A Texas Plowboy in Hitler's Backyard
By Andrew Korus
I was drafted into the U.S. Army in November 1942 at 22 years of age. I don't remember the exact day. First there was a physical exam that I passed. My brother Clarence had been called about 6 months earlier but he did not pass the exam. When he received his draft notice, he went on a 2 week binge of drinking whiskey, wine, beer and anything with alcohol. He smoked cigars and cigarettes and didn't eat much. When the Army doctors examined his heart, he had a fast heartbeat and was disqualified.
They gave me one week grace period to get ready, and Clarence drove me to Jourdanton which was the loading site. There were several buses there, and about 25 of us were on my bus. About 17 of them were the local Mexican fellers. On the way to San Antonio they sang songs in Spanish.
When we got to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio they made all of us change into our uniforms. For a week we marched and trained at Ft. Sam. It was a very warm fall week, like it is lots of times before a cold norther blows in.
One day they made us all pack our clothes into a duffel bag and get ready to ship out on a train. They didn't tell us where we were going, but it was called Camp Howze. I had no idea where it was, but somebody in the crowd knew it was somewhere in North Texas. A strong north wind blew in as we were all lined up in the chilling cold, first on trucks, then on a very long train that we rode all night. At daybreak we were crossing through Ft. Worth, and a couple hours later we were at Camp Howze. The ground was covered with a glaze of ice, and the cold north wind cut right through our clothes. Icicles were hanging from the houses.
I didn't have any long underwear in my duffel; nobody did that was from San Antonio. They told us we would get long johns any day. It took two weeks to get them. It was nothing but cold and misery to me. Once the cold had started it didn't let up. I got sick with bronchitis and went to the hospital for a week. When I got out, it was the same cold wind blowing.
We trained, played war on the prairies north and west of the camp. There was lots of little bluestem grass everywhere; some places there were white rocks with sharp edges sticking up. You had to be real careful you didn't trip over them. There were some deep gullies draining into the Red River which separated Oklahoma and Texas. There were always some ammonites sticking out of the banks of the gullies. The soil was black, no sand anywhere. There were some very large oak trees growing in the draws that appeared to be post oaks at first, but actually were burr oaks. The acorns were a lot bigger than post oak acorns.
We trained at Camp Howze until Sept.1943.I was trained for mortars which were sometimes called a stovepipe. There were large ones, 81 mm. and small ones 60 mm. The base was about 3 ft. tall and you usually kneeled beside it to load by dropping a shell in the end. The large shells were about 3' long and 5" in diameter and were usually dismantled into 3 pieces to be carried. The 60 mm shells were about 2' long and 3" in diameter and a single one could be carried by a person.
One day we were told we were shipping out for maneuvers in Louisiana. We loaded in Army trucks and headed east southeast through East Texas. We drove all day. Just a few hours after we left in the morning we were going through pine forests. Late evening we were in Henderson. We parked the trucks and pitched tents in the Piney Woods. There were 2 guys to a tent and it took about 30 minutes to set up. Most of the time, even in the battlefield, the trucks transported our tents. If my partner and I carried it we had to split up the weight half and half.
The people in Henderson threw a big dance that evening until 1 A.M. There were enough young women so everyone could dance, but I didn't dance because all I had were GI shoes with rubber soles that didn't slide on the floor. We slept in the trucks and tents that night.
Next morning we drove to headquarters at Leesville, Louisiana in the cutover country of SW Louisiana. All you could see were black burnt longleaf pine stumps among thick clumps of little bluestem grass. Now all the old growth longleaf pine forests and the animals that live in them are threatened or gone. We walked in this country until the last week of November.
Then we went to Camp Claiborne, La. We trained there all winter. The climate was so pleasant compared to North Texas. It was like South Texas except it rained a lot, which I didn't mind.
In February 1944 we were notified that some of us would be shipped to another army. We went by truck to catch the train which went all the way to Fort Mead, Maryland. We stayed there on the east coast for about a week. I got a pass with a short chubby guy named Claude McNair who was from Tennessee. We took a bus to a beer joint in Baltimore, Maryland and had our pictures taken while raising a glass of wine.
