EDITOR’S NOTE: Haskell Wolff died Jan. 16, 2010. Before that, his daughter, Sally Wolff King, interviewed him about his experiences in the war. This article was first published in “The Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies.”
Haskell Wolff’s roots are in the Arkansas Delta. Born in Tillar on July 28, 1922, he has resided in Dumas since moving there with his parents, Sam and Sadie Wolff, when he was two and a half years old. Now 76 years of age, he is proprietor of Wolff Brothers Department Store, a family business that has served 12 small towns in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi Delta since the beginning of the century and has been a Main Street landmark in downtown Dumas since 1925.
During Haskell Wolff’s youth, Dumas was a town of about 1,000 people. Since before the Civil war, the community has been primarily agricultural, and the dominant crop of the area is cotton. Wolff Brothers Store provided goods for the community members, and people came there from town as well as from out in the country for their clothes and dry goods. As a consequence, Haskell Wolff knows most members of the community, and he greets them by name when they come into the store.
Wolff has been a community and business leader in Dumas for many years. He attended Dumas High School, graduated as valedictorian, and attended the University of Arkansas before his recruitment into World War II. He is the first Dumas citizen to serve simultaneously as President of the Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club. Additionally, he has been President of the Hospital Board, a founding member of the Dumas Industrial Foundation, a several-term member of the Dumas City Council, and a Cub Scout Leader. In 1998 he received the Sam Walton Business Leader Award for good business practice. He served several times as President of the Meir Chayim Temple, of which he is currently co-president along with his wife, Elaine Wolff.
Wolff has always appreciated the cultural arts, especially theater. He likes travel and has explored extensively his native region and the country as a whole as well as Europe. The Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers provided many opportunities for sportsmen, and Haskell Wolff participated in these Delta activities as well. Although his friends enjoyed the deer, quail, and squirrel seasons, he was an avid boats man and an accomplished bass, crappie, and bream fisherman. He paddled the lakes and bayous of the southeast Arkansas Delta country and inevitably came home with a good catch. He was never a hunter.
In 1942 he went to war. His tour of duty began when he entered the army, training first at Camp Maxey, Texas, advancing to the Army Specialized training Program at Sam Houston State Teachers’ College in Huntsville, Texas, and from there into the 99th Infantry Division in Paris, Texas. Afterward, his division joined the European Theater of Operations. They reached Gourock, Scotland, crossed the English Channel, proceeding to LeHavre. The 99th Division was the first division to cross the bridge at Remagen, Germany, which was thought to be the last major geographical obstacle to finishing the war. Crossing the bridge was a treacherous proposition at the time, since the troops faced the German armament immediately on the other side. Haskell Wolff fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Bronze Star, the World War II Victory Medal, the America Campaign Medal, the European Campaign Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Rifle Marksmanship Medal, and the Honorable Service Award. He returned to Dumas in 1945 to begin a successful career in business.
This interview, focusing on World War II experiences, took place on June 17, 1993, in the home of my parents, Haskell and Elaine Wolff, in Dumas, Arkansas, as my father recounted his memories of the war.
Sally Wolff: What was the climate of the country when you went into the service?
Haskell Wolff: My recollection is that most citizens of the country were mad at the Germans.
SW: Can you give us a little bit of travelogue history about your induction into the army?
HW: I entered into the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps in September of 1942. I transferred to Camp Robinson at North Little Rock, Arkansas, for basic training. That’s what it’s called in the army, Sally, not boot camp.
At Paris, Texas, from basic training I went to Sam Houston State Teachers’ College in Huntsville, Texas. I recalled that we were taking classes in higher mathematics. Let’s see if I can give it to you the way it was. Probably from algebra to geometry to trigonometry to calculus to analytics and on up, and I had dropped second-year algebra in high school. They selected a large group of young men to send to the Army Specialized Training Program. Because of the landing at Normandy all of us were subsequently pulled out of the ASTP and sent to the Infantry.
I would like to back up and tell you a story about being sent to Sam Houston State Teachers’ College in Huntsville, Texas. Huntsville is the home of Texas State Prison. I called mother and told her that I was being sent to Huntsville. There was a radio program put on by the prisoners that came from the Texas State Prison, so she knew there was a prison in Huntsville. She had listened to music, which had emanated from the Huntsville State Prison radio station. When I said I was being sent to Huntsville, she said, “My God, what did you do?”
