, and opened up both sides of this barn, and ran them through the barn, so they could see what their German troops had done. Of course the civilian population were very much in fear that somehow they would be punished for this atrocity, and they were quite upset by the whole deal. We had information that three of the prisoners in the barn had managed to escape. They had been taken there by the S.S., who locked them up in the barn with gasoline-soaked straw, and had lit the straw with a thermite grenade. They had mounted machine guns some distance from the barn by the door, so that those who managed to work their way under the doors and got out would be shot, and there were several that were shot. In fact, there were huge holes around the perimeter of the barn, a little bit away from the barn, where there were already bodies stacked in these holes. Of the two or three prisoners who had managed to escape, one, I was told, had managed to crawl out with another fellow. His friend had been shot, and an S.S. man approached and asked the man if he were hurt, and when he answered, he shot him [140-23] dead. The man who was able to escape had faked being dead (and managed to crawl off with some geese that were off on one edge of the area, and climb into a wrecked aircraft on the edge of the airfield, where this barn was located. I recall as a part of this incident, while we were viewing the tragedy, that a Frenchman across the way came up with a Walter pistol. A German medical officer and a nurse in the barn had also been run out to view this atrocity by the H company people, and the Frenchman raised his pistol and shot the German officer. These were not S.S. people, and there was no way of knowing how responsible the person who was shot was for the tragedy. At any rate, someone got a can of gasoline off one of the trucks and burned the German officer up with the rest of the prisoners. It was really a case of murder, but no one knew who this prisoner of war was, he spoke only French. After the incident, he just disappeared. The S.S. who were responsible for the atrocity in he barn had been in charge of the town, but they had turned over control to the regular German forces and moved on out. After the events of Garlegen, we moved on up to the large city of Stendal on the Elb River. At this point, it was our general understanding that this was as far as we were going to go, although one of the companies of the 102nd Division had crossed the river and proceeded a few miles, almost to within the outskirts of Berlin, but had to turn around and come back. It seems it was at this point that our politicians at home, along with the agreements made with the Russians, had decided what course the war was going to take. In essence, we were instructed we could not accept the surrender of the Germans who were being heavily beaten by the Russians on the other front. And the Russians, by this time were in Berlin. I recall, however, that in spite of these instructions that there were large numbers of Germans who were marching down the streets of Stendal, and piling their weapons into large stacks as instructed, and headed for prisoner of war status. But we were placed in some of the mall towns around the outskirts of Stendal, fairly close to the Elb River to await the arrival of the Russians. And later we met some of the Russians along the Elb River. I recall that I didn't have very good feelings about them at the time. The first group I met turned out to be Polish, and I remember one young fellow who, for his unkempt and sorry appearance, seemed to be fairly intelligent, saying 'You better not get too excited, celebrating the finish of the war now, because some day you're going to have to fight these guys behind us'. He was talking about the Russians. He told us it had been the Russians' practice to put the Polish troops that they had in their army as point men in an attack, so that they would be the first to incur casualties from the Germans. I also recall we had some difficulties with them later, when we were moving out of what was to become their zone of occupation to our own further to the south. Don Franklin, who served as a lifeguard with two or three of us had a brother who was in the city of Erfert with [141-24] a railway battalion. And I recall that became a Russian ( zone, and Don's brother was held in communicado, so to speak wasn't allowed to leave the city. He had to have an American officer come to take him out. As I remember, Don went down there to see him and found out that the Russians had told his brother that they had hardly enough food to feed their own troops -- they couldn't feed him. I also remember some Russian soldier in one town who was actually hitting Germans with the arm of a child. He looked like he might have had too much of his vodka. But, the impression you got was not a very good one. This is not to say that all Russians behaved this way, because there were some who we got along with famously. They had probably suffered considerably more from the Germans than anyone else, and carried a pretty big chip on their shoulders.
