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Today as I heard the news about four servicewomen killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq, I had to pause and consider the current practice of imbedding journalists right with the front line troops. I sometimes wonder if we would have won WWII if the press had been as involved as they now are! Thinking about incidents I would not have wanted covered and sent to the home folks, I recalled our great warehouse raid.
It was the spring of '45 and we were winding down towards the final days of WWII. We were in Bavaria, chasing fleeing German Army remnants. We were very mobile, part of a task force that included armor and some transportation (truck) company support. Our lead rifle company came upon a five-story warehouse, which was loaded with gourmet delicacies. We later learned that it was there to supply luxuries to the SS officers. Man, did we loot! To the victor belongs the spoils and we were the victors.
We sampled buckets of preserved strawberries, tinned meats, fish, caviar, sardines, peanut butter, jams, canned butter, chocolate, candies, cakes, and wine and cognac, three and five star quality. We stuffed our pockets and field packs, sent for the kitchen trucks and loaded them and stuffed our bedrolls.
I recall helping toss the paper work out of the company field desk so that we had room for more cognac. And we wonder why the statistics and the official records were so full of errors. I recall the company first sergeant and the company clerk, days later, trying to recreate those tossed files. Accuracy was nowhere near as important as our taste buds after months of combat rations.
It took four of us to load a Swiss cheese wheel onto a jeep trailer. Two hundred pounds of Swiss cheese wrapped in canvas shelter halves. When we drove away we were all eating huge slabs of cheese, with mustard and sardines. We attack the cheese's thick rind with our bayonets. It may have been unsanitary but there were darn few self-respecting germs that with associate with our unwashed crowd in those days. Bathing in a helmet liner of cold water was not too inviting. Indelicate as it is to mention body odor I must also admit that so many delicacies, so much cheese resulted in stomachs that rebelled. Symptoms ranged from constipation to diarrhea. We called it the g.i.'s.
After we had everything we could possibly transport, we called the other line companies and then battalion. Everyone repeated the exercise and then called regiment, and before long the warehouse was five floors of empty building, and we were the best-fed convoy in the theater.
We messed up the records, we messed up our stomachs, but we sampled the best Germany had to offer its military elite. We were glad there were no reporters on hand to describe this bizarre experience. For that matter, faced with the question, I might even deny it ever happened.
This was the scene. Our battalion was headed for Munich, rounding up German troops along the way. April 29, 1944 brought about the absolute damnable experience of the entire war. We were ordered to proceed to Dachau and to liberate and secure the concentration camp located there. We didn't know what to expect.
The liberation of Dachau is one of the mostly hotly contested tales of the war, For some reason unknown to me and others, many units that were not even near the place, claim to have been there on April 29, 1945. Let me say here and now that the 45 th Division and a small element from the 42nd Division were the only true liberators. LTC Felix Sparks, now Brigadier General retired, and his Third Battalion of the 157 th Infantry was the liberator. Recalling his experience on the day of the camps liberation, Weiskircher said Lieutenant Colonel Felix Sparks was first to climb up the wall and look around. No one shot at him, so he grabbed myhand and pulled me up. We opened the gates to the camp from the inside.Our I Company penetrated the walls and entered the camp. I was there with the Bn Hqs element. We discovered the boxcars loaded with corpses, the crematory, the labs, the barracks, and the compound with over 30,000 prisoners. They were dead and near dead and diseased and in many cases out of their minds. I won't attempt to recall the details but I will at the conclusion of this account, list several websites where you can read eyewitness accounts including the detailed, brilliant comments of General Sparks.
Click Thumbnails for larger image
This single experience changed my life. I would never have believed that man could be so brutal and inhumane. We didn't linger long in Dachau, it was a rehabilitation task for the medics and the experts and it took months to screen the inmates. The immediate concern was food and medicine and relocation. Repatriation would take months, even years.
Our units moved out to continue the chase towards Munich. Relief came on 8 May 1945 when we got the word that Germany had surrendered. We were in a suburb of Munich.
The Army had a slang term: CHICKEN!
I plead guilty as charged and here's how I turned chicken. It's May 1945 and the war in Europe was about to end. We had just undergone the Dachau liberation ordeal and were temporarily housed in some Munich apartments. I had secured the promise of a class A pass for ten days in London, effective May 12th. I was counting the days until relaxation time. Late on the 7th of May we got the word, first a rumor and then officially confirmed; Germany had surrendered. The war in Europe was over.