The group of us that went to the State Teachers’ College were resented in the army and frequently referred to as college boys. Subsequently we went to Camp Miles Standish at Taunton, Mass. We boarded ship and were sent below decks. We were told not to go above deck, and that night a lot of soldiers became seasick. The next morning we found out that we had not left the port.
We finally started on our voyage, and when we were two or three days out, we had a submarine attack. We were ordered out of the hold, up onto the deck – with life jackets – standing by lifeboats. We were traveling in what a landlubber might call an armada of ships. Each ship began to zigzag. The sailors began shoving over barrels of explosives. After a period of time, an “all clear” signal was sounded, and we got back in the line of the armada, and we proceeded. I don’t know, but I supposed that the submarine sunk. I am guessing about the location, but I perceive that we were perhaps half way to Europe at the time of the submarine attack. I believe that the sailors referred to the containers of explosives as “ashcans.”
All ships, I suppose have a loud speaker service. This ship had one phonograph record on board. It was entitled, “Sentimental Journey,” and we played it continuously from the time we left port until the time we landed.
SW: What was the name of the ship?
HW: It was the SS Exchequer and I believe we were at sea 10 to 12 days. That sounds like too much to me, but that’s what my record book says.
SW: What kind of carrier was it?
HW: It was a troop carrier. I think a division was about 12,000 men, maybe 12 to 15,000 men. We couldn’t have been all on one ship. We must have been on several ships in what I’m calling the armada – the Navy did not call it that.
When we left Sam Houston state Teachers’ College, we were sent back to Camp Maxey in Paris, Texas. We were not told if we were going to the European Theater or the Pacific Theater of war. We knew that we were being sent overseas. We loaded out on trains in darkness. We traveled with “lights out” for security reasons, and I supposed that a lot of people figured out where we were going by the stars and so forth. I didn’t. We stopped the next morning, and I peeked out the window, and we were in Fayetteville, Ark. My coach car was right by George’s Restaurant, where we used to go and drink beer when I was at the university. When I saw that we were at Fayetteville, then I knew that we were traveling east from Texas and, accordingly, were being sent P.O.E. (Port of Embarkation) to go to Europe.
SW: What were your feelings when you realized you were going to Europe?
HW: I wished I was in George’s having a cool one. I would rather have gone to Europe than to the South Pacific. I didn’t know about the jungle warfare that was coming up in the South Pacific or all of that bit, but I was glad I was going to Europe, probably because I thought I would get to see Paris. I thought about my Uncle Leo, who was a doughboy in World War I. When he got to France, somehow in the confusion he got separated from his unit and was never able to find them, and for the duration of the war he enjoyed the fruits of the vine in France.
Uncle Leo didn’t support himself while he was there. I think the French people were so delighted to have the doughboys over there that they took care of them. I know that when we were traveling through France in World War II, lots of times the French would throw flowers into our vehicles and hug and kiss the soldiers sometimes.
SW: As you went through towns?
HW: Yes. As we passed through. Not me, I wasn’t that lucky, but they did for others.
After 11 days at sea, I looked out at the prettiest expanse of green I’d ever seen, and that was Gourock, Scotland. I saw that the green countryside was just gorgeous. As we were debarking, I met a Scottish stevedore, and I asked him where we could get scotch whiskey, and he said, “You can’t get any here. All scotch is being shipped to the United States.”
Elaine Wolff: We had a friend whose husband was an American soldier in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, and she came to our house everyday and cried and cried and cried. After the war he came home, but he was never the same.
SW: What was wrong?
EW: He just never was really ever OK again. I don’t really know what was wrong. Something.
EW: Yes. Emotionally. He was never emotionally strong. He functioned, but it was always a little something. She cried the whole war. She was pregnant too.
HW: The next day we loaded on a train and went to Lyme Regis, England, and were there for 24 days. Pre-war Lyme Regis was a coastal vacation spot for Englanders to go and maybe take their friends. We were quartered in an old hotel – I’m not sure of this – it was 49 years ago – that catered to the tourists. While there, we continued training. Due to Army regulations, we were not given freedom to roam around the countryside, which hurt me distinctly!
At the end of that period, we went to Southampton, England, where we boarded a ship named the Ben-My-Chree. We crossed the English Channel, and I believe we crossed at night. We debarked at LeHavre, France. We then went to Fry, France, and became a part of the First Army. We didn’t go in with the first wave which landed on the Normandy Beachhead. We went with the second wave. By that time the fighting was on the hedgerows of France.
SW: What is the hedgerows?
