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On 18th September 1944, our platoon had cleared a building outside Arnhem overlooking the Rhine and regrouped on a rise. Below on the riverbank was a german halftrack with Red Cross markings which we foolishly ignored. It opened fire and I was wounded in the shin. Bob Hope helped me into a cottage , George Potter our bren gunner dealt with the german and I was eventually taken POW and had my leg amputated.
Geoff Baker. TCoy 1st Batt.
"HELLFIRE IN THE FOREST"
A true story by an American G.I in the Hurtgen Forest Campaign.
When growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. I often wondered what kind of future I would have. I never, for one moment, thought that I would be involved in a World War. I didn't know that the Government was going to take care of my future by drafting me on April 10, 1941. My training seemed endless because my outfit didn't see combat until July 4, 1944. All that training, which I had thought was useless, proved to be a lifesaver.
We landed on Utah Beech on July 4, 1944 and fought our way through France. When combat in France ended, we were moved to Luxembourg. We were suddenly pulled back from our watch and patrolling near the hills facing the "Seifried Line". The Weapons Platoon and part of a Rifle Platoon were housed in a town schoolhouse. Late one night, November 17, 1944 there was quite a commotion going on all around us. Part of another outfit was bedding down around us. From them, we could hear moaning, loud cries, shrieking and even crying. This continued throughout the night. When daybreak arrived, we looked around us and saw a bunch of haggard, tired, beaten and depressed soldiers. They had come off of the fighting line after three weeks of attack in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany. We were to be moved out and they were to take over our positions and patrols along the Luxembourg border. This trading of places was done mainly to give the newly arrived troops a much deserved, "Rest Period". We were truly glad to give up the easy life we had to those so badly in need of rest. The battered troops that we relieved were part of our 28th Infantry Division.
We left early in the morning, and after travelling by truck, we crossed the border into Germany… At last we felt that we were in the "Home Stretch". Little did we realise the three and one half months we were to spend in the town of Vossenack and the Hurtgen Forest, through the toughest part of winter, would prove to be the most difficult time for the men to survive. Now, actually being on German soil, we did encounter some German civilians, but not many. They were either very old, middle aged who were resigned to take care of their aging parents, grandparents or others to stubborn to leave their homes. It appeared that most of the German civilians retreated voluntarily with their soldiers. Later, as we advance further into Germany we wondered, how long they could continue pushing their people in front of them. The civilians didn't have much to say to us. Most of them were older women and daughters, usually in their thirties or forties, who had remained behind to take care of the elderly or the very sick. There were a few young boys and girls. At first they were frightened by our presence. I did my best to put them at ease. I tried to converse with them with the little German that I knew. They didn't seem to understand me fully. Likewise, I had trouble understanding them. Some of the very old German men we came across even got militant and threatening towards us. They appeared to be veterans of WWI. Secondly, they didn't like our sharing any part of their homes with us. Some G.I's acted very threatening towards them. I often had to step in and take the old men out of "Harms Way"… I tried to calm our guys by telling them that the older men probably had been soldiers in WWI who still had the old "German Military Discipline" in their blood. Besides, they were old soldiers who felt it was their duty to protect their homes and families. After all, they were now too old for the army, but patriotism and pride were still part of their being.
We hiked to the outskirts of Vossenack, Germany and spent the better part of the night bedded down in a wooded area. We were told to dig in, but few of us did, we were dead tired. Before daylight we moved into what was supposed to be a town. All that we were able to make out in the semi-darkness was a bunch of ruins. There wasn't a complete house standing. In fact it looked as if a tornado had preceded us and hadn't missed a building. We were told to find shelter wherever we could and to, above all, be very quiet and not to disturb a rock, board, or any part of the rubble. The Germans we were told had a full view of the town during the daylight from the hills surrounding the town. It was said, that they could see if anything had been moved or disturbed. If so, they would bring down a barrage of 88mm Artillery or Mortar shells on the area. We were to receive more enemy Artillery fire than we had yet encountered.
We crawled into the basements of the homes that had been levelled by Artillery or Mortar shells. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible in the ruins. We learned that the town had been a battleground between the Germans and the Americans over and over again, taken by one side and retaken by the other… on and on. So many Land Mines and Trip Wires had been strung by either side, that no one knew what area was safe to trespass on. During November and December of 1944 we also had to contend with heavy rains and snow. The paths that we ventured to travel during the darkness of night for rations, water, patrols, etc. got muddy or soft when the weather changed. One had to be sure to stay on the paths already travelled. However, when they became too soft or muddy Land Mines or Trip Wires could be tripped and a few of our guys got wounded or killed… Fisher got into trouble when he was returning (in a Jeep) from our company C.P. The road had been used many times but on this evening the road had thawed out a bit and the Jeep ran over a Land Mine. He was badly wounded and was taken to the Battalion Aid Station. This was the last that I was to see of him. He was greatly missed.
We had been told that the Germans would be looking down their Artillery barrels at us during daylight. The company C.P. in the stone church at the far end of town was about the only building still partly standing in which one didn't have to crawl, squat or stoop to get into or move about in.
We were shocked to learn on the night December 18th that the Germans had broken through in Luxembourg. Our only thoughts were of the G.I.s that had replaced us in Luxembourg. They had been through enough suffering in the Hurtgen Forest and were supposed to be recuperating….
Most of our activity was done at night, that was ammunition supplies, food, evacuating the wounded, getting replacements and some patrolling. At first the patrols usually left just before dawn but the creeping of daylight brought about more casualties. At first the order would come down from our company C.P. Or maybe from Battalion Headquarters for a Rifle Squad to patrol the deep draw between two high hills. This always proved to be a disaster. Only a few of each patrol ever returned. Patrolling the draw was suicide. We of the Weapons Platoon really felt sorry for the men of the Rifle Platoons. We knew that their mission was like going down "Suicide Lane"… The patrol was ordered by Battalion to be increased to two Rifle Squads plus one Mortar Squad.
The Mortar Squad was housed in a basement of a house that had been reduced to rubble. We had moved some boards to enter the basement and had replaced them exactly as they had fallen whenever we entered or left the basement, or "Rats Nests" as we got to call it. Disturbing the rubble, as already mentioned, could cause the Germans to notice and a rain of Artillery shells would follow.
Early one morning, the order came through that a Mortar Squad was to accompany a Rifle Platoon up the draw. This time, the squad was to be mine, as I learned later. I was sleeping soundly when the order came through. Miller, who by now had become a Mortar Squad leader, didn't want anyone to wake me so he volunteered his squad. When I awoke it was too late as the patrol had already proceeded up the draw. About a half an hour latter we heard the familiar sound of German Machine pistols and some German 88mm shells being fired. The patrol finely returned carrying wounded riflemen. The Mortar Squad had stayed well behind the advancing Riflemen, as was normal, to give them overhead firepower, also returned minus Miller and his Assistant Gunner. The story told to us was that Miller had set up his Squad's Mortar behind a standing brick wall. He had decided to use the wall as cover to screen the flare of fire that accompanied the tail of a Mortar shell as it left the barrel of the Mortar. The flare is especially visible in the dark or at the break of dawn. His Assistant Gunner dropped in the Mortar shells. After a few rounds had been fired, a German 88mm shell zeroed on them both and the brick wall collapsed on top of them, killing them both. His men said that they had managed to dig both of them out but they were dead. I wanted to go to where the bodies were to make sure that they both were truly dead. I was told that Medics had already removed their bodies to the rear. I was to wonder in the future if the men had actually dug the bodies out from under the rubble or did they take off like a shot when the 88mm shells came in and the wall collapsed. The details we received from the Riflemen and the members of Miller's squad were scarce and confusing.
I felt very bad for what happened to Miller and his Assistant Gunner. It was my Mortar Squad that should have accompanied the Rifle Platoon up the draw that morning. Not that the same thing couldn't have happened to me, and my Assistant Gunner. (Usually the Squad Leaders in the Mortar Section took over the First Gunners position when we were in the attack. Reason being that the Squad Leader was usually more experienced. The Squad Leader had a Corporal's rating). Maybe I would have chosen a different spot for setting up the Mortar. But at least, it would have been me, and not Miller who paid the price… Miller had a wife and child waiting for him back in the States. I had no such responsibility. I could never figure out why it had to be Miller and not me. He was a fine, kind, generous, young (20), faithful and religious person.
