World War II As I Saw It
Excerpts of Autobiography of John C. Culler
One day in September 1937 when a group of boys arrived at Clemson College, it was impressed very soon that Clemson was a MILITARY school and not just another place of learning. We lived, worked, ate and slept by the BUGLE. When the bugle sounded reveille VERY EARLY in the morning, we hastily slid out of bed, hurriedly put on our clothes, and rushed outside to stand in our designated place in line in the reveille formation to enthusiastically respond to roll call..
Then---4 years later---on June 2, 1941, 347 of the 725 freshmen, who began their college career at Clemson four years before, walked across the stage to receive our diplomas. In addition to the college president, who handed to me a diploma, a Bachelor of Science degree in Agronomy, there were two additional men in military uniform, who each held and presented to me, an additional piece of paper-- first, a commission in the US Army as Second Lieutenant and secondly, ORDERS TO REPORT FOR DUTY to Camp Jackson, Columbia, SC on June 20, 1941, only 18 days later!
For the first time, I fully realized that I was a part of the Army of the United States, that I was under the command of the war Department and that I did not need to look for a job as an agronomist--for which I had studied for four years and had spent an untold amount of money--at least, not in the immediate future!
I was given orders to report to Camp Jackson (now Fort Jackson) for active duty on June 15, 1941 along with many other Clemson graduates including my roommate at Clemson for four years and best friend, Walter (Brotch) Bennett. We were fitted with our uniforms and with our gold bars, which designated our rank. After exhaustive tests and thorough physical examinations, we were issued orders to go to our next duty station. Regretfully, I was sent to Camp Croft--near Spartanburg--and Brotch was sent to a camp in Georgia.
We were assigned new recruits about every fourteen weeks and our mission was to give them basic training (in some areas, called boot training). We prepared them to join a unit that was being trained for combat. The training included such things as sanitation, first aid, disease prevention, body cleanliness, military courtesy, close order drill, care of clothes and all equipment--and numerous other subjects. Much of this was done by the officers in charge of their platoons and was derived from studying and reviewing appropriate field manuals on a day by day basis. There were some training film available and we used it when we could, but small group or individual instruction seemed to work best for us We taught them to disassemble, clean, and reassemble these weapons blindfolded and to fire them with a high degree of accuracy. These included the mortar, 37 mm anti-tank gun, 30 caliber machine gun, 50 caliber machine gun, 45 caliber automatic pistol, 30 caliber rifle fitted with bayonet as well as hand grenades and perhaps others. We taught them how to use the bayonet, how to use the knife and how to creep up on an enemy sentry and dispatch him with no noise or any outcry.
We built an obstacle course and used it to give intense training in overcoming physical obstacles such as jumping over ditches, climbing over walls, and numerous other exercises which improved fitness and getting the body in good physical condition. Many of the features were patterned after football training programs. Of course, all of this included a full field pack and an indispensable rifle. This was deadly serious business as the trainees realized that this was not "fun and games" and that they would likely be using these practices for real--especially bayonet tactics in hand to hand combat--with a real live enemy with no quarters asked or given., and likely, at an early date.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, I went to Winthrop to visit Dusty and Myrtle, my girl friend and sister, respectively. While there, I heard that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I had never heard of this place and, since it was said to be at the Hawaiian Islands and a long way away, I did not give it too much thought. No one else that I talked with seemed too interested, so I didn't get excited about it at all. That is, until I got back to the main gate at Camp Croft! As I approached the gate, I noticed that there were MP's all over the place and several machine guns were aimed down the road. I was waved to stop and a fully armed guard with several others behind him as back-up approached me and firmly ordered me to turn the motor off and get out. They gave me a careful and complete examination to see if I had anything in my pockets and proceeded to look inside and under my car. After they finished, they told me that they were checking to confirm my identification and that I was legitimately authorized to enter the camp. The camp had received instructions from the War Department to be on the alert in case that additional attacks might be made by the Japanese. This action gave us additional impetus to give (and the recruits to receive) as much intensive training as possible.
I remained at this camp until March 1942 when I received orders to go to Camp Jackson (now Fort Jackson) near Columbia, SC to be on the cadre to activate the 77th Infantry Division, which had been on paper only since it had been deactivated shortly after World War I had ended.
