Biography of Victor J. "Baseplate" Miller
Sgt., Co. E, 5th Ranger Battalion, U.S.A.
My Life With the Rangers
by Victor J. 'Baseplate' Miller
Chapter 1. I Join the Rangers
"All you men interested in being Rangers, report to the Orderly Room for your papers for your interview" said our 1st Sgt. at reveille one morning in September of 1943. I had no idea what he was speaking of, but several obviously did for they went. At noon when they returned, they related how a Ranger Battalion was being formed. It would have a few weeks training and then would go overseas. It would be in on 'The Big One'. That sounded good, and my buddy Harry Vogler and I looked at each other. 'Let's go, V.J." and I said: "All right, Harry J. Let's go!" We went that afternoon for the interview and, perhaps surprisingly, were chosen.
Within days we were on a truck heading for the railway station and Tullahoma, Tennessee. We volunteered for various reasons. One friend handed me a letter to read as we rode. It was from a doctor's wife who had always wanted to have a baby by my friend! She was now pregnant, and he was leaving town as fast as he could! Harry and I simply didn't like the idea of training another group of trainees and not getting into fighting for many more months. That may sound silly today; but if I was going to be in the war, I wanted to be in the most exciting part of it!
Tullahoma was a time of intense action. We were trying to be good enough to make the Rangers, and we had a tremendous amount of work and training to do. I was a Sgt., soon a S/Sgt., and had expected to be only a private in the Rangers. Instead, I was given a special weapons section which was composed of two squads of five men each. We had .30 caliber light (air-cooled) machine guns and 60 millimeter mortars. These were my specialty from my basic training, although we had used 80 millimeter mortars and heavy (water-cooled) machine guns. Our new equipment was heavily coated with cosmoline, and we spent a great deal of time trying to get them cleaned off and operating. We even got a special rifle from the Canadian army, the Boyce (or Boy's) anti-tank rifle, .55 caliber! It had a bipod in front and heavy padding for the butt plate for your shoulder, and fired its armor-piercing bullet while you were in a prone position. After firing it once, you had to crawl forward a few inches to get back to where you were. It had quite a recoil.
We did have training in everything as well as our specialty of mortars and machine guns. One day we practiced throwing hand grenades until there was only one left. Eddie Neuman and I began to argue over which one of us should throw it. Finally 1st. Sgt. Sandy Martin Jr. made the decision. "Neuman, pull the pin and throw it to Miller and let him throw it!". Yes! Neuman pulled the pin and tossed it to me. One is supposed to have five seconds after the handle is released, but you may not! It seemed an eternity for the smoking object to reach me. I didn't waste time in throwing it forward into the pit. I wouldn't repeat that in the present time! One fumbled catch and we would have all been gone.
Physical training was intense. One day on a cross-country march I sprained my ankle quite badly. I didn't want to go on sick call and see the doctor, so I went to a medic that night. He had me soak it and then taped it so tightly I couldn't even bend it! Unfortunately, the next day we went on another cross-country hike. I had little control of that foot, and tumbled down several steep slopes on our journey! I didn't want to be one of those culled out of the group.
One morning they issued us new fighting knives and sent us out to practice on each other! I guess we did practice diligently, for I got my left hand gashed pretty badly by Newman as we struggled. I think I was fifth in line to get the wound sewed up at our medical office! We in special weapons had so much to do that we missed quite a bit of bayonet training and some of the other activities such as enough swimming to stay afloat. Our first Company Commander, Lt. Pepper, reportedly led the men of our company and jumped right into deep water. It was then it became apparent that he couldn't swim at all and they fished him out!
I believe my one outing from camp was a week-end in Nashville when my mother and sister (anyone else?) came by train to visit me. Sis, Vera Lee, tells how as they waited for the train in Evansville, Indiana, Mom suddenly ran off down the tracks! She couldn't understand what was happening till Mom retrieved her hat which had been blown off by a passing train. One memento from that week-end is a newspaper front page which had the day's news, but for a fee they inserted the column headed with your name: "Sgt. Victor Miller Here, Girls Going Wild!" followed by a short generic description of this 'hero'. A neighbor girl baby-sitting for us once found this which I had sent to my best girl of the time, now my wife. She excitedly called her mother who was playing bridge in the group and asked: "Mother! Did you know Dr. Miller was a hero?" Her mother just told her to get out of our scrap book!
After being shaped into a cohesive group in about six weeks, we moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, and amphibious rubber boat training for assault landings. We lived at a camp on one of the keys, or off-shore islands , there. It was run by the navy and was considered a ship, which allowed men to salute only once a day rather than each time they met an officer. I've wondered about the navy ever since-can't tell the difference between an island and a ship!
We were hardly dry the two weeks we trained there. Launching a 7-man rubber boat into an ocean seems like a simple task. Ha! It was tremendously frustrating. The scheme is to have three men on each side, each holding a rope loop attached to the boat. Behind is the commander, the coxswain. He waits till one large wave breaks on the beach, or three in succession, and shouts to go! As they rush into the ocean, the water gets deeper. When the first men lose footing, the coxswain shouts "ones in!", upon which they pull themselves in and start paddling furiously. Next it is "twos in!" and they repeat the entrance. As the four paddle, it is then "threes in!" followed by "Coxswain in" and the boat is well under way out into the ocean. So much for theory! The actual truth is that, about the time the third paddlers get in, a wave throws the boat back onto the sandy shore. The process is repeated until success is finally obtained.
Strange things happened. Once on a night attack on the airport, the sea was phosphorescent - every drop of water gleamed gold as it splashed! That was a memorable night for misery otherwise as we had to come in from the open sea, carry our boats and all our guns across the mangrove obstacles on the key, then launch again to get to the mainland and the attack. Other things were more comical as one morning in the darkness my men were screaming for me to come to their tent and bring a flashlight. Florida had huge crabs which looked ferocious, and they feared they had one ready to nibble their bare toes. One had swung his bare feet out to get up and had touched one! My flashlight soon revealed the truth-someone had brought in a coconut and that was what the foot had encountered!
Our training there ended, and we got on a train to go somewhere. We wended our way north and ultimately arrived in Fort Dix, New Jersey, quartered in pyramidal tents. These had wooden floors and a heating stove in the center which would heat if too many people didn't try to make a fire at once! We kept busy there with training exercises. We were out most of the time. Our company would defend a town at night and another company would attack. Then we would hide out in the woods during the day. One day we were found by a messenger from Battalion and learned that some of us had furloughs which had started the day before! I hurriedly got back and caught a train to Illinois. While traveling, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter my high school friend and college roommate, Leroy Hubble. He was now an Ensign, and was taking his new bride Mary Helen back to meet his parents. His father met the train and gave me a ride home on that cold night.
The one memorable event while home was a small party given by Robly Ransom, my old 2nd and 3rd grade teacher! She had her niece Joyce Lambrich there whom I was sweet on! For the first time, I felt there might be hope for me with her in the future. Robly did her best to help me, and it paid off in the end! Bless her.
The day before I had to return from my furlough, we were driving down Main Street when we saw a soldier walking ahead of us. That wasn't unusual in war-time! Yet, his peculiar gate looked familiar, and I cried to stop - that had to be my Ranger buddy Vogler. Sure enough, it was Harry. He also had a furlough and was hitch-hiking through Fairfield. We kept him over night and the next day my parents put us on the train to get back to camp.
I was not one to drink much, and didn't smoke cigarettes, but one night Marvin 'Lucky' Townsend suggested we go into Trenton. We did, and ended up sitting at a bar when Lucky suggested we should have a taste of each of the bottles lined up before us. I am sure that was a noble effort, but we didn't get to each of them. We did get back to camp just at midnight, the curfew hour. I was awakened by the Captain's runner the next morning saying the Captain wanted me to come and help him take inventory. I didn't feel like it, but I went. We went through each tent and checked the issued clothing and equipment of each man. When we got to Lucky's tent, he was still in bed. He insisted that he was just too sick to get up!
Our activities were rather mild. One morning at reveille almost all of the top non-commissioned officers were missing. It turned out that they had gotten into a squabble the night before and the M.P.s, who had been laying for them because of past difficulties, arrested all of them and they were in the Guardhouse! They were soon out.
Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, was our next stop. Here we did interesting exercises such as marching with full-field equipment down to a wooden platform and pretending it was a train car! We practiced loading up the cars; but it just kept us occupied. It sure didn't help when we did load. We did get to go into New York City a few times and visit places. We saw television in a studio, taking turns going into the next room where a camera was while the others watched a screen and saw us. We went to the famous Stage Door Canteen, which was the most famous of the USO's around, but that was a complete bust so far as we were concerned when we were there.
Soon we embarked on the Mauritania, a luxury liner only five years old but now fitted to carry troops. This was a British ship which was fast enough to go unescorted across the Atlantic for it could outrun the submarines. At least, this is what we were told! We were quartered on a deck which had bunks attached four or five high on each wall. My memory is that they folded up during the day. The space between these walls and the outer wall of the ship had hooks which supported hammocks at night. All space was used. Our windows were covered so no-one could see in to see troops, and we could just barely see out a bit of open space at the top. We did see the Statue of Liberty as we slowly passed it. The ship soon heeled over just a bit, the first movement we had felt, and before long someone said: "The Statue of Liberty's coming back!" Sure enough, it was. We had been rammed by a tanker and sat there three days while the damage was repaired. I read later that the hole was patched with concrete, and this had been the fastest repair job on record.
It was quite cold in January on the North Atlantic, but we were forced to go out onto open decks during the day. We huddled out of the wind. One day the Captain said over the loudspeaker: "I say, some of you must move around to the other side of the ship! You're making it list until I can't steer it!" Besides the cold, there was the food, or lack thereof! We had to go down into a smelly, hot area to eat. A lot of people were seasick, and they couldn't be too choosy where they were sick. The food didn't do anything to entice you not to be sick! I have always wondered how much our Government paid the British to haul us to England to save them. I am sure it was far more than the service and food we received. I did feel sad when I read the Mauritania was sent to be cut up for scrap 11/20/65 at the age of 26.
Ireland was off to the south as we sailed through the green Irish sea to land at Liverpool. We gazed at the British workers with stubs of cigarettes hanging from the middle of their lower lips as they worked the docks. Soon we had arrived at the city of Leominister, our home for the next month. There we lived in Quonset huts in a little enclave in the town. I can't recall too much in the way of training there, although we took a lot of hikes. We would walk out through the country with many of the fields bordered by hedges. Some areas were surrounded by steel picket fences. In America, we were even melting statues for the iron!
G.I.s often live for the moment, and they made the most of the moments there. Many British girls were there, quite a few of them in the uniform of the Woman's Land Army. Some of them were rugged, too. I recall Sgt. Osborne making a rather uncomplimentary remark to one as he teetered on his heels on the curb. The next thing he was picking himself up out in the middle of the street where a well-placed fist had put him!
Although we were occupied all day, most nights were free. What did GIs do? There are three principal items on their minds, with the order of importance being different for each. These are food, drink and sex. We would go to a little shop and buy fish and chips for food. The pubs would furnish the drinks, mostly beer. Going around in the blackout and finding needed facilities was often a problem. Latrines, for example, were generally outside the pubs somewhere, and finding them and using them was a challenge. I recall one old English gentleman stomping into the pub one night shaking his pants leg and muttering bitterly: "Some bloody Yank just pissed all over me leg!". Such was life in the darkness!
Not practicing it there, I only know what the big boys were telling about sex at the time. The British girls were reported to believe that they wouldn't get pregnant if they had intercourse standing up. I never saw any scientific studies of percent of pregnancy versus position used!
In 1944 segregation was not only a fact of life but of spirit. There were many black troops and many white troops in England. They were not in the same units. Fights in our area became so common between races that black and white nights were ordained. Blacks got to go out one night, whites the next. That obviously reduced open friction! The British girls didn't have any preference for race that we could see. We always peeked down into prams to see what the babies looked like! This may sound terrible in 1997, that was the way we were in 1944.
Our Company had an interesting week's special duty when we were sent to Wales to prepare an estate of sorts for the arrival of an Engineering Battalion, or some such unit. We were to get bunks set up and make other preparations so they could move in there. We were around Chester, I think, at the estate of Judge Jeffries. He had been known as the Bloody Judge or the Hanging Judge, according to gossip we picked up. Most spent their days working and their nights going into the nearby town and enjoying themselves.
The closest path to the pubs was across a field which was inhabited by horses and by swans. These birds are extolled in verse by people who have never been chased by one! One was so large it would look the tallest trespasser in the eye. It chased the horses around just for fun. It chased well-oiled Rangers returning from the pubs with the same ferocity. One night after the new Battalion personnel were in bed three GIs stormed in shouting they would kill him! The aroused new men had heard many stories, almost all untrue, of Ranger activities. As the three went out armed with a bayonet, a bolo knife and a fighting knife, they wondered what the result would be. When they came back bloody with the statement they had killed him, eyes were big! They had killed the swan after it had pursued them and chased them over the fence once too often. We left the next day for Leominister again, which was fortunate, for we understood that swans were the King's birds!
Comic events tend to stay in one's memory. One of my men, George, was a little fellow who thought of nothing but women. He had to make love, and he did with great regularity. There in Wales one morning he was minus his cap when we stood reveille. I asked where it was, and he went to great length to explain that it wasn't his fault it was gone. It was a girl's. He had her out on a tarpaulin the night before when she had to urinate. Did she get off the tarp? No! She did it right there and it washed his hat which was laying there right off! He wouldn't pick it up. His evading duties to make love caused me great problems through the months, but I put up with him. No-one else would have him in their unit!
Scotland in March was a month of activities none of us will ever forget. We took a train to Greenock, got on a ship and sailed out the Firth of Clyde to the village of Tighnabrauch, or something like that! It was on the north shore of the Firth across from the Isle of Butte. There we were quartered in homes. I was staying with the 1st platoon in two rooms of a home a block in and a block up from the coast. We had a fireplace in our room for heat. Two or three inches of snow had fallen the night before we arrived, but that was a most unusual event, we were told. The Mess Hall was quite a few blocks further to the west and right along the coast.
Amphibious landings were practiced almost every day. We would load on assault boats and sail down around a point, then go ashore by jumping into the water to about the waist and wading ashore. Since this was March, and the water was bitterly cold, this wasn't really fun! We would then hike up and across the many hills with their marshy pits we might sink into and go for about five miles. We would then attack something. We didn't know it at the time, but this was a special situation we were training for in the coming invasion. One day we had done this and were laying out of sight awaiting the order to fire. A Scotsman and his horse over to our right were walking toward the barn. When the order came and all our guns fired at once. They made a dash for the door! I'm not sure which won.
One day my amorous man George kept one of the 60mm mortar shells and took it back to our room. He asked Sgt. Bates, the 1st Platoon Sgt., if he could fire his mortar. Bates told him he could, not dreaming he had a shell! George produced the shell and sat his mortar up outside our house. Bates told him he couldn't shoot it, but George protested that he already had his permission! Finally Bates suggested he just take the tube down to the water's edge so he wasn't shooting over houses and drop in the shell there. He did. A lone fisherman was sitting peacefully out in the Firth when the shell came down some 50 yards or so from him. A large geyser of water spurted up, and the fisherman must have set some kind of speed record on rowing back to shore! The next morning at breakfast we heard of the German submarine which had blown up in the Firth the night before! We didn't tell.
Our sole recreation during the month was a boat trip to the city of Rothsay on the Isle of Butte once, and then a night in Dunoon where we were taken by truck. My only vivid memory of events there was of Sgt. Crandall. In the late night some of us were coming down a curving lane with stone walls on each side. We met someone pushing Crandall up this steep hill in a baby carriage, or pram. His long gangly legs and arms hung far down over the sides of the pram. His pusher was struggling, and a bit under the influence too. Finally he stopped, said this is just too much work, turned the pram around heading downhill and gave it a push! The last we saw of Crandall he was going downhill at a fast clip into the darkness screaming 'HELP'! We never knew what kind of a crash the pram and its helpless captive passenger experienced!