HW: I guess they planted hedges around farms to serve as boundaries. We joined the fight there. We went by army trucks from LeHavre to where we joined the fighting. When we passed through villages, French people would stand on the curb, throw flowers, hug the GIs, and hand them bottles of wine. They were extremely cordial.
In France we were approaching something that had large vats, and we were all happy because we thought the vats were going to contain cognac. We stayed the night at that location, and then we discovered the vats contained perfume. They also had boxed sets of perfume, so most of the GIs stayed up all night packing these sets of perfume to send to the homes of their wives and girlfriends. The mail clerk wouldn’t ship them because they were contraband. They were “liberated” goods. They could have been sets of Chanel No. 5, but we stayed up all night for nothing.
SW: How long did it take you to break through?
HW: Not long, and before the war the Siegfried Line had been considered impregnable. What they didn’t count on was that planes could fly over it and tanks could go around it. The French made the same mistake with their “dragon’s teeth” at the Maginot Line. It was also not worth anything and was soon passed by militarily. When we reached the Siegfried Line, we entered one of the pillboxes and spent the night in it, but the stench inside was so bad from people living there without proper ventilation that we couldn’t remain.
Once we won this position, we stayed there a few days, and while there, we got our water from a nearby stream. We’d go down and fill our canteens until several members of our company started getting dysentery. Soon thereafter we found a dead German body lying in the river a bit upstream from the place we got the water – a few hundred yards upstream.
Then on another occasion, one of our company men was going to that same stream for water and stepped on a land mine and was blown up. It took 200 pounds of weight to detonate the type of mine that would blow a tank track, and I was weighing in at 220. So I could have detonated such a mine with one footstep. The mine that killed our company soldier was just an antipersonnel mine, and any weight would set that off.
Another time I slept one night against a woodpile, and when I awoke, a dead German officer was leaning against the other side of the woodpile.
Next came our encampment in the Ardennes Forest near Malmedy, Belgium. It was wintertime. The divisions were spread very thin. They covered a whole lot of territory because no german advance was expected in the dead of winter.
My friend Charlie Cicero was there in the foxhole with me. We were required to dig a sleeping foxhole to lie down in. If you had relating jobs, you dug in together. Charlie was one of the guys I dug in with. After the war in Wurzburg, he figured out how much extra foxhole feet he dug during the total duration of the war because we dug in together. He was only five feet two inches tall and I was six feet four inches tall.
An offer came down one day that one or two men could be transported off the front to a town in Belgium for something like a USO performance to hear Marlene Dietrich. The soldiers were not too interested in going to hear her. I volunteered to go. On the morning of the day I was supposed to go, the Battle of the Bulge started. One morning, I think around daybreak, German shells started coming in, and they literally pounded the area for I don’t know how long – a long time. When I looked out of the hole, the ground was snow-covered. The shells would strike, and the combination of shell, dirt, and debris made the ground look like a checkerboard. That killed lots of folks.
SW: How close did a shell come to you?
HW: How close? Pretty close. They were using big artillery, not mortar. They used a pattern called “search and traverse,” in which they fired shells in a straight, horizontal line across the ground, then fired up in a line perpendicular to the first line. They shelled us for an hour or more. At the first strike, someone had said, “It’s lightning and thunder,” and then the bombs just kept coming: BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG. This huge bombardment at daybreak was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
That was the morning the Germans jumped paratroopers behind our lines, thereby surrounding the GIs who were up front. The Germans had large contingents of their soldiers dress in U.S. uniforms; using U.S. captured military equipment like jeeps and sidearms. They looked just like GIs, and they infiltrated our ranks. One trick they used was to post themselves at intersections, change the road directions, and give out incorrect information to the GIs – just to enhance the confusion.
Normally our kitchen stayed 12 miles behind the front lines. We each had a barracks bag with all our belongings, and we kept it back at the kitchen. On this day, the Germans captured our kitchen and all its personnel.
Against army orders, I had taken a good little camera with me. When I was on front lines, I would leave it in the kitchen. I had taken a lot of film with me, and much was developed. The camera and most of the film was lost with the kitchen. I suppose right now some German has my good little Kodak Bantam Special. I had taken pictures since Camp Maxey in Paris, Texas. When we entrained Sept. 10, 1944 – from that point I had taken photos whenever I had the opportunity.