I was assigned as platoon leader of the 81 mm. mortar platoon in Company D, 1st Ban., 305th Infantry regiment. There were only officers and NCO's (Non-commissioned officers) present at this time. Everyone there had been in an infantry training center, the National Guard, or an active military unit and had had the training and/or experience necessary to weld a combat unit together. We were issued the supplies and equipment needed to clothe, feed, and arm the privates who were to arrive from training centers such as Camp Croft. When they arrived, we were ready for them and immediately began to give them training necessary to prepare them for combat. This included, first, individual training as a refresher to that which they had received at the previous camp, and secondly, training in squad, platoon, company, battalions, regiment, and finally, in combat team tactics. Officers were moved around to several commands within the battalion area so we would have experience in more than one job in case we had to replace someone who was a casualty in another job. For me, this included machine gun, anti-tank weapons, communication, and executive officer of Company D. This was designated as "heavy weapons" company as opposed to Companies A, B, and C, which were designed as rifle companies. Company D had eight heavy (or water cooled) machine guns and six 81 mm. mortars. Most of the personnel of this company were additionally armed with pistols. Most of the personnel of the other companies were armed with rifles or automatic rifles. In addition, they had several light machine guns and smaller mortars.
COMBAT IN ITALY
We boarded the General Buchner in Norfolk, Virginia and immediately departed. However, the critical situation seemed to justify our speedy departure and early arrival, so we went alone and traveled in a zigzag course at top speed which was well over 25 knots.
In due time we arrived at our previously unannounced destination, Casa Blanca, Morocco and I saw for the first time the devastating destruction caused by bombs. There were at least a dozen blimps with metal cables hanging from each one over the harbor to keep the German planes from getting too close. The city was in shambles with almost no buildings that were not heavily damaged.
A few days later, we moved up to our first mission which initially, was to be a holding force at Minturno, Italy. When I finally reached my new company about two hours later, I received orders to reconnoiter the next ridge to be sure there were no enemy emplacements there that might threaten a road in the valley that was needed to haul ammunition and supplies to the adjacent units. It was thought to be unoccupied When we got about half way, the whole place exploded and we were under very heavy fire: artillery, mortars, machine guns as well as rifles. Everyone immediately hit the ground and tried to get any protection available, as this was our procedure under these conditions. I saw a shallow path--probably made by cows--and crawled to it. This, I hoped, would give me just a little more protection, but a bullet or a piece of shrapnel hit the lower left side of my back and emerged from my right shoulder. This happened about ten feet from an abandoned German observation point--a hole dug into the side of the hill about 10 ft. x 10 ft. and about 4 ft. in height with a concrete reinforced wall on the front side. It was so thoroughly camouflaged that it was not recognizable more than 20 yards away. One of the men in my company had gotten inside and he saw that I had been wounded. He found a wooden ladder inside and pushed it towards me. He told me that he would pull me inside if I could get on top of the ladder. I was able to do this and he gave me firstaid to stop the worst of the bleeding. There was another who was killed outright and I never found out how many other casualties there were. I had charge of this company less than one hour when this happened. I found out later that the 2nd Battalion was used to take this hill that was thought to be unoccupied and had to be covered with smoke so they could advance.
I was taken by stretcher later that afternoon to the Battalion Aid Station for examination and treatment. They did not know the extent of my injuries, so they put me on my face and started cutting at my pants cuff and ended up at the back of my neck. After giving me some pain medicine, putting on a bandage, and wrapping a blanket around me, they put me on a stretcher connected in a sideways position to the hood of a jeep.
They must have told the driver to hurry, for he took off at breakneck speed. Further down the road, my blanket blew off and wrapped around his head. There was another man who had an arm injury riding beside him who was able to hold the steering wheel and guide the jeep until the driver could extricate himself from the blanket. But in the meantime, there I was stark naked tied to the stretcher mounted to the hood of that jeep. Fortunately, it was summer and it is very warm in Italy, so really it was not so bad, and it could have been much worse.
After having spent about two months in General Hospital located near Naples, I was returned to duty with my former unit and assigned the job of liaison officer from regiment to first battalion. One afternoon, I accompanied most of the forward elements of the battalion on a single file march up a mountain. We were led by an Italian guide who lived in this area and was familiar with the terrain. We arrived at the crest of the mountain just before night (as planned) and proceeded to set up machine gun final protective lines and zeroed the 81 mm mortars on their aiming stakes so they could deliver a massive barrage of high explosive shells upon short notice on the area suspected to be occupied by the enemy unit. Everyone dug his foxhole and an interior and exterior guard was set up as usual so we would be prepared for anything that might come up. We had reports that a German unit of company strength was in the valley just beyond and our mission was to destroy or capture them. As soon as daylight came and I could see to take stock of the things the next morning that the regimental commander might need to know, I left on foot to return to the regimental headquarters. I had the option of taking several men to accompany me to provide protection or to try to sneak back alone.
