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Buried Wine in Mud for G.I.'s.
In France many of the villages had places of business where wine, their principal product, was sold by the drink or by the bottle. These little "bars" were quaint, picturesque, and lucrative. I guess the French thought the Americans were suckers because of the little regard they had for their money. When Americans arrived in town, the price of every thing went up.
There was one thing I tried in several of these "wine bars" and the results were always the same. I would ask the waiter if he had any good wine that had been aged for several years. He would say yes, explaining that they had buried their good wine so the Germans could not find it, and that he would have someone go out and dig up a bottle for me. The waiter would then come back to my table with a bottle that still had some dirt sticking to it. He would then wipe the bottle clean before opening it. I am convinced that in the back rooms of these establishments they had a bucket, or some other container, which they filled with dirt. When someone asked for good wine, the waiter or busboy immediately aged a bottle by dipping it into the container of dirt.
Wet Blankets, Drainage for Dugouts, and Shelter Halves.
The weather in France was about the same as our weather in mid-western United States. In November we had cold rainy weather. In December we had occasional freezes that became more severe with the passing of time. As we moved from fall into winter and the ground became saturated with water, it was increasingly hard to keep our little dugouts dry. When we dug our holes, we tried to have them slope downhill in the direction of our feet (where our opening would be). We dug out a small trench on either side at the bottom of our dugout, and we dug a sump hole below the entrance to collect water. Sometimes we would have to get up during the night to dip water from our sumps to keep our dugouts from being flooded.
We covered our dugouts with small logs and dirt exactly as we had done in warmer weather but after that we did something differently; we covered the mounds of dirt with our shelter halves. Even after taking all of these precautions, we frequently got up in the morning wet to our skin.
It may be hard to believe but a person can be wet and still warm in freezing temperature. When wool blankets become damp they seal the outside air from your body and the body heat from two people in a dugout keeps them comfortable. However, when you have to get up the next morning you are completely miserable. I can remember crawling out of my dugout and shaking like a dog when the cold wind would hit me. After one shakes for awhile his body heat and the cold winds dry out his clothing. We would get up, wring the water out of our blankets, and tie them in bundles for one of our jeeps to pick up. That night when a jeep brought up our food we would be given the dirty wet blankets we had left to be picked up that morning.
I learned that while one is out in the fresh air he has no problems with regard to colds and flu no matter how wet and cold he may be. You develop these sicknesses only when you are exposed to their germs and viruses in an enclosed, usually warm, area.
Around for Position.
We spent most of the early winter in the vicinity of Wingen. There was not a lot of fighting for us but every three to five days we would change our position. However, we never moved very far. I sometimes wondered if we were playing musical chairs with the Germans.
Snow Sounded Like Man Walking - Another Sleepless Nite.
A short time later I was out checking the terrain around our area when I stumbled upon something that to me was one of the most sickening things that I saw during the war. It was a German boot; a man's foot was in the boot but there was no body. The man's leg had been severed by artillery fire about half way between the ankle and the knee. Close by was a German SS helmet that looked like it had never been used. I picked up the helmet thinking it would be a good souvenir because of the SS insignia on each side. I sent it back to the kitchen and at the first opportunity I boxed it and sent it to Aretta.
Several years after the war was over I searched the Olmsteads' attic room for my helmet. Most of the things I had sent to Aretta were stored in the attic, but there was no helmet. I asked several times about the helmet but no one knew anything about it.
Many years later after Grandpa Olmstead had passed away, Pat and Bob Phillips were vacationing and they went with Aretta and me to St. Joseph where we joined Grandma, and Judy and Ronnie. After a few drinks and dinner, Grandpa Olmstead became the topic of our conversation. Someone (it may have been Grandma) said "Do you remember the time when Grandpa got soused and he decided to hang that old German helmet in the tree beside our house to see if the birds would nest in it?" I knew then what had happened to my helmet.
We had advanced to a point where the terrain was moderating from mountains to a more level state. German patrols were quite active in our sector so our company dug in almost in a straight line. About 250 yards in front of us, between my platoon and the second platoon, we set up an outpost with three of our men. We remained in this position for two or three days.
About one week before Xmas, 1944, we received word that we would be relieved. We didn't know until our relief units arrived that we were being relieved by elements of the 42nd Infantry Division who had just recently arrived from the States and had never been in combat. As I recall, the 42nd was Douglas MacArthur's World War I Rainbow Division. The trucks that brought the 42nd Division up waited at a safe place behind the lines to carry our units away.
When I saw the 42nd Division coming up to take over our position I was glad that I had been assigned to a unit of seasoned veterans. Each officer had several enlisted men to help him carry his personal equipment. They were loaded with bedrolls and all of those things that one would take into the woods with him to make himself comfortable on a campout.
I don't know how the Germans knew the replacements were green troops, but they did. We had been in position two or three days without a shot being fired. The minute we were out of sight, marching toward the trucks, we heard the Germans open up. One of our stragglers came running up with the news that the three-man outpost had been captured and the line where we had been was under fire.
Several days before Christmas we were sent into a little French town on the German border, just a few miles north of the Swiss border. Our battalion was in reserve, which meant we had to be ready to move out on a moment's notice to some place where trouble had broken out and assistance was needed.
We were happy to have a short rest period, particularly at Christmas time. My platoon was given an old deserted house for our quarters. We were thrilled to be in a place that was heated by an old wood stove (the supply of wood was plentiful) and that had level wooden floors to sleep on. Our company kitchen moved into a house about three blocks up the street from us.
On Christmas Eve morning, I woke up thinking about a nice breakfast, maybe bacon and eggs, and some kind of cereal. The cereal would be a hot cereal such as oatmeal or malted wheat; we never received dry cereal while we were overseas. I dressed for breakfast (put on my steel helmet and threw my rifle over my shoulder - we always slept in our clothing) and headed up the hill toward the kitchen. I became breathless and had to rest several times before I made it to the kitchen. When I arrived I had no appetite so I turned around and headed for the aid station.
They checked me out and found that I had a temperature of 103. The battalion surgeon told me that an ambulance with several men in it would be coming through our town about 6:00 p.m.; this ambulance was heading for the base hospital at Hagenue. The surgeon said he wanted me to be at the aid station by 6:00 to board the ambulance.
A wonderful thing happened late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Our mail usually caught up with us in batches, once or twice a week. On Christmas Eve afternoon our Christmas mail came through. We received Christmas cards, candy, cookies, and other gifts. One or two of my boys received nothing and they must have been terribly hurt.
I knew I couldn't use the stuff I had received so I called my platoon together and distributed my cookies and candy. In the excitement of receiving the Christmas mail, I forgot about the time. Shortly after 6:00 a runner from the aid station came to my house and told me, "The Captain at the aid station told me to tell you to get your ass over here P.D.Q."