Then we got on liberty ships which were about 300 feet long and sailed for about a week before the water got real rough from a strong northwest wind. Some of the waves looked like they were 30 ft. high, and everybody got seasick. The inside of the boat stunk but we got over it in 3-4 days. About 2 weeks later we sighted the tips of mountains in Spain and Portugal. Through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea sailed our convoy of about a 100 ships. We hugged the North African coast on a route to avoid the Germans. Sometimes we were close enough to make out a town.
A few days later we were attacked by dozens of Germans airplanes but only a few were able to get to our convoy. The shooting and noise were deafening so we stayed below the deck. One bullet went through the ship and hit the pool table in the middle of the recreation room about 11 PM one evening. One bomb fell about 20 ft. from the ship; it made a terrific noise and rocked the ship but there was little damage. The poor sailors had to stay on deck behind the guns and shoot at the planes. Best as I can remember nobody got hit or hurt during that air raid, but the sailors told us they did shoot a couple airplanes down. Nobody knew what happened to the German fellers in them.
We went around Sicily and between Sicily and Italy; it took 28 days to sail from the USA to land at Naples, Italy in March 1944. We were taken to the Fifth Replacement Depot about 20 miles east of there. There was lots of volcanic ash lying in the streets from an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius a few weeks before.
While we were camped there, German airplanes flew over every night to attack Naples. They never bothered us. By the way, the Germans were always called "Jerrys". One night when the Jerry airplanes were returning from attacking Naples, they dropped a big bomb. It tore a hole in the ground 15 ft. across and 5 ft. deep. Rich black soil like our blackland prairie was blown out of the ground. Luckily it hit about a mile east of our camp. The big shots and captain told us the guy had one bomb left that he had to get rid of. Our place was very hard to spot from the air so the bomb was off course.
Still we marched a few days after that. First the company's several hundred men had to see the crater. They kept telling us we would go to combat any day, but March came and went, then April and May. Finally the last part of May we went to combat on Anzio Beach. By the time we arrived, the Jerrys had left. So we dug in where other fellers had dug in before. Their trenches were 4-5 ft. deep with partial roofs made from logs with dirt on top. The area was level, mostly sandy oil with small oak trees about 10 ft. tall. They were sprouts that were cut periodically for firewood. They looked like post oaks except the leaves had more indentations on them. The Italians cooked everything with charcoal.
A silly Polish guy from Pennsylvania found out I could speak Polish too, so he practically moved in with me. We would sit in the trenches speaking the language. All he could laugh and say was that we lived in holes like snakes. He was crazy about hating Texas because he had been on maneuvers there and had been miserable. The maneuvers were held around Bastrop and Smithville and he thought all of Texas was like that. If you are a soft small town Pennsylvania guy that never got hot before, you naturally would not like a hot humid place. But you could be in paradise and if you were in the army you would be miserable anyway.
We camped out there until July. We also had a small place in Naples and would go swimming in the Mediterranean Sea where there were lots of sand bars. It could be dangerous because they weren't always where you thought they should be.
We were told we would go to combat any day; one day we actually did attack but I was always in a safe place. We went through Rome, then north of Rome. Every few days we would go back to sea on small boats. We got used to the rest period. The Jerrys left Italy. We tried to catch the Jerrys and went inland for several days to Rome. After that we went to southern France.
One evening we were loaded on the ship about 4 AM. Shooting had started on the French southern coast. We were lectured about the upcoming events. The beach might be covered by German machine gun fire. Early morning about 7AM we landed near the southern French coast 28 miles west of Toulon which is near Marseilles. We were let out about 300 ft. from the sand in 2 ft. of water. As we walked in it came up to our waists, then became shallow again.