Fortunately, I chose the latter as I was ambushed by a German patrol which likely would have fired first and asked questions later if I had not been alone.
KREIGSGEFANGENENLAGER IN DEUTSCHLAND
STALAG VII-A, GERMANY
Several days later, we arrived in Mooseburg, near Munich, and were trucked to Stalag VII-A, which was to be home for the next three months.
In Stalag VII-A, we were housed in a concrete barrack with wood and concrete floors. There were no heaters except for a small ceramic cooking stove. The "abort" was outside and about 50 yards from the barrack. It consisted of a concrete building with a concrete floor and with 16 wooden square "seats" or holes. This was a long trip on a cold windy night! Most of us had to make several trips each night, probably because of our unusual diet. (This was a far cry from the conditions of our resorts or so-called prisons today that we provide our lawbreakers).
In the past I had heard and read of tales of ESP or extrasensory perception, so I determined that I would make an attempt to try it out. Therefore, I chose a time that I felt that Mary would be going to bed and I concentrated on three words: I AM OK. I shouted them out (in my mind) numerous times as I had understood was the proper procedure. Later, we discussed this and she said that at time I had been reported as missing in action. Also, at the exact date and time that, somehow, all of a sudden she experienced a feeling that all was well with me, and subsequently, she became disturbed and angry when others would attempt to console her (apparently, to give her some preparation that I might not return). (See an additional statement relative to this in the EPILOGUE concerning Daddy.)
An announcement was made on Christmas Eve that all Catholics were invited to attend the Christmas mass at a local church. Even though I had been a Methodist for many years, I "joined" the Catholic Church that night since I had not been out of the wire fence for almost three months. We hiked about two miles to the church and attended the services and took communion.
Consequently, we had a perpetual case of cold feet. To counteract this, I would put several fist-sized rocks in the ashes of the cook stove at night and transfer them to a sock which I kept in the foot of my bed. This worked very well until the day after Christmas when we had an unannounced shakedown inspection by the "SS" troop (roughly comparable to our FBI), who found a spool of wire in my neighbor's bed, a compass in mine, as well as my sock full of rocks. (My neighbor and I had given a guard some cigarettes for about a bushel of radio parts so we could clandestinely make a radio. Fortunately, they did not find this stuff.) One of the SS Troopers swung my sock around his head while excitedly exclaiming, in German, "WHAT IS THIS, A WEAPON!" They confiscated my sock which left me with three (or 1 1/2 pairs) of socks. For the next five months I had to wash one sock each day and change each foot every other day. I never knew whether it was as a result of the inspection that they separated us, or whether they had made plans earlier to send me and about 30 others to another camp. However, the next day we were taken to the railroad station and put on a 40 & 8 boxcar on a train that was going in an easterly direction, to where, we knew not. We were crowded in one-half of the box car and separated from the six guards by a wire fence across the width of the car.
After about a week-long train ride from Stalag VII-A, near Mooseburg in the crowded boxcar, with waste running out of the wooden box furnished for a toilet, and with very little food, we finally arrived at Camp Oflag 64, at Schubin (Altbergan), Poland, on the Noteac River. We joined a group of about 500 US Officers quartered in several nice buildings which in earlier days had been a Polish girls' college.
Each night, we posted interior guards around our quarters so we would be warned of unscheduled visits by the German guards while we gathered together to hear the "bird"--a reading of the current news from BBC in London. Earlier each day, one of us would copy the news from the clandestine radio hidden in one of the buildings. Later, we would meet with a representative from each room to pass it on to be read that evening to the entire group. The group could have been disbanded almost instantly if an undesired visitor were to approach the building. Since at that time I was proficient in copying shorthand, I was suited to do this job, so I handled it for my group. Of course, this was done without the knowledge of the guards. I dont know what would have been the consequences if we had been detected.
One night during the last week of January, 1945, during a blizzard, we were advised that we would leave Oflag 64 early the next morning to hike ten miles to Essen, Poland. We were meeting a train which would transport us into Germany and save us from recapture (or release) by the rapidly advancing Russian Army. We bundled up with all the clothes (and meager possessions) we had. We put any food that we had "squirreled" into our pockets and prepared to go. Shortly after we left the dormitory, my group came upon a one-horse wagon near the edge of the road. Several of us took a chance of being shot and broke ranks to pull the wagon into the column. We piled our paraphernalia on the wagon and took turns pushing and pulling. This was much easier than carrying our stuff in our hands or on our backs. Several, who were in poor physical condition, were allowed to ride.