When I arrived at the aid station, the ambulance was waiting for me. I apologized to the men for holding them up and we took off for Hagenue.
We drove for what seemed like an eternity (about 4 hours) before we reached Haguenau. On arrival at Haguenau, much to our surprise, the base hospital had been evacuated. No one seemed to know where the hospital had moved to so, after a brief rest stop, the driver took us to the closest hospital, which was located in Epinal. We later learned that due to the German breakthrough in the Ardennes Sector, our lines were being pulled back and spread thinner so as many soldiers as possible could be thrown into the Battle of the Bulge.
When we reached Epinal we were taken to an old unheated building that had once been used by the French cavalry. Each of us was given a cot and three woolen army blankets. There was no electricity so they gave us a few candles for light. I can never remember being as cold as I was that night. If you put two covers over you, the cold came through from the bottom; if you put two covers under you, the cold came through the top.
We had an Irishman by the name of Murphy with us who knew almost every dirty story that had ever been told. We were all in one big room and each of us felt like he was freezing to death. Murphy started telling dirty jokes and we started laughing. This continued with some chatter in between stories until daybreak. This was to be my fourth and last Christmas in the Army, thank God.
Hospital representatives came to take us to our wards and to show us where we would eat breakfast and other meals. The most wonderful thing about the hospital was its warm rooms. I ate a little breakfast and went back to my warm bed.
The hospital staff (American G. I.'s) worked on holidays and weekends the same as they did on weekdays. After all, they had no place to go. On Christmas day they ran a few tests on me and decided that I had pneumonia. This was another of my big breaks while in the service. I never had one iota of pain. I felt short of breath and weak but this was nothing when compared to the physical and physiological discomforts of combat.
During the sixteen days at Epinal I had two turkey dinners, one on Christmas Day and one on New Years Day. I enjoyed each of these meals much more than I had my Thanksgiving dinner in the church at 7:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
Later on when I returned to my unit I learned they had gone through Hell during the sixteen days I was at Epinal.
I was in the hospital some terrible things happened to my company and the rest
of my battalion. The most traumatic was an attack my company made through a minefield
that was covered with German artillery fire. My company was ordered three times
to break through a forested area that the Germans had mined [This
was an attempt to rescue the surrounded 157th Infantry Regiment soldiers near
Reipertswiller, France]. Each time when they got into the mines the artillery
fire would commence. Half of my company was either killed or seriously wounded.
One of my boys told me that he saw a man ahead of him fall forward, directly on
a mine; his body completely disintegrated.
Normally our companies, battalions, regiments, etc. were loosely connected together and if the enemy threatened to, or did make a breakthrough, reserve units were rushed to plug the gap. While I was in the hospital our companies were placed so far apart that an SS Company which had marched all the way from Norway went between two of our companies and, under the cover of darkness, captured our Battalion C.P. I wish I could have been an R.T.U. (Return To Unit) when this happened. I would have liked to meet the German C.O.; he must have been one hell of an officer.
Some of my men who were R.T.U.'s told me what had happened. When the SS Company moved in there were some casualties on both sides. The SS captain (C.O. of the German company) called together his first aid men and the American aid men (my R.T.U.'s said the German captain spoke perfect English). His instructions were: Litter teams were to be assigned by his 1st Sergeant. Each litter would be carried by two men, an American and a German. These men were told to search for wounded men, and they to were pick up the first man they saw, regardless of nationality, and carry him to an old school house that was being converted into a temporary hospital. The German aid men even had large Red Cross signs that they hung on each side of the school building.
My men told me that the German C.O. was about as fair as any officer they had seen. They said an American soldier complained that one of the Germans took his wristwatch; this was something Americans frequently did to German prisoners. The German C.O. had his 1st Sergeant line up the German company in the street. He then asked the American soldier to point out the German soldier who had taken his watch. When the American pointed out the German, the German C.O. took the watch from his soldier and returned it to the American. The German C.O. also turned his man over to the 1st Sergeant for disciplinary measures.
Several days after our Battalion C.P. had been captured, a green unit with little combat experience[274th Infantry Regiment, 70th ID]was sent in to recapture our C.P. This unit had tank support. My men told me that one of the tanks entered the little village and fired one round through the schoolhouse. They said that the German C.O. showed up almost immediately with a white flag in his hand. He walked down the street until he was only a few feet from the tank and demanded to talk to the officer in charge of the tanks. When an American Captain came out, the German Captain read him the riot act. He said, "Do you see that building you just fired on? Do you see the Red Cross signs on all sides of the building? Don't you know that the Red Cross Sign is the international symbol for a hospital?" He went on to tell the American Captain that there were wounded men in the hospital, both American and German. After he had thoroughly chewed out the American Captain, he turned around and walked away. After he turned off on a side street and disappeared, the fighting resumed and eventually the surviving Germans surrendered. I never heard what happened to the German Captain but I hope he survived and lived to a ripe old age. He must have been quite a guy.
All SS officers were not like this one. We later had an experience with an SS Captain who was a real bastard and did not deserve to live. I will tell you about him later when I tell the story of Bliesbruck.
Somewhere along the line as I returned from the Epinal hospital to my company, I was given a new carbine to replace the one I turned in before entering the hospital. It was a beautiful little weapon and it had a feature I had never seen before on a carbine; it had an adjustable rear peep sight. I vowed to keep it clean and well oiled because there were places where a good rifle meant the difference between life and death.
When I returned to our regimental staging area, Bunny Nose Shields was waiting for me in his jeep. I learned later that Bunny Nose (our Supply Officer Battalion S-4) was not there as a favor to me, he had other motives for picking me up.
While I was in the hospital several of our officers were lost. I was told by Hal Weishuhn that Bunny Nose had been told he might have to take over Baker Company's 3rd Platoon (my platoon) if I didn't return soon. Bunny Nose had never had a position in a rifle company and he made no bones about letting it be known that he did not want to lead a rifle platoon.
Bunny Nose stopped at our Battalion C.P. where I told our Battalion Commander (Lt. Colonel Marion Crouse) that Lt. Shields was taking me back to Baker Company.
It was a cold and miserable evening. The sky was overcast and there were four or five inches of snow on the ground. When Bunny Nose dropped me off, it was almost dark. The sky had a grayish look that makes one chill to the bones on a cold winter night.
Bunny Nose drove over a couple of ridges before he stopped. He pointed down a little valley and told me that if I would follow the valley for about 500 yards, I would find my platoon dug in on the south slope. I took off trudging through the snow. When I saw little snow covered mounds in the distance, I knew I had found my platoon. The little mounds looked for all the world like newly dug graves. I felt sick inside; it was as though I had died and gone to Hell.
The first chance that I had I took time to zero in and become familiar with my new carbine with the rear peep sight. I practiced until I became almost as familiar with it as I was with my little Winchester semiautomatic rifle that I used for rabbit and squirrel hunting at home. The carbine was about the same size as my .22 rifle and the bullets were not much bigger, at least not large enough to kick like the 30 caliber ammunition used in the M-1's and Springfield rifles.