Friends are fine to have. I learned that one night when we were having a party of sorts there in the Village and one of our E Co. men got in a fight with a man from another company. Then someone else butted in and I told him to just keep out of it. He wanted to know if I wanted to make something of it, and I did. Now, I never was much of a fighter. Just then John Tervo, who had been in my squad in the 78th Division Reconnaissance Troop, sidled up to me. Now, John had been boxing champion at his weight in all of the 78th Division! He whispered to me that, if I wanted to fight the fellow, that was fine. He wanted me to know that the fellow could whip him, though! Now, if he could whip Tervo, I had no business tangling with him! I thanked John and got out of there while whole!
We fired weapons and fired weapons there. One day we were out on the moors firing when the Captain's runner came up and said the Captain said to fire at the hill to our left front. We told him that F Company was on that hill. He replied that he didn't care, the Captain said to fire there, so we did. This, of course, irritated F Company so they started firing back. In spite of such things, we lived! Once the Captain told us not to fire our mortars at a little shack, which we wished to try to hit, so we just laid down white phosphorus smoke shells between the Captain and the shed so he couldn't see it, and proceeded to practice our marksmanship.
From this Commando Training area to the Assault Training Centre at Braunton, England, on the South coast was our next move. This didn't last long for me, though, for I had a very sore foot which pained greatly when I walked on the loose sand along the beach. I finally went on sick call, and Dr. Petrich told me to soak my foot and come back the next day if it wasn't better. As he filled out the report, he asked my rank. I replied S/Sgt., and he was surprised. He asked if I wasn't one of the new men, and I told him I was one of the original Rangers! He said he didn't know me, and I told him I had never been on sick call before. He then sent me for an x-ray and learned I had a broken foot-a march fracture. I was sent to the hospital where I spent several weeks on crutches.
Even in hospitals people have to have diversion! In that orthopedic wing, as soon as it got dark people departed. We would hobble out through a gap in the fence and hike some half-mile or so to a pub. It must have been some sight to see the lame and the halt with their crutches and miscellaneous casts coming back in the darkness after a few beers.
I almost missed the invasion. From the hospital I went to the infamous 10th Replacement Depot, and was there a few days. Finally I got orders to go to my unit and had another Ranger, Gibson, to accompany me. We went to the train station and, amid the secrecy of troop locations in wartime, finally were given tickets to Swansea. As we were leaving, one clerk asked the other where we had tickets to, and he told him Swansea. "No! It is Swanage where the Rangers are!" Had we gone to Swansea near Lands End, we probably would have missed the party.
I got back just in time to be involved in a bit of cliff climbing. We were then taken to a different camp with a different environment. We were living in tents in an area surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by guards who, we were told, had orders to shoot anyone trying to sneak away. Why? Now we were to be told just what we were to do in the coming invasion. This was the top secret which had to be kept from the Nazis at all costs. After we learned it, we could no more go out in society-we could only go on the invasion!
We were taken to a building with a scale model of the entire French coast with which we would be involved. We were shown Pointe de Hoc, which three companies of the 2nd Ranger Bn. would assault from the sea with much prepared equipment. Ducks with specially built ladders to raise automatically, grappling hooks to be fired from mortars. other ladders and things like this to help them surmount the cliffs. We were shown the emplacements there where six 155 mm. guns were located which were the only ones along the coast which could shell out 10 or 12 miles to what was called the transport area. This was where our larger ships would be while unloading. It was critical that they not be shelled and sunk.
The plan was that the three companies of the 2nd Bn. would assault at H-hour and take this Pointe in the following one hour. If they did our Bn. Commander, Lt. Col. Max Schneider, would receive this radio message and we would follow them in. We would climb the cliffs and then do whatever was necessary to insure the success of the invasion. Yet, if they didn't take the Pointe in that first hour, our orders were to go on five miles up the coast to the area of the village Vierville sur Mer. We would land at H plus One, or one hour after the specified time for the beginning of the invasion. The infantry would have landed there at H-hour and would have a beachhead when we arrived. We would simply leave their beachhead and proceed by the inland route to the Pointe and assault it from the rear. This was the operation we had practiced for a month in Scotland. Now we understood!
The scale model of the coast showed the houses in the villages, the roads, the hedges around the individual fields, and all details like that. We were thoroughly trained, we were thoroughly informed as to our objectives, and now it was time to put them into action! We were then loaded onto the two British ships which would take us near the coast, the HMS Prince Leopold and the HMS Prince Baudouin. The Bn. had previously had an exercise on these while I was in the hospital. Now, preparations are all completed The day for which we have been training all these years is imminent. Let us go and do it!
Chapter 2. D-Day
The HMS Prince Leopold was to be our home for a few days as we waited for D-Day. It was all new to me since I had missed the previous maneuvers on it while I was in the hospital. I had seen a bit of the aftermath. One Ranger had left the hospital with our good wishes. A week later he was back all shot up and covered with casts and supporting wires and being fed intravenously. He had gotten back in time to be on the ship, but stupidity had put him back in the hospital in bad shape. It seemed one of our men, Hershkoff, came in with his BAR and dropped it on a table. It started firing! It shouldn't have been left loaded.
At this point, as we proceed to the D-Day activities, let me include the write-up of a tape I made in the spring of 1988. Stephen E. Ambrose of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans had been requesting all D-Day participants to send him their recollections. I had responded, and was then asked to sit down with a tape recorder and simply narrate my background and then my memories of the day. He included questions which prompted one to cover things they wouldn't often think of. The tape was transcribed and sent back for correction of things such as names which couldn't be spelled from their pronunciation, and items like that. In my reply to that, I penned: "If I were writing this, I would change the wording quit a bit! Yet, this is the oral presentation and it conveys the facts!" So, before any further discussion of the event, let me include that oral presentation starting on board the ship.:If it isn't very good gramatically, please read some of General, then President, Eiserhower's remarks at press conferences when translated verbatim!
D-Day, 1944. I really don't remember getting onto the ships very vividly at all. We were on these two British ships which were to carry us across the Channel. I don't even remember which one I was on, of the names that I have in my book. But anyway, we were aboard. The assault boats, the LCA's, were suspended around the sides of this ship. My memory is that they said that these would be lowered well before we were in position to get into them ourselves, because the hazard that they might not be able to lower them later, and that we would climb down the rat lines into the boats. My memory is that wasn't done at all. We actually climbed into them in their suspended position, following which they were lowered away.
But before that, I remember that they did give us a good breakfast of fried eggs, and that's the only thing I really remember. But in trying to think of some of the questions that were on your suggestions, I really don't remember what we wore that day. I think we were wearing our fatigues, but I couldn't swear that we weren't wearing our OD's. Regardless, I'm sure I had a light field jacket, probably the fatigues, we all had paratroop boots in the Rangers, and so this is what I was starting out with. My personal equipment that I carried as the Section Sergeant, I carried an M-1 rifle, so I wore a rifle belt with all of the ammunition for the M-1. I had binoculars, I had wire-cutters on the belt. I might add that I strung my binoculars on the back in-between the pouches of M-1 ammunition rather than carrying it on a strap over my shoulder. I had the wire cutters attached on one pouch. I had a grenade launcher in a pouch hanging on the belt. I had my canteen on my belt. I had a compass on my belt. I had the first aid pouch on the belt. We had fighting knives. I always wore my fighting knife on my trousers' belt rather than on my rifle belt. And I had a bayonet, I'm sure, but that went on the pack. We were carrying light packs, as I recall, without our bedrolls. This is the basic equipment I was carrying, anyway. (I missed mentioning a most important tool-a shovel for digging slit trenches!) We did have to take gas masks, and we had those, and as we started out then-I might say that we had 17-jewel Hamilton watches issued to each man, and we had switchblade paratroop knives that would flip the blade open at the touch of a button. This is really what I recall in the way of equipment that I personally was carrying. Of course, in the pack, we had our raincoat, mess gear, primarily those things. And then we put on Mae West life preservers, and ultimately got into our LCA's, and as I remember, were lowered down and set sail for the coast. We were each issued 2 puke bags, and to the best of my knowledge, in our boat of 30-some men, there were only two of us who didn't use them. Probably most of them used both. But they certainly were well used, and I might say that when you were crammed in that craft, there was no place-you were front to back solidly, so that if one was sick, if they didn't have a bag, it would simply have gone down the neck of the person ahead of them but that wasn't very good.
So, we set sail, and it was quite rough. The boats pitched quite a bit, and this, of course, was a great contributor to the seasickness that assailed most of the people. so we headed for the coast, and as we approached it, it didn't look like we thought it should. It was obscured by smoke. The grass apparently was burning there from the many shells that had landed on it, and as we got closer in, it didn't look very promising either, in that we could see tracers going down the beach, and that meant people were shooting on the beach, and if they were shooting, somebody was going to get hit, and we were the ones going in. Anyway, as we got closer and closer, we could see more and more detail. There were the obstacles, these triangular pieces of steel sticking up there with mines dangling from them, and this looked a little formidable. And, of course, as I say, the bullets are still flying along the beach. You can see The tracers and the shells coming in, and so as we proceeded shoreward, we ultimately go to a point where the British coxswain on our boat said: "I'm aground, I'm aground!" He dropped the ramp and the Lieutenant in ours, I believe Lieutenant D. Anderson, said "All out" jumped and disappeared beneath the waves, and some in the front of the boat reached down and dragged him back in. I believe it was Sergeant Charles Vander Voort who simply put his tommy gun in the ribs of the coxswain and said: "I think you had better get us ashore!" I might say that our boat, under those circumstances, probably got closer to the actual sand beach than any other, because we were able to get out without getting in water more than to our knees! I don't really blame the ship's crew; as soon as we were out, they could retreat and get away from this rather dangerous spot.
As we were doing this, and starting to unload, I noticed that the 2nd boat of our company wasn't quite so fortunate as we were, in that we're being able to step off in water knee deep, and they're getting off in water about waist-deep, and as I watched waiting my turn o get off, I noticed that one of my men in the squad in that boat, my problem girl-lover George, who wasn't very tall and was an ammunition carrier laden with mortar shells, jumped out and was in water almost to his armpits, and he couldn't make any progress at all, and then Sergeant Beccue who was a pretty rugged character dashed out and grabbed him and dragged him up out of there and to shore.
Meanwhile, we all unloaded from our LCA, and having no trouble so far, but we promptly moved up and sprawled out on the rocks that we were now on above the sand, and we were instructed to stay there until the officers got together to decide just what our next move should be. And I might describe the scene at that time, the tide is now coming in a bit. There were quite a few wounded men who had been scattered along there, where they had been hit. some of them were out some distance, and the tide is now coming in, and the little sand is now becoming sandbars, which are getting smaller and smaller as the water rises, and they were crying out in hope of succor from someone. There wasn't much that could be done for them, certainly, from our standpoint.
Tanks had been fitted with flotation devices-we had seen these before the invasion, with canvas sides built on that would raise up and they had propellers and they were supposed to drive off the craft on which they were being carried and propel themselves to shore, and then be ready to go to battle. The problem we heard was that they simply drove off and sank in the rough water, so there were very few tanks ashore. One was running up and down, but it didn't seem to be accomplishing anything, other than almost running over some of the wounded who couldn't get out of the way .
Well, our desire was really to get off of there, but I was lying there, alongside of our Company Clerk, John Spurlock, and I remember that as we were lying on these rocks, John is very carefully reaching under him and lifting a rock at a time, and moving it aside to make his body get lower and lower, which wasn't a bad idea at all.
Finally, they did decide what we should do, that the perimeter sector had not been acquired by the infantry troops that came in an hour before. They were still right there on the beach instead of having the beachhead, including the road along the top that we were supposed to have gone out through, and they said that our mission should be changed to taking a beachhead. So someone put a bangalore under the barbed wire that was strung along-there was kind of a seawall and a fence with many strands of barbed wire , and ultimately, they put the bangalore under there and blew a breach in that, and we started our ascent up this very steep hillside, which was still obscured by smoke. And so we began to go up that, hesitantly, of course, not knowing what life was going to bring. Life may be bringing death! Anyway, we began to go up that, following paths. There were signs all over the area: "Achtung! Minen!"-and it was very possible that these were mined and we would blow ourselves up if we proceded. Yet, we had to go!
Suddenly, I missed one of my squads-they were both with me at that time, the two squads of my section-and I missed one, and I went back down the hill and I found them. "What are you doing down here?" "Well, they tell us that there is a minefield up there." I said: "That's tough, let's get back up there!', and so we went back up, and we continued up, and suddenly, I saw a-I wasn't sure what it was. It was really a dead German, but I had never seen a dead person like that before. He was lying there in his uniform and his waxen skin, and I thought, that must be a dummy someone has rigged up there. If I touch it, it will probably explode. It is probably a booby trap. And such are one's thoughts when they see something for the first time.
But we continued up and got on top of the hill, finally. We reached the road that was the coast road running through Vierville sur Mer and St. Peirre Dumont. And so we're there for a bit, and we suddenly hear this whoosh! whoosh!whoosh!whosh! and 1,2,3,4 rockets fly over us, which are then landing down on the beach, and we can see the beach, and an LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) is there, and they're disembarking down the stairways on each side of it-I'm not sure what the proper term for them is, and then suddenly that's engulfed in flame. We heard later that a shell hit someone carrying a flame-thrower, but anyway, it simply disappeared in flame. And this is the kind of thing that was happening. They kept shelling the beach, and these flights of rockets were going down there, and we were so happy to be above it , because it was far more dangerous there than it was on top, and so we continued on and we crossed this coast road. I'm kind of the tail end of the Company. The Company had 65 men at full strength, so that wasn't a very big Company, so it isn't stung out too long, but they were moving up a kind of a ditch along a hedgerow and I'm kind of back with the special weapons. About that time the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Schneider, arrived there and, as I listened to him, it was quite interesting. We were apparently supposed to have an artillery group of some kind supporting us, and some Lieutenant reached the Colonel at this time and reported to him that they had only gotten one gun ashore, and he said: "Fine-let's have some fire right up here." and pointed at the hedgerow across facing us, and the Lieutenant says: "Sorry Sir, but that's too close. We can't fire that close a range. We have to fire further." So that didn't help any.
Then there had been supposed to be two companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who were supporting our 5th Battalion. Three companies of the 2nd were hitting Point du Hoc, one company was hitting the heavily fortified point Et Raz do la Percee from which a lot of the fire along the beach was coming, and two companies were to come in with us under the command of our Commander, and my memory is that some of them reported in but they only had about a platoon out of the two companies. And we heard that one of the boats of our F Company had not gotten in. Fortunately, it turned out that the men had all gotten on another boat as they were swamped and did make it ashore. Since my buddy Harry Vogler was in that group whom I joined the Rangers with, I was happy to hear that later.
Anyway, this is where we were. And then they called for some mortar fire, and so one of our mortars was set up and fired a few rounds up there, and there supposedly was a counterattack coming up there and so this at least helped repel it, and then they said that we should go in and take the town of Vierville sur Mer, and so we moved. We were east of that, as I recall, and so we moved towards Vierville and went through the town trying to find any snipers or other Germans that were hidden in there, and we really finished the day doing that operation. We ended up on the other side of the town on the west side in kind of a perimeter, and at that time, it was getting dark, and we were told to dig in there for the night, and so I dug a fairly deep slit trench that night, and bedded down after D-Day, after, I guess, the longest day!