Orders came down for us to fall back. Somehow my good friend Rex Whitehead was able to get on a truck. We fell back. There was nothing to eat. I found a potato frozen in the ground – intended for a German potato soup – dug it up and ate it raw. My sister Grace had shipped soap overseas to me. She thought I could use it to barter with the natives. She had read in the newspaper that they hadn’t had soap in so long that they would barter for it. We had no food, and my care package from my sister had soap in it!
We were cut off by the Germans in front, and at least one of their divisions jumped behind us. We withdrew under orders. We weren’t marching in formation. We were more like stragglers, but a goodly number of us. I was walking across a potato field, and we came across a draw – a creek or stream that had over the years cut itself a basin. There was not much water in the draw as I recall. We were straggling in what we thought was the direction of our lines.
One of our men was a “spotter” for the artillery. A spotter would give directions where to fire. He had his radio, and he tried to make contact with his artillery, but they wouldn’t talk to him because there were so many Germans acting as Americans. The artillery was afraid to divulge information to him. The spotter made contact with several individuals, but none would talk to him. Finally they said to him, “Give us the answers to these questions.” They asked him questions only an American would know, such as “Who won the World Series last year?” He answered enough questions to convince his compatriots that he was American. The radio contact from a different artillery outfit believed him. They said, “If your group will march along the draw at so many steps a minute, we will lay a circle of fire around you and cut a path through the German lines.”
So we started out, and it was difficult to maintain the pace we were given because we were walking on the slopes of the draw covered with snow and ice. We were still carrying our mortar weapons. We had taken the guns apart and divided them into three pieces because of their weight. I was carrying the barrel. It was very heavy. Partly due to the weight of the barrel, and partly to the snow and ice I was trying to walk on, I slipped down, wrenched my knee, and it stiffened on me. If you fell behind, you were killed by your own artillery, so you had a good incentive to go on. I went on, dragging my leg behind me. I was a little sorry that I damaged my knee when I played football.
Then the order was passed down by the ranking officer that we could discard any heavy equipment we were carrying, and we threw our mortar into the draw. I’m going to guess I wouldn’t have made it out if I had had to carry the mortar much farther. Maybe I would have. In addition, I remember other GIs carrying soldiers who couldn’t make it on their own. Their arms were thrown over the shoulders of others who were dragging along – that sort of thing.
One other bad thing happened during the march. What the artillery was doing for us was hard. They had made a traveling ring of fire to surround these hundreds of straggling men. But as they were firing to save us, a lot of these artillery shells fell in our own group. If they hadn’t cut us a path through the German lines, many of us would have been dead because the Germans would routinely take captives behind their lines and shoot them. This escape along the draw occurred on Dec. 18, 1944.
We marched to where we could observe friendly troops. We had probably reached Elsenborn, Belgium, but there was a barbed wire fence between us and the friendly troops. We began crossing the barbed wire fence. Some were going over, and some were climbing through. One member of our platoon accidentally fired his carbine as he was climbing the barbed wire, and I heard the bullet go past my ear. We had trained for hours and hours not to carry the weapons in such a way that this could happen. Even when you learn to hunt quail, you are taught to break your gun. He was scared, frozen, hungry, but after all I’d been through, it would have been a shame to have been shot accidentally by my fellow soldier.
We joined the friendly GIs, and we thought we were going to get to rest awhile, having been through this ordeal. But we received orders to regroup and proceed to the front. That was Elsenborn Ridge. Some historians now believe this battle stopped the progress of the German troops and had more effectiveness than Bastogne, where the “Battling Bastards” gained fame.
We went back to the front. We arrived at nightfall on purpose. One group of us was huddled under a poncho. My friend Rex said it was the most miserable night of his life. It was frigid; I remember snow banks that were huge. Belgians now say it was the worst winter in 25 years in Belgium.
We were ordered to dig in, and to my recollection my friend Rex and I dug in together there for the first time. We dug “two-men foxholes” or “sleeping foxholes.” They put two men together for psychological reasons – to keep you from going nuts. So Rex and I dug in.
The Germans held the high ground up in the hills. The rest of our company dug in, as did those left in the battalion. The German tanks were armed with .105 millimeter cannon. If two soldiers got out of a foxhole at the same time, the Germans would fire 105mm shells. The tanks were on the hillsides. Foxholes were dug far apart so not to attract attention. If only one man got out of a foxhole, the Germans wouldn’t squander a shell on just one. We would have to ascertain whether anyone was already out before we got out of the foxholes. We emerged a lot at night so they couldn’t see us. We could hear the motors of the tanks running. If they had moved the tanks forward, we could not have stopped them. But they chose just to shell us with the 105s. Those tanks did not roll.
