Humphrey's essay: The 99th goes on the offensive years ago
By Robert E. Humphrey
At the beginning of February 1945, the long Battle of the Bulge finally concluded for the 99th Division. After enduring weeks in freezing foxholes, the troops expected a well-deserved rest. That didn't happen, at least not right away, for mopping up operations awaited them. The three regiments assembled in Elsenborn and were trucked eastward to the border between Belgium and Germany, the front line held two months earlier. Roaring through the Belgium villages of Butgenbach, Bullingen, Krinkelt, and Rocherath, they witnessed the destructive aftermath of sustained artillery barrages and furious fighting — houses without roofs and walls, rubble-filled streets, demolished tanks and vehicles, dead GIs, smashed vehicles, discarded equipment, horse carcasses, and helmet-less German corpses lying along the roadways. Ken Stanger N/395 passed a blackened American tank where the stench indicated bodies remained inside. There is, he commented, "nothing worse" than the smell of burnt, decomposing bodies, almost like finding "a can of worms that had been left in the trunk of a car for a few days." Unforgettable, nauseating odors would linger in the minds of veterans long after the war ended.
Oakley Honey C/395 observed dead German soldiers scattered about, one lying beside the road without a head, a few propped up against walls and buildings, a figure in the middle of the street flattened by a tank, and all "covered with a thick layer of mud, almost as if they had been bronzed." Frozen, bloated Germans, with arms and legs sticking straight up, reminded B.C. Henderson B/394 of dead cows back home in Texas, and it bothered him "to see human beings, even Germans, lying there unattended, like some dead animals." William Bartow M/395 saw a frozen American, stripped of his clothes with his arms up in the air; "his mouth was open," and he seemed to be "screaming." Twisted bodies and grimacing faces testified to the violent, horrific way lives had ended.
Preston LeBreton I/393 and his squad were detailed to remove American and German bodies: "Some were on the surface, while others were partly buried in deep snow with arms and legs protruding." The officer in charge warned them to be careful, as the Germans were known to booby-trap the dead. As a precaution they made rope lassos that were placed around an arm, leg, or head of each body. Then from a safe distance corpses were pulled out of the snow and stacked like cordwood in the bed of separate trucks. On "several occasions," as a body was dragged, the helmet and head fell off. To LeBreton this was the "most unforgettable and depressing" experience of the war.
The Checkerboarders relieved the 82nd Airborne and the First Infantry Division, which had fought to capture territory that had been an objective in December. Leaving the 6x6s, the 99ers hoofed their way along muddy paths through a countryside leveled by violent clashes. When Sam Lombardo I/394 walked onto the battleground he saw scores of American paratroopers, "all young, some intact, some in parts," lying in the "killing field." Once beautiful, magnificent forests had been slashed into jagged stumps and splintered branches. Emmett Jackson 1/395 said the tops of pine trees had been cut uniformly by proximity fuses, almost as "if a giant lawn mower had been run over the forest." For Grady Arrington I/395, riddled helmets, smashed pieces of equipment, punctured combat boots, severed appendages "splattered with human blood and mud," and "battered heads with exposed brains" completed the horror. He wondered to himself "how long such a life could be endured by men who had once considered themselves human beings." Some men worried about the permanent effects from witnessing these scenes of death and destruction. It might prove difficult, they feared, for them to return to civil society after experiencing the brutality of war.
On Feb. 4 and 5, as the weather warmed a little, the 99th moved a few miles inside the German border and entered Hellenthal, Udenbreth, Hollerath, and Losheim, towns protected by pillboxes and dragon's teeth, concrete tank barriers that protruded above the ground. Harry Arnold and the 2nd Platoon of E/393 marched under a cold, drenching rain into the tiny village of Udenbreth. Although assigned a roofless house without a rear wall, they considered it "better than a wet hole in the ground." After spending weeks on a barren ridge and before that in dark, dank forests, any structure seemed like an improvement. Despite the presence of two dead Americans in the yard, a lifeless German soldier caught in the middle of nature's call with his pants down to his knees, a knocked-out Sherman tank with its dead crew inside, and a "generous sprinkling" of slaughtered horses, cattle, chickens, and goats, Harry and his buddies acted "like kids in a candy shop, poking into and investigating the whole area." They collected German helmets, daggers, and rifles to be mailed home. But in Arnold's case not a single war trophy arrived in North Carolina; "all were swallowed up by the heroic minions to our rear," he bitterly acknowledged.