Anyway, I slept that night. Of course, we did have guards out. I was awakened early the next morning by the Captain calling to me: "Baseplate!". This was the name I had been christened by the First Sergeant for reasons quite intelligible to anyone who knows anything about the army. (In a mortar section, the one who carries the baseplate only has to have a strong back, he doesn't have to know anything!) "Baseplate, is there room in there for me in your slit trench?" And I said: "No, Sir" and he said: "Well then you had better come over here." so I got out of my trench taking my things and dashed over to him, since there could well be fire coming at any time, and he told us that we needed to go back in and clean out Vierville again because there was a problem that apparently snipers had come back in during the night. We went back in, and they was some more interesting operations. I know I was out around a big wall out in an orchard on the outside of the town. At the moment I was in a prone position for I was having a little trouble with a sniper. We were firing at each other and neither of us knew exactly where the other one was. Just then some American GI, newly arrived from the beach and inside the wall calls: "Get up and come in here!" " I can't get up and come in there-I'll get shot!". "Well, then, I'm going to throw a hand grenade over." That didn't sound very enticing either, so luckily I talked him out of that idea. I might add that, as a student who had graduated in horticulture, I did find a strawberry patch and sat down and ate some later in the day! That might not have been what I was supposed to be doing, but there were more troops getting ashore that day and it was quite a sight to see the barrage balloons. Every ship out there had a barrage balloon on it to keep the enemy aircraft from coming down and strafing them, so it was quite a sight to see that, but you couldn't help but think how can there be so many people out there and so many ships and so very few people ashore, because it hadn't sounded very promising that first night as we got the reports of who was not there, but fortunately, we were able to hold on and move down the coast and things like that.
These are only some vague remembrances of D-Day. They stand out in my mind, although certainly after these years, things are pretty dim. It was a memorable day. I really cannot remember actually being frightened. This was something we had trained for, it's something I had wanted to participate in. I had almost missed it for having been in the hospital and going back through a redistribution; depot, and I wasn't quite in as good a shape as I was earlier after our rigorous training because of the hospitalization, but it was a strange feeling to want to participate in D-Day. I'm sure it was not rational, but I don't regret it. Perhaps those who didn't make it through did. I'm sure they did. It seems so unnecessary perhaps that we cannot get along better in the world, but that's the way life is. Anyway, these are my recollections of D-Day. Things were perhaps even more interesting and hotter in the next few days, but this is what happened to me personally on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Note: Stephen E. Ambrose did later write the most outstanding book on D-Day: "D-Day June 6, 1944, The Climactic Battle of World War II.
That narrated remembrance of D-Day covered my personal experiences. The larger activities planned and their execution are of lasting interest, however. The plan to inactivate the six guns on Pointe du Hoc, for example, was for the three companies of the 2nd Bn. to attack from the sea, climb the cliffs, and inactivate the guns. If this was done by H-hour plus one, our Bn. Commander Max Schneider would receive this news by radio and lead us to the Pointe to follow the 2nd up the cliffs. However, if they hadn't taken the Pointe in one hour, we were to go the five miles up the coast and come in where the infantry would already have the beachhead won. We would then come up the coast and attack from the rear to capture the guns.
At the 50th Anniversary of D-Day on the Pointe in 1994, the Ranger Battalions Historian took a loud speaker out after our Church services on the June 5th and narrated how they had climbed the cliffs against great odds, ultimately found the guns which had been moved back from their emplacements to an orchard, and had inactivated them. He then added that it was two days before the 5th Bn. reached the Pointe to give them some assistance!
When he finished, I walked out and asked if I might use the microphone. He graciously gave it to me and I pointed out the truth of the matter. The 2nd Bn. had one hour to take the Pointe. Our Commander received word that they had reached the Pointe, but never that they had taken the point, which they really hadn't in that time period. As per the plan, therefore, he directed our flotilla to its assigned invasion beach, which was Dog Green. As that was approached, there was such concentrated fire along it that Col Schneider then ordered the Flotilla Commander to land us just a bit to the east of it, on Omaha Dog White.
The beachhead which was to be there not existing, we waited impatiently while the officers met to plan the strategy under these changed conditions. It was decided that capturing a beachhead was the most important mission at that time, overruling simply heading for Pointe du Hoc. It was at this point that General Cota came along and uttered those famous words which have been the motto of the Rangers ever since: "LEAD THE WAY, RANGERS"!
I then pointed out that, had the 2nd done its job in the time allowed, we would have been with them. Then, with the inability of the infantry who landed at H-hour to get off the beach, it was imperative that we do what we did. Had we not spent our energies actually capturing a beachhead, it is very likely that the entire invasion would have failed. We didn't get to the Pointe for two days, but, to be fair about it, whose fault was it?
D-Day was over. The 2nd Bn. accomplished the neutralization of the guns we were all striving for in training. The 5th Bn. accomplished the perhaps more important task of conquering territory for a beachhead for troops to follow us in. D-Day ended successfully for the goals of the Rangers. We had many experiences during this period of time. A few weeks later, I composed the following poem which literally described many of these experiences:
A Ranger's Prayer
I pray that I need never teach
Our son how to take a beach
Where obstacles and mines abound
And bullets patter all around.
I pray that he need never face
Machine gun fire from a hidden place,
With artillery churning up the sand
And smoke obscuring all the land.
I pray that he need not perspire
From the heat of an LSI on fire,
Or see an LCA go down
While some men swim, and some men drown.
I pray that he need not dig in
To escape the shells that search for him.
Or, sprinting across a hedgerow's gap,
Midway, feel a bullet's slap.
I pray that he may see the sky
Without barrage balloons riding high.
Or hear a whistle somewhere round,
Without dropping to the ground.
I pray that he need never hear
The whistle of bombs that fall too near.
Then lie beneath a rain of stones
That crush men's flesh and smash men's bones.
I pray that he need never roam
O'er land and sea so far from home,
But laugh and love and take a wife
To love and cherish all his life.
Chapter 3, D-Day to the Fall of Brest
Events following D-Day are just spots which remain in my memory. They probably aren't even in proper sequence, but they were adventures of one kind or another. The immediate days are, of course, simply a continuation of our first day activities. We were to make our way toward Pointe du Hoc, and this was done slowly and in conjunction with other units which had now landed.
Following a road sounds simple, but it sometimes had problems! For example, at one spot there was a gap for an entrance into the field in the hedgerow along the left side of the road. Three bodies lay in the road on the further side of the gap. One seemed to be dead and two were badly wounded. A German sniper was somewhere to our left dug into one of the earthen hedgerows so he could see the gap but it would have taken a long time and probably a few wounded GIs to find him! One gathered himself, then dashed across the gap as fast as he could! Thankfully, all of our group made it safely.
We were waiting to move on along the road once when Captain Petrich, our Medic, rushed up. He asked if this was mortar ammunition we had, and we told him it was. He promptly informed us that C Company was running out of mortar ammunition, and he would take some of this to them. We then explained that C Company had 81mm mortars, while we had 60mm mortars, so our ammunition wouldn't work for them. He ignored our protests and said that didn't matter! They were out and he was taking this! We had quite a time dissuading him!
One could even see strange sights. We were in a wooded area with water from the flooding in the low spots. One fellow saw what might be the top of a pillbox of some kind. It was a greenish dome, and one staring at it claimed he saw someone peering out of it, so we fired rifles at it. As we advanced, we found this was a parachute which had settled there! We did find many parachutes, especially later on Utah Beach where some of the airborne had landed. Gliders, also, had made it in although with great problems and casualties. Every field of any size at all near the coast had poles planted at intervals all over. Any glider coming in could not fail to strike at least one such pole and be wrecked with great damage to its occupants.
As we got nearer the area of Pointe du Hoc, we were searching for the German soldiers still in positions there. Quite a few would surrender as they knew they were now cut off and essentially surrounded. I think some of them were Poles impressed into the military and not wanting to fight anyway. On the other hand, an offer of surrender might well be faked with a barrage of fire following when you were off-guard. Vigilance was essential.
The German preparations had been so thorough that I am still amazed that we actually overcame them in this area. I went into a mortar emplacement which I marveled at. I could have stayed in it and held off the entire American army by myself! It was built like our old concrete cistern on our farm. It had an entrance at the surface about the size of a manhole cover. A raised base inside had the mortar mounted on it so it could fire in any direction. Around the walls were painted targets. Here was painted a crossroads with the point to aim at and the exact distance. Such named targets were all around, and the racks held enough shells for days of firing.
We continued day by day moving onward. Once we had the horse escapade. We had acquired some of the horses the Germans used to pull their artillery. Recent correspondence with his son reveals that one of our Rangers, Mack Bush, encountered a small group of German soldiers with these horses when he was trying to sneak into a town which was off-limits! He came back, told the Captain, and a patrol was sent which captured the soldiers and the horses. These were then ridden around during the day. Unfortunately, a German plane we called Bedcheck Charley came over that night. Apparently seeing some movement he came back and dropped flares. The horses ran and, with that additional movement, The plane than made another pass and dropped three bombs. I was deep in a ditch alongside John Spurlock, our Company Clerk. I felt safe, but the bombs made craters some 10 feet deep and as wide and the rock was thrown high in the air. It didn't stay there (because of gravity!) and soon came down with great force. Spurlock was struck by a big rock and his leg was badly broken. He went to the hospital and I never saw him again. (I did talk to him on the phone in Kansas City many years later-he is now deceased.)
One night we took a very tiring march up through, I think, Isigny. It might not have been so tiring if I hadn't had two bottles of wine in my pack which some of us had liberated from a wine cellar. One was marked 1898, so I assumed these would be the very best. When some of us finally opened these, I didn't even like the wine!
Dinah Shore was a celebrity who came to entertain our Bn. one night. I really looked forward to that, for she was my favorite performer. In the summer of 1941 I had worked at the Cook County Vegetable Experiment Station near Chicago, and Dinah was to perform there. I even went into Chicago and saw her! Now she was coming in person to us! Shortly before dark, the Captain's runner found me and told me the Captain wanted to see me. I reported, and Captain Luther gave me instructions to go with a Lieutenant from Headquarters to where our Bn. was moving the next day. I would find just where we would be located in that area and so could get the Co. in the proper place. So-while others watched and listened to Dinah, I was miles away finding a homestead for our Company! Such is life.
We moved up the Normandy peninsula later and took charge of a Prisoner of War camp at Foucarville. Prisoners were marched down to the beach from there in groups of about 100 and loaded onto ships to England or the U.S.. On the beach, there were many ships sitting high and dry on the sand. A storm had tossed them there and they were digging trenches in the sand between each one and the sea. Their hope was to be refloated soon at the next high tide. The sailors weren't even allowed by M.P.s to get off their ships! Those marching the P.O.W.s took along souvenirs and were welcomed aboard the ships with delicious feasts of foods like we in the infantry never saw! We were also training new volunteers in our Ranger methods to replenish our thinned ranks after the invasion.
We were then sent to Flamanville, a village on the west coast of the peninsula to guard against German raids. The islands of Jersey and Guernsey still held enemy garrisons with the capability of destructive raids. Here was a Chateau where the French owner family lived. We lived in tents out in the woods during this period. We had no raids while there, but did have some casualties from mines along the beaches.
To digress here for some 50 years, we in the 5th Bn. were invited back to Flamanville when we went back for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. We didn't liberate the town, but we were there! Over a bus load of us did go on a rainy, cold June 4th. The hospitality was overwhelming. We were received in the Chateau, now no longer occupied, and fed and regaled with speeches. The young daughter of our time was now a grandmother with her grandson there, and gave us pictures of that time and some of the Rangers then with them. We then attended the dedication of a memorial to General LeClerc, who was from there and had led the Free French into Paris. His son Charles read a speech in French. We were taken to a fine dining room on the ocean for a dinner and given gifts of calvados. Later we were sent pictures of the event by the Mayor Patrick Fauchon.
We went various places from Flamanville without being engaged heavily in fighting. We were often in front line positions, but on quiet ones. We were always prepared for action. Once when we were to set up a defense line, I had my mortars set up and drew up a proper firing plan with targets identified with distances and directions. (I still have this, incidentally!). One of the mortars was in a deep pit where I feared some overhead transmission lines might possibly be hit by shells. Since the lines were broken at intervals in the surrounding territory, I thought I would just cut those nearby. I climbed up a steel tower to where the three wires were on insulators, and started cutting a copper cable an inch or more in diameter with my little wire cutters. They did cut the soft copper without too much work. I was sitting astride the crosspiece with my back to the higher center wire and cutting the outside one. As I cut, it suddenly snapped and, as one might well say, all Hell broke loose! The metal tower vibrated rapidly, and the top cable broke its insulator and dropped down to the crosspiece. I then saw I was on a slight bend in the line, and release of the sideways tension suddenly set the tower free! Had I been cutting the wire on the other side, I would have been cut in half. Such is fate.
We generally didn't have much contact with the local citizens, but once when we were camped in an area one of the Lieutenants asked me to go with him as he was going over to a local farm. I did, and we had a good visit. I did help the daughter there milk the cows, which was the only farm chore I did. She told me the nickname for 'Victor' was 'Toto'. I never knew if it was or if she had seen The Wizard of Oz!
A stranger occurrence was when one of the Lieutenants came back one day with a young lady who, he said, wished to take on the whole Company! She was ensconced in a tent and a line soon formed outside! After two or three had exited, though, she desired to depart and did.
Soon after this, we were off to Brest. We were told that, because of sunken ships and other problems, not enough supplies could be brought into the port of Cherbourg. It was essential to get another port before winter storms, and the port city of Brest must be captured soon. Both the 2nd Bn. and the 5th Bn. were sent there. We were only a small part of the forces involved; but we did far more than our share of the capturing!
My memories are not of the grand strategy employed, but of the everyday activities of one GI trying to do his job. My memory is that I did not have my trousers off for three weeks, so that seems to have been the time we were involved in the battle there. This was mostly hedgerow country, so our mortars turned out to be the weapon of choice most of the time. Behind a wall of dirt some 4 to 6 feet thick and 6 feet high, with trees growing along out of the top, rifle bullets are of no use. Mortars, however, could lob shells just over such walls where the enemy would be waiting. We used them to good advantage there.
Mortars were also a two-way street. We had to expect theirs would be coming at us, and they did. We were digging in one day in a new place and Sgt. Floyd started to dig his slit trench in the corner of two hedgerows. I asked where we concentrated our mortar fire, and he replied in corners! He then dug out away from the corner. We hadn't been there three hours when a mortar shell landed right in the corner. Not long after that, shrapnel from another shell put a hole in my canteen cover. At least none of the big cannon shells landed near us. The Germans apparently turned around some of their coastal defense guns and fired them inland. We heard the shells land occasionally, shaking the earth.
I received some wounds during these battles, but not incapacitating ones. One afternoon I had my right knee gashed pretty well with a piece of shrapnel. I put a bandage which we carried on it. The next morning some of us were sitting in a lane between hedgerows Suddenly, a shell landed on top of the hedgerow across from where we were sitting. I ran down the lane quite a few yards to get away from that area. I didn't feel anything, but looked at my left shoulder and my field jacket was lacerated! I assumed I was numbed by the wounds, and eased off my jacket and shirt. I had a dozen or so wounds, but none very deep. I was lucky.
One fellow had a Purple Heart medal. He said he had gone back to the aid station of a Division a half mile or so behind us and they patched him up and gave him the medal! I thought mine should be attended to, so I went back there. They patched up my knee better, treated all the wounds on my shoulder, and handed my a Purple Heart medal in a box! I still have it, plus the scars of the wounds.
Lieutenant Dendy came over to where we had the mortars set up one day and suggested we go into the next field where there was an old stone building from which we should be able to see over the hedgerows and perhaps locate some good mortar targets. We went over and climbed up to the second floor, essentially a loft, and Lt. Dendy was just about to look out a window of sorts when machine gun fire suddenly struck the wall with several bullets coming through the opening! We decided it wasn't a good idea to stick our heads up there! Just then there was the explosion of a shell just outside the building and George screamed: "I'm hit!".
Yes, this was my problem child George. He was standing guard outside the building while we were up there. Now he lay pathetically on his back in a small shell hole with his arms out in supplication. I knelt by him and asked where he was hurt. "My back", he moaned. I gently slid my hand under his back to feel where the blood was emerging, but I found none. I felt further and further, finally completing my examination. I asked if he was really hurt. He began to slowly and carefully stretch first his arms, then his legs and then sat up. "Well, he said, I guess I'm not!". We decided he had been struck in the back by a rock or something when the shell exploded. Even with George, I was glad it turned out that way.