For many years, what the young Pole had said to me about having to fight the Russians sometime down the line would flash through my mind, during the cold war. Because until just recently, it looked like one day we might truly enough be at war with them. I started this tape back in about March of 1988, and here it is October of 1990. And the Russians, during this year, have done a complete flip -- flop of the positions they had taken over the past 40 -- some -- odd years. But there are still many problems to be faced ahead. We became a semi -- army of occupation since most of the shooting was over with, and the Germans that we saw were coming in to surrender. But we held a variety of jobs, usually sentry duty of one sort or another, at the displaced persons camp, which was largely full of Polish refugees. This was in the city of Stendal. At other times we were assigned to a prisoner of war stockade, which frequently had many S.S. I remember one particular S.S., a young man, had lost a leg, but he was gung-ho for the military. He wanted to know if possibly he could serve in the American army. I also ran into a German dentist, who wanted to work on my teeth. He had one of those push-pedal machines, and he noted that at one time I had worn braces. He was eager to get hold of me. My recollection is that I did let him clean my teeth. He was quite an interesting old gentleman. But l could not forget that he had been a member of the S.S., and we had seen what they had done back in Garlegen. We not only had duty in the POW facility, but we also were assigned frequently to security at old factories, to prevent sabatoge, gathering of civilians, and such things that preceed setting up an occupation force and civilian government of occupation. It looked like the Germans time was running out.
We had crossed the Rhine River early in April, and by early May, victory in Europe day had come. We set about, in our own minds, wondering whether we would be sent to the Far East to continue the war against Japan, or remain as occupation there in Germany. Then, came the point system, and all was for counting our points to see whether or not we would be eligible for return home and discharge. [142-25] I recall during all of this that we were moved out of the area of Stendal, which was then becoming the Russian zone and moved to the south. At one time, I got on detached service when we set up swimming pools in some city, I can't now recall whether is was Kuelmback or Arenstock, or just where it was. But there were three of us from different parts of the battalion that managed the swimming pool. Then they organized a swimming meet and as a result of that swimming meet in Passalt, Germany, I got a trip with Dave Wilshire to the French Riveria at Niece. Had a real blast at Neice, which included a visit to Cannes, with a French girlfriend and her family. When we returned to our company back in Germany, I ended up being assigned to put out a weekly newspaper with Al Schwabacker's I&E group, that's information and education. Later, I was fortunate enough to go to school in Bieritz, France, on the bay of Biscay on the Spanish border. And living in the Hotel du Palez, one of the old palaces of French nobility was quite a treat. Alot of our old ASTP friends from Ohio State were there, including Mack Magoon, Bill Gazelle, Bobby Henry, and we made new acquaintences: Fred Flunge of 406 cannon company, Jim Pike, Charley Brown, also of the 406th. Mack Magoon and I both spoke a good bit of French, and we ended up having Christmas with a French family in Bieritz, which was quite a treat. We contributed our PX rations to the festivities. A group of us also made a quick trip to Lourdes, the holy shrine, by train and back, which was a great experience. All in all, Bieritz was alot of fun.
When we returned to Germany again, it was almost time, because of our points, to be sent to a POE for return to the states. I had an opportunity to go to Switzerland on pass again, but elected instead to take the alternative, which was to go home. We again rode boxcars to Camp Lucky Strike, up near Lehar, and after a stay at Lucky Strike, boarded a ship for the return to New York.
With that, I'm going to end this little dissertation, and hope, as time goes on, and as I listen to this, I'll recall other events that have been left out, and be able to add these at a later date.
----- Dick (John) Skene, March 10, 1988.
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
The SS hideous Gardelegen War Crime
Gardelegen War Crime
Gardelegen: April 13, 1945:
Massacre at the Isenschnibbe Barn
American Battle Monuments Commission: WWII Honor Roll
National World War II Memorial
Information and photographs were generously provided to World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words by Mr. Edward L. Souder of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The subjects of these essays are all members of Co. F., 405th Regiment.Our sincerest THANKS for allowing us to share their stories!
Original Story submitted on 19 September 2002.
Story added to website on 1 October 2002.
September 5, 2002.
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