Well, the patrols through the draw continued almost every morning and the Germans, by this time, were waiting for them. There never appeared to be any advantage to our side as the G.I.s continued to get wounded and killed. The patrols were hammered by 88mm Artillery, German Machine Pistols, Mortars, Landmines and Trip Wires. Our attacking force was increased from a Rifle Squad with Mortar assistance to a Rifle Platoon with Mortar assistance. This only made an easier target for the Germans looking down our throats from the higher hill, which they occupied. I'm sure that the Germans must have believed the attacking forces were "Suicide Squads".
The Mortar Section continued to give supporting fire to the Rifle Platoons on patrol. My squad was attached to the 3rd Rifle Platoon. During one patrol, I had our Mortar set up in the bombed out basement of a bombed out house. As the Riflemen preceded us down the draw, we laid down a few rounds of 60mm Mortar shells to keep the Germans seeking cover. Well, it didn't take long for the German 88mm shells to start zeroing in on our position. The chimney of the house used was still standing. The base of the chimney had a large steel door about three feet high and two feet wide. When the 88mm shells started coming in Mac opened the steel door and was ready to crawl inside. However, it was stuffed with suitcases, and when Mac removed them we heard the sound of glass. Mac squeezed himself into the base, as much as he could, for cover. The fire of the 88ths on us ceased. We didn't care why, we were just glad that they had ceased in time. Our curiosity got the best of us and we opened the suitcases and found them full of different kinds of liquor. Boy… Mac's face lit up like a Christmas tree. I hadn't seen him so happy since we left the States.
We took the suitcases back to our cellar and Mac, the experienced Bartender, began to re-familiarize himself with his trade. He used sugar and lemon powder from our "K" rations, and he mixed many kinds of drinks that we had never heard of for that matter, I believed they were drinks that Mac had never heard of or mixed before. In other words "Mac's Specials". Believe me, there were a lot of drunk and sick G.I.s in our cellar that night.
Because all of our movements had to be done at night, supplies, replacements, etc. the only way that the Germans could see our movements was by firing Flares. However, they either were short of Flares or were quite desperate to see what movement was occurring because at times during the night they would turn on a powerful floodlight and shine it down the main street of Vossenack. It would stay on for about twenty seconds and then go off. It was very far away, too far for us to knock it out of action. If anyone happened to get caught in it's bright beam he would remain frozen in his tracks in order to not be detected.
Before dawn, one morning one of our company Lieutenants who had just come back from Battalion Headquarters spread out a map, saying to us that playing games with the Germans was over. Games? He said beginning tomorrow morning the whole of "C" company will take off on the attack, attacking the lower hill that is overseen by the higher hill in back. This higher hill was where the Germans were dug in and had a birds-eye view of us and the town of Vossenack. The Company Rifle Platoons were to dig in just below the crest of the lower hill. The idea was that as soon as the Riflemen consolidated their position they would gradually move forward and drive the Germans from the higher hill. Saying, "This is our objective and we will take it at dawn", he quickly scooted back to his Jeep and the safety of a captured German Pill Box at Battalion Headquarters.
This First Lieutenant had been with our Battalion from the States. He had been transferred to our company just before we left for Northern Ireland. He was young (around 24) skinny, flighty, kind of stuck on himself and didn't associate with us "Dogfaces". It was said that he was well voiced in Japanese. It was also said that his father was a Missionary in Asia. I could never understand why he was in the European Theater and not in the Pacific. Actually, one could never get close to him or be friendly enough to find out. Incidentally, I told the Lt. that I thought that it would be suicide to try and take the hill with only one Rifle Company. He just looked at me and said, "That's our mission".
The Mortar Section was to remain behind on the outskirts of town, at the bottom of the hill to be taken, in order to give supporting fire as required by the Rifle Platoons. I thought this to be a very sensible decision. If each Mortar squad was attached to each of the three Rifle Platoons that were going across a thousand yards of open fields and then up the side of a hill, we could get pinned down with the Riflemen by enemy fire, and be unable to set up the Mortars for supporting fire. Also a new supply of Mortar shells would be more available at the edge of town.
Well, "C" company took off, slightly before dawn, for the crest of the lower hill. There was one tank provided as support. As the troops advanced there was heavy fire mostly from German 88ths. Some of the Riflemen took cover behind the tank, but not for long. The tank turned tail and headed back towards town leaving the Riflemen dangerously exposed. There were many casualties before the company retreated back to town. Finally the whole of the 1st Battalion was ordered to move out in a frontal attack on the crest of the lower hill. They succeeded but at a great loss in wounded and dead soldiers.
"C" company Rifle Platoons dug in below the crest of the hill. They were pinned down and had great difficulty digging in. They were continually under heavy German 88mm Artillery fire. The Mortar Section had communication with the Rifle Platoons and our company C.P. We were standing by ready to give 60mm Mortar fire where and when needed. At night the Mortar Section pulled Guard Duty around our Battalion C.P. There was very little request for Mortar Fire from our company on the hill.
After a week of the Mortar Section standing by, Cortez, who was Section Sgt., called all of the Squad Leaders together. He said that orders had just come through from Battalion that our Mortar Section was to join our company on the hill. I asked Cortez when we were going to join them? He said, "within the hour". I said "Cortez, either you are just kidding or you misunderstood the order". It was broad daylight about 2.00 p.m. I told Cortez that it would be suicide to cross 1,000 yards of an open field and an additional 500 yards up a bare-ass hill under the eyes of the Germans and carrying our 60mm Mortars and ammunition. I said that we, at least, should wait until dark. Cortez replied, "Sorry George but those are my orders, we move out in an hour".
I could only conclude that Battalion reasoned that the rest of "C" company had advanced across the open field and up to the crest of the hill in almost the light of dawn, so they could see no reason why the Mortar Section should be the exception. True, but the Rifle Platoons and our Light Machine Gun Section had reached their objective at great cost. We, of the Mortar Section, were more than able to give supporting fire from our position at least until nightfall. Why take the chance of losing more men by a mad and unnecessary dash in full daylight? Up until this time we had received no request for Mortar fire from the hill. I could only assume that due to the losses the men on the hill had suffered that our appearance would boost their moral.
Well, in one hour we were ready to move out. I told the members of my squad to keep their eyes focused on the crest of the lower hill, to travel as fast as they could and to zigzag across the open field and up the hill. I also told them that under no conditions were they to stop or take cover in the shallow shell holes in the open field. The Germans had perfect observation of the field from their advantage point on the higher hill above the one where our company Riflemen were dug in. I told my men, including Mac, that it would be suicide to stop along the way.
The Germans had some 88mm Artillery but fortunately they had more 30mm Mortars, which weren't very effective unless they landed close or on top of you. I told my men that the only hope of making it alive to the crest of the hill was to move out on the double and to keep going in order to get under the shortage range of the German 30mm Mortar shells. This meant that the Germans could only fire their Mortars at a limited range because of the forest they were firing from. At times in the past, when we fired our Mortars, the Mortar tube almost pointed up in a vertical position when fired because the enemy had gotten so close.
Of course, we had to take our 42lb Mortar and all of the Mortar ammunition along with us. I grabbed my Squad's 42lb Mortar and took off running as fast as my legs would carry me, zigzagging across the open field. My squad followed close behind me widely spread out. Half way across the field, I looked back to check on my squad when I saw Mac had taken cover in a shallow shell hole. He wasn't wounded, just scared. I yelled to him, "Mac, get going, you'll get killed if you stay in that hole". He yelled back, "It's suicide to try and reach the crest of the hill". I just kept running and zigzagging, and as I approached the crest of the hill, I glanced back and could see that Mac had been hit. This was the last time I was to see Mac.