One night Captain Luther said we would move up in the morning. I think it was the 8th Div. on our left, and they were to attack. Since defenders had a good look at you as you advanced through their prepared holes in the hedgerows, advancing could be a lethal proposition! Just before dawn the next day, we did move up. On the first hedgerow we came to, I found a nice pair of German binoculars. They might have been booby-trapped, but I moved them cautiously from a distance and then took them. I still have them. Behind the next hedgerow was a dead soldier who had obviously been struck by a mortar shell-obviously ours. I felt justified in taking the Iron Cross medal he had, and I still have it. The Captain radioed the attackers on our left whom we were just to support a little. The report back was that they had some men up two hedgerows, but they were all dead! Such is war.
Brest turned into almost a guerrilla war at times. One day we had experiences which were unbelievable; but I will tell them anyway since I have Sgt. Floyd to vouch for the truth of the matter. We were moving up the peninsula somewhere, and we in special weapons were at the rear of the Company. As we moved up following, Sgt. Floyd suddenly froze, then pointed silently to our left front. There was a hedgerow running along our left, and above it, coming toward us, were the tops of a long row of German helmets! He and I ran across to our left and entered the lane between hedgerows along which the Germans were coming. We aimed our rifles ahead, and waited. As the German soldiers in their fully armed condition came around a bend in the lane, they were greeted by our rifles aiming straight at them! They were caught dead to rights with nothing they could do! German after German came around the bend and they just kept coming! We finally had approximately 36 soldiers which we stripped of their weapons and turned over to some soldiers who were behind us. We went on to catch up with our Company.
We soon caught up with the slowly advancing rifle platoons and watched as they went through several trenches, emplacements, and then finally they settled down up there in a relaxed manner. After a bit, I radioed to our Lieutenant and asked what we should be doing. He said the Germans had been cooking their dinner and had run away as they approached. Our men were going to finish cooking it and eat, so we had just as well come up. We moved up there and laid down our weapons and sat down. Just then, it sounded like WWII starting all over again. Bullets seemed to be flying everywhere! I dove down about 8 feet into a concrete passage, and everyone else found cover some way. Finally, one of our men managed to crawl out and get his machine gun. He fired a few bursts and a white flag appeared. Here came a group of soldiers! Apparently they had been upset at our preparing to eat their dinner!
Another comic end to what might have been a bitter battle occurred when we went to take the city of Le Conquet, the last inhabited place toward the tip of the peninsula. We didn't know what to expect as we made our way to the town. Once in, it was dash from building to building, expecting any minute to fired upon. At last, we had completed our task of securing it. At that moment there was a great rumpus and we cowered into entryways and other such spots hoping to be safe and be ready to repulse whatever was coming. Lo and behold, here came the Free French marching in with banners, and the populace now came out and cheered them!
That reminded me of a time some two months before when we had been holding a section of the front lines. A contingent of Free French came to take their part. They came out from town in a bus at 8:00am, had hot chow brought out by the bus at noon, and then rode back to town for the night at 5:00pm! We Americans have a lot to learn about fighting a war!
Much of the rest there around Brest was not comedy. Several forts ringed the city. We took one as the air force finished bombing it. There were quite a few dead. We were rather low on mortar shells, and encountered a German mortar. This was their small one, 50mm, and was made to be assembled and carried baseplate, bipod and tube as one unit. Huff suggested we take it along, so we did, plus shells. We were told to dig in for the night about then and did. We did feel we should try out the mortar, though, to have an idea of its range. With ours, we knew at what angle to set the tube and how many increments to leave on a shell to go a certain distance. Knowing nothing of this with the German one, we sat it up and dropped in a shell. It went just about as far forward as the area where our line platoons were digging in! Too bad! Before long one of the fellows was back complaining bitterly: "We haven't been here 30 minutes and already the Germans are shelling us with their mortars!". We sympathized with him, but sure didn't tell him we had the mortar!
That was a bad night for me. I had dug a good hole, much more than a slit trench. We were on the forward slope of a hill, which is not a good place to be. I was in my hole in the late evening when a German 20mm gun opened up on our area firing exploding shells. They began to hit all around my hole. It seemed only a matter of time before one would hit the slightly higher back of my hole. I tried to be scientific about this. If I crouched against the front wall of my hole and the shell hit the back, would I get less shrapnel than if I crouched against the back below where the explosion would be? I puzzled over this until the firing stopped and I realized that I would continue living another day, which I hadn't expected to do during the bombardment.
The next day I was wandering around the fort and its ditches when I came to a German soldier with the top of his head blown off. He was lying on his pack. I needed some clean socks, which they often had, so I was lifting him up to get to his pack. Just then Floyd came around the trench at the far end and just saw a headless soldier raising up! He froze until he realized that I was there! This may sound gruesome to those who do not know that war is a bunch of people trying to kill each other in any way possible and trained to enjoy each enemy death! That was what our Countrymen had sent us to do.
Later I was more of an observer as we were attacking the fortified positions around one of the forts. My section was camping in the bottom floor or basement of a 3-story house. It was rather quiet where we were. One day one of the fellows, it might have been Huebner, started to hunt one of the chickens running around outside. He armed himself with a flare rifle we had picked up from the Germans and was going to shoot one with that. As he tiptoed around the house, Lt. Col Richard Sullivan, our C.O. now and quite tall and thin, saw him and began tiptoeing after him in a similar deep crouch, assuming he had spotted some enemy. Finally he tapped him on the shoulder and asked for what he was looking. Huebner froze at sight of our C.O., then blurted out: "Chickens, Sir!". The Col. just laughed and climbed up to our top floor to observe the situation.
Pillboxes had been built so impregnable that penetrating and eliminating them was tremendously difficult. The one right in front of us was the first target. Lt. Aust went out with a patrol under covering fire and placed a 40lb. charge of C-2 against an embrasure and it later went off with no apparent damage. A mortar barrage before they left it killed two Rangers. That night Lt. Greene went out with 11 men and two 40lb charges and a beehive type 50lb. one, plus 20 gallons of gasoline and oil. When these all went off, it was tremendous; but the next morning no visible damage had been done. That day they surrendered Brest, though, and it was found that the charges had been effective, and bodies of 17 German soldiers were found inside.
I composed a bit of poetry about this at that time covering the essential activities that took place. A few years ago I recited this at one of our Co. E. reunions which was videotaped. Capt. Luther missed that time although he attended almost all our reunions until his death, sending money for the committees to use in buying refreshments. Doc Kiernan sent him a video tape of the affair and a bit later I received this handwritten letter:
Dear Baseplate: May 6, 1987
After reading your poem "The Pillbox" and hearing you recite it on a video cassette given me by John Kiernan, I thought the enclosed would authenticate it.
If the report doesn't read clearly, blame it on Cecil Gray. He had to type it on a beat-up old typewriter in a dusty tent.
This report (or the technique rather) was later incorporated in an Army manual on the assault of fortified positions. It was also written about in James Ladd's book "Commandos and Rangers of World War II". Ladd is slightly in error though as he said it took place at Fort Du Portzic. We had taken Fort Du Portzic a few days earlier. Anyhow, that's the story.
Hope to see you and the rest at San Diego. I plan to arrive there Thursday afternoon.
The report he sent described in detail the various participants in the two raids on the pillbox and the effects learned after the surrender. Watching all that was being done to neutralize that pillbox led me to attempt another poem to commemorate it.
There was a German pillbox; it sat upon a hill.
Don't know why I use the past tense, for the darned thing sits there still.
It wasn't indestructible-such things cannot be.
Do not even granite headlands fall at last before the sea?
It was made by humans, forged by the hand of man;
And since time immemorial, man's works last but a span.
They'd told us how to take such things with bangalores and such;
So we gave it everything we had, but we didn't have enough.
When our bazooka shells bounced off, we called up support right then.
They sent us tanks with great big guns that the T.D.'s call M 10's.
They rolled up full of confidence and sat up in a lane.
As soon as it was daylight, the gunner took good aim.
When the gun went off with an awful sound,
We all made a dive for our holes in the ground.
But they knew their stuff-leastwise they must.
The pillbox vanished in flame and dust.
Then the dust blew away-down died the flame.
We could see that the pillbox still looked the same.
I think that pillbox had a patron saint,
For they fired and fired, but just scratched the paint!
The T.D.'s gave it up at last.
They said the thing must be by-passed.
That sounded good, but there were more.
They stretched in a line from the fort to the shore.
So we went out that night with demolitions,
Gas, oil, matches, and premonitions.
We poured the gas and oil on, put a beehive on the side.
We thought when that all went off it ought to split it wide.
The explosion was quite wonderful-it lit up half the sky.
If any Jerries were in there, they couldn't help but die.
The gas and oil sure did burn-it blazed for half the night.
We couldn't help but stand and watch-it was a pretty sight.
I was up and standing guard when the next morning came.
I saw the pillbox blackened, but it still looked the same.
That day Jerry surrendered; they gave up on the hill.
Now they are gone, and we are gone, but the pillbox stands there still.
It isn't indestructible-such things cannot be.
But if my son's son visits France, I'll bet it's there to see!
With the surrender of Brest, we were brought our duffel bags and stripped, washed and changed into clean clothes for the first time in 3 weeks. Yet, as we picked up our individual bags until we each had one, there were 8 left! These were the ones who didn't make it. I grew pensive in gazing at these and then wrote the following memorial to them:
A chill breeze swept o'er me last night, it made me look around.
There I saw eight duffel bags tossed upon the ground.
Yes, eight sodden duffel bags thrown up in a stack-
The only outward sign there was that we didn't all get back.
As I gazed at those mute duffel bags, I slipped into a trance.
I thought of all my comrades who would nevermore leave France.
There was "Tex"-a "new man"-I had always thought he'd scare;
But when the lead was flying thick, "Tex" was right in there.
There was also Little Shorty, "Mister Five-by-Five".
He was the butt of all our jokes, while he was still alive.
A cook came to our company, he didn't look for fame.
He fought and died to help us out, and I never knew his name.
Don't forget Poncho, foreign born, a native of Old Spain.
He gave his all to Uncle Sam, would we all do the same?
Our machine gun squad lay in a hole, fighting side by side.
Then mortar shells rained all around, and both of them, they died.
I know duffel bags aren't human; but they speak this tale of woe:
"We shall always fight with might for right, but some of us must go".
With the surrender of Brest, there was no enemy to confront in western France so it was time for us to be transferred to the coming arenas of action. Leaving our dead behind, we moved onward.
Chapter 4. Belgium Recreation to German Ruination
Train Ride: "40 & 8" used to be a joking term and was adopted by an American Legion group after WWI. It wasn't much of a joke when, following the fall of 'Fortress Brest', we were loaded onto 40 & 8 railway cars. 40 hommes or 8 pferdes, 40 men or 8 horses was the listed carrying capacity of a small boxcar with no facilities other than a sliding door in the side! We loaded into such cars, approximately 35 men per car, and started down a track leading to we knew not where. We never knew when the train would stop, never knew when it would start again after a stop, or anything. The men and all their gear covered the floor completely and overlapped a lot when all tried to lie down. When nature called in the night, one simply walked over people to the open door and relieved oneself. There was nothing else to do.
We had C-rations, including a lot of beans, and before long we all had diarrhea. Every time the train stopped then, it seemed that everyone had to go! Out of the car-drop the trousers-squat and squirt! It didn't matter if we were in isolated countryside or in the midst of a busy city-when you have to go you have to go! Sometimes just as trousers were dropped the train might start up again! There would be a dash to get back on while pulling up pants! There may be some indication here that I was not impressed by the tourist facilities provided on the French railroad for a journey of four days!
The Bivouac: We were so many places that I can't be sure of the proper sequence; but I think this is the time we bivouacked for a few days in a muddy woods outside of Arlon, Belgium. We pitched our pup tents and didn't have much to do those days. Only a few things of note happened. The Captain also was not immune to stomach problems. One story was that, as he raced for the latrine one night, he would have made it if the guard on duty hadn't halted him and made him identify himself!
One morning there was a great steel I-beam some 30 feet long on a trailer behind a truck stuck in a ditch near our bivouac area. Soon there were some GIs there trying to extricate the very heavy load and truck from the mud. They gave us some dirty looks as we passed on a march. I later heard that the Captain, being in town the night before without transportation, borrowed the truck and drove it back to camp!
We got humor where we could find it. One Lieutenant none of us cared much for had a double tent pitched--4 pup tent halves making it twice as long as normal. He had a very nice facility. Unfortunately, while he was reposing in comfort one night one slightly inebriated GI came home from town making his way rather unsteadily through the woods. He unfortunately walked right through the middle of the tent, taking it all down completely on the hapless Lieutenant! The GI then escaped into the darkness before he could be identified!
The Seminary: Fortunately, we were soon moved to a multistory seminary a few kilometers from Arlon at Differt. It was nice to be in a building protected from the elements for awhile. For some of us, it was 'for awhile'! One week-end volunteers were solicited to go do some task. All those who liked to drink hard, make love, and who were generally our problem children had gone to town. Only the peaceful GIs were left. I finally suggested that we might volunteer since it would give us something different to be doing and so would break the monotony. We were somewhere and did some chores to help out a religious organization somewhere, what I've long forgotten.
The next day, however, all of us who had been there were called to a meeting. It seems that two bottles of wine they had been saving for celebrating after they were liberated were gone. Someone in the volunteer group must have taken it! Ultimately, after discussions and questions of group punishment asked of higher authorities, our C.O., Col Sullivan, ordered some 50 of us out of the Seminary building to live in our pup tents until they found the guilty party! Final determination was that we weren't being punished, since that was illegal, but we had to be out and couldn't have passes.
Well, I organized my unfortunates into our own company! When we fell out mornings, I left a Charge of Quarters there all day! Then, each night, we didn't get passes-we simply headed across the fields to a little nearby village where there was a cafe and had a beer or two each night! We really lived better than those inside.
It was lucky they kept having a building, for one day one of the fellows had gotten a bit inebriated. For some reason, he pulled the pin on a white phosphorus hand grenade and dropped it! He was really lucky in that he got only a few burns from the phosphorus. I was outside and the white smoke was pouring out the second floor window. Several of the Monks of the Seminary were standing there wringing their hands as they obviously expected the building to burn down! Fortunately, no fire resulted and we moved on with the building entire!
We did get into Arlon occasionally where there were shops of various kinds, ice cream, good beer, and other goodies. A great soccer match was held between some of the Rangers and the Stockem, Belgium Champions. (the Rangers lost!)
Nancy: We had been training hard with many new replacements and the time seemed to have come for us to get back into some action. Before long, we began traveling, ending up in Nancy, France, where we were quartered in reasonably comfortable barracks while we continued training. We were all experts with weapons which brings me to a problem with people and firearms. One day one of the fellows accidentally shot his .45 straight up which would have been O.K. except there were people on the upper floor! One of the GIs there was wounded. The Captain lined us up and bawled us out. He explained that this made over 20 people who had been accidentally shot by members of our Company! Guns and people don't mix well!
Nancy did have one thing which was a magnet for GIs. This was a brothel run under the supervision of the government. M.P.s were there on duty to keep order, I guess. Only two of us in the Company hadn't visited there after a few nights. We had decided that perhaps we should go the next night. Then, the next day as we were out on a maneuver, word came out to get back and pack up! We left Nancy that afternoon! Oh, well.
Germany! December 1st was a memorable day in that we went into action and crossed the line on the map which separated France from Germany. We actually were now on German soil for our fighting. What we damaged now would be German, not French, property. We were part of a combined group which looked very good on paper. We Rangers were teamed up with a fast moving cavalry unit. In cooperation, we could do great things. Unfortunately, like many good ideas, this one didn't work well. It was just too muddy for the cavalry units to operate. This left it all up to us foot soldiers!