Our guards were older and in poorer physical condition than we were. They were too old to be in the army and really to guard us strictly. Therefore, we took frequent rest breaks. It was imperative, though, that we not fall behind. On several occasions, someone who was unable to get up after the break would fall behind, and soon we would hear rifle shots. This was out of our sight, but we could only assume the worst. Therefore, we tried to help each other in any way we could.
After about fourteen days of marching in the snow, which melted some each day and soaked through our shoes, we were told that there was some transportation available for those with problems. A German doctor came to examine us, the he to selected those who needed to be transported. When he saw my feet he sent me to the depot where there were two 40 & 8's made available for us. I was reluctant to go, because we had heard rumors of the treatment that was given to the Jews in Germany and feared that this might be a one way trip for us. However, considering the condition of my feet, and the shots that we had heard at the rear of our unit earlier, I felt that I would have a lesser chance of survival if I did not get on the train. The two cars were loaded with 12of us plus a guard on each car.
Some of the civilians mentioned earlier had gotten on the train too. They were inside, on top of, and hanging onto any place they could. Every time the train stopped, everyone got off to respond to the demands of nature at the nearest spot, male and female, young and old, with privacy completely ignored, of course. When I see TV reports of mass migration and civilian abuse, I shudder as this brings to mind the conditions I experienced.
Our next camp was Stalag III-A near Luckenwalde, located about 50 kilometers south of Berlin. The conditions here were much the same as my first camp, Stalag VII-A. We received Red Cross Parcels from England, Australia, Finland and Denmark, but the regularity (or irregularity) was about the same.
The entire Norwegian army was in the compound next to ours. We were separated by a barbed wire fence. It seemed that they were taken prisoner directly from their homes and military bases in Norway without a shot being fired. They spent the entire period of the war in this camp. This information came from them. I have not tried to confirm it since the war ended. Officers from England, France and Yugoslavia were in the compound with us. The Senior Officer here was American, so we took turns cleaning our area our way rather than in the unseemly way it was handled by the British officer earlier in VII-A.
Early one Sunday morning after the usual appel or roll call and bed check to see if all were present or accounted for, we were marched in the usual column of fives to the railway station at Luckenwalde--about two or three miles away--and stopped near the railroad tracks. We waited there for several hours and then, with no explanation nor comment, we were marched back to our quarters. We found out later that we were to have been transported by rail to Bertzgarten (a strong point in an inaccessible strongly held fortification in a mountainous area) to be held as hostages for more favorable peace terms. Fortunately, at this time a bridge over a river was bombed and their unscrupulous plans were nullified.
Usually, our guards followed their schedule of activities meticulously and we could count on their serving meals, conducting roll calls, making inspections etc. with precise timing. However, one morning early in April, they called for us to assemble on the grounds where roll call was always held. We could not imagine what was going to happen, especially, when the camp commander, whom we rarely saw, entered all dressed up in his finest uniform. He walked in front of us. Then, with noticeable stress in his voice, which was unusual for him, he announced that President Franklin Roosevelt had died. He offered his condolences to us and stated that he, as well as all Germans, regretted this as they felt that he was reasonable and just in his actions and attitudes. He said that Germany might not fare so well after the war ended with another as our leader. This was the first time that he or any of our guards had indicated that they felt that they would not win.
On the night of April 24, 1945, the German guards abandoned the camp. Our "interior guards" consisted of ourselves being formed into quasi-military units in secret from our captors to do whatever might be needed. When the Germans abandoned the camp, we received instructions from our senior officer to do certain things. He had had various options planned well in advance. Therefore, at this time, we assumed control of the camp. My job was to be a guard at a gate. I had to advise (but, specifically not attempt to enforce) anyone desiring to leave the camp that he would be better off if he remained inside the camp until contact was made with friendly forces. Most heeded the warning, but a good many ignored it and left. I never heard how they fared.
The next morning a Russian Tank Company came to the camp and assumed command. Since they, supposedly, were friendly, we made no objections. We were not in any position to do anything else, especially, when they began to supply us with food. Food to a truly hungry person is enormously more important than it is to one who is not hungry! When you are hungry, you will do a lot of things that you would not do otherwise. I know this, personally, because I have been there! We found out later that the food came from German stores and that the large quantity of milk the first day, and the beef the next day, came from a nearby dairy farm. The Russians took all the milk the first day. When they went back the next day, the farmer resisted. They killed him and brought all his cows to us for food. Of course, we were glad to get meat to eat, but, even though we were hungry, we abhorred the methods they used to secure it.