Those of us who reached the crest of the hill, where "C" company Riflemen were dug in, found that there were no Slit-trenches or Foxholes for us to occupy. The ones that were there were fully occupied by the Riflemen…80mm shells were coming in fast and deadly. I told my men to just dive into the nearest Slit-trench occupied or not. We just simply piled in on top of the Riflemen. There was no time to argue.
As things quietened down, we tried to dig our own Slit-trenches. However, every time we started to dig the sound of our digging echoed up the draw to our front and the Germans on the higher commanding hill to our front would send in a barrage of 88mm or 30mm Artillery or Mortar shells. We had to dig our Slit-trenches by, "the stroke". This meant that one had to get out of the hole he was sharing with another Rifleman, scratch out a few shovels of dirt and when he felt it was time for Jerry (German soldier) to lob in a few shells, he would dive back into the shared hole, hopefully in time. We usually made it but some others didn't and were either wounded or killed.
It took days to dig a Slit-trench under these conditions especially when one had to cut down young trees to use as overhead protection on top of the Slit-trench. Cortez and I dug a Slit-trench for three. It was wide and about two feet deep with small tree trunks laid one on top of the other and held in place by short sturdy branches placed upright and embedded in the ground. This vertical structure extended above the ground on three sides, adding another two feet of height to our Slit-trench. We had a slit opening facing the enemy, which was at our head when we slept. This was so that we could keep a lookout for enemy patrols day and night. The other end was the main opening facing a much larger dugout or bunker. It was always jammed with Riflemen.
By this time, winter had set in and there was plenty of snow and very cold weather. All movement in our area was held to a minimum as the Germans still indiscriminately dropped shells on us at the slightest movement or noise. As a result, most of our movements were done at night. Supplies were brought up at night to the edge of our wooded area by halftrack. Our area must have seen plenty of action before we got there. There were German bodies lying around. Also the bodies must have been there a long time because they had turned black and there was that sweet smell of death in the air. Occasionally, I would see a G.I. going through the pockets of a dead German soldier, looking for souvenirs. This disgusted me, and I always put a stop to it. Once the sun went down the nights got extremely cold. Rifle patrols went out every night but they never seemed to engage the enemy. A lot of the guys in the company came down with, "Trench Foot" Because of the extreme cold and the restrictions to their being able to move around, ones feet began to swell up so much that they would look as if they were inflated. The feet would swell inside the shoes and some would have to cut or remove shoelaces for relief. In some cases, the G.I.'s boots had to be cut in order to reduce the pressure and the pain. Many of the guys were so bad off that they had difficulty just shuffling about for the bare necessities, food, mail, water, etc. In fact, some of the guys wouldn't even attempt to get out of their Slit-trenches or Bunkers because of the extreme pain they had to endure in trying to walk. Those of us who were still able to get around took care of their needs as best as we could. We brought "K" rations, water and mail to them. The only thing that they ventured out for was the "call of nature".
In spite of the fact that these G.I.s were suffering and would be almost useless in a combat situation they were kept on line as we were extremely below strength and continued to suffer casualties almost daily. Actually those with, "Trench Foot" were sitting ducks. I daily argued with our 1st Sgt. and company Officers to get the men with the worst cases of "Trench Foot" back to our Battalion Aid Station while there still remained a chance for them to be treated. I had very little success. I finally decided to get them off of the line by involving my buddy, Tex, who drove the half-track that brought up our nightly supplies. When he was ready to return to our Battalion Supply Depot with the wounded, if any, plus extra rifles left behind by the wounded and empty water cans. Cortez and I would help two or three of the men with the worst cases of "Trench Foot" aboard the half-track and have Tex drop them off at our Battalion Aid Station. None of them ever returned, at least not to our company. I saw a lot of my stateside buddies for the last time after helping to load them on the half-track….
How did Cortez and I get away with doing what we did? Well, our company C.P. once again chose to use the Mortar Section to provide security around the C.P. Bunker. It was a very large Bunker so it accommodated our Company Commander, company Officers, Platoon Sgts., believe me, not many of this group ever set foot outside of the Bunker. They usually sent the company runner outside to deliver orders, such as patrol schedules or for food and water. Not to brag or to impress the reader but Cortez and I did most of the running around on the hill for the C.P. We, from time to time received replacements, I would locate them in one of the many empty Slit-trenches vacated by the wounded or dead. Of course, I wouldn't tell them that….. Most of the replacements were very young (18 to 20) and had never been in combat. I thought….. what a hell of a place to indoctrinate them…. Most of them were brought up aboard the half-track at night or on foot just before dawn. I was shocked to see that they had full barracks bags with them. For some unknown reason they must have believed that they were going on an outing. Some barrack bags contained: fancy framed pictures of their wives, sweethearts or mothers, and some had leather-bound writing tablets. Some even had musical instruments with them. I had them keep all of the articles except the writing tablets in their barrack bags, telling them that they would have little use for the rest…. for the time being. I then placed the barrack bags in one location and covered them up, the best that I could, to protect the contents from the rain and snow. I used raincoats that had been left behind by the wounded or dead to protect them from the weather. I told them when we got to leave this "Hell Hole" that they could take out with them whatever they wanted. Believe me, these were truly green kids…. No one stopped to pick up anything when we did pull out. We were too dam glad to be able to get ourselves out….
As already mentioned, Cortez and I were mostly the ones to take care of all outside activities. We seemed to always be lucky enough to just be one step ahead of the German 88mm shells and 30mm Mortar shells. Maybe it was because we had come this far in combat and had developed a sense of what to expect. Our ears had grown very sensitive to the sound of the incoming 88mm shells. We both knew that being up and about, especially during daylight, was dangerous, but we both felt that someone had to be willing to take care of the men and other situations. The company C.P. depended upon Cortez and I to take charge of replacements, ammunition, rations, water and mail and to see to it that it was distributed. We did, at times, have some quite close calls.
The question might be asked, how come Cortez and I didn't get "Trench Foot"? The only answer I can give was that we moved around more than others. While Cortez was on furlough to Paris, Carter and I shared a Slit-trench. There were two Rifle Squads down in the draw to our front. Their job was to give the rest of the company ample warning in case of a German attack… day or night. They were a listening post to our front. The Riflemen had an elaborate set up all around them of landmines, trip-wires to set off landmines, hand grenades attached to trip-wires and encircling bobbed-wire. I'm sure that they felt very secure, perhaps too much so. Well, we at the top of the hill also felt secure. We felt that there would be ample warning if the Germans were on the move. We had, I guess, become as complacent as the Riflemen. We had forgotten the most important rule of a good soldier, "Never depend on someone else for your safety". At least, from this time forward this would be my primary rule….