I had no targets other than a set of playing cards so I used these for target practice. I got so I could hit a playing card at 50 feet with a fair degree of regularity. While I was in the Service my eyesight was 20/15 in both eyes which, I am sure, helped me when shooting.
I had heard so much about the Maginot and Seigfreid lines that I was quite anxious to see them. The Maginot line, at least where we went through, was a joke. There were individual stone boxes with roofs spaced about 50 yards apart that would permit one or two soldiers at the most to stand and fire their rifles through slots. If I had to defend a position in the area where we were I would have much preferred to have my men on the ground where they would have had some degree of flexibility in moving around. We dug in a short distance beyond the line. This gave me the opportunity to examine several of the little "pill boxes."
After being relieved by elements of the 42nd Division we were taken by truck back into France to prepare for the Rhine crossing. Our Rhine crossing site had already been selected so the upper brass in our division picked out a site in France where the terrain was similar to that in Germany where we were to make the Rhine crossing.
Our regiment was to be placed in several small villages in a bivouac area north of Rambervillers. The town of Romont was selected for our company and Neil Leaverton and I were given the assignment of finding temporary living quarters for our men.
When Neil and I arrived in Romont we stopped at one of the first homes where a young lady came to the door and asked us what we wanted. By using sign language, pointing and grunting, we finally got across to her that we wanted to see the mayor of the village. She told us that she would have her daughter take us to the mayor. She called her daughter into the room and explained to her what we wanted. The daughter went to the front door, put on her wooden shoes, and beckoned us to follow her.
The daughter was between four and five years old and the cutest little girl I had ever seen (up to that time). There were no sidewalks and the dirt streets were covered with mud. As the "little doll" led us through one mud hole after another, she frequently looked back at us and smiled.
I was surprised to learn that the French, or at least part of them, wore wooden shoes just like the people of Holland. When they came into a house they left the wooden shoes just inside the front door. They walked around their homes wearing heavy socks to protect their feet. While I was in Romont I purchased a pair of shoes about the size of those our little angel was wearing; Aretta has these setting on a stand in our combination living and dining room.
When we arrived at the mayor's home we told him the number of men we had that needed sleeping quarters. He immediately called in his city council and in a very short time the rooms we needed were made available for us.
On February 19, two days after our arrival in Romont, training for river crossings began. Engineers brought in their large riverboats and worked with us as we simulated crossings on the Moselle River. This reminded me of the many Missouri River crossings I had made with Irving Adams. There was, however, one big difference: our boat had oars while the engineer's boats had 55 H.P. motors.
While we were preparing for the Rhine crossing replacements began to arrive; our company strength was increased from 50% to approximately 80%. I don't know whether the "powers that be" thought we might lose a large number of men during the river crossing or whether they thought it might be a good idea to beef up our strength so we would have enough men left to make the river crossing when we arrived there. There were several formidable barriers between us and the Rhine river, one of which was the Seigfreid line. As things turned out it was a good thing we were given the "extra" men. We lost approximately 1/5 of our men on our way to the Rhine (at Bliesbruck, Blieskastel, and the Seigfreid Line), and the losses crossing the Rhine reduced our company strength to 50%. It seemed that most of the time that we were in France and Germany our company strength was about 50%. Every time we received replacements, in the next firefight we would lose as many men as we had received. And, most of the men lost would be the most recent replacements received.
Before we left the Romont area we had two dress rehearsals crossing the Moselle River one in daylight and the other in darkness. Little did we know that in about thirty days we would be on the "other" side of the Rhine.
While we were in Romont preparing for the Rhine River crossing there wasn't much to do so, after our daily work in the field was completed, most of us stayed close to the house where we had been assigned living quarters. Little Chief, however, found something to his liking some place in town.
One evening as we were preparing to bed down for the night one of the squad leaders told me that Little Chief was missing. Since none of us had any idea where he might be, we unrolled our bedrolls and went to sleep. A couple of hours later Little Chief ran into our house, grabbed a loaded M-1 rifle, and then ran back to the door. He had gotten drunk some place in town where two M.P.'s picked him up for being drunk and disorderly. Instead of locking him up, the M.P.'s decided to take him back to his company area.
I had never heard Little Chief say more than half a dozen words at a time but that night I found out that when he was drunk and mad he could spit out one string of profanities after another. He pulled back the bolt on the M-1 twice, ejecting two rounds of ammunition, and immediately started cursing the M.P.'s. He alternately cussed and pulled back the M-1's bolt. He called them everything he could think of and told them that he was going to kill them both. When the eighth round ejected, the spring ammo clip ejected, singing as it flew through the air. I immediately shouted for someone to grab him before he could reload the rifle. It took two men to hold him down but it wasn't long before he relaxed and went to sleep. In the meantime the M.P.'s returned to their post.
After a week or ten days at Romont, we were sent back into the line. This was about the time the mad dash for the Rhine River took place. As the various divisions developed spearheads to move forward, thousands of German soldiers were by-passed and all hell broke lose. Rear echelon units such as supply depots and hospitals were subjected to the fire of the enemy and some were actually captured by the Germans. This was a situation that resulted in reserve units being given "mop-up" assignments.
Sometime in mid-March our Battalion was assigned reserve duties and our company was designated the battalion reserve company. We did not look forward to this assignment because we knew we would have to mop up some of the bypassed German units. Sure enough, on March 15 we were told to move in on Bliesbruck, a small village on the Blies River. A German SS company had removed all civilians from Bliesbruck and, their company commander swore, they would not surrender and that they would fight to the last man.
Later on when I discuss my good and bad days in combat I will tell you about the fight for Bliesbruck. I will never forget it. We lost some very good men in two days of fighting and I lost my high and low frequency hearing forever.
On March 17 we moved into an assembly area near Serreguemenes and were advised that the 45th Division would come under Control of the XV Corps.
On March 18 our troops penetrated the German stronghold of Zweibrucken.
On March 20, the 3rd and 45th Divisions joined forces to breach the Seigfreid Line. The Seigfreid and Maginot lines were as different as a 1994 Cadillac and a 1925 Model T Ford. The Seigfreid Line had dragon's teeth to force the bellies of tanks up for a knockout blow, and huge concrete dugouts to house men, artillery, and supplies of all kinds.
had a big shootout between our tanks and self propelled 90 mm. guns, and their
88 mm. cannons. Suddenly there was a breakthrough and when this happened, the
whole line collapsed. I vaguely remember going into one of their vault-like concrete
bunkers. When you looked to the front you could see rows of dragon-teeth. This
line appeared to be impregnable but it was like a chain; when one link was broken
it lost it strength.