Consider the jubilation, the spontaneous explosion of months of pent up agony, frustration, fear and homesickness. We were going home! Wine, whiskey, cognac, beer, whatever passed for a celebration drink flowed like Niagara Falls. Add to that live ammunition and plenty of small arms-ingredients for a dangerous situation.
I was immediately alarmed about the lethal combination so I vowed not to get killed in a post war riot. I had a cot from which I stripped my mattress and sleeping bag and headed for the safety of the root cellar, Chicken, coward, spoilsport, fraidy cat-all of those names and more. But sometime in the middle of the night a drunken reveler on the second floor accidentally fired his rifle and the bullet tore through the floor, the first floor ceiling and lodged in my cot. Had I been there it would have meant serious injury or death. But I was safe and sound, if not very comfortable in my root cellar.
When I awakened in the morning I was surrounded by the rest of the gang, all of who had joined me when the lead began to fly. Chicken was no longer the operative word. Keep safe and head for home was our common goal.
Incidentally I never did get the London trip, instead I was alerted that my group would visit the states on furlough and then be sent to the Pacific Theater. It didn't happen just that way but that's another story.
WWII Recollections - The Reluctant Prisoner
Now where do you suppose a patriotic young Army sergeant would spend Independence Day 1945, after the close of the European conflict? Definitely not at home with loved ones because I was in Germany and they were in the states.
After VE Day my division was relieved from combat assignment and most everyone was reassigned. Some homeward, some to the Pacific theater. I went to the 9th Infantry Division for a few weeks for reasons which I will disclose in future chapters.
I chose to supervise a corps of German prisoners-artisans-craftsmen-journeyman builders; and they were put to work restoring and painting and wiring and plumbing. They were good. We were tolerant victors and fed and treated them well.
On July 3rd I went as usual to the prison site but I rode with a friend while the boys in the motor pool worked on my wheels. The day sped by. I spent most of it unpacking and stacking books. I got lost in reading and awakened to the fact that it was dusk, the place was deserted, locked up tight, I was alone inside without light, heat, phone or food. I had water and a latrine and the clothes on my back. I stayed there alone all night, all day on the 4th, all night again and wasn't freed until the morning of the 5th. That's when you know what hit what! In all fairness I must report that back in the barracks they assumed I had gone somewhere for the holiday. Little did they know.
Sixty years later the memories rate a laugh. Fight an infantry war all over Europe and live to spend Independence Day, alone and in an old German jail.
Early fall I got the word and headed for the US of A. Japan had surrendered and this cleared the way for my discharge. Finally!! Separation came in October 1945. I will never forget the cigarette camps, the staging areas where we awaited return ship orders. It was back to Newport News and a train ride to Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania where the separation was accomplished. Words can't describe my bus trip home and my reunion. My older brother was returned from the Pacific Theater, I was home from the ETO. We were tired, traveled, wounded but alive and thankful that the war was history and we prayed that it be the last. Pause.
It's been called many things and expressed in many ways, things like the quick, the core, the meat, the bottom line, the reason, the rationale, the purpose-or simply put: What's it all about?
You can be sure that this was not the main consideration on the day I came to fully realize what World War II, what America was and is all about. And sixty years later nothing has really changed.
I recall that it was the fall of 1945 and several thousand of us returning soldiers, fresh from the trans-Atlantic journey and the landing at Hampton Roads, Virginia were jammed into old wooden passenger cars on a train headed for Indiantown Gap, Pa. and final discharge from our duration and six war mobilization. We were jubilant, loud, elated. We were anticipating and bragging and planning our homecoming when suddenly, like a lightning bolt, like a flash of electricity, something shushed the crowd. I looked up to find out what happened and saw that everyone was crowded to one side of the car, straining to see the passing landscape. Me too!
There it was, the graphic answer to the question we were not even asking--- Like a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post, like Americana on canvass, was a sandlot softball game. Kids teamed against kids. Kids playing and runningand batting and hooting and hollering. There was the ump, the stray dog; there were the doting parents, the water bucket and the collection hat. It struck us simultaneously!! We had not seen kids play in months, even years. Europe's children had been frightened, some starved and scared and hidden from the Italians, the Germans, the Russians, and yes the English and the Americans and soldiers and war in general. Here in America our kids could and were playing! There were homes and schools and churches and clubs and scouts and life was good; the future bright! Remember this was long before 9-11 and the World Trade Center trauma. We went overseas to keep the war from our shores. We went there so it wouldn't happen here.