I have read of the grand strategy of this operation; but I know first hand only what I saw and experienced. Our Co. E was advancing through a woods. My special weapons section was, of course, at the rear of the line secrions. They left the woods, crossed a railroad, and entered a forest on beyond. I then slid down an exposed bank to reach the ditch along the railroad. A sniper's bullet just missed me. I called to hold up, but here came Sgt. Floyd sliding down also. The sniper again just missed him. We both called to hold up, but here came Edward Neuman. As he slid down, we heard the bullet crack and saw his jacket flick at his stomach. We stretched him out in the ditch and examined him. He was shot through the abdomen and the bullet then went through his arm. There was nothing we could do. There was no aid to be had and we had to go on. We told him he would be O.K., waited a few minutes more until we thought the sniper would be gone, then we called to the others and raced across the tracks and on into the woods beyond. It is hard to go off and leave one of your men to die alone.
We soon caught up with the others. Captain Luther wondered how B Co. was faring on our left and sent me to try to find them. I made my way through the woods and intercepted them. I found Lt. Bernard Pepper, the C.O. who had been our first C.O. in Camp Forest. He told me what they were doing and I then got back and reported to Capt. Luther. We kept going through the forest until dusk, when we stopped and dug in.
This was a strange night. If we dug more than a few inches deep, water filled our slit trenches. We were in a woods with what could have been German soldiers on all sides of us. We had to keep alert. Sgt. Nixon saw some tall fellow in an overcoat some distance away he didn't know and asked one of the men in his squad about him. He didn't know and they started to talk to him when he dashed away-he was a German soldier!
As the night passed I checked my men every once in a while. They were supposed to be in pairs with one awake on guard at all times, changing every two hours. Jimmy Holder and Merle Madden were paired. Merle was a new recruit who had just joined the Rangers. Every time I checked, Madden was standing guard and Holder was in a slit trench asleep. After checking this a couple of times I awakened Holder and berated him. Just because Madden was new he shouldn't be taking advantage of him. Holder pointed to the 3 or 4 inches of water in which he was sleeping. He said: "Madden can't sleep in this, and I can, so there is no use in both of us being up all night!".
I listened to a strange conversation over the radio, also. F Co. had attacked a town in broad daylight although they had asked to wait till dark to do that. They had many casualties but did have two or three houses on the outskirts of town captured. Now, a Tiger tank had rolled up and was firing point blank at their houses. They wanted artillery fire on the tank, but their radio would not reach Battalion Headquarters where the artillery observer was. They could reach our radio man, though, Rement Brakhage. They gave the coordinates to fire on to Brakhage, who then radioed them to Headquarters. After our artillery then fired, F Co. radioed corrections which were passed along. They finally chased away the Tiger tank this way.
I think it was the next morning when the Captain gave an order with which I didn't agree. A wounded German soldier out in the woods was screaming with pain. He ordered 4 fellows to make a litter and carry the wounded man back to an aid station which would have to be 3 miles or so behind us! That was an impossible job. They splinted his leg with a rifle, made a litter with two poles and a raincoat, and started off through the woods. Some minutes later we heard a shot. They came back and reported to the Captain: "Sir, that wounded man jumped off the litter and tried to run for it. We had to shoot him." The Captain was angry; but even the Articles of War do not require carrying an enemy three miles with no squad protecting you. Unfortunate, but this was war.
Just a short time later we were involved in capturing the town of L'Hopital. D Co. had trouble taking this, and several of our companies were brought together for a night attack on it. We moved up, got in columns so we wouldn't get confused and start shooting at each other, and were ready to go. About that time there were shots, but not from the city. A civilian had happened by and Bill Fennhahn, who spoke German, interrogated him. A GI in another unit, not a Ranger, heard the German and simply started shooting Bill at pretty close range! He was one of our best men, one of our best athletes, but now he was out of commission! (He passed away this past winter of 1996-97) Our movement into L'Hopital actually went pretty smoothly. We went through going through all the houses searching to make sure there were no enemy soldiers left. My shoulder got a bit sore breaking doors open to search!
The Still: After several more days of adventures, at some period of time our Co. was sent to guard Battalion Headquarters which was located in a little village with mud streets at that time. Here my section essentially had no duties most of the time. I guess I had too few duties also, for I managed to get several of my men in trouble. We had a great vat of thousands of gallons of hard cider in the building where we were staying. I thought we might make a stronger alcoholic drink and started tinkering with some curtain rods and things one day. One of the fellows asked what I was doing and I said I was going to make a still!
He said there was a still down the street, so we checked it out. It was complete, so we got a wheelbarrow and started moving the parts to our building. We had the firebox, big container over it, coil which came from the top of the pot down into a barrel which we filled with water. We filled the pot and started the fire! Ultimately we were getting alcohol dripping from the coil, which we caught in glass jars. It would burn! We recharged the pot with fresh cider during the night and kept distilling!
One mortar squad was to go out before daylight the next morning and fire a few rounds as a diversion while someone was attacking some distance away. They did, and came back almost shaking. They said two or their rounds had gone off just over their heads after they left the mortar barrel. There were no trees and no wires there! To steady their nerves, we all began to drink our creation.
I had my breakfast at the mess tent and was back in our building when the field telephone rang. It was 1st. Sgt. Kennedy. "Sgt. Miller, for God's sake come up here and get your men!" I promptly started and was almost immediately met by three of them. Huff's legs turned to rubber when he had a few drinks, and they were rubber now. Two others were trying to hold him up, but they weren't in very good condition themselves. Every few feet they would all fall down in the mud. I helped get Huff into bed and went on up to face the music.
One, who had been a heavy equipment operator, got on the tractor generating power for Headquarters and managed to break it some way. Then, three of them encountered Captain Byrne, the Intelligence Officer whom no-one felt had any qualifications for his job, and didn't feel he did a job! They explained in detail just what they thought of him. Captain Luther, now in Headquarters, was with Byrne and kept trying to shut them up. Their reply: "You're all right, Captain Luther, but that Byrne's, that Son of a Bitch!" Then, to cap it off, they encountered the Lieutenant then in charge of Special Weapons, Lt. Rayford Dendy. he had "gotten sick" on two night attacks and was held in very low regard. They then explained to him just what he was and what they thought of him!
Lt. Dendy then appeared in high dudgeon and I had quite a talk with him. I had to explain how GIs talk-how what they say does not represent their true feelings, for they would not be manly if they showed the tenderness they felt. Finally he went away, mollified, and I breathed easier until I heard Huff screaming "I'm blind! I'm blind!. Oh, no, this is too much , I thought. I rushed in with the others and we hauled Huff out where we could see him in the light. Then we all roared! The mud in which they rolled had caked and dried on his face until he couldn't open his eyes! We got him washed up and so restored his sight. Would you believe that they made us take down the still and sent the company back to the front somewhere?
Deer hunting: We moved so often that I have no idea just where we were when some activities occurred. We were living in a two-story barracks previously occupied by German soldiers. On the wall was their slogan, which I will misspell a bit in German: "Heute gehort uns Deutchesland, Morgan Ganze Welt". Translated: "Today we rule Germany, Tomorrow the Whole World!" Not if we can help it!
The forests around us had herds of deer roaming, so three of us decided to go deer hunting one day. I think it was Stone from New York, who claimed to be a great hunter, LeBlanc, our one Indian from Upper Michigan, and me. I was the novice so they took the flanks and I was going down a little draw. Finally nature called and I leaned my M1 against a tree, dropped my trousers and squatted. I just got settled when a group of 3 or 4 deer started across the draw about a hundred yards away! What should I do? Should I pull up my trousers and try to get closer? No, I just reached up and got my M1, aimed, and dropped a deer! Not many people can do two things at once that way!
Patrols: I think it was somewhere near our hunting expedition that we were placed on a front near some mountains. We were on one side, the Germans were on the other side. Trains could be heard occasionally. I think it was Vergil Lynch who was out in an observation post one day, heard a train, and reported to headquarters that he now heard a train. They asked him if it was coming in or going out! He promptly replied that they would have to wait a minute-he had to check his train timetable!
This was mining country, and near us a shaft went down into the mountain at a rather steep angle. Air was rushing out of this; but it formed a dense fog before it exited. We wondered if the tunnel might go under the mountain and we could go through and surprise the Germans. A few of us took our flashlights and started to investigate this one day. We went quite a few hundred feet down through the tunnel; but we still couldn't see because of the fog and finally gave up!
As special weapons Section Sgt., I often didn't have any duty. I did participate when I could to help out, though. One day Sgt. Klett, one of the platoon sgts. was going to take a small patrol to try to contact an outfit which was supposed to be over on our right flank two or three miles. I volunteered to go along, and so three of us set out. We had gone a mile or so when an artillery shell burst perhaps 300 yards in front of us. We had been told artillery shells cost too much for them to be wasted on just 2 or 3 soldiers, so we just waited a bit to see what would happen next. The 'next' was another shell twice as close! We promptly got out of there as fast as we could! We then continued on along a road with a hill on our right and occasional houses on our left with hundreds of yards of open space dropping down and out into the distance. We were near one of these houses when we were suddenly fired at with rifle fire. We rushed forward and took shelter against the house. It wasn't safe inside since the rifle fire could reach inside the broken outer walls on that exposed side.
We were sheltered there for some time when Sgt. Klett decided we should go back to the next house which was probably 50 yards away. He said he would start and we should take turns following after he got out about 5 yards. I started last, but I think I beat both of them to the next house! We stayed there until dark, then resumed our journey and encountered the unit we were seeking. Fortunately we were able to get in touch with them without being shot. On the front, we generally shot first and asked questions later, to use that old but true cliche!
Snow I just don't remember if it was in December or January when we were in some barracks and had quite a bit of snow. One day Sgt. Floyd and I went out with our rifles to just see what was all around us. After we had waded snow for some distance, we saw a rabbit. I wondered if I could hit it as distant as it was, well over a hundred yards, so I started shooting. I shot two clips of M1 ammunition, I think, and the rabbit just kept running around at that far distance! We didn't need rabbit to eat anyway!
We were in what I assume was the famous Maginot Line area. We could see fortifications projecting up occasionally. I was walking peacefully on the snow when it gave way and I dropped. I caught myself with my arms, but my legs were flailing around finding nothing but emptiness. I screamed for help to Floyd, who was just laughing at my predicament. Finally he came and pulled me out. We could then see it was about 8 feet down to concrete in a deep trench apparently running between emplacements. Floyd saved me, anyway!
Christmas, 1944: This Christmas day was memorable for two things. We were staying in a nice house where we could stay warm and comfortable when we weren't out on activities. I arose that morning and prepared to eat my breakfast. We had K-rations, which were the size of a cracker-jack box. Breakfasts were often scarce, and I had carried this breakfast in my pack for quite a few days. Now I would enjoy it! I opened it and sat there in disbelief! You've heard of bad boys getting lumps of coal in their stocking on Christmas? Well, that is the way I felt. My anticipated breakfast was lumps of carbide!
Did some packager back in the States foul me up with a mean trick? No, this was undoubtedly my own fault. Our Section had liberated a carbide lamp weeks before. Some of the carbide had been stored in this box, and I had picked it up mistakenly! I didn't have breakfast, but I was able to dine later in the day. We were assembled later in the morning, loaded on trucks, and hauled to the city of Metz, France, to celebrate!
Metz: This was the first time since Nancy that we had been in a functioning city. We bathed and got to eat a good meal. We were disturbed once when a German plane strafed the city, but no-one seemed to have been injured. It was lucky we didn't get injured in another way. Floyd, Nixon and I went out and had a few glasses of wine. We started back to our barracks but our journey was slow. Nixon had a great dislike for the French, he had long legs, and he wished to kick every French person we met. Now, there were an awfully lot of French people in a French town! Floyd on one side and I on the other kept trying to steer him out of leg's length of each person we met. I had forgotten this, but at a reunion Floyd claimed that a Major in a jeep came along and rescued us, hauling us back to our barracks!
St. Avold: Christmas was over in more ways than one. Our trip to Metz lasted exactly that one day and Night, and we were hauled back to the front the following day. We were put in the vicinity of St. Avold. According to information from Prisoners of War, the next great German attack was to come in this area. We were to set up a final line of defense where we would have to stay as long as ammunition could be supplied to us. We had always been the sitting ducks on offense, and rather looked forward to being the ones to mow down the advancing force. We worked at setting up our individual spots where we would have our mortars, machine guns, and where we would have the best field of fire for seeing the enemy.
There was an alert on January 1st, and the kitchen evacuated the area with all the food they were preparing for our New Year's dinner. Fortunately this turned out to be something the Cavalry somewhere could handle so the cooks came back with our turkeys. I do think they were missing a few legs by then, though!
When nothing came of a German attack here, we were moved out in late January to some place in France and then to Wehingen, Germany. We were training hard all the time during these moves. Soon patrols were covering an area some six miles across, trying to learn what fortifications awaited us. On Feb. 19th an attack was commenced. This led to one of the bloodiest days our Bn. ever experienced. Our brilliant Capt. Byrnes, the Intelligence Officer, told us there might be one machine gun to be concerned with across an anti-tank ditch. Ha! There were mine fields with both electrically operated and trip wire mines. There were fortified machine gun emplacements. There were mortars ready to drop shells on us. It was rough!
I was following the line sections through a woods and we had just gotten close enough to see the huge anti-tank ditch which many of our men had already climbed through. Alongside me as I stopped was Sgt. Kijanka, the roughest Sgt. we had. He had a bullet hole through his helmet, and his head. He was dead. The ones in front not being able to penetrate further, we were held where we were. Several were wounded by the mines. Sgt. Beccue, also one of our best Sgts. and a great athlete, lost part of his leg to a mine. About 5:00pm that evening A Co. was able to come from a mission they had been on and attack the pillboxes holding up our men. The area was finally captured, but at a heavy cost. I still think of one buddy looking after a truck the next morning that was hauling away seven bodies, one of which was his best friend. As he gazed at it forlornly, he said: "There goes part of me.". There went part of all of us.
Rescue: Three or four days later E Co. had a patrol a mile or two down a river from where we were quartered in some buildings. Before dawn the patrol radioed that it was being attacked and needed help. Lt. Greene, our C.O. now, roused a group of us and we started hiking down a country road to their rescue. This was an eerie hike. Trees one to two feet in diameter lined the road on each side. Each of these had many pounds of explosives wrapped around its trunk. It was obvious that the Germans had planned to blow these all down to make the road impassable to vehicles. I kept wondering if some German wasn't setting somewhere at that very time just waiting to turn the handle to generate the electricity to explode them all!
We got to the village where our patrol was and found they weren't really being attacked. This was on the inside of a hairpin turn of the river with Germans on three sides of it, but across the river now. Lt. Greene asked if some of us would stay until dark and guard against the Germans coming back across the river. If we would, we could have the next day off. We agreed to stay and had some entertainment during the day looking through items still left in houses. Our entertainment was suddenly interrupted by a radio command to return at once. Something big was coming up which required all of us. We went and soon got the news-we were going on a real Ranger operation behind the German lines. This was the kind of thing we had trained for-let's go!
Chapter 5. Irsch-Zerf, Our Last Great Operation
The lederhosen which I had liberated earlier in the day went into my duffel bag. I stuck them under the typewriter similarly acquired earlier with its umlauted keys for typing the German letters. Everything not essential for my survival went in for storage. My new Ranger boots were in the bottom of the bag. I didn't know at the time that I would never see the items again, but that possibility was very strong every time we went on a mission.
We were now thoroughly briefed on just what we would be doing in the coming days. There was a pontoon bridge across the Saar River and a very small bridgehead on the other side. We were to cross the bridge at dark, penetrate the German lines, and go three miles back behind the lines. There was a road which the Germans had to use to bring supplies needed to their front lines, the Irsch-Zerf road. We were to reach and hold this so they couldn't use it. With their supplies of ammunition and food cut off, an Armored Division guaranteed to break through to us in 48 hours. We thus had a two day mission, although it didn't turn out that way by any means!
