Heroes: the Army
"...I muttered, "If I only knew I'd be OK after the next battle, I'd be brave and gutsy -- an inspiration to the others. Didn't Christ know of his resurrection before he died? This unknown battle seems like the greater suffering..."
Lester H. "Les" Nordlund
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. B., 405th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942-1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: PFC
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Tacoma, WA
Best of Life
by Les Nordlund, 405th-B
Lt. Robert S. (Smitty) Smith, followed by 1/Sgt. Tony DeBellis, opened the door and softly walked across the room to the only window where I sat at a table writing a letter home to my folks. We knew each other well, but this PFC runner immediately stood to recognize his wishes. I whispered, "Hello, Sir. What can I do?"
The soldiers of the combined 1st Battalion and Company B (405th Inf. Reg.) command post were exhausted and sleeping this cool, clear afternoon of February 12, 1945. Smitty, the Battalion S2 officer, had come to see Capt. Norm Estes, who sat asleep in the center of the room. The rest of the 1st Btn. Headquarters contingent of sergeants and runners lay sprawled on the floor around the captain.
Smitty whispered back, "Les, I'd rather not disturb Norm. I could talk to Bull (Major LeRoy Frazier). Is he in?"
"Downstairs, I believe -- the battalion CP, Sir. He may be sleeping. Just a minute. I'll check."
"Les, please. I'll go down. It'll be OK."
Military protocol was not high on my list. I respected my lieutenant. I didn't want him awakening or embarrassing the battalion commander. I slowed my pace but did not stop.
"Sir, it'll only take a second. I don't mind."
I found Bull presentable and began to share Smitty's request. We heard a violent explosion, possibly a hit on our farm house CP. We rushed upstairs to a room filled with plaster dust. The window table had completely disappeared, indicating a direct mortar hit. We heard groans. It was difficult identifying bodies, except for Captain Estes, who still sat in his chair, limp and covered with gray dust. Blood trickled down the captain's forehead, indicating a serious or fatal wound.
I found Smitty on the floor not far from where I'd last seen him. He saw me, "Les, get help ,quick. It's bad. Oooo!" Others lay still. More groans. I ran for medical help, not hestitating to obey.
(Known K/As: Captain Norman B. Estes; 4th platoon runner PFC. Theodore R. Bozarth. Smitty lost his left arm and, despite other multiple injuries -- including to his right arm, he recovered with serious disabilities. Years later he explained his long rehabilitation to my wife, Eleanor, and me at his St. Petersburg, FL home. He had no feelings for revenge, stress or regret. He remained in the military, became a Major and outlived his lovely wife, Lota Lee, by two months until their deaths in 1988. They had worked together at the Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta and helped develop prostheses for German and American veterans.)
The carnage took place in Roerdorf, Germany. The jittery enemy had prematurely attempted to wash away our assault across the Roer River by opening the flood gates at the upstream Schwamanuel Reservoir. Thankful for his poor timing, we waited for the man-made flood waters to recede.
Captain John Finney replaced Captain Estes. I also needed to coordinate my efforts with many replacement riflemen, runners and non-coms. We had much to think about what might lay ahead. This dependable runner was now anxious and scared.
My 21 year old mind sought for new motivation and spiritual re-arming. I muttered, "If I only knew I'd be OK after the next battle, I'd be brave and gutsy -- an inspiration to the others. Didn't Christ know of his resurrection before he died? This unknown battle seems like the greater suffering."
Later I realized it would be honorable if I were meant to be a KIA. The humiliating death of Christ was no comparison. I rumbled inside, Get with it, nervous soldier. Pull yourself together."
I concluded the turmoil by admitting that my soldier friends, including my brother, died willingly for a just cause. Why couldn't I? The next few days showed me -- I had much more to learn.
The northern flank of our Allied Forces began the final push to Berlin on February 23rd. British infantry and armored corps advanced on the left flank of our U.S. 102nd Infantry Division. The reliable U.S. 84th Infantry followed our assault in leap frog fashion. Other U.S. Ninth Army units jumped off simultaneously in Operation Grenade, crossing the Roer River en route to the Rhine.
At 0330 hours, our 1st Battalion, 405th Inf. Reg., paddled across the Roer in assault boats near Roerdorf. We suffered more casualties to key personnel but achieved the planned bridgehead. Could we reorganize for expected counterattacks?
Day-2 began with a roaring artillery bombardment prior to our 1000 hour jump-off. The 701st Tank Battalion supported our 405th Infantry Regiment attack on Hottorf -- Company A tanks followed our first Battalion.