Sgt. Grimes, who had been our Platoon Leader both in the States and Northern Ireland, whom we all felt had deliberately broken his ankle to keep from going into combat, suddenly appeared on the scene with our replacements. He was still a Sgt. and now was in charge of a Light Machine Gun Section. In reality, he didn't stop except to wave hello. He proceeded through the C.P. area, leading a Machine Gun Section plus he also was carrying a Light Machine Gun on his shoulder. His detail was sent to reinforce our Rifle Squads in the draw. We always considered him as having chickened out as so many of the regular Army men we had soldiered with had done. They were always bragging to us how they would show us how to win a war. Well, I was dam glad that they never got the chance…. However, it seemed as if Sgt. Grimes was about to show us. He seemed anxious, smiling and happy to be in combat. I guess we were wrong about him? In fact, his presence as part of our outpost made us feel more secure than ever. We knew how G.I. he had always been and he gave much attention to detail and strict enforcement of Army regulations. He would most certainly see to it that the men on outpost duty would stay alert…
One morning, as Carter and I shared out Slit-trench, a German patrol worked its way up the draw to our front, which was being manned by our outpost with all of its safeguards and troops. We heard no warning or shots of resistance. Before we knew it the patrol was heading for our Company C.P. I heard some firing from the Riflemen dug in on line. It was real early when the patrol appeared and some of the troops were still asleep or preparing their "K" ration breakfast. Carter and I looked through the small opening at the head of our Slit-trench facing the enemy. We saw about 12 Germans coming towards our Slit-trench. It would have been suicide for Carter and I to stand up and face the 12 Germans coming towards us. We were completely surrounded. We fired at the oncoming Germans from the opening at the head of our Slit-trench. I had a 45 Cal. Pistol, a 30 Cal Carbine and a German Luger. Carter had a 30 Cal. M-1 Rifle. In our Slit-trench we, at least, had some protection without exposing ourselves. Suddenly, we heard a burst of fire from a B.A.R. (Browning Automatic Rifle). I said to Carter, "Well we have someone near with plenty of firepower". We were more or less trapped in our Slit-trench. I was afraid that shortly a German Potato Masher (German Hand Grenade) would be coming through our frontal opening. I said to Carter, "Well, I guess this is it". With all of the firing going on around us, we were sure that a large German force was to follow on the heels of the German patrol. All that I could think of was "What in the hell happened to the warning we were expecting to get or hear from our outpost"? Just as soon as the whole incident was over, Carter and I got out of our Slit-trench to look around. There were no dead G.I.s just 3 German soldiers. One of the soldiers had his head bashed in and the other two were badly shot up, all three dead. The one with the bashed in head, we learned, had passed by a G.I.'s Slit-trench without seeing it, we assumed. The G.I. was so shocked to see the German go by without noticing him that he just reached for whatever was handy, which was his entrenching shovel, and beat in the German's head from behind. We asked why he didn't use his M-1 Rifle, he said, "I didn't want to shot him in the back"… I guess the G.I. had seen too many westerns where the bad guy often shot the good guy in the back in a cowardly fashion. I guess head bashing was more fair. As stated before, I never saw a German soldier who was wearing a steel helmet, just a peeked cap, making it easier for someone to beat his head in, I guess.
A lot of the troops were still asleep when the attack occurred and they were just as surprised as Carter and I were. I guess we all were depending on our outpost to give us ample warning. In our sizing up the result of the attack we came across the body of our Battalion Commander. It seemed that someone in the German patrol had picked up an American B.A.R. which had been placed on top of a stack of odds and ends to go back to Battalion that night when Tex and his half-track came up with our rations and other supplies. We found the B.A.R. lying next to the Battalion Commander's body where the German had dropped it. Occasionally, an Officer from Battalion would come up to our position before the crack of dawn and talk to our Company Commander or whoever was still able to be in charge. 1st Lt., 2nd Lt., First Sgt., etc. I assume that the Battalion Commander had come up to our position to size up our situation.
After the smoke of the battle had cleared, I took a couple of Riflemen and a few of my dependable Mortar Squad buddies down into the draw to find out what had happened to the men of our outpost. I was familiar with the warning signs of mines, trip-wires, etc. set up around the entrenchment. I was part of the detail that had helped to set it up. I told my men to remain on the alert as part of the German patrol might still be in the area. Actually, I expected to find the members of the outpost knifed or strangled to death in their holes. I felt that those who were to have remained alert on a two hour basis had been surprised or fallen asleep. This was the only reason I could believe for them not having given a warning.
When we reached the forward position, we found everything intact. There wasn't a wounded or dead G.I. to be found. We never did figure out how the German patrol managed to get through the land mines, trip-wires and barbed wire without being detected. Maybe our men were surprised by the Germans and had been given a choice of either dying in their holes or manoeuvring their way out safely and surrendering. Perhaps, the Germans had been watching the path through the entrenchment taken by our daily re-suppliers thus, able to approach the men within the entrenchment without firing a shot.
Upon reporting to our C.P. what we had found and the situation in general, I continued to survey our rear defence area for any wounded or dead G.I's. I came upon a Slit-trench that was above ground. It was more or less dug into a small hill. A bulging barracks bag was blocking the opening. I kicked it inward and I found a G.I. that I had never seen before crouched against the back wall with a frightened look on his face. I said, "What the hell are you doing by completely blocking your means of observation"? He replied, "I'm cold and trying to keep warm". I said, "You are here to defend our position, to see and kill Germans, not to hide from them".. H must have been in his late thirties or early forties. After taking a good look at him, I began to feel sorry for him. I said, "What in the hell is a man of your age doing here"? He answered that he had been a baker in the Army in the States and had gone A.W.O.L. and as punishment he was shipped off to combat… It sounded like something the Army would do. That night I sent him back to our company kitchen with Tex.
There was an Officer who had joined our company as a replacement. He was one bag of wind, a bragger and all around S.O.B. He spent most of his time at Battalion Headquarters in the bunker. Well, this morning after the attack he came storming into the large bunker which had been fairly emptied due to Trench-Foot and Dysentery. Cortez and I had moved into it after Carter had been sent to the rear due to Trench-foot. The Lt. had three replacement Officers with him. He yelled, "You yellow S.O.B's. you allowed a Col. to be killed with one of our own B.A.R's. Well, we are going to take the higher hill to our front… NOW… None of our company Officers or Sgts. housed in our C.P. Bunker accompanied him. Either they didn't want to leave the security of the bunker or they had already given this bag-of-wind permission to do whatever he wanted to do. I'm inclined to believe that he never got permission from our C.P. or he showed them that he was sent up to take charge of the situation. I said, "Lt., we don't like the fact that the Col was killed anymore than you do… It happened through a surprise attack without a warning from our outpost".
He had all available men spread out in a skirmish line. The new replacement Officers joined us. It was their first experience in combat. 2nd Lt. Scott was at my side (one of the new Officers). We all advanced down the draw. Our mission was to take the higher hill by either driving the Germans from their advantage point on the hill or take possession of the hill and capture as many Germans that we could. I told Scott, as he had told me to call him, that we had been trying for a very long time to drive the Germans from the hill. That when we were much stronger in numbers, stamina and moral we were unable to accomplish this objective. Scott and I continued to advance on line. After we had gone about 300 yards we were pinned down by German Mortars and Machine Pistol fire. At this point, I looked to my left and then to my right to see how the rest of the skirmish line was doing. To my surprise I discovered that Scott and I were alone fighting the battle. There was no one else in sight on either side of us… I quickly brought this fact of life to Scott's attention. He said to me, "Well George, what do we do now". I said, "Go back to where we came from, if we can make it". I was shocked when he replied, "No, our mission is to take the hill to our front". I asked, just you and I. His answer was "Well, if we are all that there is, I guess we will have to do it". I thought boy, this guy is off his rocker. But, I could also see that there was no way I was going to change his mind. I wouldn't think of disobeying a direct order from an Officer, even if I thought it was dumb. I said, "O.K. if you think we should give it a try, let's go". Well, we both ran forward crouching, zigzagging and taking advantage of any cover in our path. We had gone about a hundred feet and all hell broke loose. We were pinned down with bullets all around us. I turned to Scott and yelled, "Do you still want to take that hill"? Scott replied, "What do you think we should do"? I answered, "Why don't we try to make it back to the bunker"? He said, "O.K." I told him, "I'll cover you as you run back taking cover as you go. Don't go any further than a hundred feet at a time and then hit the ground. Then you cover me as I work my way back to where you are. Then we will alternate in this fashion until we are out of the range of enemy fire. As I worked my way back my carbine stock must have grazed a low bush and I almost dropped it.
Well, we finally made it to our bunker and seated way back in its farthest corner was our big mouth, Lt. Stark. I learned later that he had not even left the bunker. I gave him a dirty look and I'm sure he knew what I was implying. He was that yellow S.O.B. that he had the nerve to call us earlier. As I settled down in the bunker, Lt. Scott asked me what happened to the stock of my carbine. When I looked, I noticed that the lower right hand side of it was broken off. The only reasoning that I could come up with was that as I was falling back 100 feet at a time the stock of my carbine jerked. Actually, it must have been struck by a German bullet. Believe me, after a deep swallow, I thanked the Lord…. Lt. Stark and I were to tangle again in the future. But for the present he beat a quick retreat back to his Battalion Headquarters Bunker. I don't think he liked the idea of being so close to the enemy. He would much rather "go backward, than forward". As far as I was able to determine, most of the men who started out on the skirmish line returned safely to their Slit-trenches or bunkers. I never did see the other two replacement Officers again. They might have been captured, wounded, killed or returned to our Battalion Headquarters.