My recollections of this operation are spasmodic and incomplete. If anyone wishes to read the full story, it can be found in Leavenworth Papers No. 11, entitled "Rangers: Selected Combat Operations in World War II" by Dr. Michael J. King. (Leavenworth Papers US ISSN 0195 3451) He describes what he believed were the five greatest Ranger operations of the war. He is a very exact author, giving the exact times in which various activities took place. I talked about this to Captain Edward Luther. He said it was amazing that King knew this. He, Capt. Luther, was the Operations Officer of the Battalion and was the one who was in charge of these. He didn't know these times!
My memories are what I have to go on. We waited after dark and took our turn crossing the pontoon bridge. Footing was quite unsteady to heavily laden men, but we all made it. Then we had the job of climbing a very high slope there on the east side of the river. It seemed to go up forever. We were walking through the German lines. Occasionally one of them would fire a machine gun at us in the dark, but we had very few casualties. Then, sometimes, one of them would try to surrender to us! We ended up with prisoners we didn't want. It was very dark, and we had some trouble keeping in the right line of march.
It was about this time that our Lieutenant Dendy got sick again and headed back to our lines. We thought seriously of shooting him since this was the third time this had happened. We decided not to, although I almost regretted it later. That was because I visited Sgt. Floyd several years later. He told how, when they got back later, he looked for my duffel bag because he knew of my boots and we wore the same size. They told him that Dendy had already taken my boots when he was transferred out of the Rangers! That was a low blow!
We continued our struggle up that hellishly high hill till the top was reached a little before midnight. From there, we slowly made our way across the countryside. At dawn, we were well behind the front lines, but pockets of German soldiers encountered frequently resulted in sharp engagements which made our overall progress onward quite slow. By late evening, we were less than a mile from our objective. At almost midnight, we stopped, established a perimeter defense, and were able to get a very few hours of sleep.
By 8:00am we were on the move again and within the hour were placed in our final positions to hold the road. E Co. was rather to the north in the perimeter established, and most of their area to defend was wooded. We were only at about half-strength so far as bodies to man our positions were concerned. I had one good machine gun squad under Sgt. Floyd. Sgt. Robert Stucker had been our squad leader, but his nerves were shot. He was supposed to be transferred out of the Battalion; but he had been brought along on this operation. He simply dug a deep hole when we got there and wouldn't come out and was of no help at all.
We dug in the machine gun in the best spot we could locate to cover the open field areas which bordered the woods. We all dug good slit trenches, also. Behind us some distance was Bn. Headquarters set up in a pillbox which we had captured. Many German prisoners were being guarded not very far from it. Not having time to dig in and hide some mines in the road, several were placed on top of the road some distance from the rifle section on our left where they could see any vehicles approaching.
It might have been mid-morning when we heard a call that an armored vehicle was approaching. They called for Joey Markowitz. He was our bazooka man, and he had carried his bazooka ashore on D-Day, lugged it ever since all across France and around in Germany, and we had never encountered an armored vehicle before. The men in the vehicle saw the mines and stopped to look. Joey ran over to the area, loaded his bazooka and fired. He apparently hit it, for they called to us that the men in the vehicle had jumped out and ran into the woods! Joey was proud! He went down with the riflemen to inspect his prize. Then, the others went back to their positions but Joey stayed-but too long! The next shout to us was that the German soldiers came back out of the woods, captured Joey, and they all disappeared back into the forest!
Now that we had settled down into a fixed position and were no longer a moving target, the Germans became quite irritated with our presence. About mid-afternoon an attack in force was launched at us. Our machine gun got hot firing, and some of us were wounded by artillery shells which burst in the trees above us. Ultimately, the attack was repulsed. To quote the Ft. Leavenworth paper cited: "An estimated four hundred Germans attacked Company E from the northeast. Although the trees to the north and northeast were not as dense or extensive as those to the south, there was a slight rise on the north side of the road that gave the Germans cover and concealment during their approach to the Rangers' position. Both attacks failed, but the German pressure from the north made it necessary for a platoon from Company F to reinforce Company E."(p.51)
With the cessation of the attack, we were able to reorganize, such as it was. Sgt. Floyd had been rather badly wounded and I had been wounded in the neck with the shrapnel. Taking advantage of the lull, we went back to the aid station in the pillbox with Bn. Headquarters. Floyd was ruled too badly wounded to return, and was kept there to be cared for. My neck was treated and bandaged, and I returned to see what we could do.
The 'We' turned out to be Bill Huff, a machine gunner, and me! Stucker we didn't count since he wouldn't get out of his hole. Darkness is now upon us. I told Huff that I would take the machine gun as long as I could stay awake. I would then rouse him and he could take his turn. I hadn't had but about 10 hours of sleep in the past four days and nights. I settled down in the emplacement we had dug and faced the dark woods hour after hour. During this time I was delighted to have artillery shells fall just in front of my position. We had an artillery observer in Bn. Headquarters, and our own artillery firing from somewhere was zeroed in right there in front of me! Each shell would throw debris over me, it was that close. What protection against an attack through there!
Finally, about 1:00am, I could keep my eyes open no longer. I woke up Huff and told him that he would have to take the gun for awhile. He settled down behind it, and I crawled into my slit trench just about 10 feet right behind. I was asleep immediately in what almost turned out to be the 'sleep of the dead'! I was startled into wakefulness by the sound of the machine gun firing. I roused up and peeked up to see what was happening. Horrors! The machine gun now is firing back over me! Huff is sprawled over the side of our emplacement, most obviously dead!
My first thought was to defend myself and our position. My M1 rifle was laying over a ridge of dirt on the machine gun side of my trench. I didn't think I could reach it without getting shot. I had a .45 pistol in the trench with me. I got it out and resolved to die valiantly. Soon I had a chance to use it. Moving forward through the trees almost abreast of my trench I could see the dark silhouette of a German holding a rifle. He was probably no more that 15 feet from me. Taking aim, I fired once. He dropped to his knees. I knew I couldn't hit anything in the dark, so fired again. He flopped on his stomach. I thought that he was playing possum and fired at his prone body a third time. Just then, about 5 more Germans appeared through the darkness!
I had heard that, in times of crisis, a man's entire life might flash through his mind in a trice. I am willing to believe that now. In what was probably only seconds, I had to make a life and death, or more likely a death and death, decision. Should I fire again, or shouldn't I? If I fired again at one of the several there, I would undoubtedly be killed by the others immediately. Yet, if I didn't fire and cried "Kamarad" to surrender, would I live any longer? Would I be a traitor to my country if I tried to surrender? Had I done enough myself to justify surrender? I thought of the numbers of prisoners I had helped take. I thought of the number of Germans we had killed with our mortars and machine guns. I thought of the one I had just killed with my pistol.
I finally decided that I had perhaps done enough. We had done more than our share to help defeat Germany, and we knew now that the end was almost here. I probably wouldn't live, but I would give it a try. We didn't have enough men to spare taking care of prisoners when we were on a rapid night attack. The fact that our Bn. now had about 200 prisoners was due to the large number whom we had encountered in the various skirmishes and captured pillboxes. With all that in mind, I stayed quiet and didn't fire. Soon a soldier poked his rifle into my trench and I called 'Kamarad', and crawled up out of my trench. Now I was at their mercy!
There seemed to be a short conference. An officer looked at me, said something to some men, and we just stood there for awhile. Now that I was a prisoner and alive yet, I hoped to get out of there rapidly. After all, the artillery which had dusted me with debris so often earlier in the night should have been firing already. It should have been firing before they got to us and killed Huff. Surely it would be there soon!
While we stood there, I saw a soldier punch his rifle into Sgt. Stucker's hole. Stucker amazed me! He shouted: 'Hand de Hoc', or something like that which meant 'Hands up!'. I marvelled at his bravery in telling the German with a rifle pointing at him to put up his hands. The soldier promptly pulled the trigger of his rifle and Stucker screamed. That was the end of Stucker!
The eternity of standing there ultimately was brought to an end by a soldier suddenly poking me vigorously in the back with the barrel of his rifle, then motioning me to start down the pathway the attack had come up through the trees. I started along a dim path, twisting my head a bit aside to see what his intentions were. If he looked like he was going to shoot, I would have nothing to lose by attacking him. As we continued, I decided he wasn't going to shoot for if he was, why walk so far when many dead already lay behind us? Having decided that, I began to think of myself and my condition. My pockets were somewhat filled with items which might have come from looting on the battlefield. Supposedly looting is punishable by death! I began to empty my pockets in an unobtrusive manner as we walked. I was clean by the time we arrived at a village and I was marched into their headquarters. This turned out to be in a tavern! The first sight which met my eyes was Joey Markowitz! He gasped and said: "V.J.! What are you doing here?"
We weren't being mistreated here. In fact, I think Joey was eating liverwurst and drinking beer when I arrived! We shared our experiences, and then, one by one, several others from our Company were brought in. We kept comparing notes as to what had happened, and who was killed, and what was the situation with the Battalion. I shared my story of Stucker's unfortunate heroism. Later one of the fellows asked again what happened to Stucker. I again explained how he heroically shouted for the soldier to put up his hands when he might have said 'Kamarad'. My questioner then simply pointed out the window-there came Stucker with his hands and arms as high as he could stretch them and had a big Luger in his back urging him on! When he came in I assured him that I was glad to see him, but I had explained how I had described his heroism and his death. He muttered that he had meant to say 'Kamarad' but the wrong thing came out! The soldier shot but he missed him! He stayed quiet, and the artillery started and made mincemeat of the German attack. They retreated and one of the last ones back saw him, hit him on the knee and, when he hollered, brought him along!
The Leavenworth Papers article previously cited described this attack thusly: "At 0300 on 26 February, a German force that the Rangers estimated at four hundred attacked Company E, which still held the critical position facing the road.-Company E soon became hard pressed, and the Company A commander and twelve of his men had to rush to its aid. The Germans, accepting heavy losses, continued forward and drove the Rangers back 100 yards, retreating only when the Americans called artillery fire on their own overrun positions. About twenty-five Germans were taken prisoner during the fight, and fourteen Rangers were missing and believed captured.(pages 51-52). I was now a Prisoner of War!
Chapter 6. A Kriegsgefanger, German Prisoner of War
I had never thought about being a prisoner of war. We had always been on the offensive taking prisoners. We might get killed that way, but we wouldn't get captured. Training films had shown us what might be the kinds of interrogation we would have if we were captured. We were required to give our name, rank, and serial number to the enemy, and should say nothing else. We were shown how we might first face threats, and the interrogator would lead you to think he knew everything. He would know enough to know if you began to lie to him, so you shouldn't start saying anything! If threats didn't work, cajolery might be used later.
At this time, there was no interrogation. A group of some 30 or 40 POW's had been accumulated, and we were started off marching somewhere early in the morning. Among these were several from our Company E. My recollections and names on the back of a picture of my younger brother from my billfold indicates that these fellow prisoners were Donald Ward, John Kiernan, Robert Stucker, Joseph Markowitz, John Walinski, James Nelson, Albert Pierson, Albert Ceccanti, Joe Brable and Cecil Hayslip.
I have no idea how the Germans worked out the logistics of the march of this group which lasted, I think, for four days. We were put into barns each night to sleep. Now, these barns were an integral part of the homes. They were attached and the cattle had the lower floor. We got the hay mow area! I think we were given a bowl of soup each day. I don't remember if it was at this time or on a later march when I began to feel weak after 3 days. Then, we had a very thin oatmeal soup one morning and I felt surprisingly refreshed! There weren't that many flakes of oats swimming around in it, but it did rejuvenate me.
We arrived at what was called a transit camp on March 2nd. We were placed in a barracks with cots and a wood burning stove. As soon as we were all in, we were ordered to place everything from our pockets and any packs on our cots. I did, but received a very bad blow when the inspecting officer looked at my billfold, picked it up, and said: "Ah, you've been looting!". Now, as I described earlier, I had cleared my pockets of everything incriminating! Now here was the German billfold which I had completely forgotten about. This did put me on my guard and caused a good bit of anxiety.
Bread! Bread is known as the staff of life; but on what a weak staff did our lives depend in POW camps! The first loaf of bread I encountered sticks in my memory, and very possibly still in my stomach! We were now told that, when in camp, 8 men would receive one loaf of bread each day. I was the senior man in a group of 8 to receive the loaf. It was a nice, heavy, almost square sided long loaf. The problem was, how could we divide it among 8 men? I first tried to break it apart. I was unable to. Then, two of us tried with one holding each end and twisting. We couldn't crack it! We tried clawing into it and separating it, but we couldn't penetrate the crust! I had thrown away all my knives, but finally was able to borrow one from another group and cut this into pieces.
You soon learned that you didn't just cut your loaf into pieces and distribute them. The one doing the dividing got the last piece! With every crumb precious as we struggled to live on practically nothing, you didn't want to short yourself. Carving up the bread thus became an exercise in mathematics. Every bulge in the loaf was considered and cuts were made to keep the quantities equal. I finally traded something for a relic of a knife with just a small blade. It would do the job. I should have had a saw, for we were convinced that a good percentage of each loaf was sawdust! On the days we marched, we were supposed to have a half loaf of bread per person, plus a bit of cheese or something. We seldom got that.
For two or three days, little on the way of activities went on. A guard would take details out into the surrounding woods to gather twigs and bits of wood which could be burned in our stove. According to the Geneva Convention regarding Prisoners of War, Privates could be made to work. Non-Commissioned Officers, which included me as a Staff Sergeant, were not required to work. Officers didn't work and they could have privates as orderlies to help them in their living conditions. I was never in a camp long enough to be acquainted with any of these various labor situations.
I assumed I would receive some special treatment because of my German billfold, and I was right! I was awakened in the middle of the night by one of the guards who was fearsome to see. His face had been shot up badly, and he looked like a gargoyle. He awakened me roughly and prodded me out of our barracks and ultimately into an office where a German Officer waited for me. The office had large posters on two of the walls. These were American army posters demonstrating how to kill silently. Large pictures demonstrated how to use our fighting knives, a garrote and a bayonet. He took my billfold and spread out everything in it on his desk.
He asked if I had known Lieutenant xxxxx. I forget the name; but I did recognize it as having been the name of one of the Lieutenants in our Battalion who had disappeared one night when we were near St. Avold. My interrogator informed me that he was a German prisoner. He then asked when our Bn. had left St. Avold. I told him that I couldn't tell him. He asked if I didn't know or was I refusing to tell him. I told him it was against the Articles of War. I was to tell only my name, rank, and serial number. He angrily retorted that was the rules in the American Army. I wasn't in it anymore, I was in the German Army, and I would tell him! I refused.
He then took out a photograph which seemed to show a body lying in a street wrapped in a white sheet. He said this was his wife, and that was what the American Terror Fliegers (our airmen) had done to him. He had three men in the next room who, like him, had lost their families, homes, and everything. They would do anything he asked of them. There was a little shack out in the woods where no-one would hear my screams. I would tell him sooner or later, so I just as well do it now and save myself pain.
I was a college graduate, I had absorbed the training films on such interrogations, I was born only 100 miles from Missouri the Show Me State, so I was convinced that I must actually be tortured before I would tell him. I called his bluff and refused to tell. He banged on his desk and three big bruisers stomped in. They grabbed me, tied my hands together behind my back, and ran the rope up around my throat in front and back to my hands. I stood there, about to saw the rope with my bobbing Adam's apple!
He gave me one last chance to tell him when we left; but I refused. I knew that he knew when we left and would know whether I was then a liar to be severely threatened or a truth teller who would tell him a lot and it would be dependable. I asked if I could have my pictures and things which were on his desk, but he assured me that he didn't think that I would ever need them where I was going. With that joyous phrase ringing in my ears, I was booted out the door!