Weather may have been a factor in this decision, and I’m sure that tank fuel was a factor. This was their last big thrust. Eisenhower wrote that if they had taken Antwerp and obtained its fuel, they would have pushed the Allies into the British Channel. The entire outcome of the war might have changed. In their planning, the Germans had picked a time when our planes couldn’t fly.
We were there in this position and under these conditions for six weeks. At night we got out, got pieces of limbs, and constructed a makeshift roof over our foxholes. The roof would then get covered by snow and would not be real obvious to the enemy. The group would get gasoline from the rear echelon and put some in a can or bottle with a wick, light the wick, and use it in the foxhole for heat. The men would lie in the hole and inhale these fumes, and their faces would get black with smut. You’d see a guy get out, and his face would be black against the white snow. Rex and I also liberated some blankets for our foxholes.
It was in this position that we were sent back to Elsenborn on a work detail. While we were there, in one of the German homes we passed we saw a three-quarter bed that had a mattress, and we said, “Wouldn’t that be great in the bottom of our foxhole?” We literally dragged it back to our foxhole over a pretty good little distance, and when we got there the mattress was too wide to go in our hole. To make the foxhole wider we would have had to cut new roof material to cover the wider hole. We just took the mattress and dragged it out into the snow.
Following the throwing away of the mattress, the company commander came to our foxhole, said an artillery spotter plane had radioed Division Headquarters, who radioed Regimental Headquarters, who radioed Battalion Headquarters, who informed our Company Commander that these red objects in the snow served as a flag in the white snow and would draw enemy fire. So Rex and I had to get out in the tundra at night and dig a hole to bury the mattress.
Also from this position we were allowed to go back for another work detail. I was staying in a big barn, and I came back into the barn from having been on my detail. I had been armed with a .45 pistol, but had left it in the barn where I was sleeping. I looked for it, but the pistol was gone. Someone had stolen my pistol. Whenever we got through with our work details, we went back to the front and to the hole. I did so and told my comrades my pistol was stolen. If you lost your sidearm, you had to pay for it, by the way. Someone said a new recruit had come into our camp, and he was armed with a pistol and a rifle. We were not supposed to be armed with both those weapons, so I said, “Where is he?” I was told where the new man was.
Now, during the war I had become pretty grisly looking. I had grown a walrus mustache. We were not allowed to have whiskers below the upper lip. So I had grown one along my cheeks and up the sideburns. I had scraped wax off the K-ration boxes (wax was used to keep them dry) and used it to wax my red mustache. I suppose I looked pretty rugged. We’d been through quite an ordeal – plus my size (six feet four inches tall), plus I was mad as hell, and I went to the hole and said, “Who’s new here?”
An 18-year-old said he was the new one, and I said, “I understand you have a pistol.” He admitted he had one, and I said, “Let me see your pistol, boy!” (I was 22 years old!) He handed it up to me. It had my serial number on it. He was literally scared to death. I said, “Where did you get this?” He said, “I was going to the front lines, and I was scared. I saw an extra weapon in the barn, and I just took it, Sir.” I said, “Boy, I ought to shoot you with this pistol, and if you ever give me any more trouble, I’m going to shoot you.” I wasn’t really going to shoot him, but I was mad.
We were still in this position when an older GI, who certainly should not have been on the front lines, went out one morning and wrapped his arms around one of these trees in the Ardennes and pulled the pin from a hand grenade and blew off both hands. He did this so he could get sent back off the front lines. He probably did not survive, though. If he survived, he would eventually have been flown to Great Britain, but we never heard from him again. He should have been taken off the front lines before he did this.
Every daybreak we would look out, hoping the weather would improve so that our Air Corps could fly. One morning I heard somebody shouting, “Here come the dots! Here come the dots!” when a plane appeared on the horizon, it looked like a dot. This expression in this soldier’s particular vernacular was terminology for saying, “Here come the planes.” So the Air Corps came and just bombed the hell out of the German lines. Patton came in pretty soon thereafter. Patton’s Third Army drove up from the south into the Germans and either cut off some Germans or caused them to fall back. That ended the Bulge. I didn’t know it was ended until afterward.
After that we started moving forward again. All this time (three months) we’d been bathing out of a helmet, and at some point they were able to send a few of us at a time to take a bath in a nearby town that had been captured. The guys behind the lines had constructed a shower. Water was poured in an elevated container, and you got under it and poured it over yourself.