Things remained sort of calm for the next few days. Lt. Scott and I became good friends. He showed me the 45 Cal. Pistol that his father had given him just before he left the States. His father had been an Officer in WWI. Scott also had an Automatic 30 Cal. Carbine. It had been made automatic because he had filed off part of the trigger housing.
Early the next morning a large force of G.I.s from the 77th Division joined us up on the hill. I was glad to see them. I thought at last, our relief. I was wrong. I learned that they were to pass through us and to show us how the higher hill to our front should be attacked and taken. Well, all of us of the 1st Battalion of the 28th Infantry were more than happy to have them achieve their mission. They took off down the often- travelled draw to our front. We stayed behind in our Slit-trenches and bunkers wishing them luck. In an hour as Lt. Scott and I, others sat inside the large bunker we heard a lot of shouting going on outside. We could hear G.I.s shouting in English and getting some responses in German. I glanced out of the bunker and saw some Germans lying on the ground and the G.Is. yelling at them to get up. I could understand why the Germans refused to get up because all the noise or shouting going on was sure to bring 88mm shells in response. The G.Is. weren't smart enough to realise the danger they were in as they hadn't been in the area long enough to know about the resonse any noise had caused in the past. With all of the yelling going on, it caused the German artillery to pinpoint the target. All of a sudden Lt. Scott said, "I'd better straighten out those stupid G.Is. before they get us all killed". Apparently, these G.Is. of the 77th Division weren't as experienced in combat as we thought. Maybe they didn't realise how their voices can be carried up and down a draw. Lt. Scott grabbed his carbine and left before I got a chance to warn or stop him from dashing out of the bunker into the line of the artillery fire. I hesitated following him immediately as I had to borrow someone's rifle because mine had been partially shot away. Well, that few second's delay saved my life.
As Lt. Scott got clear of the bunker's entrance, a German 88mm shell landed close to the entrance. The concussion blew me, with great force, against the back wall of the bunker. I was stunned for a minute or two, and when I became steady on my feet, I took off out the entrance. About ten feet from the bunker I stumbled over the body of Lt. Scott. He was dead, having been killed by the concussion and shrapnel from the German 88mm shell that landed close to our bunker. I was shocked, depressed and had a severe pain in my gut. I then ran over to the Non-Com. In charge of the prisoner detail and said, "You stupid S.O.B. you don't have half of the brains that the German prisoners have. They knew enough to hit the ground and to keep quiet when their own artillery shells were landing all around them. You kept yelling at them to get up. Do you know that you caused the death of a dam good American Officer"? I could also see that some of the G.Is. and German prisoners had been wounded or killed by the shell.
I covered the body of Lt.Scott with a blanket until I could have his body moved out that evening on the half-track. I took his Automatic Carbine, as mine had become useless. I believe that he would have wanted me to have it. I also decided to take his 45 Cal. Pistol so that if I ever made it back to the States I would try to find his father and return it to him.
The fighting went on for many months after we left the forest area. But, nothing compared to the hardships of the Hurtgen Forest Campaign, and on March 4th 1945 the announcement of the final surrender of all German troops was made.
We knew that the war was really over when we were sent to "Camp Old Gold", an embarkation point. While there, I decided that returning Lt. Scott's 45 Cal. Pistol to his father may not be the thing to do. If Scott's father was still depressed about his son's death, he might use the gun on himself. I gave the pistol to the Company Officer.
My father, Elmer Franklin (Frank) Sisson was a Sergeant in WWII. He was in 667 F.A. BN and his job was to run telephone wire from a switchboard to each howitzer and from the switchboard to an observation point. He shipped out of Boston Harbor November 10, 1944 on the Luxury Liner, The New Amsterdam, the last group of American Soldiers to use this ship; on the next trip the ship sank with American Soldiers on board.
My fathers Battalion crossed the English Channel and landed on the beach at St Lo France on Christmas Day 1944. At this point they were the First Army as ground support for the 82nd and the 101st Airborne under General Bradley. Near the end of the war they were with General George Patton and the Third Army. The 667 F.A. BN fought in three major battles: l. The Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) 2. The Battle of the Rhineland 3. The Battle of Central Europe After the war my father stayed behind in Berlin as an MP Investigator with the 559th M.P. BN Headquarters Company.
My father was on his first military leave when the war was declared over, so he never got to say bye to anyone in his Battalion nor did he get to gather any of his personal belongings. I have heard my father talk about a lot of the men in his battalion such as Fay Pearl Parker, Mr. Dobson (the Tennessee Squirl Hunter) Capt. Schwartzenbach, and Snuffy Smith. All of whom he said are reasons why he is here today. I know I have heard him talk of others, but names have slipped my mind.
There are many stories that stick in my mind, but I particulary like the human interest stories. One story is his last Christmas there in Berlin when he was having a meal fit for a king, as he referes to it, when he looked out the window and could see some starving German children outside. He left his feast and went to ask the cook if could make him as many hambeurgers that would fit in a gunny sack and send a runner to his room when they were done. Upon which time, my father sat outside the camp area with little German children lined down the street and he handed each of them a hamburger to eat. He said that as he did this a General came by and had the driver stop the jeep so he could stop and salute my father. He says that this was one of his favorite Christmas memories.
My dad never got any of his medals and he has mentioned how much he would like to have them. So, more than anything in the world, I would love to be able to get those for him somehow. So, if anyone knows how I can get his medals for his 3 battles, as well as the Medal of Good Conduct, The expert Rifleman's Medal and even though he said he didn't feel worthy of it, he was told by his Ranking Officer that he wanted to give my dad the Purple Heart, so if that is at all possible and you have any information that would help me get them for him, please e-mail me.
My Never ending gratitude and admiration to all of you Brave WWII Vets. Tina J. Sisson-Brown
I grew up in the small town of Ellis, Kansas during the great depression of the 1930s complete with heat waves, drought and dust storms. We thought such conditions were the norm.
I graduated from Ellis High School in May of 1943. I could have loafed around all summer waiting for my draft notice but I asked for immediate induction. My father was furious - thought I was out of my mind.
I was inducted at Fort Leavenworth , Kansas and because of poor eye-sight was classified as "limited service:. This earned me a basic training as a "medic" at Camp Barkley, Abilene, Texas starting in 100 plus degree temperatures in August, 1943.
Upon finishing these thirteen weeks, I was accepted in the Army Specialised Training Program (ASTP) and found myself at the University of Arkansas in December, 1943. With the prospect of needing more bodies for the invasion of Europe, this program was closed and over 100,000 "student-soldiers" were sent to largely infantry divisions, in my case the 99th Infantry Division at Camp Maxey, Paris, Texas.
About a third of the division were ex-ASTPers as the division had been raided for replacements. We "quiz kids" were greatly resented by the old- army types and that would not change much until combat put us all in the same boat. After another basic infantry training, we packed up and entrained for Camp Miles Standish, Taunton, Mass. In late August., 1944.
More training and we boarded ship in Boston harbour and sailed for England. While aboard ship, operation "Market Garden" ("A Bridge Too Far") took place and the two St. Louis teams met in the World Series. (my father and uncle attended). Arriving at Plymouth, England, we took the "toy trains" to Dorchester, (once home to novelist Thomas Hardy). We took over barracks once occupied by the First Infantry Division ("Big Red One"), then fighting in Italy.
About November 1, we boarded ship at Southampton and docked at LeHavre, France, the first full division to debark there since the Germans destroyed the port facilities. We went down rope ladders in full equipment at night and boarded "Red Ball" trucks for the drive across France and Belgium. On November 4, we started passing "Long Tom" (155 mm) artillery firing at the enemy many miles away. After fifteen months, we had arrived at he front.
We were stationed on a line running south from Malmedy through the Ardennes Forest on a "quiet" sector to get us used to battlefield conditions and artillery fire. Some quiet front!!