The very pleasant surprise was that not a single shot was fired at us. It was quiet and peaceful. We walked only about 500 ft. inland and hit a road on the edge of a small town. The people came to us greeting, "Vive la France!" There were quite a few young women who tried to kiss us. There were hardly any men. A soldier (who now lives in Florida) Tom Riordan, broke rank and went to kissing them back. Other soldiers had to pull him away; he was getting behind his outfit, but he had fun for a few minutes. That was all young soldiers ever thought about anyway: women.
There were small hills, about 100 ft. high, covered with pine trees. We had to climb them, and I noticed there were red granite rocks sticking out everywhere. After a mile or two, it leveled off. There were large grape vineyards with fully ripe grapes, but they were sour. One of the fellers with me could speak French, and the Frenchmen told him they were wine grapes. They had sweet grapes planted somewhere else, and he got us some to eat.
We walked many miles, but it was like a vacation. We went north with the Rhone River west of us near Grenoble, Lyon, Anney, Maltresd?, Luneville, Strasbourg. No shots were fired at us all day. I think we slept in pup tents that night. We had a field kitchen nearby and went to chow noon and evening.
In southern France we walked and walked and walked. Sometimes we got the chance to ride a Jeep for a few miles. After a few days there was some resistance, and sometimes a stray shell would land near us. About August 16/17 1944 our artillery was firing like crazy at a target. Even though we were in a ditch lots of bullets were going close overhead. The target was a German artillery setup. Later when we went to the target area, the Germans had no protection al all, and it had been suicide for them. There was one direct hit on two Germans moving artillery equipment. All I could see were pieces of clothing and meat laying all around for 20 ft. from the point of impact. The pink sandy soil was covered with blood and what looked like hamburger. I saw some bones, but strangely enough couldn't locate the heads of those fellers, even though their helmets were flattened on one side. I don't know who made the hit; I had been firing the 60 mm mortars much farther behind them. This was my first real combat experience.
Next day we moved farther north and got tied down under lots of German artillery fire. I saw a cow in a meadow dead; another one had shrapnel in it right in the middle of her belly. Blood and dung were oozing out of the wound to the ground, but she was still trying to graze.
We managed to find a nice big barn to escape all the shrapnel flying around. The barn was full of very big cattle, actually oxen, castrated bulls, used to pull or walk behind a plow. One end of the barn was blown off and the other end had a hayloft above the cattle.
We made our camp on the side of the barn without cows and made a small fire out of our ration boxes. They were wax-covered and easily caught fire. We cooked rations using our helmets. They were also good to boil water for coffee. We slept in the barn with artillery firing all night, the ground shaking underneath us. Windows rattled in the French houses.
Next day they found us a target, so for the first time in several days we had a chance to set up our 60 mm mortars; we fired them off and on for hours.
We had to move on the next day, and we walked for a couple of days. Sometimes we dug holes to sit down; other times we would set up our 60 mm and fire 5-10 rounds. Lots of times there were dead cows on the meadows. Often we slept in the French barn haylofts. Sometimes we could see and hear our airplanes flying over to bomb German towns. Occasionally there were lots of airplanes; the sky was covered with them.
One day we were trying to dig in a backyard in a French town when the sergeant told us to get into a nearby barn. It was a two-story barn with hay in the loft on one end that was half full as was the ground floor. There were cattle on one end of the barn also. We had noticed a beautiful little church with a high steeple to our southeast. No sooner had we settled into the barn, maybe three minutes, when a shell came whining into the ground where we had just left. We had a redheaded guy who looked like he was about to cry all the time. He had forgotten his backpack in the hole he had left but after the shell exploded his mess kit was bent with a hole in it and hanging from a tree limb. The rest of his pack was in shreds decorating all the trees.
Later we heard that the enemy had a Frenchmen spying from the church steeple with a walkie talkie who directed the shell at us. The priest told on him and the French police handcuffed him and turned him over to our MPs. You see, they would not direct the shells on the barn because it would destroy it.
The farther we went, the colder it got because we were moving north and winter was approaching. The temperature changed rapidly, and then it got more cloudy. Snow flakes started falling in November and melted.