While we were back from the front and in this town, we had to wait to get our opportunity to use the shower. We were just lying around on the ground waiting for our turn, and a jeep pulled up. There were stars on the bumper of the jeep – a general’s demarcation. I looked up, and there was an officer standing up in the jeep. I could see he had a pearl-handled pistol on each hip and stars on his helmet, and I said to myself, “Uh oh!” The general said to all of us: “You SOBs stand up and act like soldiers.” We had just been through the Battle of the Bulge, and this was our first shower in months, and he ordered us to stand up and look like soldiers. He sat down, and then the jeep drove off. It was Patton.
This was the only stationary position we were in for the balance of the war. When we went back to the work area that first time, I met a friend who was with me in ASTP. I had lost everything in the Battle of the Bulge except what I had on. My friend’s duty was to see that dead soldiers were buried and that their effects got sent home. He gave me a U.S. Army issue razor, which is not important enough to send home, and I used it for the balance of the war and also for the next 20 years. I still have it.
At some point, I lost my combat boots. This was before the Bulge. I wore a size 14, and in combat the army couldn’t provide me with a pair because of my size, plus my being on the front lines – so I got a pair of four-buckle arctics. These are intended to be worn over combat boots. I didn’t have a combat boot to wear, so, of course, the arctics were too large for me. I wore 12 pairs of socks with them for a long time – through the winter of 1944, that frigid winter – with only those 12 pairs of socks and those rubber arctics.
Our first move forward was to Sourbrodt, Germany, Jan. 1, 1945. What a nice way to spend New Year’s Day. From there to Neuhof, Germany. We went forward to Aubel, Belgium, which is now the location of a huge American military cemetery. Then on to Wittesfeldt, Belgium, and to the Siegried Line, which was named after a German general who designed it. It was a line of concrete pillboxes on the German border of France that supposedly made Germany impenetrable.
SW: What is a pillbox?
HW: The pillbox was a concrete enclosure. I can’t recall how large, but they would hold at least a platoon of soldiers or let’s say 30 soldiers.
We set up facing the Siegfried Line. My particular gun was a mortar. We were bouncing shells off one or more pillboxes, and the concrete was so thick the shells wouldn’t penetrate. I thought then, “We may not be penetrating, but I bet we’re giving them a headache.”
We were shelling and not penetrating, but finally we dropped an 81mm shell in the ventilator shaft of one of the pillboxes. Our good shot was really just luck. The way we aimed the mortar was that we would shoot one shell too far from the target and then the next one too close, then compute the difference between the two, and we’d hit the target on the next shot. This technique wasn’t refined enough to hit a target as small as this ventilation shaft. It sure was bad luck for the Germans that we hit it. The shaft was not much bigger than the shell. I’m sure it killed everyone inside.
We eventually broke through the Siegfried Line. From there to Champagne, Belgium, passing through Verviers. The Germans were dropping back, but we were still fighting all the way. This was February 1945. Then to the Cologne Plains and forward, March 1945. On March 7, 1945, I received a pass to go back to Brussels for rest and relaxation for three days just to get off the front. I rejoined the troops at Biersdorf, Germany, and from there to Linz, Germany, on March 13, 1945. At that point we were approaching the Rhine River, and the German army was strongly entrenched across the Rhine. Everyone expected it to a bloody battle to cross the Rhine because we not only had to cross the river but to encounter the Germans who were stacked up on the other side.
SW: What was the problem you faced in crossing the river? Was it a furious river?
HW: When you have thousands of troops taking potshots at you across the river, you’ve got a small problem. The river was a natural defense because we had to get across it. Scuttlebutt among the troops of our division was that we would attempt a crossing at Cologne. It’s my recollection that when we were in the vicinity of Linz, a motor patrol found the bridge at Remagen to be unguarded, and the motor patrol radioed that they had crossed it. We were the nearest division to the Remagen Bridge, and we were funneled cross it. The word quickly spread to the Germans. I recall they were ready for us at Cologne. When our division went across the river, the Germans soon found out about it, and it became a bloody battle at Remagen. The enemy was trying to dislodge both ends of the bridge with cannon fire so it would fall into the river, and that’s what happened. They had troops all along the Rhine.