On March 24 the 45th Division received orders from the XV Corps to cross the Rhine river at a previously selected point which was between Mainz (to the North) and Worms (to the South). A specific date and time for the crossing was not designated; this was to be announced later. We were advised that at the place where we would cross the river it was 1,000 feet wide and 17 feet deep. The mission of our division was to cross the Rhine river, cut the Gernsheim-Mannheim railroad line, and clean out elements of the Wehrmacht in the Main River valley.
The day of the night before we were scheduled to cross the Rhine our battalion (1st Battalion) was transported to Eppelsheim to await further orders. Shortly after arriving at Eppelsheim we received our orders. We were advised that D-Day was 26 March and that H-Hour was 0230 (2:30 a.m.).
The next morning a Recon unit moved into position on the banks of the Rhine River about one and one-half miles downstream from our crossing area. This outfit prepared a mock river crossing, bringing up boats and all of the other gear needed to cross the river. They were decoys whose mission was to divert attention away from us.
At 2000 hours (8:00 p.m.) Baker company was loaded on trucks and transported to the village of Osthofen. There we debarked and moved by foot to our jump-off site, which was an orchard bordering the Rhine river; this orchard was just a short distance from and to the south of Ibersheim.
We helped the engineers carry boats as close to the river as we dared and then we withdrew back into the orchard. We had over two hourd to wait before jump off so there was nothing we could do except lie down and rest. We were forbidden to talk to each other because this might expose our position; any commands or instructions were to be whispered. Waiting is always stressful if you are waiting to get involved in something with an uncertain outcome. I wanted a cigarette so bad that I could taste it but we were forbidden to use lights of any kind.
While we were waiting we heard the drone of airplanes in the distance. The sound grew louder and louder and before we knew it several German bombers were directly over our heads. When we looked up we could see fire squirting from the exhaust pipes of their gasoline fired motors. The airplanes continued down river but when they passed over the Recon group, all Hell broke loose. I hoped the Recon unit had dug in deep; we never knew what happened to them. For all I know, they may have abandoned their postions after darkness set in.
The Germans dropped scores of antipersonnel bombs. Each of these bombs was filled with smaller bombs much like our hand grenades. When the "mother" bomb exploded, it threw clusters of these "grenades" all around. I could see everything that was going on from my position in the orchard. When the bombs exploded, there were dozens of small flashes that, from where we stood, looked like someone had lit a string of firecrackers. A few seconds after the explosions we could hear a crackling sound like firecrackers exploding in the distance. After the bombers dropped their load, they continued their flight down stream.
After the bombers completed their run, it became quiet again and nothing could be heard except the normal sounds of the night. This, however, did not last long. One of the riflemen in my platoon put the muzzle of his rifle against his foot and pulled the trigger. He immediately started screaming as loud as he could. I was sure every German within ten miles would hear him. I was so mad I could have killed him for endangering not only our mission but also the lives of many of our men. I know that the pain from such a wound must be terrible because this shot breaks many of the small bones in the foot; concurrent with the passing of the bullet is the passage of a large amount of gas from the muzzle blast. A couple of our men drug him back to the Company C.P. No one ever heard from him again.
After Johnson shot himself I held my breath, wondering who might be next. Frequently after one man shoots himself, one or more others get the courage to do the same thing. And, most of them shoot themselves in the foot. Fortunately Johnson's act was a solo; no one else decided to follow suit.
Fifteen minutes before we were to jump off, division artillery opened up with a large barrage about one and one half miles upstream. During this barrage we moved our boats up to the river bank and stood by to jump off. The minute this barrage stopped, we slid our boats into the water and waited for the 157th Infantry's machine guns to commence firing; this was to be the cue for the first wave of boats to shove off for the east bank of the Rhine. The overhead machine gun fire was to protect the first wave of boats as they crossed the river. The first boat to reach the east bank was instructed to launch an amber star cluster flare the minute it made the landing. This was the signal for the machine guns to cease firing. Since no one knew which boat would land first, each boat in the first wave was given a rifle launcher and two amber star cluster flares.
At H+15, about the time the first wave of boats was hitting the beach on the far side, the chemical mortars assigned to Division headquarters commenced firing a concentration of white phosphorous to set the town of Gross Rohrheim on fire. The purpose of this fire was to provide a direction beacon for our troops to follow in the darkness. As I recall, these chemical mortars were 120 mm., 50% larger than the mortars of the infantry's heavy weapon companies.
The river crossing was one of the slickest maneuvers I saw during the war. After a mock river crossing downstream and an artillery barrage upstream, the first four waves of boats crossed in between with no support other than overhead machine gun fire. However, by the time the boats started their fifth round trip across the river, the Germans were able to get two self propelled 88 mm guns into position where they could fire on our men crossing the river.
I had three little men in my platoon: Charlie Feigles, Little Chief, and Frankie Karr. Frankie was like a magnet; he drew metal. When Frankie got his fourth Purple Heart, I thought that was enough and that he should not be expected to expose himself to further bodily harm. One of his wounds resulted in the loss of a finger on his left hand. This was especially serious to him because in civilian life he was a pianist.
A short time before the Rhine crossing I was successful in getting Frankie transferred from our platoon to Battalion Headquarters Company where I thought he would be relatively safe. On the night of the river crossing the rifle companies went first and the headquarters company was among the last to cross. The rifle companies got across with ease but by the time the fifth wave of boats crossed, the Germans had their self-propelled guns in position and fired, striking several of our boats. I often wondered if Johnson's screams had something to do with the German S.P.'s getting into position so quickly. He may have alerted civilians who immediately got into contact with some element of the German Army.
Frankie was in one of the boats hit by the German cannons. He was not hurt badly but this wound was his fifth.
I never saw Frankie again but one of our men returning from some type of leave told me he had seen him. He said that Frankie was driving a truck, delivering Stars and Stripes to the various regimental headquarters. Frankie was a happy go-lucky kid and he told my man that he was thoroughly enjoying his job.
Our landing was on a peninsula that extended out from the east river bank one hundred and fifty yards or so and then paralleled the river for four or five hundred yards down stream. The first and second platoons were given objectives (a bridge and a forested area) that they were supposed to secure immediately after landing and my platoon had been given the assignment of sweeping the peninsula and taking into custody all Germans we found. We captured seven soldiers but it was very difficult to make a thorough search of the grounds in the dark with the relatively few men I had. The moon was out but its light was dimmed by cloud formations. Unfortunately, we missed three German soldiers.
After the Germans were disarmed I instructed one of my non-coms to have one of his men take the prisoners back to the landing site where our company C.P. was being set up. He told me that he would assign the detail to Pvt. John Allota. Lt. Delbert Easten had been George Poschner's platoon sergeant when Poschner lost his legs; he replaced Poschner as platoon leader and received a Battle Field Commision. Easton accompanied me as we swept the peninsula and at the time I turned the prisoners over to Alotta, Easten said he would go back with Alotta; he wanted to go back to the Dog Company C. P. to see what was going on.
