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My war experiences

L/393

It was early in the morning before sunrise on Dec. 16, 1944, that began one of the most difficult four days of my life. An artillery barrage started nearby. I was in a dugout with two buddies in the Ardennes Forest. There was a deep hole in the ground, large enough for three men to stand with their eyes at ground level. Another less deep digging extended back from the deeper hole. It was covered with logs to protect us from shrapnel from exploding shells. We laid there with our raincoats under us and an army blanket over us since the ground was covered with snow.

The barrage was coming from the enemy artillery, and one of my dugout mates with more experience said he had not experienced a barrage of this intensity. After awhile, the barrage stopped, but machine gun fire started at some distance from us in the forest. Soon our squad leader sergeant appeared and told us to follow him through the forest. We grabbed our field backpacks and rifles and followed him to the part of the forest that was near our battalion headquarters. Automatic weapons were firing in the distance. German automatic weapons had a faster rate of fire and could be identified quickly by their distinctive sound.

I was told to lie prone in the snow and watch through the forest for enemy soldiers. While there, a shell burst in the trees directly above me. Army training told me that a tree-burst shell projects shrapnel down on everything underneath. I was certain I had been hit, but as a wiggled and felt of my back I could feel nothing – no pain anywhere. Later, when the sergeant called me to come, and I got up, I saw an exploded shell casing lying on the ground near me. One portion was blown out, but most of the casing had not disintegrated as it was supposed to. The outside was painted with familiar olive drab paint. Friendly fire!

The sergeant led me to where the rest of my platoon was gathered, and we went very quickly through the forest. It seemed that we were retreating, or was it a withdrawal? We went single file, sometimes running, then stopping to dig in with shallow entrenchments for the next several days. The trees of the forest were planted fir trees, and if you looked along the row of trees you could see for a distance, but if you tried to look across the rows you did not see anything but trees.

One time I could see men going through the forest single file, but I could not identify the shape of their helmets so I did not fire at them. Another time while I was trying to dig a hole, a rifle shot passed very near to me. Then I heard a BAR (Browning automatic rifle) answer to that single shot. Then all was quiet again.

Sometimes we moved through the forest at a fast march pace, and I became so exhausted I could not keep up. I was at the tail end of the column. On the morning of Dec. 18, our Platoon Sergeant Juhl told us that a medical aid detachment of the 395th Regiment was near us and anyone with a wound or injury could go get help. I got permission to join them, because I could not breathe and get my breath. I thought I needed some kind of medication. One of our aid men led us to the medical aid set-up and I sat on a log while the doctor, a captain, was helping the wounded. Then he came to me but told me he could do nothing for my breathing difficulty. I mentioned to him that I had been sent back in November to a field hospital with swollen feet from the cold. I had returned to my company a week before the battle started. He told me to take off my shoes and socks, and he went off to look at someone else. He returned a few minutes later and was still about five feet away from my bare feet when he said to the T-4 medical sergeant, “Evacuate this man!” This was the beginning of a new phase in military life for me.

This new phase in military life began, but not too quickly. I was informed that our route to the rear had been cut off. I was to stay with the medical company for the night. It became complicated. The 395th regiment was apparently misdirected to march up to Elsenborn Ridge that evening, and I had to join them in the march. I dragged myself along to the ridge that looked down on the village of Krinkelt. I saw buildings burning, including the church. It was awful. We had no sooner gotten up there when we were told to return to our previous position in the forest. I spent the rest of the night trying to sleep in a dugout which the medical company had.

Good news in the morning! A firebreak had been located in the forest that could be used to get to Elsenborn. No ambulances were available, but there were jeeps including the chaplains and a ¾-ton truck. Wounded were laid on stretchers across the vehicles and I was to sit on a tailgate of one jeep. The firelane was not paved so the four-wheel drive military vehicles struggled with some deep mud in places. We were uncertain whether enemy soldiers were in this part of the forest but nothing was encountered. Finally we drove up a hill out of the forest. Our driver said we were out of danger and Elsenborn was just ahead.

A medical detachment stationed in Elsenborn checked me over, found I had a fever and put me in an ambulance. I was taken to a field hospital in a converted school building where I was led to a bed in a wardroom and told to undress and get into a pair of Army pajamas. I would spend the next several months in this type of dress.

As I put on my pajama pants, I noticed my legs were dark gray. I told the orderly that I needed a pan of water to wash the mud off my legs and feet. He brought me water, and I wiped the damp cloth across my feet. No mud was on my legs. They stayed gray. Soon the orderly returned, and I showed him my gray legs and feet. His eyes widened, and he quickly left. Very soon, a doctor came into the room and looked at my legs with great concern.

The next morning I was in an ambulance and soon found myself in a real hospital in Liege, Belgium. A day later I was on a hospital train to Paris. After a short stay there, I as on a train bound for the coast where a hospital ship took me across the English Channel on Christmas Day. We landed at Southampton and were sent to a military hospital on the southern coast near Plymouth, England.

Here I was to stay for two months while my feet were restored to reasonable walking ability. I had to stay in bed, use a wheelchair to get around to the lavatory and listen to the 30 other men in the ward relate their experiences. They had some soft cover books to read, and I found a book by John P. Marquand that I found interesting.