The German army began descending on the Remagen Bridge in an attempt to demolish it. They were killing our troops like flies on the bridge. We had a sergeant, who determined that the German artillery would shoot at one end of the bridge, and three minutes later the artillery would hit the opposite end of the bridge, and then three minutes later hit the first end of the bridge. The artillery was not only hitting the bridge, but also killing our soldiers, of course. Word was then sent down to the troops to run for what you would determine to be three minutes – you didn’t look at your watch – and then fall down on the bridge. Then the German artillery would begin shelling the bridge again. It’s no telling how many lives this old sergeant saved in figuring the three-minute interval shelling. I flopped down near our division chaplain, who was standing in the middle of the bridge. I heard him say, “Don’t be scared, men. God will be on your side.”
We got across the bridge, and other troops and other divisions got across the bridge. There was bloody fighting across the bridge. I heard later that the division chaplain was decapitated by the German artillery as he stood on the bridge, praying for the lives of the soldiers. I presume that to be correct.
That got us across the Rhine River. I believe the Rhine was considered to be the most difficult geographical obstacle in the path of the American army. From the time our troops hit the beaches at Normandy, it was wondered how we would cross the Rhine. I was supposed to let my brother know where I was, so I would send him a V-mail, letters on prescribed pieces of stationery which would limit its length and would be transported by plane. We were not supposed to divulge our location, so my brother and I devised a code. It was that I would address the envelope to Lt. Mercer P. Wolff one week, then the next letter would be Mercer A. Wolf. The next, Mercer R. Wolff, then “I” and “S.” So that he would take the initials of his middle name and read them as a word: “Paris.” And he would know where we were. But we were moving so fast that it didn’t work.
However, he followed our movements through governmental operations. He was in the U.S. Air Corps. He was able to find out where we were through their channels.
My sister Grace read in the newspaper that soap was used by the soldiers to barter with the natives (in the South Pacific probably, not in Europe). Civilians could send packages to the soldiers up to five pounds limit for packages. One day I got a five-pound box of Palmolive to be used in bartering. But people were fleeing, and we hadn’t seen any of the natives. She also sent me earmuffs because she heard it was so cold. But the problem was that we had to listen for incoming shells and couldn’t hear them with earmuffs. Also Mercer hollowed out a loaf of bread and sent a bottle of scotch to me that way. If they x-rayed the package, they would see that outline of a loaf.
I subscribed to the Arkansas Gazette, which is a rather unusual thing for an infantryman in combat to do. They came by ship. They were always very late reaching me, of course. My foxhole-mate’s father had a cheese factory in Idaho, and he would frequently send the five-pound limit of cheese. We only received mail on the front lines on a very limited basis. When we were in this one foxhole for five, six weeks, I remember the mail clerk one night throwing a mailbag into our foxhole which contained a three-month supply of Arkansas Gazette, packages of cheese, soap for bartering with the natives, and five pounds of anchovies – enough anchovies for a battalion. I had written my sister that the six-ounce can of anchovies she had sent tasted good with our K-rations. The mail clerk said to the two of us, “If anyone else in the company has any mail, give it to them.” It is, of course, interesting that I got as much mail as I did. You wouldn’t think I would get any Arkansas Gazette in wartime, but I did.
Our next big battle objective was known as the Ruhr Pocket, and it didn’t turn out to be a big battle because the enemy was falling back, disoriented, disorganized. We took 3,000 prisoners. My recollection is that the resistance from that point forward to the end of the war was less and less.
As we were moving forward, we also scavenged for food. We saw other food than the K-rations, which we were so tired of. We took lodging in vacated buildings and residences where the owners had fled. We were moving so fast that I can remember one time when we entered a German house and red cabbage was still cooking on the stove. In another house, I “liberated” a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” which is still in my possession and bears an inscription as if it were given as a wedding gift to someone.
Another time we spent the night at a German farm that had a large flock of chickens. The GIs cooked chickens well into the evening, and the next morning when we proceeded, there was not a live chicken left in sight. The GIs used a common method in those days to kill chickens by wringing their necks. All that was left in the yard the next day was a flock of chicken heads. Another related incident occurred at another German farmhouse. All occupants had fled except an elderly couple who was unable to flee. The GIs took over the lower floor of the house, and the elderly couple remained upstairs. At one point a GI was cleaning his weapon and accidentally fired it in the home. The German couple came down as quickly as they could with their hands raised. I presume they thought they were about to be shot. They weren’t harmed, though.