I had been in a rifle company at Camp Maxey but had been transferred to an anti-tank platoon of Headquarters Company of the 2nd battalion, 395th Inf. Regiment of the 99th Division. Our weapons were 57 mm cannon. By the time we arrived at the front on late 1944, the new German Panther and Tiger tanks had rendered our guns obsolete as an anti-tank weapon We trailed along behind the infantry to use our guns against houses, pill boxes and lighter vehicles. Sometimes we were handed "bazookas" to make attacks with the rifle companies.
We spend a relatively quiet month on line, as intended, watching the Germans across he way sawing wood, hanging out laundry, etc. and occasionally tossing a few mortar shells our way and we returned the favour.
The veteran 2nd Inf. Division was attacking pill- boxes in the Siegfried Line, passing right through our lines. We were required to support them and to carry cases of ammunition, dynamite, and K-rations cross icy stream and snowy hills to a short distance from the attacking forces. On the return trip, we often carried litters with recent casualties..
Came December 16 and all hell broke lose. The early morning sky was lighted by searchlights,artillery fire was intense and it was evident our officers were alarmed and confused. The attack on "Heart-break Corners" had to be called off after many casualties and the retreat began.
We eventually found ourselves back on Elsenborn Ridge, a key position for preventing further German penetration. To get there, we had to pass through the "twin villages" of Krinkelt and Rockerath, described in state-side papers as "the two most valuable pieces of real estate on earth". These villages were held long enough by the 2nd Division to allow us to pass through and dig in on Elsenborn Ridge. To these brave 2nd Division soldiers, we owe our escaping a trip to German POW cages or worse.
We spent the next month on this ridge and I observed my 20th birthday there in a fox hole. Next we crossed the Rhineland, encountering German resistance along the way and ended on the Rhine River across from Dusseldorf. Sometime later we were loaded on trucks and speeded away on an all- night journey to where we had no idea
The next morning we passed over a ridge and spread before us was the most awe-inspiring and frightening panorama I ever witnessed.. A couple miles away was the Rhine River and spanning it was the now famous Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.!!
German artillery was raining on and about the bridge, frog-men were in the river trying to plant explosives, the new German jets were dropping bombs. The bridge was a railroad bridge, unsuited for truck and tank traffic.. In order to make it passable, large iron plates had been placed across the railroad tracks. As vehicles rumbled over these plates, they were
gradually dislodged from the tracks. Engineers had to leave the relative protection of the towers of the bridge and manually lift these plates back on the tracks! Casualties were naturally high and the crews had to be replaced every fifteen minutes. Even so, some went out of their minds.
A single narrow road led from where we were to the bridge a mile or son way. Along this road was numerous vehicles on fire and in various stages of ruin. The field next to the road was covered with bodies covered by shelter halves. Tanks, trucks, jeeps, etc. were lined up awaiting their turn to cross,
At last came our turn, sitting on a pile of 57mm ammunition, our truck raced for the bridge, rattled across and in a few minutes was under the relative safety of the bluffs on the eastern side of the Rhine. We were among the first troops to cross the Rhine going eastward since the days of Napoleon I. (so I have read).
Gradually the bridge-head was enlarged, American forces surrounded the Ruhr Valley and over 300,000 German soldiers surrendered. I myself escorted over a hundred prisoners to the POW cages, I sitting on top of a German "jeep" and herding my flock along. It was a foolish thing to as any fanatic in the woods could have shot me from my perch. As we moved along, many Germans came out of the woods and joined the procession.
Next the 99th was transferred from Hodge's First Army to Patton's Third Army and we went barrelling through Bavaria, Patton-style, one village after another., white flags (bed sheets usually) hanging from most houses in the hope we might not murder their family or violate their women, as the Nazis had told them. We often jumped from tanks, rushed into houses with panic-stricken inhabitants and shouted "eir, eir" (German for eggs). They came running with baskets and pails of eggs and some tanks must have had a thousand eggs inside. At each brief stop, out would come the frying pans ( also "liberated"), down would come the fence-rails and soon fried eggs were being consumed sans any bread or condiments.
We ended the war at Landshut, Germany, not very far from the birth-place if the author of all of our misery After three months in a.quaint middle-ages village in Bavaria, we entrained for the channel ports in Frances with a short furlough and the invasion of Japan in our future-or so we were told.
With the dropping of the bomb and V-J day, the wheels were put in reverse The veterans of North Africa and Italy , with more "points", took our places at the channel ports and back I went to Germany and the Army of Occupation. I spent six more months in the Bremen Port Command helping shuttle supplies to our army and half of Europe.
I sailed from Bremerhaven (where my ,grandparents had embarked for America seventy years before), sailed past the Statue of Liberty and took a bus to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Then it was a train to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where I was met by my parents, sister and uncle. In June, I started college at the University of Missouri under the "G.I. Bill of Rights", the greatest affirmative- action program in our history
I married, fathered two sons, adopted a daughter and spent thirty-six years with McGraw-Hill, Inc. I now live in Bettendorf, Iowa, age 76 , with Polly, my wife of 46 years..
We only did our duty but the price was high for many.
Kenneth F. Haas
1st Lt. William A. Watson, U.S. Army
"I promise Dad." Those were the words that I spoke to my father as we smoked our last cigarette and stared at the setting sun in May 1996. We were sharing what would be our last day together before he passed away from the cancers that racked his body. "I promise Dad, I'll try to return the prints." What I said that day took 53 years to complete from when it began in World War II, I was left to help a dying man correct a mistake he had done so many years ago.
I was born in 1950, the second of three children born to Bill and Jackie Watson. When I was 10 years old my parents had a bitter divorce that left me without a full-time father and a life of self direction. I was to see my father on "occasions" with a few short phone calls each year. It would become many years before we started to repair the damage and become friends again.
It was not until I went to the funeral of my Dad's second wife, Mary, in December 1994 that my Dad began to tell me what he did during the war. He told me of some prints that he had won in a dice game coming back from the war on a troop ship. It seemed they may have some value and he wanted to pass them on to his children after he died. Each print had a small oval embossed seal in the lower right hand corner that read, 'Städtisches Museum Leipzig.' It did not help to fully understand what it meant, not knowing the German language. My Dad also showed me photos, postcards, silver pieces, coins stamps and figurines that he picked up during the war. He said, "All of these will be up to you children to divide when I pass on."
It was that day, near the end of my Dads struggle with cancer, that he looked at me and said, "You remember those prints? I didn't win them in a dice game, I took them. If you think they are worth something try to sell them. If not try and return them to where they came from. Promise?"
My Dad passed away on August 7, 1996 in Denver, CO after being ill for a long time.
A month later I met my brother and sister in Sierra Vista, AZ for my father's Veterans of Foreign Wars funeral ceremony. Afterwards we sat in a motel room and split my Dad's few possessions as he requested. I received a few stamps, coins, silver, war photos, postcards and four prints. These four prints would consume my life for the next two years as I tried to keep a promise to my father.
As it turned out these were not prints but originals. Each one had a small half-inch embossed seal in the lower right corner that translated into 'The Municipal Museum of Leipzig.' Each was a pencil drawing of bridges, buildings or churches in the local area of Germany. Each one was signed by the artist. Some were titled, numbered and dated.
I tried to find information on the individual artists and history of the area around Leipzig. I looked for reference material from the local libraries, online information services, and government agencies. I was not having any luck with my request for information or history of these times. I sent an e-mail to an individual I found on the Internet, who lived in Leipzig and requested an address of the local museum to see if this might shed light on the prints that I had in my possession. He told me to write down all that I knew about the prints and send photos to the Museum der Bildenden Künste (Museum of Pictorial Arts) in Leipzig, Germany.
Castle Püchau outside Leipzig.
I received back a letter from Dr. Herwig Guratzsch, the Director of the museum. He stunned me when his reply indicated that the four prints I had mentioned were in fact restored, as was most of the museums' art in the Castle Püchau during the war and taken away by American troops in 1945. He indicated that the group of missing prints is essentially larger and that soldiers and the local people have taken much of the art for their personal use. He asked if my father found them in local houses or if he ever spoke of the Castle Püchau. This castle had become the temporary home of the contents of the Municipal Museum of Leipzig and other cultural displays of the city that was bombed very heavily by the Army Air Corp. on December 4, 1943.