Easten and Alotta had hardly gotten away from us when we we heard a Mauser and a burp gun open up. We rushed to them to see what had happened. Instead of there being seven prisoners, there were ten. All were bare headed and weaponless. On the ground were the bodies of Easten and Alotta who had been shot in the back. There was nothing we could do about it but I bet I know what would have happened if the situation had been reversed; the Germans would have killed every one of us. Perhaps I should have given the ten prisoners to Little Chief.
By morning our entire battalion had crossed the Rhine and our rifle companies had spread out on the east bank. The Self Propelled 88's disappeared shortly after we established a beach head. The German S.P.'s, like the American S.P.'s, had very little armament; therefore, the German gun crews had little desire to shoot it out in the dark with a platoon of infantry, particularly if the infantry had bazookas.
Our crossing came after the famous breakthrough at Remagen. I don't know whether we were the 2nd, 3rd, or 10th division to establish a beach head on the other side of the Rhine. Frankly, I don't care.
After crossing the Rhine, the race continued, bypassing tens of thousands of Germans. As we went around one German town, I saw something I had never seen before. It was a night bombing raid, probably conducted by the English since they chose to bomb at night and leave the daytime bombing to the Americans. When the planes came overhead we could hear the drone of the town's sirens and could see their spotlights piercing the night sky. Then the anti-aircraft fire commenced. Every now and then we could see the shadowy outline of a plane. I had never before seen such a display of fireworks. Whether or not any of the planes were hit we didn't know. However, we didn't see any of the planes burning nor did we see any of them come down.
We went into one little town that was completely deserted. About the time we got into the middle of the town, the Germans opened up on us with anti-aircraft fire, probably 20 mm. It was my first and only encounter where anti-aircraft weapons were used against ground troops. We went into some of the houses where we remained until after dark.
The house I went into had a partial basement that had been used for the storage of sauerkraut and other canned goods. I cleared jars and other items off of one of the shelves, climbed up on it, and went to sleep. When I found a place where I felt completely secure, I had no trouble in sleeping. It was exactly the opposite when I was in an exposed position. My sleep was interrupted when a mortar round landed between the back of the house and a rabbit hutch.
After a small barrage of mortar fire, I went out into the back yard to see what damage had been done. I found a rabbit hutch with three dead Angora rabbits in it. I opened the hutch and picked up one of the rabbits. I knew it had been killed by a recent mortar round because its body was still warm and limber.
I walked around to the front of the house and there was one of my runners, Jim Snavely, leisurely walking down the sidewalk. Jim, like some others I had in my platoon, was a fatalist. He believed that the time he would die had been predetermined and that there was nothing anyone could do that would change the time of his meeting with the Grim Reaper. I tried to convince him and others that this was not true, that a person would probably live longer if he exposed himself no more than was necessary.
In the basement of the house I was in I found a bin of potatoes and a crock of eggs. Quite often we found eggs stored in crocks in German houses. They were covered with a milky solution that sealed the eggs so that nothing, not even water, could get into them. I told my men that if they could find something to cover the kitchen windows, we would have a feast of rabbit, potatoes, and eggs after it got dark.
I went out to the rabbit hutch and picked up a rabbit to clean. When I stripped it down, to my amazement, the remainder consisted mostly of bones. There wasn't enough meat on the carcass to feed a mouse. I went back into the house and told my boys, "Sorry, we'll have to settle for potatoes and eggs." I guess the Germans had so little feed that they gave the rabbits only enough to keep them from starving to death.
As we moved across the countryside, for some reason I became constipated. My condition continued for four or five days and I became acutely aware of my problem. We stopped at an abandoned farmhouse that had a big barn stocked with supplies for livestock. In this barn there were several bushels of apples. I hadn't had fresh fruit of any kind for quite some time so I gorged myself, eating four or five apples.
That afternoon we traveled through some big hills (or small mountains) that were, for the most part, covered with trees. I don't remember why, but for some reason I became separated from my platoon. While I was trying to catch up with them I ignored one of the safety rules for a combat soldier; instead of taking a covered route I took a short cut across some barren ground. About the time I reached the center of the barren area, I had to go and there was no waiting. I threw my rifle and my pack to the ground, ripped my trousers open, and assumed the position. I knew I would not be able to control myself and I also knew that if I messed myself up, there was no where that I could go to bathe and get a change of clothing. Just about the time I started to squat, I heard artillery shells coming in. I knew they would land somewhere close to me but there was no way of postponing what I had to do. Two rounds of "smoke" landed across the valley from me, up on the hillside.
Almost immediately after the smoke rounds exploded, I heard the sound of incoming aircraft. I looked up and to my horror I saw three P-51's peeling off and heading directly toward me, or at least I thought they were. As I looked at them I could see little puffs of white smoke coming from their 50 caliber machine guns. A second later I heard the rattling of the 50 caliber slugs as they swept through the wooded area.
I finished up what I had to do and joined my platoon a short time later. I investigated to find out why the P-51's had swept the wooded area. What I found out was, about two miles to the north of us was a little town where an artillery Forward Observer had reported the sighting of German soldiers. The Air Force had been requested to strafe the town; Division artillery had been requested to mark the target with two rounds of smoke when the aircraft arrived. Unfortunately, and for reasons unknown, our Regimental Howitzer Company dropped two rounds of smoke on the hillside across from me at the moment the aircraft was arriving. Since smoke from a howitzer and smoke from a cannon look the same from the air, the aircraft zeroed in on the smoke dropped by our Regimental Howitzer Company.
While we were in Aschaffenburg we found a large warehouse that was almost completely filled with the best Cognac and wines produced in France. Apparently the Germans stole all of the French liquors and wines they could get their hands on and shipped it to Aschaffenburg for subsequent distribution to their armies. We picked up a few bottles of cognac on our way through Aschaffenburg and planned to send our jeeps back for more later on that evening. We thought that after dinner we would be able to load up both jeeps; however, this was not to be. By the time our jeeps got back to the warehouse, M.P.'s were guarding the warehouse and would let no one in. We were always angry when something like this happened; those of us who reaped the harvest had to relinquish it to rear echelon brass who were busy writing each other up for Silver Stars.
As we headed south from Aschaffenburg toward Nuremberg and Munich we passed through some of the most beautiful country in the world. There were areas where mountain ridges were far apart and in between these ridges were beautiful meadows with streams filled with trout. Most of our travel to the south was along roads up on the mountainsides. The higher routes were much safer than those through the valleys where trucks loaded with soldiers could be picked off like sitting ducks.
The Duck was a large amphibious vehicle that was a cross between a truck and a boat. Actually, it looked like a boat on wheels. The pressure of the tires could be changed by the driver. When he approached water, he would deflate the tires and turn his propellers on. When he approached the bank on the other side he would transfer power back to his wheels and would use the deflated tires to pull the Duck out of the water. After he was on firm ground, he would inflate his tires and take off.