Finally we got a break in a medium size town well into France. They found us a high-rise French hotel for our rest period. Each army company got a rest period. So we sat around, wrote letters, and some guys stayed drunk the whole time. The kitchen was on the ground floor, and the French people took advantage of that turning it into a regular beer joint, but mostly sold wine.
It must have been about Dec. 1,1944 when we were digging in at a forest near the German border that we heard a loud crack-boom in the tree tops nearby. Then I heard my buddy Bill Hundertmark had been hit in the shoulder with shrapnel He went to an aid station for treatment and did not return to combat while I was there.
I had a lot of problems with diarrhea. I went to the aid station several times for a few days at a time while the medics checked stool samples. They gave me paregoric for it and I went back to combat.
It kept getting hotter and hotter; the farther we went , the more shooting there was. The rifle company had more and more men killed and wounded. About Dec. 15, we weren't getting much sleep anymore. Every time we laid down to sleep, we had to get up to move either forward or back. Finally on Dec. 18 we went all night. We were at the Siegfried line near Litchfield or Lithchenburg, Germany.
I remember being in an old graveyard at 2 AM hugging tombstones to keep from getting hit by bullets. We were finally told to get out of there and go back where we came from. So up the hill we went to a big ditch. It was just breaking daylight as we got 40 ft. from the crest of the hill. Once we crossed over it to the other side we'd be safe. A bunch of guys went over, but as I made a break for it the German machine guns opened up on us. Buck sergeant Woody was behind me. The ledge in front of us was about 3 ft. high, and I had a lot of weight on my shoulders carrying a bunch of 60 mm mortar shells. When I put my left knee on the ledge to make my last hop over the hill, there was hail of bullets all around me, and I felt a sudden terrible stinging in my left leg from my ankle to my knee. The pain was terrible and it took all the energy out of me to get up, but I managed to rollover to the other bank as I gritted my teeth and moaned.
The blood was oozing out, covering my pants cuff; then it froze and stuck and stopped the blood flow. It was just about 32 F.; there were patches of ice and snow on the ground. I think Tom Reardon told Woody, "We need to give Andy Korus first aid." But he didn't thing it was safe right then. "Let's get out of here!" About that time there were more crackling machine gum bullets going by and Woody flipped over, almost on top of me, dead as a door nail. It seemed like he got hit in the back or left side, but they said he was hit in the neck.
George Courlas tells how he and his bunkmate had a lucky mishap that may have saved their lives that same day. He was about 19 and Joe Soldis, a Communist from Brooklyn, was about 40 years old and smoked like a chimney. George didn't like it but he was polite and respected the older man's choice. When they reached the gravesite, it was getting dark and they were told to dig in. Joe was carrying the ammo (60 mm mortars) and George had the barrel of the mortars. They had already had a long day and still had to dig a foxhole for two in the cold and partially frozen ground. They dug and dug in the quiet as the other troops had already turned in for the night. Finally they were able to fall asleep after Joe had a long drag on his Lucky Strike. "Dead" asleep almost, on their deaf ears, as the squad leader gave the order to fall back over and over . They had gone past enemy lines and Company Commanders wanted straight lines. The squad leader Paul Wood was from New Jersey and had recently married prior to his departure from the states.
Some two hours later Big George and Communist Joe awakened to a forest silent and devoid of any American soldiers . They reconnoitered and sure enough all of the squad was gone. Joe wasn't sure which way was rear and which way was front(Germans). George explained the terrain and that the sporadic fire was coming from the Germans.
So they beat feet scared as hell and still not 100 % sure they were headed in the right direction. After a while as they went up a hill with a grove of trees behind it, they were suddenly challenged and George forgot their password! After some very touchy wrangling they were able to convince the guard they were American only to find out that Woody had been killed coming up the same hill they had just traveled over, and that there had been other casualties as well, but he did not realize one of them was me.