Infantry Companies B and C outgunned and overran a battered enemy machine gun nest 1000 yards from our objective. Two German soldiers came out of the dugout without weapons, hands raised.
Suddenly a second machine gun began firing at my Company B. The slugs whistled close - too close to this PFC. runner. I dove for a tank track depression. "Ouch!" One hammered into my right foot - a safe wound. The gunner stopped firing. Confused and hurting, I whispered in desperation, "Now what? I can't stay here. I've gotta crawl for better cover."
The gunner fired another volley. Another slug tore through flesh. I screamed, "Oooo!", as blood oozed from my left thigh. I couldn't bend my knee to crawl. My arms now did double duty as I tried desperately to reach a trench twenty yards away.
The gunner must have seen me crawl - he adjusted his sights and fired again. Lead thundered into my left ribs. Thoughts buzzed. Words raced through my mind, "Oh no! This must be it! Why am I even thinking - or, why am I not thinking about the big events - the meaningful happy times in my life? Isn't that what people do before they die? Think - yes, play dead. That's what he wants. Don't move. Just breathe - and hope."
Seconds passed &emdash; maybe a minute. The gunner didn't fire.
After two or three minutes I found myself still breathing but bleeding profusely. The gunner looked for new targets. I needed to find help but couldn't carry my gun and ammunition. Off came the ammo belt and my trusty M-1. My good arms and right knee helped me crawl to the trench. I slid in and crawled another twenty yards to a vacated tank bunker.
There my platoon medic, Bill (Doc) Garman, treated Carl Main other wounded soldiers. "Les, where is it? Where are you hit?"
"Look at this one first," I said pointing to my left side. Doc slashed my field jacket and shirt to expose sandpapered ribs. I saw a two inch wide scrape over seven inches of skin, left to right. Amazed, thankful and confused, I asked Doc to patch up my left thigh and right foot. The bleeding subsided.
It was hours before the area was secure enough to pick up even the critically wounded. At dusk they placed my stretcher on a jeep at the battalion aid station in Boslar. At the regimental aid station in Tetz, medics carried me into a large dimly lit tent with many other wounded GIs. I reached into my pockets to see what possessions I had salvaged. In my left chest pocket I found a small broken manicure scissors. I reached again, looking for the 30 caliber slug. It was not there. I pulled out something else - my small New Testament. The scissors had flattened the slug, and the 2.5" by 4" book spread the impact energy.
We reached the Roer River late that night. On the pontoon bridge I looked up at the stars cluttered with anti-aircraft bursts, tracers and search lights - and began to cry for my buddies. I realized I might not be seeing them again! Gone! no goodbyes. Are they still alive?
I've asked myself many times why the machine gunner failed to execute his misguided plan. It has always been clear that a higher power took control of the results. But why me? Many others paid a much bigger price.
It took me years to fit the pieces together. I didn't like to talk about the key piece. The man behind the gun was not enemy, but friendly support from within the armor plate of an American tank.
After my discharge in 1946, I became sensitive to the actions of a few friends who used their positions of power to manipulate others. I didn't relate my military and civilian experiences, perhaps dismissing the inner turmoil as a type of God's anger at sin. I soon learned to face brotherly conflicts without fear of personal harm to body or reputation. When conflicts exposed familiar failures of trusted friends, some amazing battles erupted. Retaliation often became a workable option, requiring extra strength and God's grace to resist. There have been many spiritual wounds, but truth always prevailed when counter attacks were pushed aside. I was not always so inclined.
I stayed away from Ozark reunions prior to 1993, partly because I didn't understand my military experience and because I couldn't trust my reaction to possibly meeting the soldier from our supporting 701st Tank Battalion. I had not fully forgiven him for the blind battlefield error. Today if I met my battlefield friend, I would not merely return the lead removed from my right foot, I would throw my arms around him and thank him for his marksmanship and for being used to give me the best experience of my life. I'm indebted to him for the unsolicited lesson on how to live by God's grace.
Are you out there, forgiven friend?
----- Les Nordlund
(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, "Best of Life", by Lester H. Nordlund, 405th, -. Co.B, was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 47, No. 4, July/Sept. 1995, pp. 7 - 9.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of the 102d Infantry Division Association, Ms. Hope Emerich, Historian. Our sincerest THANKS for the 102d Infantry Division Association allowing us to share some of their stories.
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 28 October 2003.
Story added to website on 5 November 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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