As we proceeded, the mortar platoons immediately followed the riflemen. At one point our mortar platoon received word that a German tank was blocking the entrance of the riflemen to a German village. So the mortar platoon set up shop and knocked the tank out of commission. We had set up our mortar in a defilade. I actually was firing the mortar of our platoon. I glanced up on the hill, and I saw a soldier with a 16mm Bell and Howell camera and a First Army patch on his shoulder taking movies of our procedure. I didn’t have time to give him any more thought, but after the war, I happened to buy the same type of 16mm movie camera, and I remembered this episode. I addressed a letter to the war Department (Army) in Washington, D.C. I knew the name of the German village we were firing on and the approximate date. I requested permission to obtain that bit of movie film. Thirteen months later, I received a reply from the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Long Island NY, stating that if I would send four cents per foot for 100 feet ($4) for movie film and sign the enclosed statement that I would not use the film for any anti-U.S. reason, they would send it to me. I received the film from them, and it is still in my possession in its original canister. It shows our platoon in action firing upon a German town.
One GI was a platoon sergeant. He was from San Francisco. He always wore two watches, one with the local time and one with San Francisco time.
It was about this time we “liberated” a German vehicle that was manufactured by Volkswagen. We called it a German jeep. We rode forward in it – as many of us as could – in preference to walking until it ran out of petrol. Another jeep story is that we were moving forward once in an American jeep, and all of a sudden a German fighter plane swooped down upon us so closely that I could see the German pilot’s blond hair. I never did understand why he did not eliminate us, except that he was probably returning to his home base after a mission and was out of ammunition. There’s no other reason he would not have let us have it.
Another time I was a passenger in a U.S. jeep proceeding toward a German village, and all of a sudden a German tank came around a building and fired at us. I recall diving out of the jeep into the ditch and afterward found a gaping hole in the jeep seat right where I had been sitting. The 105mm shell would have hit my stomach had I not jumped out of the jeep.
At some point we crossed the Danube River between Nuremberg and Munich. I don’t recall much opposition. I n this timeframe we liberated the concentration camp called Dachau. We engulfed it. The Germans were fleeing, and we were moving forward. I remember that someone said, “That’s a concentration camp.” I didn’t know what it was, and the other soldiers fighting with me didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps. (One of our division’s flags now flies at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.) I had never heard the word “Dachau.” I thought it was a prison camp for Allied soldiers. Not until I had returned to America did I learn fully what had transpired at Dachau. The rear echelons of our division more than likely went into the Dachau camp after we liberated it. We were chasing the Germans. I did not personally go into the concentration camp.
In May 1945, I could see the Bavarian Alps. I recall reclining in a hay barn in the countryside of Bavaria. I had an appendicitis attack, and I remember hearing that the war in Europe had ended. I had no medical treatment, but reclined there in the hay barn until I got over the appendicitis attack.
From there we proceeded to Wurzburg, Germany, in the Army of Occupation. My recollection of Wurzburg is that practically all of what would have been the downtown was wiped out. The main building left standing was the jail, which we occupied. German prisoners were brought in for interrogation, and since I could speak a little bit of their language, I was the interrogator. I knew a little Yiddish from hearing it at home, and I could talk to and understand the Germans. The main thing I was asked to find out about them was ‘what was your work?” – “Vus vas dan arbiter?” - and “Vus vas dan nomen?” – “What was your name?” You should have heard my southern Yiddish accent! My commanding officer was looking for someone to interrogate the Germans. We wanted to know what work the prisoners had done before the war – who were the bricklayers, for instance – so we could put them to work for the Army of Occupation. We were in Wurzburg for several weeks, during which we “liberated” quite a few barrels of German beer in what we called the “Beer Hall Putsch.”
We remained in the Army of Occupation till our division got the call to come back to the U.S. to have a month-long furlough. After that we were to report to the San Francisco Port of Embarkation to ship out for the upcoming invasion of Japan. We went from Wurzburg to POE at LeHavre, France, to leave for the U.S. We were transported by freight train boxcars to France. The doors of the boxcars were open, and I took several photographs. While I was in LeHavre, Truman ordered that the bomb be dropped.
I was not out of the army at that point when we returned to the U.S., and I reported to a camp at Durham NC. I was discharged there. The passenger tickets on any public conveyance were still very hard to come by. I hitchhiked from Durham to Memphis TN. From Memphis I was able to catch a bus to my hometown of Dumas AR.
I thought the best war cartoon was one in Stars and Stripes; two beat-up, old dogfaces, unshaven and disheveled. They liberated some cognac, and they sent it to the lab to be tested. The lab report came back, and it said, “Your horse had kidney trouble.”