The medics wore a white band with a red cross on the arm. Believe it or not the Germans would actually quit shooting at them when they would wave their arms showing the red cross. The German medics also wore red crosses on their arms.
You see, it was a rough game, but not all the time. But in a few instances they would even shoot the medics wearing the red crosses. We had plenty of mean guys in our outfit, too. They told me about their exploits in the hospital.
The hours wore on; the medic was able to get to me a couple of times to give me a shot of morphine to ease the pain. I begged him to give me more, because it was a real relief, and then I could stand it for awhile. But he told me he was afraid he would kill me with a bigger dose.
I guess you heard of the Geneva Convention; they made all kinds of rules to make it easier to fight a war. There was a guy later in the hospital who had his lieutenant's orders to take two German prisoners to headquarters. He bragged that he shot the sons of bitches before he ever got to headquarters where MPs were. He hated the Germans so much, but the Germans could be the same way. You could surrender, hoping you'd go to prison, but instead they might shoot you.
The medics brought a stretcher about 2 hours after I got hit, but the Germans went to shooting at them, so they had to drop the stretcher and jump behind the hill. They decided it was too dangerous, and they would have to wait until dark to get me out. So I lay there all day from daylight until well after dark.
Boy, I remember yet when it got dark, they finally had me on the stretcher walking maybe 200' to an ambulance. It got really quiet on both sides. Then they drove maybe 2-3 miles to a large tent hospital covering 75' X 150'. The place was full of shot guys moaning, and the air was thick with the smell of blood. There were no beds, just cots. A couple off hours later, maybe 9 or 10 PM a doctor and 2 nurses came to my cot and explained they would give me a shot to put me to sleep so they could set the bones in my leg and put on a cast.
When I woke up the next morning in the daylight, I couldn't move my left leg. It had a white plaster cast from the tips of my toes to my crotch. I hardly felt any pain at first, but later when I did it was nothing like when I got shot. My belly was growling and I sure felt hungry all of a sudden. Then they brought pancakes, syrup, and coffee.
Some days I had scrambled eggs or pancakes and eggs. I was in the large hospital tent for 4 days. Then several of us were moved to a hotel in France that was used as a hospital. I was on the 4th floor, 3 guys to a room. One was wounded in the knee. He was a smart Alec from Arkansas named Compton. He was one these guys of strictly English descent who immediately noticed my Polish accent and didn't like me because of it: a real racist! They are afraid of anyone who is a little different from them. I wondered what he would do if I were black or Mexican. In Arkansas at that time there were signs on the road: "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you in this town!"
Believe it or not, this guy told me I reminded him of Fred Rakowitz, who just happened to be my first cousin. He had trained with him. He told me that Fred and I looked just like the Germans in Germany he wanted to kill, so he couldn't stand us. Boy, all hell broke loose then!
Our ward nurse, a man, happened to hear all this conversation. He walked over to Compton and told him he was a big ass and a troublemaker and slapped him in the face. Then he told him that he'd really beat him some more if he didn't stop making trouble with his fellow patients.
It was about Feb. 1945 when they moved us out of that hotel hospital on a French train. It looked like there was about a foot of snow on the ground everywhere in France. We went south for about a day and night. They gave us lots of sleeping pills everywhere we went. I remember the first night I had a nightmare: the Germans slipped up on me and were getting ready to stick a bayonet through me. But I finally woke up, it was morning and were unloading onto an ambulance taking us to another hospital in southern France. There was no snow anymore, and it looked like it was much warmer too.
Boy, I remember: they had a bunch of German prisoners waiting on us. One waiter was tall, polite, and very nice looking. A nurse from Indiana commented that he reminded her of some nice farm boy she knew in the Midwest. My hands were black on the bottom like a dog’s paw from living worse than a dog in combat. That nurse commented about my hands. I wish I had told her that her hands would be like that too if she had to live in a hole in the ground. The black color wouldn't wash off; it was on the skin.