History has since repeated itself. Troops have crossed oceans and waged war in Asia and again in Europe and in Afghanistan and the Middle East. At this writing we are at war against terrorists. Battle lines aren't clearly defined today. Goals and missions are less distinct. But when someone thanks me for World War II service or questions what it was like and what it was worth, my thoughts immediately fly to that sandlot softball scene along the railroad tracks. Men and women mobilize for war so that kids can play, that's the American way!
It is time for a pause and to shift gears. The big one was over. I got back to wait in line for cars, nylons, tires, white-shirts, and many more items. I journeyed to the little liberal arts school that held my scholarship open while I fought a war and I encountered and was unhappy with campus-wide clusters of trailers and clotheslines full of diapers. After a few short months respite I headed back to the military where I re-upped and became an Army recruiter. I entered into marriage. I was stationed in my hometown and lived the best of two worlds.
In 1947 I was given a direct commission in the inactive organized reserve. I continued to serve in enlisted status until July of 1950 when I was ordered to active commissioned status as a second lieutenant.
It was during the winter of 1947 or 48, I am uncertain as to the exact date. Harry Truman was in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt was representing the United States at the United Nations and this small town Western Pennsylvanian turned soldier, was serving on Army Recruiting duty. Periodically I was required to work an evening, escort and dispatcher for the weekly shipment of draftees and enlisted off to their first duty base.
I recall that I had my group at the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in downtown Pittsburgh, assembled and awaiting departure. It was a cold, snowy and miserable night. Nothing was on time! While we were waiting there was a stir and some excitement as a group approached us. Our first contact was a couple of secret service men who informed us that Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was approaching. We were told to remain in our group and not to try and contact her. Here they came, leading the group was this tall, fast-striding lady accompanied by bodyguards, Mayor David Lawrence, other local politicians and a few reporters. They were in a hurry to get Mrs. Roosevelt on the train for an engagement in Ohio. Her plane had been forced to land at the Greater Pittsburgh airport and she had decided to continue on by train.
Just as they passed, Mrs. Roosevelt
spied our group of young men and their uniformed escort. She stopped,
changed direction and charged over to question who we were etc. She shook
hands with every single member of the group, commended them for their
service to the country and wished them well. She was impressive, sincere
and delightful. Off she sped followed by her entourage while we stood
their open-mouthed appreciative. This great lady took the time to express
concern for my tyro soldiers and in doing so, gained my respect and admiration.
The Army always taught us that leadership takes many forms; Mrs. Roosevelt
lingers in my memory as a lady and a leader.
There among the roster of the military's finest heroes, is the name Melvin Brown, awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Korea. Melvin, a teenager from Mahaffey, Pa. was an infantry grunt in Korea when he displayed uncommon courage that saved many of his buddies. Melvin was missing in action and finally declared killed in action. But I first heard of Melvin while I was serving as a new second lieutenant on recruiting duty in Altoona, Pa.
From headquarters at Fort Meade, came the morning mail along with orders for me to contact the family of Melvin Brown and issue them on behalf of the president, an invitation to be his guest in Washington, DC. Mr. Truman wanted to present the Medal of Honor, actually the first five of them from Korea, to the families. My orders were detailed, specific and time was of the essence. There was a very graphic, blue memo that said merely this: " Tell this young shave tail to do a good job or dust off his combat boots" and it was signed Van Fleet, as in the Commanding General of Second US Army.
I got a sedan and driver and drove to Mahaffey where I met Mr. And Mrs. Brown. They were proud and sad and confused. Mr. Brown was a retied coal miner. Mrs. Brown was the proud mother of five, Melvin was their youngest. They didn't want a medal; they wanted Melvin alive and home. Neither one had ever traveled very far. But reluctantly, they agreed to go to D.C. and accept the medal for Melvin. Two of their daughters were included in the invitation. Some way it all came together and via sedan and Pullman, we were off to D.C and the Willard Hotel. Here I reported to a colonel who briefed me and then gave me a wad of twenty-dollar bills and told me to see that the Browns were comfortable. This spelled out a new dress and a visit to the beauty parlor for momma and a bottle of scotch and a new tie for papa.
The next day we arrived via sedan at the old State Department building and awaited the entrance of President Truman. I recall they searched every nook and cranny of the building and they chalked off a spot where we could wait. The secret service marked an aisle on the tile floor and told us not to cross the line, not to reach for the president. Respond when he spoke, but keep our distance. It was quite a scene. Five recipient families, plus the Chief of Staff of the Army, The Adjutant General of the Army, the president and his military advisor Major General Vaughn, and a host of dignitaries. Secret service everywhere. The big moment came when "Harry" stopped and met the Browns. He stared directly at me in my shade 33 Ike jacket, noted my butter bar and combat infantry badge and calmly asked me if the Army had screwed up and promoted someone with experience. I stammered that I hope so sir. A little later the ceremony was finished and they were ready to whisk the president away but he was seated along with Mr. Brown and he looked up and said: "You all can wait. There's a black lung compensation bill on my desk and here's a black lung victim. I am doing some personal research."