My feet were not so good. Dead skin on my toes started to peel loose, and then an infection started under the loose skin. To stop the infection the doctor had me soak my feet in potassium permanganate solution. This turned the dead skin a dark brown. People walking through the ward stared at my feet with wide eyes. I felt I did not need sympathy because I was out of the war and getting medical attention. Finally the infection healed and the condition of my feet improved. I was ZI’d out of there (ZI’d or ”zone of interior” meant that you were sent to the U.S.). I was put on an American hospital ship to cross the Atlantic. The ship had a large open room like a hospital ward. Several nurses were in charge. The ship sailed out of Bristol and after about 15 days landed in Charleston, S.C. The crossing was rough at first in the North Atlantic but became more pleasant as we got further south.

Good news and bad news! I was back in the U.S., and I was allowed one free phone call home. My call revealed that my father had left my mother, and they were not on speaking terms.

Back in America was a very different experience as I was shipped from Charleston, S.C., to San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio was the location of many military facilities and where Brooke General Hospital was located. Brooke had taken over most of the Army base, and the barracks had been converted into hospital wards. One large area was beds with men recovering from foot problems. When I recovered good walking ability, I got a 45-day convalescent furlough. A great moment it was, although a long train ride was required on slow trains to get to Michigan. When I returned to Brooke I was put through physical therapy and prepared for discharge or limited service duty. I was chosen for limited service and was sent to Fort Knox, Ky. While there I met Gerry McCray from Grosse Pointe, and we became lifelong friends. The master sergeant had too many limited service soldiers, and we were sent to a premium spot – Ashford General hospital in West Virginia. In peacetime it was Greenbrier Hotel, a favorite destination on the C&O Railroad. There we received our medical discharge and left for home on Thanksgiving Day 1945.

Now to go back to the beginning of my military experience. It all started immediately after graduation from high school in June 1943. A draft put all young men 18 years or older in some military service, and I became 18 during my senior year at Cooley High School in northwest Detroit.

In July 1943, I was sent to Fort Custer near Battle Creek and given Army clothing and a written examination. I did well on the classification test and I was entered into the “Army Specialized Training Program” (ASTP), which would send me to college. But first, I was sent to North Camp Hood, Texas, a very crude Army camp – hot and desert-like. After three months of basic training in hot Texas sun, they sent me to Hendrix College, Conway, Ark., for a basic engineering program. In three months I passed the first semester and then after a month or so into the second semester, the announcement arrived that ASTP was to be ended.

ASTP had two purposes: one, a long war would eventually require more trained engineers; and two, the colleges needed more students. The draft had emptied the schools’ enrollment of young men.

I was sent to Camp Maxey near Paris, Texas, where I joined the 99th Infantry Division as a rifleman. I was assigned to Company L, 393rd Infantry Regiment. A lot of ex-ASTP guys were sent to the 99th. We had refresher basic training program, and then trained with our entire units. This included long marches and combat training. Camp Maxey was in northern Texas and had a better climate and better buildings than North Camp Hood.

Around the end of August we started preparations to leave for a POE (Port of Embarkation). We had no idea which way we would go to be in combat. We were put on a troop train that headed north. Then it headed east across Illinois, and we knew we were headed for Europe. The train passed through Michigan on the Grand Trunk through Flint near my grandparents’ house. It did not stop so I could not say hello to them. It crossed Ontario, and some of our group said it was their first time in a foreign country. I told them Canada was not really foreign. We finally arrived at POE – Boston. We boarded the SS Argentina of the Moore-McCormick Line which in peacetime cruised to South America and was converted to a troop ship. Our bunks were deep down in the ship and arranged in an open space seven high. We were able to spend a lot of time up on the foredeck. Two meals a day were more than some seasick fellows could tolerate.

We landed in Southampton, England, and were trucked west to a camp near Weymouth. We spent most of a month there, keeping fit. Marches in England with hills and winding roads were very scenic and easier than in Texas.

In October we left the camp and went back to Southampton and crossed the English Channel on LSTs and were trucked across northern France to Belgium. Early in November we took up our position in a “quiet sector” in the Ardennes Forest at the German border. We lived and slept in dugouts as I described earlier. It was cold and snow covered the ground of the forest. After about a week we were told to get warm water in steel helmets and immerse our feet in them. My feet swelled up, and I was sent to the hospital for a week, then some vigorous exercise for 10 days and then back to L/393 on about Dec. 10. On Dec. 16, all hell broke loose and I got out as related above on Dec. 19. I left this very difficult experience with badly frozen feet and eventually returned to Charleston on the hospital ship.

When I was first in the Army hospital, they gave me a copy of Stars & Stripes, the Army newspaper, widely distributed among all unites that had time to read. Stars & Stripes referred to the German attack on Dec. 16 as “Von Rundstadt’s counterattack.” Before the 16th, the U.S. 2nd Division just north of the 99th Division was attacking into Germany, and a counterattack was typical. After a day or two the Army understood that the German attack was a much greater plan. It became “The Battle of the Bulge.” On Dec. 16, there was no “Bulge.”

Last modified Oct. 22, 2010

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