Some of the German people in the hills were quite surprised to see a boatload of soldiers coming across their roads.
From our vantage points up in the mountains we could look down and see little German villages spread around in patterns which permitted each village to be of optimum size for craftsmen and small businesses. Also, the villages had to be small so that its inhabitants would not have long walks to their fields. They had no vehicles to ride in; they either walked or rode bicycles.
Each little village was pretty much independent of the others. It usually had a butcher, baker, cobbler, brewer, still, etc. There were no large farms worked by many men like there are in the United States. Each household had several acres where they planted and tended to their crop with hand tools. Each morning they went to their fields carrying hoes, shovels, and rakes over their shoulders.
Most of the western Germans were Catholic. Many of the little farms had religious statuary in their fields. There were small crosses on which statues of Jesus were nailed, statues of Mary, etc. I was quite surprised that so much of Germany was Roman Catholic. I had assumed that the battles between the Germans and French were battles between Protestants and Catholics. When I found out this was not true, I wondered why the Vatican permitted these wars that took tens of thousands of lives.
I remember the first time we crossed the Danube. It was a beautiful spring day that reminded me of the beautiful days we had at home. We were on foot, going around the outskirts of a little village. We felt completely relaxed because there were no German soldiers in our immediate vicinity. As we were walking along one of my men said, as he pointed toward the sky, "Look at that, Lieutenant. Isn't that beautiful?" When I looked up I saw a squadron of B-17's floating along in formation at a very high altitude. As the sun reflected off of the planes, they appeared to be a silvery color. The beauty of the scene quickly changed. As we watched, the planes broke formation and three of the big bombers came down; two were on fire and the third had his tail section blown away. We saw a few parachutes open but most of the men went down with their planes.
A few seconds after the bombers broke formation, we saw what looked like two rockets that leveled off before they reached the ground and quickly disappeared over the horizon. We learned later that we had seen the first true jet airplanes, M.E.-262's (Messerschmidts). They came out of the sun, so as not to be detected, and they fired rockets, not machine guns.
The second time we crossed the Danube was a very sad day for me. A group of Army Engineers had set up landing sites to ferry us across the river. Captain Robertson crossed the river with the first Baker Company platoon. I was bringing up the rear with Dog Company. When I jumped out of my boat on the other side, there was a soldier lying on the ground. When I walked up to see who it was, it was Captain Robertson with a hole in his forehead, right between his eyes.
I felt sick when I saw Robby lying there. He was an extremely likeable person and one of the best officers I had ever known. When I first joined the company John Rahill was the company commander. I didn't realize at the time that Rahill had been given the command of the company because Robby had been shot up in southern France and was forced to spend a considerable amount of time in the hospital. After Rahill was killed, Robby returned to resume command of Baker Company.
By the time my group crossed the river, the first group had moved up the hill into an old building that may have served as someone's castle.
I'm getting ahead of myself so I had better take time to give you some background on the story I am about to tell. Somewhere along the way between Aschafenberg and Nuremberg a stranger joined our company. When he said he wanted to fight Germans, one of our men took him to Captain Robertson. He explained, in broken English, that he was a Polish refugee who had escaped from a German concentration camp. He didn't want any money; all he wanted was a rifle and a helmet, and a chance to kill Germans. Robby gave the young man a rifle and a helmet and from that time forward, Robby was his friend. He loved Robby and I believe he would have gladly given his life for Robby's.
The day we crossed the Danube there was only one shot fired, the one that killed Robby. The group in the first boat told us that immediately after Robby was shot, ten or eleven German soldiers who had been hiding in some bushes a short distance downstream surrendered. They dropped their rifles and helmets, surrendering in the customary German style. One of our sergeants told the Germans to pick up their rifles. He smelled the muzzles of each of the rifles and only one had been fired recently. The Polish boy asked our sergeant if he could have the German. The Polish boy took the German a short distance downstream and made him walk out into water about waist deep. He then called for the German to turn around and face him: when the German turned around the Polish boy unloaded his M-1's clip (eight rounds) into the German's belly.
On our way to Nuremberg there was a period of several days when we hadn't had anything to drink (we really didn't need it but it gave us something to talk about). Several days later we stumbled onto a windfall. One day, during mid afternoon, we stopped at a little village whose still had been destroyed by artillery fire. The owner of the still had a large container of mash that had fermented and was ready for distillation. He told us that we could have the mash if we could find a still to process it. That night we stopped at another little town that had a still but no mash. So, we sent one of the jeeps back to get the mash.
That night we distilled several gallons of schnapps. I had several drinks of the stuff mixed with grapefruit juice and it made me sick to my stomach. I vowed to never again drink something as soon as it came out of a still.
When we arrived in Nuremberg, my platoon was in for a rare treat or, at least, it gave us something to talk about. We were assigned quarters in an old castle that was the real McCoy. The castle had a moat around it. The drawbridge had been replaced with a small permanent structure to bridge the moat. I wish I had pictures of the castle but at that time I didn't have a camera.
Up until our arrival in Nuremberg, I had never shot my P-38. I got it out of storage (in my bedroll) and took it to the moat for target practice. Several weeks earlier I had found a pile of German small arms ammunition, so I filled up a small bag with 9 mm ammunition.
I was surprised at how the P-38 handled. I couldn't hit a bull in the butt with one of our Colt .45 semi-automatic pistols but the P-38 handled almost like my little .22 Hi-Standard I used to hunt with at home. We threw several bottles into the moat and I did quite well in busting them.
While we were at Nuremberg several kids in my platoon who had been foraging around came back to the castle with German Robot cameras. I asked them where they found the cameras and they told me the cameras were in the debris at the railroad station.
Since I had nothing else to do, I decided to try my luck at the railroad station. When I arrived I had two surprises. First, there were several trains in the station that had been bombed to smithereens. You can't believe the devastation caused by 500-pound bombs. Secondly, the word about the cameras had gotten out and it looked like every G.I. in Nuremberg was out looking for a camera. After an exhaustive search, I found a camera. The back of the case was bent and I suspect it had been found several times by G.I.'s who discarded it because of the bent case.
I checked the camera out, decided it would work, and then decided to keep it. However, the camera had no lens. I thought to myself, none of these kids have made a thorough search but I will. So, I started a search between two of the bombed out trains. I picked up everything on the ground and threw it behind me. As I moved forward I came upon some large slabs of wood that were covered with debris. I cleaned off the wood slabs and turned them over to see what, if anything, they covered. When I turned over the third slab, bingo, I had hit the jackpot. Underneath there was a large carton containing probably hundreds of f2 lens for the Robot camera. The lenses were packaged in tubes, four to a tube. I quietly unbuttoned one of the upper buttons on my shirt and slipped three tubes in my shirt. I then stepped back and yelled to some of the kids "Look what I found." I hurriedly backed up to avoid the stampeding G.I.'s.