After we got back to the hotel I was called to see the colonel who asked me what I had done to get into trouble. I was unable to answer. He then told me to stand by in duty uniform at 1900 hrs and be prepared to meet the president. The sedan came and I was taken to the rear of the presidential quarters and ushered upstairs into Harry's presence.
I am being informal because he was in a flannel robe and worn slippers, was seated in a recliner, and was sipping a tall glass of shaved ice and wild turkey. He had a list of questions, scrawled on a yellow pad. He explained that Bess was relaxing elsewhere and Margaret was somewhere playing the piano. He wanted some straight answers, not from the chain of command, but from the ranks. Was his integration program working? How was the morale? What was most needed to improve the soldier's lot? Why did I stay in after the war? How did I get my commission? One rapid-fire question after the other and then a handshake and a thank you and a dismissal. He explained that he had to get up early in the morning as he was teaching the secret service how to jog.
It would seem that President Harry S. Truman never missed an opportunity to do some personal research. One brief encounter was enough to enlist me in his fan club.
Since I was a combat experienced infantryman I expected to head for Korea but uncle saw fit to send me to the Altoona, Pa recruiting station and later to Germany where I served with the 28 th Infantry Division in a NATO mission. Despite long hours of cold war duty and constant alert status training, I was able to revisit old haunts, old friends and even to tour Dachau. I decided to give it up in 1953, came home, separated and entered civilian life. But I joined the Army National Guard, became involved in then on site air defense program and within a few short months I was back in uniform full time, commanding an air defense battery in the Pittsburgh Air Defense.
I stayed with this program in various capacities from 90-millimeter guns to Ajax to Hercules missiles. In 1970 I transferred to the US Army Reserve and became the full time supervisor of a three state recruiting team for the 99 th ARCOM.
I rode this horse until 1978 when the reserve recruiting mission was given to the US Army Recruiting Service. My age prevented my staying with the program so I retired and went to work in civil service status for the Pittsburgh Recruiting District and later transferred to Fort McPherson, Ga. After my guard and reserve tours, I served in the Pennsylvania National Guard in state status and was promoted to brigadier general. My active commands were in the grades of lieutenant through colonel. In November of 1985 I hung it up permanently and became a civilian in fact. You know I have never given up my military outlook or deserted my long and productive career. I call it retirement here in north Georgia but really, one never retires from responsible citizenship. I live now to teach prejudice awareness to the next generation, work to prevent another holocaust, love my wife, love my God and Country. Thank and praise God from whom all blessings flow. God bless America!!!!
Russel R. Weiskircher.
If I learned anything in my 45 years in the Army, including active, reserve, national guard and civil service, it is a great respect for that simple quote: "You ain't seen nothing yet." From initial training early in WWII to final discharge in 1985, military service was a challenging, dynamic experience.
I served with the 157 th Infantry Regiment of the 45 th Infantry Division in Italy, France and Germany, taking part in four invasions, five major campaigns and finally ending up in the heart of Bavaria when Germany surrendered. My two most memorable experiences have to be the battle of the Anzio Beachhead and the liberation of the Dachau Death Camp. In fact the April 1945 exposure to Dachau, so influenced my life that I still expend many hours fighting prejudice and using the Holocaust to teach the inhumanity of hatred and bigotry. I serve on the
Georgia Commission on the Holocaust and several related organizations; the public schools are our main targets. We teach history lest we forget.
After WWII I came home, married and reenlisted. I was commissioned in 1947 in a program designed to promote and use those with combat experience. I served in several theaters, on many posts, in other wars and brush fires. I commanded units from platoon to brigade and served in many diverse staff assignments. I graduated from the Army Command and General Staff College, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and I attended and later taught at the Army War College. The Army also afforded me ample opportunity to pursue a civilian education while in uniform.
My terminal assignment was with the Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson, Ga. This accounts for our discovering White County and our retirement here among so many fine people. Praise God for a wonderful family, a wealth of experience, a faithful wife and a community of friends.
Dr. Russel R. Weiskircher, Ph.D.,
DST, Brigadier General, AUS-Retired.