A dark woods in the middle of the night is a fearsome place. I couldn't see at all distinctly, and got booted over several logs and urged on by rifle butts in my back. With my hands tied behind me, I couldn't break my fall when tripping over the logs and stumps. My falls only caused them to prod me to speed up recovering my feet. Even with these interruptions, we soon arrived at an old shack there in the misty woods just as had been promised. They stood me against the wall and we waited. It seemed the sun should have risen and set two or three times while we waited! It did seem like an eternity. Finally my interrogator appeared through the mists. He said he hated to send me inside but he had to. He must have this information. I would soon tell him after I went inside, so just do it now. I still had to see it, and refused. After a long silence, he finally said: "You're a good soldier, Miller. We adhere to the Geneva Convention. We don't use torture but it doesn't say that we can't use psychological pressure."
I was taken back to camp and placed in solitary confinement until we were transferred out of camp. This wasn't as punishment but to keep me from telling others that their threat of physical force was false. He did have me brought to his office the second day I was in solitary and gave me a good sandwich and something to drink. He then went into the other phase of interrogation. He asked if, for his records, I would feel free to tell him where we had crossed the Saar River. He showed me a map. Now, I had visited with POW's who had been captured after I was, and I knew that there was no longer anything of value to him in an answer. I don't know if I would have told him or not, but I couldn't even find our crossing spot on his map. Ours had been marked with a very low reliability score.
The day after my last interrogation, we were marched out of camp to a railroad and placed in cars. W journeyed for only several hours, as I vaguely recall, so it wasn't one of those terrible journeys may POW's experienced. We reached the Rhine River and were hurried off the train. We then were marched across a bridge over the river. There were many bomb craters in the soil all around the bridge, but it had no damage. What seemed to be smoke pots of some kind were all around. We assumed they might fire these up and so conceal the bridge when planes came to destroy it. Their scheme had worked so far. This was in the vicinity of Kassel, I think.
Our march ended up at a makeshift camp in an old school where we were for two or three days. A group of Russians seemed to have been there for some time. They had some interesting handicrafts made from colored paper, slivers of wood, etc.. When we were called for our daily cup of thin soup, the Russians always just got in line ahead of us. Now, we got no less in back than they in front, but we didn't like not taking turns. We were just trying to decide whether to make an issue of it or not when we were marched away and soon ended up in a huge POW camp, V-A, near Ludwigsburg.
I think that it was while we were marching at this time that some of the places we were put in to sleep were quite unique. Once we were in a huge, slatted tobacco barn. Some aromatic liquid used in curing the tobacco was found and used to cook with by some. The oddest place, however, was in a brewery or winery. The vast building was filled with wooden tubs about waist high. We had to crawl up into these to sleep, for there was no other room. About three men could get in one tub. When we were aroused by some noise about time to get up the next morning, we all stood up. Gazing around the building and seeing all the P.O.W.'s standing in threes in their tubs, the only thing which would come to mind was: "Rub-a-dub dub. Three men in a tub!"
' We were in this camp a little less than two weeks; and I remember very little about it. We were sleeping on double deck bunks. Each had a mattress of sorts with very little straw or something in it. Straps of metal every foot or so held up the thin mattress and also cut into one's back. These were chiefly memorable for the fleas with which they were infested which gave us something to do in our spare time! We could always look over ourselves for fleas! We did get some food regularly each day, though not enough. Prisoners were supposed to receive a Red Cross parcel each week supplied through the International Red Cross and delivered by the Swiss. My memory is that we got one while there and it was to be split between either two or four persons, I forget.
In a camp, an American would be in charge and would be the contact with the Commandant of the camp to work out details and problems. I have heard many stories of the skill of some of these people as fellow Ex-POW's have shared their stories with me in recent years. At that time, there seemed to be two working together to do this. I'm afraid in my limited contacts I can't give them any praise at all. In fact, for some days I didn't know whether these two were Americans or Germans! When we evacuated the camp, they appeared with a good two-wheeled cart literally loaded with goodies to eat. My most Christian thought of them was: "May they rot in Hell".
Evacuate the camp we did. Ten thousand or more prisoners marched out heading east. We gathered that as troops were advancing from the west, we would be marched east to avoid our troops recapturing us and thus augmenting their fighting force numbers. There seemed to be men of all nationalities in this column of prisoners. We didn't march very fast; but even a fairly slow pace was very difficult for many to keep up with. One grew weak quite quickly when rations were as slim as they were in prison. Everyone lost weight and with it strength.
It was now just past mid-March and the temperature was still quite nippy. I still had an overcoat, but I gave it away. I needed it; but my back pained so from the weight of the overcoat that I gave it to a GI who needed one. We would march through a day with occasional stops for rest and to relieve oneself. Well before dark, we would be herded into a large field where we would spend the night. Each of us had a blanket. Three of us would team up, lay down one blanket and sleep on it. We would then cover with the other two. We would nestle up together for warmth. Of course, when one woke up and had to turn over, he had to wake the other two so they could all turn at once! The ground was wet and cold, and we had no waterproof ground sheets.
We would get a bowl of very thin soup every day, something that seemed to always have something in it to make it a bilious green color! There would be a few floating vegetables. Some of us augmented this diet with what we could gather during the day. My activity was to harvest dandelion leaves during our breaks. I would boil these up at night. Some also harvested snails and added to their dandelion leaves. I couldn't stomach that! When I finally left Germany, I swore I would object to sending them any food until they had eaten every dandelion in Germany! A trench latrine would be dug as soon as we stopped for the night. This was always busy. Water was often not available when you wished some. Several times I drank from ditches along the road which were, I am sure, being supplied runoff from the big manure piles in the farm yards along the way.
We did have excitement at times during our days. One day we were strafed by our own planes. The column scattered so far off the road it took quite awhile to get everyone back on track! Occasionally someone would be shot. These would always be Russians. If they got out of line at all, the German guards loved to shoot them. They feared the Russians, and perhaps with good reason. Stories we heard were that, when Germany invaded Russia as in the Crimea, the people there disliked Russia too and would have been glad to cooperate with the Germans. They were treated so atrociously, though, that hate for them was all that resulted. Now, it looked like the Russian's turn would soon come against the Germans. I personally saw at least four Russians shot and killed.
A different situation arose when an Indian from India got shot and killed one day. He was gathering sticks for a fire and crossed a little stream. This was too far, and a guard killed him. I don't know if he had a shouted warning first or not. Anyway, the Indian group insisted they wouldn't march further until their colleague had a proper cremation. The next day he was cremated. It was a cold and raw day, so we all went down and sat around the funeral pyre to keep warm. The pyre seemed to have a special construction with quite a few long poles arranged in a certain fashion. This date was April 12th, 1945, for while we sat there a German guard came up and said: "Roosevelt Tot!"-Roosevelt is dead! We didn't know whether to believe him or not, but it was true.
A day or two later, we heard the rumor that our column would be divided the next day. Those from eastern Europe including the Italians would be marched back the way we had just come. Soldiers in the western allied countries would march on east. When finally recaptured by enemy forces of the Germans, they would be in hands where they weren't apt to start fighting again against them. Our Albert Ceccanti was born in Italy and spoke it fluently. He had been visiting a lot with the Italian prisoners during our march. Now, they fixed him up with an Italian uniform of sorts. The next morning the rumor turned out to be true, and he marched off with the Italians! He had only a pair of thongs for his feet since they couldn't produce shoes for him. I encountered him later at Camp Lucky Strike.
The rest of us marched on east. White Swiss trucks had visited our column two or three times during this march bringing Red Cross boxes. That didn't help those of us in our group. The Swiss always said they were sorry, but our names weren't on their list. All the other people, as the French, were getting the Red Cross boxes from America. One night some Indians from India came over with some tea and some food. They showed us how to make the best tea with the equipment we had. With the food from their parcels they supplied us, this was the kindest gift we ever received from others.
Cooking anything was an art. Everyone carried a pack of sorts; but the principal thing in it was empty cans and such. People would make cans with grates and carry along. Some made fancy utensils with blowers which could be turned to fan the flames and cook rapidly. We had the cooking facilities, what we lacked was the food! We wondered just how long we could keep on going this way day after day.
Chapter 7, The Escape
We marched in this fashion for approximately two weeks when our routine was broken by a surprise division of the long line of marching prisoners. Some two or three hundred of us were marched into a barn. This was a large one, including a loft, and we were told that we would be there for two nights. This information led to some intense negotiations among those of us from Company E. One, John 'Doc' Kiernan, was always wanting to escape. Several others were of the same desire, and wished to try. I had never been very strong for the idea since we knew that the war was practically over, we would not do our country any good by escaping at this stage, and we were more healthy than we would be if we got shot! Yet, the idea of continuing to sleep in the cold and wet with practically no food and under the harsh discipline of the German guards was very distasteful!
Since we would be there for two nights, I proposed that we enjoy the first night at leisure and then look carefully around the next day to see what the prospects of an escape were. If it looked possible, we would try it! With that determination made, all of the others backed out. At that point, Sgt. John Walinski threw in his lot with us. He spoke German, and this could be a most valuable asset.
What did 'escape' mean when one was in the center of a hostile country surrounded by armed soldiers and angry citizens? Where could one hope to go in an 'escape'? Actually, our more limited goal was to simply get enough miles between us and the mass of prisoners of which we were a part that, when and if we were recaptured, we would be taken to a camp or somewhere where we would get some food. Food was important to us! In the longer range plan, however, the two inch by two inch map of Germany we had indicated that Switzerland lay to our Southwest. We would head that way, and see how successful we were in either the short or long term objectives.
Our survey of the lay of the land and possible routes of escape focused on the back door of the barn. Outside the door was the latrine slit trench where we prisoners had to go often and at all hours of the day and night. There was a little lot behind the barn with a fence on the right and a hedge of trees across the back and left side. A small path led out through the hedge on the left. There were always two or three guards outside the door, and we knew not where the German Shepherd dogs were which accompanied us on our marches. Perhaps we could elude the guards and slip out the door in the night unobserved. This became our plan.
Our comrades were sympathetic and gave us a little of their scarce food. I traded my good fountain pen to an India Indian for a can without a label which was supposed to be meat. (It later turned out to be fish!) We left the cooking utensils for boiling dandelion leaves and all other unnecessary items, taking only what food we had in our pockets. Night fell, and the tension mounted as we waited and watched. I had heard that tension caused one to need to urinate, and I found that to be a great truth! I had to make several trips to the latrine for that rather than for scouting the guards! There was one other physical factor I haven't mentioned which made the operation more hopeful. Several piles of faggots were in the lot. These were piles of twigs bundled together for burning later. They were our Godsend!
As we waited, the guards moved about in the lot; and they smoked. As they eventually moved away a bit, when I knelt on the ground I couldn't see their cigarettes glowing and knew that they couldn't see the bottom of the door. Taking that as my ticket, I told the other two to keep five yards apart and follow me. I crawled out slowly and quietly, heading for the gap in the hedge. I passed through this on my hands and knees and couldn't hear a thing. For a moment I thought the other two had abandoned me at the last moment and glanced around. They weren't five yards apart, they were on my heels! We had escaped!
Escaped? Well, we were now outside the guarded perimeter for the first time. We continued creeping for another two hundred yards or so, then rose to our feet.Which way? Why, Southwest by the stars, of course. Going across country did have its limitations. We heard frogs croaking and Wally wondered aloud where they were. He suddenly disappeared! He had slid down about a ten foot embankment into a swamp of sorts. We fished him out and continued. Coming to a narrow road which was going Southwest, we decided to try this better footing for awhile.
I should mention that, even before we hit the road, we had encountered a potato patch. This was potato planting time, and we had watched enviously as we had seen many of these operations on our marches. Furrows were opened, manure was scattered along the bottom, and whole potatoes were placed every few inches and the furrow was filled in. We went down the row digging up the potatoes and filling a neck scarf I had which could be opened and used as a sack. We had food!
Adventures abounded even though the night was peaceful. WE came to the Danube River and we knew there would be guards protecting the bridge. Going off to the left some distance, we found a catwalk over the river into a great power plant. We crossed it, found our way out of the plant, and got back to our road. We hiked through the night until, as Homer would have said, Rosy-fingered Dawn appeared in the East. Our plan was to hide through the day and walk only at night. To implement this wonderful plan, we walked off the road through a field to a field behind it which had scattered pine trees and tall weeks enclosed by a fence. Beyond it, a forested slope went down for quite some distance. We each had a GI blanked so stretched out and had the freest slumber we had had for months!
I was awakened by a noise and, peeking out through the weeds, saw a German soldier picking up sticks a few feet away across the fence in the forested area. We waited till he went away and quietly slipped to the other side of our hideout and bedded down again. Then, for some unknown reason, a German soldier came across the other field. He walked directly to our fence, climbed it, and walked through the trees to us! He gasped in surprise, then asked what we were doing there. This was all in German, so Wally was our translator of all that took place. He calmly told the soldier that we were going to work! Now, there were many forced laborers in Germany. The guard's reaction? He asked: "Why don't you go then?", so we did! We rolled our blankets and departed!
Our great plan had now been shattered! We were now out in plain sight in broad daylight in a country which was, as you might expect, filled with enemy Germans! We started on down our road with the hope of finding a hiding place, but we didn't. Soldiers were in every patch of trees. It seemed that they inhabited every haystack. We simply continued walking. We did pause when we saw we were approaching a little village where our road crossed a small stream with a bridge into the very center of the village. We stopped to eat a bit of lunch and think of this. While we ate, an air raid took place a half-mile or so behind and to our right. We could see the bombs come down through the clouds! After that excitement, it was time to consider our plight.
We decided the only sensible thing was to simply walk on up the road, cross the bridge, and go on through the town. It would have looked silly to circle off to one side or the other and wade the stream! So we did. People were all out in the street after hiding away during the air raid. They looked at us as we marched right through them and on out of town! Yet, trouble lay just ahead. There was a deep cut which the road went through, and a group of what looked like Russians were working there under the control of a fat guard who was standing watching us near the area. I suggested to Wally that I didn't like his looks-we had better get out of there. We scrambled up the slope and started across a field. He scrambled up also and started screaming at us. I figured that the jig was up and asked if we shouldn't go back. Wally's response was that the guard was simply shouting to ask who we were and where we were going; and we should just go on and ignore him! We did.
Reaching another little road, we started on when we came to an amazing thing-a great wide concrete road stretching straight across the countryside! It was, of course, an autobahn; but if you had never either heard of one or seen one, what would have been your reaction? Anyway, our road crossed it and we started over. On it, we met a little Russian boy perhaps 14 years old. Wally talked with him and explained our predicament. He was going to town, and we wanted two things: matches for a fire and salt. We were sick of eating raw potatoes with no salt! While we were there, we did notice bunkers of some sort on the far side of the autobahn somewhat sheltered above by trees.
Our Russian Good Samaritan took us on across the bridge and back into a woods where there was a haystack. He left us, and we stayed hoping he was truly a friend and wouldn't betray us. While we waited a most amazing thing happened. A great noise, a roar, seemed to come from where we just were. Then, an airplane zoomed over us which had no propeller! How could that be? We had never seen a jet plane, and didn't know anyone there had one. Yet, this and some others following it must have been quartered in the bunkers we had seen back in the trees. The autobahn must have been their runway, for there was no other spot in the area.
Our friend returned with salt, matches, and a suit of civilian clothes for Wally. He politely declined the clothes, for it isn't nice to be shop as a spy out of uniform. We cooked some potatoes and held a council of war. Our friend said we couldn't get out of that area because of the great number of troops all around. If we would stay in the haystack, he would try to bring us a bit of food each day. That was tempting, but it didn't sound romantic to spend the rest of the war hiding in a haystack. We had grander plans. We had so enjoyed things like good strawberry jam we had liberated from German homes when we were fighting through them. We determined that the first isolated house we encountered we would raid! They owed us strawberry jam!