The Robot camera I found was a model used by the Luftwaffe to verify their kills. These cameras had a longer winding knob than those used by civilians; a single winding would permit the pilot to take sixty pictures of his prey. The f2 lenses I found were ideal for most of the pictures I would take but since I had a dozen of them, I decided to do some trading. I acquired an f2.8 wide-angle lens and an f 4 telescopic lens. I traded or gave away most of the remaining f 2 lenses; however, I still have two or three of them left.
One thing I observed in our trip across Germany was that our tanks were no match for the German tanks. The armor on the German tanks was much thicker, and their 88 mm guns they used had a much higher velocity than our 75 and 76 mm guns. I believe that our tanks were most successful when they moved in mass. When two or three of them supported infantry in an attack, they stayed behind the infantry and supported with overhead fire. This was a great help because they used their cannons to knock out observation posts such as those in church steeples. Also, when tanks appeared on the scene, they had a great psychological effect on the opposing infantry. I know because we were terrified by German tanks.
The only blacks I saw in combat zones were those manning T.D.'s (Tank Destroyers). The T.D.'s had 90 mm cannons that were equal to, or perhaps superior to, the German's 88 mm cannons. One problem with the T.D.'s was they had very little armor. Consequently, they could not have a shootout with the Germans in open terrain. In hilly or rolling country, they often assumed position defilade and sometimes, when this did not afford enough protection, they dug out an area to partially hide their T.D.
There was a lot of criticism of black soldiers when a regiment at Anzio ran and hid when attacked by the Germans. However, I heard nothing but praise for the black kids who manned our T.D.'s.
88 mm Cannons, 120 mm Mortars, Screaming Me-Me's, 40 mm Mortars, Paper Rippers,
Burp Guns, etc.
The Germans had many superior weapons in addition to their tanks. However I will never understand why their riflemen did not have semi-automatic weapons like our M-l rifle. Instead, they carried World War One triple bolt action Mausers.
All of the German automatic weapons had higher cyclic rates than ours, which meant their guns could spit out more bullets per second than ours. We nicknamed their machine guns "Paper Rippers" because of their high cyclic rate. We called their small hand held automatics "Burp Guns".
When people talk about German 88's, they are not talking about one cannon. 88 mm guns were used for tanks, field artillery, anti-aircraft, self-propelled units, etc. The casings and powder charges for these weapons differed; the only thing they had in common was the bore size, which was 88 mm.
The German's mortars differed from those used by American infantry. Their big mortar was bigger than ours (120 mm vs. 80 mm) and their small mortar was smaller than ours (40 mm vs. 60mm). The 120 mm mortar was used extensively against us and was as deadly as their artillery. It came at you from a high trajectory that made it come almost straight down before impacting. These mortar blasts were as frightening as their mines. When they came down there was no forewarning such as you had when artillery rounds were coming in. When a mortar shell drops, you hear a slight "swish" and the explosion follows immediately; you do not have time to drop to the ground. I remember one 120 mm round falling very close to me. I was well within the killing area, however, I was on one side of a large tree and the mortar shell fell on the other side. When things like that happen, you know God is looking out for you.
The Germans sometimes used their 120 mm mortars as psychological weapons. They inserted a whistle in the fins of a mortar shell. When the shell was fired, the whistle made a moaning sound and because of the high trajectory of the shell and the change in air currents the shell went through, the shell made a moaning sound that would wax and wane. When the sound grew louder, you were sure the shell was coming right at you; then the sound would become lower, then higher, then lower, etc. The American soldiers called this shell the "Screaming Me Me".
Late one evening, just as the sun was setting, I was moving my platoon through a beautiful forested area. We came upon a cabin that was undoubtedly some rich German's vacation home. There was a platoon of infantry muddling around the cabin so I went up to them to see what their problem was. They took me inside and showed me. Their Lieutenant had been sitting at a kitchen table in front of a large window, writing a letter. With the sun setting and the thick forest cutting out most of the remaining light, the Lieutenant lit a kerosene or gasoline lantern so he could finish his letter. A German sniper who was hiding in the woods saw the Lieutenant and shot him through the head, killing him immediately.
When something like this happened, there was nothing you could do other than notify your company headquarters what had happened and have them pass this information along to Grave Registration Service.
Ever since I saw this kid lying there (the Lieutenant was probably 22 or 23 years old), I have had a fear of sitting inside a house with the lights on and the shades open. I expect at any time to hear the shattering of glass as a bullet rips through the window. I know this is crazy, but I can't help myself.
We had hardly left the outskirts of Nuremberg when a Hungarian battalion came out of the hills and surrendered to our regiment. They were the sorriest looking group of soldiers I had ever seen. They had no gasoline operated vehicles; every one and every thing they had was horse drawn. Some of them had beds and other furniture in their wagons and almost all had a woman with them. I wondered what fights they had been in and what happened to them after we turned them over to the regimental M.P.'s. I never learned the answers to either of these questions.
The Army continued pressuring the infantry and armored forces to move forward, bypassing secondary units. With situations like this, fighting was sometimes in front of us, in back of us, to the sides, or sometimes all around us. The reserve units were continuing to mop up but new situations developed when the Germans pulled back into the kills when the tanks went by and then came down from the hills to meet our Infantry. The situation was chaotic.
We were being transported by some type of Army vehicle when we stopped to witness the massacre of a German unit. Some of our tanks and T.D.'s were moving through some hilly country when they discovered a German unit travelling along a road in a valley below them. The German unit was entirely horse-drawn.
Our cannons opened fire toward the front and toward the rear of the German column and there was no escape for them; they were boxed in. Simultaneous with the cannon fire, 50 caliber machine guns raked the column backward and forward. Men die rather quietly, but not animals. The horses reared up in the air with their front legs thrashing like those of a dog in water. They expressed their terror by screaming, a shrill scream that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
I have often thought of the mad man Hitler who refused to surrender even though it was obvious that Germany's cause was lost. Had he surrendered, there would have been no massacre of the German troops in the canyon, nor would there have been the loss of lives of tens of thousands of other Germans and Allied troops at sea, on land, and in the air.
There was a man in my platoon, Ron Swafford, who was from Philadelphia. He had been a street car pusher. When passengers boarded the streetcar his job was to push them toward the rear to make room for more passengers.
Ron was a very nervous man and he talked almost continuously. He got on my nerves as well as those of others and I used to think, "Why doesn't he shut up?" One day Ron was killed by a sniper. I thought it ironic that the bullet went through his mouth, exiting from the back of his head. There wasn't a scratch on Ron's face.
We entered Munich by way of the autobahn from the north. Germany experimented with these super-highways before the war; we followed suit after the war was over.