We were there for about a week, then we were loaded on a hospital ship and sailed for about two weeks. I shared a room with a guy who lost a hand and both legs. His legs had been amputated about halfway between the knees and hips. Another soldier was missing a hand, amputated between the wrist and elbow. The feller missing his legs talked about how a shell went through the barn roof and cut his legs off where he was sleeping in the hayloft and then it never exploded. The force knocked him through the hayloft to the floor below, but I don't know how he didn't bleed to death. He was so strong in his arms and chest. They had iron bars on the ceiling of the ship and he could travel around the room like that, but of course the waiter wouldn't let him do that. The waiter was Jewish and it seemed like everybody that wasn't Jewish didn't like the Jews. The reason was they got all the soft jobs and never went into combat. The Jews practically ran the U.S. government and probably still do, but whoa, lookout! Then some Jews decided that they wanted to run the tanks, but the Germans found out and the tanks became deathtraps because they would blowup and catch fire. We sometimes called the tanks "coffins on treadwheels".
The nurse that waited on us was from Polk County in East Texas. One guy was kind of lovesick in my room; he and the nurse would hug and kiss each other quite a bit. Well, they were the only ones that still had legs and could walk.
We were on the ship for 2 weeks and the nurse told us we were very close to the Bermuda Islands and heading into severe thunderstorms for the night. I slept through the whole thing and never heard a thing. We landed on the coast of South Carolina; it looked so beautiful. There were lots of live oak trees with Spanish moss hanging down. The air smelled so good, I wanted to stay there. But my orders were to be shipped out next day to California.
So they loaded us on a C47 and I smelled that sweet air. It was about the 16th of February and I had an ear infection but they didn't give a damn. I was told later I shouldn't have flown; it caused permanent damage to my eardrum. When we got up about 2 miles my ear ached terribly; I could hardly stand the pain. We landed in Mederama, Mississippi, then flew on to Dallas, and we spent the night there. The next day we flew into El Paso, then we flew on to Tarney General Hospital in Palm Springs, California.
There I was with a desert of white sand all around me. It was Feb. 18th; the chinaberry trees were getting leaves and blooming their tiny lavender flowers. Every plant around the hospital was irrigated. I never saw so many flowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies in one place before in my life. Looking east in the distance were the purple hills of the desert, but on the west side was a tall mountain. The clouds would come over it and cover the top third. It had snow on it when I got there, but it slowly melted each day and you could see streams of water running down into gullies. The area there is below sea level.
Finally about April 1945 they took the cast off my leg. They gave me some crutches and told me to try and step on the left leg. It hurt so I had to keep the crutches to walk with but I had to walk every day, no matter how bad it hurt. In May I was told that as soon as I could get around well enough with the crutches I could have a 30 day furlough.
I went home on a train around the first of June.
My brothers Pete and Clarence were having a big time those days driving to Lake Mathis and Corpus Christi to see who could catch the most cat fish. They used trot lines, lots of them. I went with them and Rose Marie, Pete's niece and his wife. We kept catching lots of soft shell turtles and I would clean them. They are delicious and have several kinds of meat; some is like chicken, other like fish. They smell terrible when cleaning them, worse than chicken guts.
I went back in July only to load on the train and go to a camp near L.A. We got paid and I went to town with the fellers to drink beer. When I left the bar I was stewed from the beer and I left my billfold in my pants. In the morning my wallet and all my money about $80.00 was gone. I never did get that purse back. Everybody that did not put his purse under his pillow that night lost his purse.
Then we were shipped to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. I was able to get a loan from the same people that would pay us every month, so I could have fun anyway. I soon found out who the guy was that was stealing that money; he was a redheaded feller from Yorktown, TX. named Krueger. He bought himself a new car and took us driving around San Antonio. Then he needed more money to pay for his car and he was so desperate that he pulled the pillow out from under a guy's head while he was sleeping. Unfortunately for him the guy woke up and promptly reported him to headquarters. He was handcuffed and they found the purse in this pocket. He did not get a discharge but went to prison. There had been so many complaints that he was blamed for all the thefts and the authorities were red-hot.