We waited impatiently until the darkness was intense enough to conceal us and started on down our road. It turned out that the air raid had spoiled the peaceful countryside we had walked through the night before. Thinking they may have shot down some planes, guards were out on the roads to hopefully capture any airmen who might have parachuted down. Unfortunately, it was we who were caught. We were halted by a guard at a crossroads who demanded to know what we were doing. Wally told him we were going to Ulm, a city not too for away, to work. He demanded our papers, and we didn't have any! He then got very excited and marched us at gun point to their headquarters in the tavern of the town.
We were not kindly received. Airmen who bomb and then parachute down among the bombed people receive very hostile receptions-occasionally even death. They thought we were such ones although we, that is Wally, kept telling them that we weren't airmen-we were just doughboys out for a stroll in the night! Finally they made us take off out shoepacs, and there were our worn-out socks and dirty feet. It was obvious we didn't parachute down. They were then friendly and gave us some sandwiches. I thought they would be angry when they searched my 'sack' and found the potatoes! Instead they laughed: "Rawe kartofellen! Rawe kartofellen", so my raw potatoes even helped.
They were sorry that they had no place to keep us there, we would have to walk about five kilometers to a small town , Kleinekissendorf, where there was a jail. That was how we happened to spend a night with three of us in a big bed in a cell where someone had checked off the 18 days he had been imprisoned for drunkenness! The next day we were put under the care of a guard and told we would be taken to Munich by train to face an inquisition as to why we had escaped.
Our train trip the next day turned out to have much more excitement than we had anticipated. Our car was extremely crowded, as were all the cars on the train. I don't even remember if we prisoners had seats. As we rolled along through the night, the landscape around us was suddenly illuminated by bright flares and exploding aerial bursts. There was an air raid! The train screeched to a halt and all the passengers rushed off to get away from the train, the most likely target.
We three stayed where we were and looked out at the scene. We were in a deep cut with the banks of the cut paved with concrete blocks. As far as I could see in both directions, frantic people were climbing up these smooth walls, then sliding back before they reached the top as the incline was too steep to climb. Yet, they were trying again and again. What a strange sight in the anti-aircraft shell bursts!
We quit enjoying the sight of our enemies misery and concentrated on seeing what we could find around us. All passengers carried suitcases, boxes and parcels with them. It might well have been that they didn't know if they would have a home to return to with the amount of bombing being done. We started looting! I forced open a suitcase and was able to feel a carton of cigarettes. We didn't smoke, but these were worth more than their weight in gold. I managed to wriggle some three packs out before the raid stopped and people reentered the car. Wally of Doc had gotten a large piece of smoked ham, and the other had a half loaf of bread. We sat and feasted!
As the train moved on, it became apparent that our guard was not on our car! No passages led from one car to the next on these trains; so we were again on our own. This led to another important decision: should we just get off the train at the next stop or should we go on to Munich? Again, we knew we would not be heroes being of great help to our country if we escaped, we would simply be doing it for our own comfort. We were even further from Switzerland now. We had never seen Munich. We would undoubtedly find food and a roof over our heads in Munich. Of course, we might also receive some corporal punishment for our escape. That was a minus for that idea. Yet, we finally decided to stay on the train and see Munich and take what might come there.
Dawn was approaching and the train had made several stops when our guard climbed into our car. When he saw us there in the dark car, his face lighted with joy enough to illuminate the darkness! Happy? He took off his pack, removed all the food he had stored in it, and gave it to us! We enjoyed some of that while the train now slowly approached Munich.
The train stopped far out in some rail yards, not at a station, for much of the track on beyond was wrecked from bombing. We walked some distance to where a streetcar line was in service. Apparently the area was bombed each night, and the tracks were cleared off enough the next morning to run the cars. Our guard motioned us to get on the first streetcar we encountered stopped for passengers. We were stopped, however, by a conductor. He obviously was demanding that we come up with enough marks to pay our fare! After an impasse, our guard produced some coins and we were allowed to enter!
The exact sequence of events as we alit from the car in the middle of Munich is a bit vague after fifty-two years. One thing which stands out in my mind is the give and take we had with several other POW's we encountered. We passed out cigarettes to three different small groups; and, before the next two days had passed, each of these had returned something of more value to us in some fashion-chocolate, bread, or something! I have heard that, if you cast your bread upon the waters that it will return manyfold. That turned out to be true.
We were taken to a rather small office somewhere for some purpose, why I never knew. There, some civilian who came in looked at us and then studied Doc a bit. "Irish" he said. Doc said "That's right!" He looked at me awhile and then said: "Scotch". I said yes, quite a bit of Scottish-Irish blood in me. He then looked at Wally, looked long again, then threw up his hands. Wally said: "That's right". I don't remember all his ancestry he had told us but something like a Russian mother and a Polish father and had been reared by a German family in Baltimore.
We were taken to a building where we would be interrogated as to the reason for our escape. This was a rather decrepit building, as most were with the bombings, and we went upstairs to what was a very large, open room with many men at desks. I, being the senior man, was taken first to a white-haired gentleman at one of the desks. He started going through a list of questions. We had our stories straight so we would tell the same thing if we were questioned separately. Our stories were true and accurate, so we didn't really have to embellish them. We certainly put the worst slant on things, of course. My simple reasons were that we were starving on the very little food we were getting, we were forced to sleep on the cold wet ground without protective gear, and it looked like things would get worse for us as we continued. The hazard of being shot while escaping was desirable to continuing to only half live in captivity.
As he continued with his questions, he asked what my work had been before the army. Now, we are to tell only our name, rank and serial number when being questioned, but this seemed innocuous to me. I replied that I had been a college student. This almost broke his heart! He had been a Professor in, as I remember, Spain for most of his career. He asked if I was really hungry, and I said that all of us were. He then went around the room apparently asking if anyone had any ration coupons for bread. None of them had coupons! He then came back with what he called three 'light bread biscuits'. These were plenty brown, but I accepted them gracefully. He also had a small round package of Camembert cheese. He said that was awfully strong, it was quite a bit liquid, and wondered if we could eat it. I assured him that we could eat anything, and later we did!
He then told me that it was quitting time; and he was through with me. I should be on the train to Mooseburg, Camp VIIA some 50 kilometers to the Northwest. They didn't have anything to supply to chance prisoners coming through like us. Yet, if I wished to stay with my comrades, he would fix the papers so I would be kept over while they were interrogated the next day. I told him I would like to stay with them, and that was arranged. I appreciated his kindness.
We three were kept locked in one room of a rather cracked concrete block building that night. The next morning when my comrades were taken for their interrogation, I was put in the next room with a group of Russians. We were out during the day and had the opportunity to scavenge a bit. I got some potato peelings. We were back in our room when the other two returned and were placed again in the next room. This led to my having a moral dilemma. One of the Russians was using the top bunk of a double decker against the wall of the next room. The wall was quite cracked. I got up on his bunk, pulled out a cracked piece, and we exchanged bits of food through the hole. I then pushed the broken piece back in place.
Later, the Russian was sitting up on his bunk when a guard came in. As he moved on his bunk, he brushed to broken piece and it fell out, revealing the hole. The guard promptly drew his Luger and I feared he was going to shoot him. I had seen four Russians shot just that way when we were marching. I couldn't let him be shot for something I had done. Of course, I didn't want to be shot either! I really didn't think they would shoot an American, though, and jumped up between them. I tried to explain with gestures how I had pulled out the piece. Finally he put away his Luger and left. I felt much better!
Although I am vague on the time, it must have been that evening that we were taken to a different place an put in a large room with a group of about five men who were Serbian, or something close to that! None of us could use a common language that either side understood. An older gentleman had a large pack and seemed to be the chief of the group. Amazingly, he took out some jelly and crackers, or something close to that, and sent over to us making us understand it was for us alone. He then took out more and his group had its repast.
I had left everything behind when we had escaped, and now had a few day's growth of beard. One of these men came and obviously asked why I didn't shave. I indicated I had no razor. He promptly went to his pack and came back with a safety razor. I took just a few drops of our very limited water supply and started to shave. I wasn't doing it to the satisfaction of my new friend, so he took the razor and did a more competent job on me. I was now cleaned up for our train trip to Mooseburg.
I remember very little about the camp there, officially VIIA. We weren't there more that ten days so I didn't get very well oriented. I did visit a bit with a Russian on the other side of a wire fence from my area. Prisoners who were officers were kept in separate areas from enlisted men, and were authorized to have enlisted men to help serve them. This is covered by the Geneva Convention. Yet, the Germans did not recognize rank in the Russian army. They were all kept together regardless of rank.
One day there was a lot of excitement and talk of the camp being liberated. My first actual knowledge of this was, in the distance, seeing the American Flag flying on a tall pole over Mooseburg. What a wonderful sight! We were liberated! Some of my colleagues from this camp tell of being there when General Patton rode in and stood up with his pearl handled pistols on his hips. I saw none of this. Many went out of camp into the community that night. I was reasonably whole and wished to remain that way. I stayed in camp, for it was hard to tell what mayhem might take place with the various nationalities roaming the town and drinking.
In our Park Regency Retirement Village I became acquainted with Col. Dwight Langham. He told me about General Patton placing him in charge of that camp just days after it had been liberated. He told of the brewery which the Russians found in town and were tippling too much. He sent men to smash open all the vats. This left a lake of brew to the top of the concrete foundation; so they had to go back and dynamite this open to drain it!
Chapter 8. Repatriation and Civilian Life Again
After a few days of confusion, we were to be flown away from the camp. A large group of us were taken to a grass field where the C47s could land. None came. A day or two later some came and hauled away some high-ranking Russians. It was the 4th day when we were finally picked up and I had the first airplane ride of my life. The metal benches along the sides with what I guess they called bucket seats are my vague memory of our facility on the plane. During the flight, the pilot announced that we were flying to Reims, France, and the Germans had signed their surrender to Eisenhower there that very morning. I thus arrived in Reims the day of the surrender, but too late to personally accept their swords!
Soon we were on a train heading somewhere. I saw Paris again from the train, or rather the Eiffel Tower from the ten miles or so we were away. That was about the view I had when we passed there going to Belgium from Brest many months before. We ended up in a camp called Lucky Strike, the area to which almost all liberated POW's were taken. We were processed, I guess, though I remember very little about it. My one big surprise there was encountering Ceccanti.
Albert Ceccanti was one of our E Co. men who was captured the night I was. He was from Italy, and spoke it very well. As our great column had marched from Ludwigsburg, he had gotten acquainted with some of the Italian prisoners. When the rumor arose one night that we were to be separated the next day, with some nationalities marching back toward France and others marching on toward the advancing Russians, the Italians provided him with a uniform. The next day he did march off with them to the West! He told how the French ultimately liberated his column. He and his wife Mary have been attending our Co. E reunions since I remembered he lived in New York and got in touch with him.
After a few days, we were placed on ships for transporting back to the States. Although the war was over, I understood that we were essentially to go in a convoy since some submarines might not know this! Our trip was uneventful. We did a little duty on fire watch. An officer tried to organize this, and would gather a few GI's together and ask them to stay there while he got some more. By the time he got back with more, the first had scattered since no one knew who anyone was and there was no organization to control them. The poor officer was so frustrated that I finally suggested some of us go and participate since it would give us a bit to do during the voyage.
We landed in New York, though with no particular greeting that I recall. After a short stay at Camp Kilmer again, as I recall, I was sent to the base on Navy Pier in Chicago. My first activity out of a camp was to go to a Walgreen's and order a chocolate milkshake! After a brief processing there, I was given a sixty day delay en route to a redistribution center of some sort in a hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. After seeing my Aunt Rena there in Chicago, I was off on the Illinois Central to Mount Vernon and home. Mom, Raymond and others met me there at the station, which was a wonderful sight! The European War nightmare was over.
My mother , among others, was especially glad to see me. She had received a telegram that I was missing in action, but that was the only word ever received. Not until I had been liberated did a telegram reach her that I had been a prisoner of war and was now liberated. Near the end of the war, normal communication channels were undoubtedly disrupted.
That summer was a glorious time. I spent most of my waking hours, and dreams, endeavoring to convince Joyce Kathleen Lambrich to say "Yes" to my proposal of marriage. I really had a lot to offer her-two months pay of a S/Sgt which had accumulated while I had been a POW! In spite of our previous contacts, most of what we knew of each other had been by mail. I think she thought she should get acquainted with the real me. It too most of the summer before I heard that word I was searching for. Then, to my suggestion that we marry right away so she could go to the Redistribution Station with me and live in the hotel in Miami Beach, she pointed out that we didn't have any sheets, didn't have an iron, and the bank couldn't get along without her without a long notification ahead of time! None of these made sense to me. I had slept for months without sheets or even a bed! Yet, that is the way it worked out.
Meanwhile, I was eating well and gaining weight. I painted on our old two-story farm house the Burton's were renting while they farmed the ground. I occasionally ate with them, which alarmed Joyce. The grandmother, Lily Winter, had been acquitted of poisoning several relatives with whom she had stayed in their last days. Each was found to contain arsenic when dug up! There was no proof Lily did it, however. Pictures of our home made Life Magazine. Later, when a young daughter there became ill and arsenic was found in milk in the refrigerator, Lily was asked to move out!
My younger brother Bob returned that summer from being a tail gunner on a B17 flying out of England. He and I took a little excursion by hitchhiking around Illinois to visit relatives. We saw Uncle Willie and Aunt Hope in Decatur, and Aunt Rena in Chicago. Rides were rather easy to get at that time when one was in uniform.
Things were going so well that I wrote in requesting a thirty day extension of my delay because I was working in the sunshine, gaining weight, and getting my strength back. This was granted. Fortunately then, shortly before I was to report, VJ Day occurred and the war was over. I then took trains to Miami Beach with the hope that I would soon be free to do the two things I wished: Marry Joyce K., and go to Graduate College.
When I arrived at the Redistributing Station, a point score set up for discharging people had 80 as the score needed. My score totaled 79! Actually, I now know that I was entitled to 5 more points for an additional battle, and to 5 more for a second Presidential Citation to our Battalion. Without these, however, I was sent back to duty. I was given orders to report to the Infantry School, Camp Hood, Texas. I protested that the only Infantry School was at Fort Benning, Georgia, to no avail. I was given train tickets for myself and four others to go to Texas, so we went.
At Camp Hood, there was no Infantry School! After sleeping in an empty barracks and begging meals in a mess hall nearby for two days, we turned ourselves in to the Camp Headquarters. Officers there struggled to add my points up to 80, but they also were unsuccessful. I was then sent down to a Battalion to be Sergeant Major. I moved into the Sergeant Majors room in a barracks and reported to the Major in command. He asked if I was staying in the army, and I replied that I would get out as soon as possible. He observed that it was rather pointless to try to train me as a Sgt/Major if I wasn't staying long, and I agreed. He told me to go back to barracks and he would think up some duty for me! He did have an acting Sgt/Major.
It was cold there the first of October, and I would sleep late in my private room and then go eat! A good life, but I didn't wish to continue with it. One morning the acting Sgt/Major woke me in mid-morning and told me I would get mine the next day. Since I am sure he resented me, I didn't know what he was promising me. It turned out to be my discharge. I now had enough points! The Major undoubtedly was better at math that other officers who had tried to count my points. With a couple of scares through the day when I kept thinking someone would catch me and tell me I wasn't entitled to a discharge, it did come to pass!
I clutched the discharge and headed for the railroad station and a train back to Illinois for marriage and Graduate College. My army career was over! Well, almost! I did receive a letter some time later that, because I had been a POW over sixty days, I was promoted to Tech Sergeant! I thought that wouldn't be much help to me, but it actually brought me a few extra dollars later. Unused furlough time was ultimately calculated, and I received pay for this at Tech Sergeant rates! Now let me go on to living the 'normal' life I had looked forward to all those months in the army.
----- Victor J. 'Baseplate' Miller
Back to A Ranger's Prayer, by Victor J. "Baseplate" Miller, Co. E, 5th Rngr. Bn., U.S.A.
Your D-Day Ranger Comrades, by V. J. 'Baseplate' Miller, an article in the 29er which is a synopsis of Mr. Miller's biography
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