As we came down the autobahn, we saw dozens (maybe hundreds) of ME-262's parked along the highway. The Germans had cut out the brush and small trees underneath the larger trees so the airplanes could be hauled in from the highway and could not be detected from the air. There were narrow gauge railroad tracks paralleling the highway that permitted trainloads of gasoline and munitions to be hauled up to the airplanes. The autobahn was used for takeoffs and landings.
When we saw the many jet planes lined up along the autobahn, it reminded us again of the importance of our Army Air Force to the war effort. The cities that contributed most to the German war effort were bombed almost daily by the Allies; the Americans made the daylight raids and the English flew at night. Unfortunately, many of the civilians had their homes damaged or destroyed by our bombs. I have heard that when one of our airmen was forced to bail out of his airplane over a city he was instructed to surrender to the German military if at all possible. If civilians caught one of one of our airmen, they killed him with pitch forks or anything handy.
Besides destroying most of Germany's munitions production capability, our Air Force also cut off supplies of fuel to the Germans. This was why Germans were using horse drawn equipment in the field and why the ME-262's were parked along the autobahn. Our Air Force made it difficult for the Germans to move anything across their country by destroying rail equipment and railroad centers; they also destroyed all bridges of significance in Germany.
It was a real break for us that the Germans did not develop their jet fighters before their fuel lines were severed. Otherwise, they probably would have destroyed our entire air force and they might very well have won the war. At least, they might have extended the war for several more years.
The Germans fought hard for two or three days before they capitulated; once one of our regiments broke through their line of defense, they crumbled, surrendering in mass. I don't know how many divisions we had at Munich, but there must have been all of the 7th Army. Two of our regiments, the 179th and 180th, went into Munich on April 30th; the 157th veered off to the right and captured Dachau.
One important conquest for our battalion was the Lowenbrau brewery. This was where I drank my first bottle of good German beer. Every little town we went through had its own little brewery but their beer was not good; they did not have enough sugar and malt to make good beer.
Someone in our company picked up a five gallon jug of sweet vermouth. It was more of a liqueur than a wine. I got part of a canteen cup of this stuff and it was pure ambrosia; never before and never since have I tasted anything as smooth as it was. The Italian sweet vermouth has a bitter twang to it but the German vermouth was so smooth that it was like drinking candy.
Although the war was not officially over for several weeks, Munich marked the end of fighting for us. My battalion spent one night in Munich and then went over to Dachau to relieve elements of the 157th Infantry Regiment.
Through Compound by A Young Belgian Prisoner.
My first day at Dachau was an experience never to be forgotten. I had hardly got through the main gate when I met a young man who volunteered to be my guide. He was a Belgian, not very old, maybe 18 or 19.
My unofficial guide was in much better shape than most of the prisoners. He hadn't been in the system as long as most of the others. Also, he was not Jewish. Although most of the prisoners were Jewish, there were some who were not; these were political prisoners. I was fortunate in that my guide spoke almost perfect English.
We started our tour at the main gate. After entering the main gate the first building we came to had a sign that read something like this: "Washen Zimmer," which meant wash room or shower bath. My Belgian guide explained that some prisoners were moved from camp to camp and that when they were moved to a new camp, the first thing that happened was a shower bath followed by a dusting for lice.
We walked into the washen zimmer and it looked like any other shower room only it was bigger and had more shower heads than most. The guide explained that the shower nozzles did not deliver water, instead they pumped poisonous gas into the "shower" chamber. The building consisted of three rooms. At one end was a room, sealed off from the gas, where the people in charge of executions and body handlers stayed. The executioners were, of course, German SS troops and the body handlers were prisoners. The center room was the gas chamber, and the room at the other end of the building was where bodies were stored, prior to cremation.
The guide told me that when a train load of prisoners arrived at the concentration camp a determination was made as to how many available beds there were. If there were 50 more prisoners than beds, 50 of the newly arrived prisoners were gassed.
My guide told me that none of the prisoners were suspicious because all of them expected a bath when they arrived at a new facility. They lined up in front of the washen zimmer and about 20 were herded into the gas chamber. The gas was then turned on and they were executed. A large exhaust fan was turned on that removed the gas from the chamber. The body handlers (prisoners who were forced to do the job) then removed the bodies from the floor and stacked them in the holding room at the other end of the building. The bodies I saw were stacked like bags of feed in a feed mill, each layer of four was stacked 90 degrees from the stack below it.
The remainder of the newcomers, if there were any, were taken to another shower, processed, and then assigned a place to sleep.
The executioners then started up the crematoriums and the body stackers started feeding the bodies into them.
I witnessed a bit of poetic justice, if that is the proper term to use. When the l57th Regiment of the Thunderbirds liberated the camp, some of the SS people ran into the compound to hide. The prisoners mustered enough strength to kill 12 or 13 of these SS soldiers by beating in their heads with any stick, brick, or rock they could find. Most of these prisoners were skin and bones; I don't see how they could have killed their guards, but they did. The bodies of the SS troops were neatly lined up in a row in front of the gas chamber.
As we walked through the camp I could not believe that any human being could treat another human being as had the SS troops. As we walked through the compound I came to the realization that "this is what it was all about". This is why I and several millions of others like me were taken from our homes and loved ones for four years or more, and this is why some of our friends made the ultimate sacrifice. I had wondered at times if it was worth it. After seeing the horrors of Dachau, I knew it was. If we had permitted the madman Hitler to take over the United States, none of the lives of our loved ones would have been worth a plugged nickel to their Nazi captors.
My guide pointed out to me that one trainload of prisoners were left in sealed box cars to die. Our soldiers had pried open the doors to the box cars and inside we could see bodies strewn around in grotesque positions on the floor.
I later learned that Dachau was the first concentration camp of the Germans and it became the pilot after which all other camps were modeled.
I told my guide that people in Munich, 25 miles away, claimed they knew nothing about a concentration camp at Dachau. He said that this was ridiculous, that they had to know. He explained that on the bulletin board was posted a long list of "Do's and Don'ts" for which the penalty for noncompliance was death by hanging. He said that the hangings took place on Sunday afternoon and that each Sunday afternoon, different groups of people from Munich brought box lunches and sat up on a hillside overlooking the prison compound to watch the hangings. He thought that the people who witnessed these hangings surely would have told others about them.
I got to see the prisoners being fed. They received only one meal a day and, as I remember, the meal was served in the morning, before noon. The prisoners lined up in their company streets. Each held a tin cup in his hand. The food servers came down the street dragging a small wagon which held something that looked like a large lard can. Inside the can was "soup"; probably we would use more ingredients for a kettle of soup for our family than the Germans used in making 10 gallons of soup for its prisoners. As the food servers came down the street they put one dipper of diluted soup in each tin cup and gave each prisoner a small chunk of bread to eat with his soup. That was his daily ration.