The tank company CO was female. Several days later, two platoons of US Army 2 1/2 ton trucks arrived and, of course, we all quickly piled on. I was a little slow because my feet had not healed from their exposure in the snow earlier, and I had to go almost to the last truck before I could find a space. Shortly after I got on the truck, the last few trucks (including the one that I was on) turned around in the roadway and sped away at top speed. When we arrived at Magdeburg, Germany, we found that the platoon leader of the second platoon of trucks had been in the Russian CP and had overheard orders given in Russian language for the trucks to be unloaded and everyone to be returned to the camp. Upon hearing this, he quickly returned to his trucks and ordered the hasty departure. The platoon leader of the first platoon of trucks was not aware of the orders and, therefore, the POW's on the remaining trucks were required to offload and return to the camp.
At Magdeburg, we were welcomed by an American Quartermaster unit and given a good meal, a good hot shower and clean clothes. I also got a chance to write v-mail letters to my wife and parents. The next day we went to Rheims on a C-47.
A NBC news reporter met the plane asked if I would answer some questions. He made a recording of his questions and my answers. This record was later played on WIS radio in Columbia. (They notified my family in advance and, subsequently, mailed the record to them. We still have this record and I have made an audio cassette of it.) We went by train from Rheims to Camp Lucky Strike near LeHavre, France, where we waited for about 30 days for a ship which seemed to take forever to come. I tried to call home numerous times. I tried to send word by some who went ahead of me. I wrote letters, and I tried everything I could think of to contact my family, without success. I had not heard anything from anyone for nearly eight months and was extremely anxious to hear something of them. Some others had gotten mail, but, since I had been in three camps, my mail had not gotten through. We heard that it had to be censored and that the Germans burned it when they got behind in their censoring. (This was not confirmed, but I have little doubt of its accuracy judging by other happenings during this period.)
Finally, about four weeks after we had left Stalag III-A in haste on the trucks, our fellow-POWS caught up with us.
Finally, my turn to go home came and, of all things, I boarded the General Buchner, on the same ship in the same room I had occupied some 16 months earlier en route from Norfolk, VA to Casablanca under much different circumstances.
Immediately after my arrival in Norfolk, I called a next-door neighbor at home--neither my wife nor my parents had a telephone at that time. This was the first contact with them I had since the day of my capture--a period of eight months. I had not received any of the numerous letters and packages they had sent. She knew most of my family and she told me that everyone was OK except that Jack had been very ill.
Every Wednesday night beginning when the Japs attacked Pear Harbor and ending when the war was over, my parents and numerous others attended a prayer service for the men and women from Limestone Methodist Church who were in military service. Daddy either led the service or participated in it every Wednesday without exception. There were 27 from Limestone, who were in service, and there were 27 who returned home. This tells something of the power of prayer. Some stayed in the United States, some went to Europe, some went to the Pacific Area, some were in the Navy and some were in the Air Corps. Several were wounded and/or spent time in prisoner-of-war camps. Some returned in worse condition than others--but ALL returned. THANKS BE TO GOD.
Our flag and our National Anthem are symbols which represent our country and I strongly feel that we should honor them with due respect. It hurts me deeply to see people at our ball games and parades fail to show proper honor and respect when THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER is played and when our COLORS pass in review. I hope that each who reads this will, from this time forward, resolve to manifest his allegiance to his country in the appropriate manner at every opportunity.
THINK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU,
BUT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY
IF IT IS TO BE
IT IS UP TO ME
FROM THE BEGINNING---TO ETERNITY
In the bulb there is a flower:
In the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise:
Butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter
There's a spring that waits to be
UNREVEALED UNTIL ITS SEASON,
SOMETHING GOD ALONE CAN SEE.
There's a song in every silence,
seeking word and melody;
There's a dawn in every darkness,
Bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future;
What it holds, a mystery,
UNREVEALED UNTIL ITS SEASON,
SOMETHING GOD ALONE CAN SEE.
In our end is our beginning;
In our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing;
In our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection;
At last, a victory,
UNREVEALED UNTIL ITS SEASON,
SOMETHING GOD ALONE CAN SEE.
The entire booklet,WWII AS I SAW IT,consists of about 45 pages. If you would care to
read it in its entirety, I have placed copies in the Lexington County Library, Lexington,
SC, in the Lexington United Methodist Church and in Lexington High School Library.
However, if you would like a copy by email, I will send it to you for $1 for any one part
or $3 for the entire document. Be sure to put your email address on the check.
John C. Culler, 124 Autumn Lane, Lexington, SC 29072
A Copyright is being applied for.
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