Dr. Guratzsch's museum records were very accurate. The records listed each print by artist's name, print's title, date the museum acquired it, the museum's inventory number, and the annotation in 1945 that it was taken by American troops. He also mentioned that the prints did not have any great value in the art market. He was very happy to hear that I wanted to return them as they were part of the history of the museum and now had become part of the history of my family.
My Dad wrote to Sotheby's Auction House in New York, in March 1991 requesting their opinion on how he could dispose of the prints. Should he return the prints to the Leipzig Museum or capitalise on whatever value they might have? Sotheby's wrote back in April 1991 that these prints would not bring enough at auction to warrant this method of sale and recommended contacting a local print dealer or art gallery.
These prints were identified as:
1. Roland Anheisser (1877-1949): Basil, Inventory # I. 2039. 1st displayed December 1911. Taken by American troops in 1945. Returned 1998.
2. Alfred Frank (1884-1945): Brügge, Inventory # NI. 6460. 1st displayed May 1930. Taken by American troops in 1945. Returned 1998.
3. Hermann Hirzel (1864-?) : Die Brücke, Inventory # 2659. 1st displayed January 1926. Taken by American troops in 1945. This print was destroyed by being made into a decoupage. I was granted permission to keep it.
4. Rudi Hammer (1882-?): Kölner Dom, Inventory #NI 6562. 1st displayed July 1931. Taken by American troops 1945. Returned 1998. (Too large to copy)
I wanted to return the prints right away but I also wanted to learn the history that surrounded the prints so I could try to understand why and how they entered our lives.
I came up empty on my research after reading volumes of literature concerning the war. I had spent many hours looking at records from the National Archives and the history of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA and A), section of the Office of Military Government of Germany (OMGUS). The stories of plunder, looting and greed by members of the military, art dealers and individuals during the war were incredible. All this research yielded nothing on the history of the prints, the Museum of Leipzig or the Castle Püchau.
My break came this past summer when my sister found my Dad's war time diary while going through some of his old papers. This turned out to be the key I was looking for, a first hand account in his words. I looked at my father's diary many times to try to figure out what he was thinking and if he had access to the art and treasures that was stored at the Castle Püchau. This small green and tattered book that only covered the last months of the war spoke to me about the past and helped me recreate the history that has eluded me for almost 2 years.
This is a recreated war story of my father, 1st Lt. William A. Watson, during the end of World War II and Company "B" of the 369th Medical Battalion, under the command of Capt. James W. Williams, part of the 69th Infantry Division of the United States Army. Its' duty was to tend to the wounded and to evacuate casualties from forward aid stations, saving untold lives. My Dad's company arrived on European shores in January 1945 and over the next 4 months marched to the Elbe River in Germany to meet up with the Russians. This union would mark the end of the war with Germany on May 8, 1945.
The spoils of war go the victors and along the way my Dad's company would acquire, requisition, or take "war trophies" to help ease the conditions of war, weather or greed. It was very common to seek shelter in a home or a barn to escape the bullets or relief from the cold. The soldiers would take anything along the way from weapons, medals, gold, jewellery, and including food or booze. To escape the pressure of war many soldiers would pay children with chocolate and cigarettes to bring them schnapps or whiskey as older adults would trade anything of value for food, sugar or dry goods.
Near the end of the war my Dad's company arrived outside of Leipzig, Germany and on April 21 entered the Castle Püchau compound formerly occupied by the von Hohenthal family.
My Dad's diary completed the story when he wrote about the final two weeks of the war with the following inscriptions:
April 21, 1945: "Moved to Püchau, quartered in medieval castle of Von Hohenthal. What a lay out! First hot bath in a hell of a long time - Mail coming in - no action. What a welcomed rest. Supposed to contact Russians today - still sweating them out."
April 22, 1945: "Same place. No activity. Went up on ramparts tonight and watched our artillery pound the hell out of Eilenburg, GR. White flags were hung out twice."
April 25, 1945: "Quiet - still at Hohenthal. Russians are really slow getting here. Letter from my girl. John Frick visited scene where 70 Poles & Russians were herded into a barn and barn set on fire, those that ran out were shot - May go myself tomorrow - S.S. Troopers - typical."
April 26, 1945: "Went to the slave labour camp today- never will I forget the sight. The camp was near Taucha and was called the Tekla Compound. At last Ivan has made contact, not in force though."
April 28, 1945: "69th got hell for taking Leipzig and meeting Russians ahead of schedule- Time-Life and brass had meeting planned. Radio tells of Germany's offer of unconditional surrender to U.S. and Britain. Celebrated anyway, got nice buzz on. Three letters from Jackie."
May 2, 1945: "Moved to Grosbothen - news of Hitler's death last night."
May 7, 1945: "It's over!! V-E day at last. Corks are popping, 00:41 - 7 May 1945." (V-E Day, Victory in Europe, is officially observed on May 8.)
Now that I have found answers to the mystery of the prints, I am sending them home to where they belong. Dr. Guratzsch, Director of the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig, promised to publish a notice of thanks in their daily newspaper for returning the prints and taking the time to rediscover the history and secrets surrounding them.
I started out to keep a promise to my father and in the process I have been touched by the differences of two cultures. I have been changed forever by the process of repatriating the prints back to the German people and to them I say danke schön. I hope they accept my father's postponed apology. More than anything, now that I finally completed my promise, I wish my Dad was here to share it with me.
Thomas L. Watson
William A. Watson 1919 - 1996
Notes on related subjects:
Alford, Kenneth D. The Spoils of World War II: the American military's role in stealing Europe's treasures. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994.
Feliciano, Hector The Lost Museum: the Nazi conspiracy to steal the world's greatest works of art. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1997.
Nicholas, Lynn H. The rape of Europa: the fate of Europe's treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Random House, 1994.
Letters from Dr. Herwig Guratzsch, Director of the Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany. Dated 1-10-1997 and 11-14-1997.
In March 1945 came the massive push towards the Rhine, when I saw wave after wave of aircraft taking part in this operation. At 2 TAF Main Headquarters alone, some 127,000 groups of traffic were handled by twenty operators during the first 24 hours. The bridgehead expanded slowly, but after 48 hours, the first carrier quad cables had been laid across the river by the 11th Air Formation Signals. Then the 12th Air Formation Signals carried the pairs for the over head route across the Rhine in carrier quad over the wrecked Wesel Railway Bridge, a precarious job more suited to a steeplejack than a lineman.
The push continued until VE-Day, on 8th May 1945, but with the stabilisation that followed the hostilities, the need for AFS services lessened, and the organisation was quickly run down. With in a short time, it was noticed that the Africa Star ribbon was being worn on many uniforms of those posted into various sections, with some sections being disbanded or amalgamated. Many of the younger personnel found themselves at Eindhoven and re-badged as 147 DR Section in the 18th Air Formation Signals Regiment.All our transport was withdrawn, except for a few beat up machines.
As 147 DR, we were based in a building called the "Dommelhuis", near the river Dommel. This was quite civilised, with separate rooms for two or three persons, dinning room and kitchens, where the section cook, `Jock` looked after us. We made some boats out of aircraft drop tanks and used them on the river. (Some chaps have been back to this location and the building is now used as a Staff Training Centre for the Phillips factory)
Shortly what transport we had was withdrawn, although the odd M2O BSA was kept. The reason for this was not long in becoming clear, as in a day or so we had to pack up and move. A few of us were detailed for convoy duty and I was one of them. As it was now July, the weather was good and we moved off through Venlo and devastated areas of Germany to a very small village called Wellingholhassen, near Osnabruck.
Our time was filled with endless "Induction, Compression, Firing Exhaust" films and ABCA lectures whilst waiting for our return to the UK. A run to Osnabruck one day made a change. As most of the Autobahn bridges had been destroyed it was down one side and up the other and hope for the best. If one stopped too long in any one place, you would soon be accosted for cigarettes and the like, although a non-fraternisation order was in force.
What transport we had from other sections at Wellingholhausen was got together and had to be taken to a depot at Hamm, so it meant that we would be on the move again. This location was quite badly damaged and it was strange to see "Woolworth's" demolished, although the name in red and gold was still visible, with burning at the edges.
Time was now getting close for leaving our billet, which was a one time beer house. It was on a corner of the village and I found a primus stove which was in its metal box and could be assembled for use. It came in handy for a brew up: I "liberated" it and still have it today.
The morning for departure arrived and transport took us to the station at Krefield to board a train to Calais and the UK.
23rd March 1945
We were on an Aerodrome in East Anglia, preparing our gliders for Operation Varsity, which was for the purpose of attacking German positions over the Rhine. Our objective was a place called Haminkeln, which was in the vicinity of Wesel. We were carrying a six-pounder anti-tank gun and jeep and including the two pilots there were five of us passengers. After the glider was loaded, the two pilots checked the balance by swinging on the tail. We were surprise to learn that our pilots were Royal Air Force, one a Sergeant and the other an Officer, and they had both recently finished their training in Canada. There was a shortage of army pilots because of the losses at Arnhem.
At the final briefing later we were given the news that the RAF reconnaissance had reported the Germans moving substantial numbers of anti-aircraft guns into our landing area. Did they know we were coming? I was in bed early that night and as I recall, slept well.
24th March 1945
We were up early and after breakfast, we were taken out to the airfield. By now I was beginning to feel slightly apprehensive and was hoping we would have as good a landing as we had in Normandy. They had given us our ration of glucose sweets and horlicks tablets to suck on the flight. We also had our twenty four hour ration packs. We checked the load and made sure the lashings were tight, after which we just waited to take off.
Six-thiry and this is it! We are hooked up to the tug and immediately started to move. In no time we were airborne, and there is absolutely no turning back. Of course there is always the chance that the tow will part before we get to our destination. Just imagine, down in the Channel and survivors leave. I wouldn`t want it to happen.
We circled the airfield, took our place in the train, and headed out. Then settle down to a four hour flight. It was by no means a comfortable ride in one of those gliders. the noise from the wind was very loud, and they were thrown about considerably, especially when they hit an air pocket. They flew either above or below the tug, to miss the slip stream, but occasionally got caught in it.
All the way out I spent my time catnapping and in general chit-chat with my friend. I occasionally checked the lashings on the gun and jeep because I was terrified of them breaking loose and smashing their way out through the nose as we landed, taking our pilots with them.
The next thing to happen was when our friends from the American 17th Airborne Division joined us and flew along side. they had a shorter flight, having taken off from the Continent
I recall passing over a bug city which I think must have been Brussels, and seeing a big garden or park, where flower beds and shrubbery were laid out in beautiful symmetric patterns. Up until now I had tried to shut the landing out of my mind, but now the moment of truth was near. I was beginning to feel very apprehensive and was rather envious of the Paras with their parachutes.
Suddenly there was the Rhine, and beyond it the area seemed to be obscured by a lot of dark mist or smoke. this caused a lot of casualties as the gliders had to land blind and came to grief. Suddenly a lot of flak started to burst around us and some aircraft were hit.
My mate and I sat in the tail section of our glider and strapped ourselves in. From where we were we couldn`t see what was going on outside. Shortly afterwards we cast off from the tug and as we did so there was a big explosion under us which blew a hole in us. My mate said that he had been hit and he had a very nasty wound. My back side was wet and I found I was sitting in a pool of my own blood.
We immediately went into an almost vertical drive, which was the usual approach for a glider. However not knowing what was happening up front, I thought that was us, going straight in. I remember saying to my mate not to worry, because there was nothing we could do, and that we`d had it. I wasn`t scared, petrified yes! but not scared.
I was relieved when I realised that somebody was still driving us. We made a perfect landing in the middle of a huge open area, until our wheels went into a deep trench and stopped us dead. After we were down I noticed that the back of my hand was bleeding where I had dug my fingernails in.
We landed at twenty past ten and there was still a large part of the Brigade to come in. One glider went straight into an orchard on our left and with in a short time we could see German civilians removing bodies and laying them all together on the ground. Another glider, completely engulfed in flames, flew past with the occupants screaming and noises as though they were banging on the sides trying to get out. Oddly enough, it looked as though it was heading for a perfect landing.
There were miracles too. A friend of mine was in a glider which crashed into a compound, and all but him were killed. He was sitting in the tail section, which was separated from the rest of the fuselage, and when he came round he was still strapped in his seat.
There was one thing which has always stuck in my mind. I came across part of a cockpit laying on the road. It must have separated from the rest of the glider in the air, as there was no more wreckage lying around. by the side of it were the bodies of two men, whom I assumed were the glider pilots. the top halves of their bodies were burned black. totally unrecognisable. The bottom halves were untouched. The uniform trousers neatly creased and their boots highly polished.
As soon as we landed we came under heavy fire, so we gathered together as much as we could and took cover in the ditch which had stopped us. It was easy as all we had to do was open the rear door and drop straight in. We found out, we could`nt unload the glider, so it was arranged we would make a dash for it and get help. One of the pilots said that as I was wounded I didn`t need my rifle, and to hand it over. This I refused to do.
Every time we showed ourselves, we were fired on. The nearest cover was about 150 yards away. A group of buildings. Someone said he didn`t think he could make it with his wound, so would I carry his gear? I was carrying all my stuff and his, and he shot past me like a greyhound.
We fetched up at the back of a house, where a group of men were trying to break in. One man stepped back and fired a bursts at the lock with his Sten gun. All that happened was that a piece of debris flew up and cut a gash in his nose. There was a shout from inside, where someone had got in the front and was on his way to open the back door. One of our sergeants was in the loft with a Bren gun, and he asked me to take over.
After a time I had a shell dressing on my wound and was taken, with others, on a jeep to a dressing station in the field. There were a lot of badly wounded men laid out on the grass, one man was shouting at the top of his voice. I could see that the medics were very busy, so I decided to lose myself. I don`t know what happened to me there, but I started to laugh uncontrollably. I wasn`t laughing at anything, it must have been a build up of tension, a relief that I wasn`t as badly hurt as those men.
After that I haven`t much recollection as to what happened. I remember sitting in a corridor by a window in a big house, and being told not to show myself at the window, as several men had been hit by a German sniper as they passed.
Next I remember being in a big farm house, which was full of wounded Americans, British and Germans, all being tended by British and German medics. I was still there when troops of the 52nd Lowland Division arrived. I was then put in an ambulance and driven through a town or city that had been pulverised. I think it must have been Wesel. From there I was flown out in a Dakota to Brussels. When I rejoined my regiment at Bulford they sent me for parachute training, and I rejoined them in Palestine.
I was glad I went on the operation, but I lost a lot of good friends. When I arrived home on leave,, one of my friend`s sisters told me her mother wanted to see me. When I went to see her, she told me she had been notified that my friend had been killed. She said she knew he was alive. I asked her if she had had any of his belongings sent, and she said she had, so I told her she could be sure that he was dead. She never believed it. He was in the 7th Parachute Battalion.
D Mason (Ox & Bucks Regiment)
The following was added by Dennis Egan
I have never met D. Mason to my knowledge, though this does not preclude the fact that we may have passed "like ships in the night" as I well recall the morning of the 23rd March 1945 though do not remember where I was exactly or which day of the week it was, it was dry but overcast and the big city he remembers was Brussels a large park is on the north eastern side on the road to Louvain but it does have other areas of course though he would be going in the right direction.
The "dark mist or smoke" was a prelude to the landing and the Artillery were putting down a pre- landing barrage,one could hear it all even 20 miles away.
I do recall that morning while driving my Jeep also going in the same direction as the aircraft stopping to watch,what seemed to be a, never ending stream of aircraft,some towing gliders British and American just like the Farnham landings but more so,and thinking but for chance I could have been one up there.
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