Arnold's squad patrolled the area while mortars and 88s sporadically harassed them, as did a gigantic shell hurled from a railroad gun (out of "Krautland") that sounded like a "railway boxcar hurled through the air end over end." Landing not far from Arnold, it spewed a plume of earth a hundred feet in the air, leaving an enormous cavity in the ground. As frightening as that explosion was, Arnold and his buddies considered the mortar a more sinister weapon because its deadly projectiles arrived silently. If a soldier heard the "cough" of the shell leaving the tube, he could drop to the ground or jump in a hole. But if he failed to detect that sound, the mortar shell could descend from a high arc without warning, spraying sharp metal pieces outward.
The combat soldier constantly received orders from a remote authority that operated far behind the front lines. These orders limited the infantryman's freedom of action and placed him in grave danger. He advanced without knowing where he was or what the plan entailed. Subconsciously, he concluded his opinion, perhaps even his existence, had minimal value to those in power. At the most basic level, he survived on his own, forced to make instant, even life-saving decisions. He had to decide where to plant his foot or what concealment to use. Sometimes he weighed the choice of whether to burrow or not. Should he expend energy digging a hole, or should he take a chance and simply spread flat on the ground? Fatigue often tipped the balance. Oakley Honey contended that guys with a background in hard, physical work were more likely to dig, while "city slickers sometimes took the easier route." Frozen or rocky ground removed the safer option for everyone.
Although Arnold escaped firefights with the enemy, other companies met resistance. After stiff fighting, they captured pillboxes and prisoners, but not without casualties, for 16 99ers died during that week. Jay Burke's platoon I/393 used a flamethrower and rifle fire to roust the sleeping occupants of one pillbox, hustling the barefooted prisoners back to American lines wearing only long johns. One young German was shot in the process, and he lay there, Burke recalled, "screaming and calling for his mother" for hours until he died.
On Feb. 11 and 12, after more than 90 days in contact with enemy forces, the brand new 69th Infantry Division replaced the 99th. No one could miss the contrast in appearance of the two Divisions. The 69th's uniforms, Thor Ronnigen I/395 remembered, were "clean and pressed, the non-coms wore their stripes, and all were clean shaven. We were filthy, our uniforms wrinkled and dirty, no one wore any rank or insignia, and nobody was clean-shaven." The 69th Division appeared to Oakley Honey, as if headed for a dress parade, while "we were a motley, ratty-looking group with no one wearing the same uniform." Three months earlier the 99th had looked just as spotless and innocent, but combat, so they proudly concluded, had transformed them into veteran soldiers.
The 99ers walked westward from the Siegfried Line, enduring a sleepless night of cold, wet misery as men sprawled on the ground wrapped in raincoats, blankets, shelter halves, and ponchos. The next day trucks carried them 12 miles to villages southeast of Waimes, Belgium, where they stayed for a week in damaged homes and barns. The men were put to work cutting trees, building corduroy roads, and carrying rock debris to fill in large holes in the highways. Promised hot showers, comfortable houses, clean clothes, picture shows, and rest, Jay Nelson I/395 wrote to his mom in Montana about the reality of his situation, "we have lots of water," but it "is running down the middle of the road." Instead of "nice houses, we sleep in barns," and relaxation involved road building with shovels and picks. "Boy," Nelson added, "will I ever be glad to get back up to the front lines where I can get a little rest. Nobody with
After finishing the roadwork, the 99ers were granted a period of rest. Because the roads were too muddy for trucks, the GIs slogged 15 miles to Malmedy, a city mistakenly bombed three times by the U.S. Army Air Corps. In late January, shoepacs (boots with rubber bottoms and leather tops) had been issued long after their usefulness in snowy fields had passed. Shoepacs were not designed for marching. Loose fitting, these shoes produced blisters, and the lack of arch support tired the marching troops. "By the time we reached Malmedy," Carter Strong 2/395 said, "our feet were killing us."
Finally the trucks arrived in Malmedy, and the GIs climbed aboard with standing room only during the 15-mile trip northward to the city of Verviers. As the trucks screamed through the city's streets, Belgian civilians cheered. Carter Strong found it "a thrill to see all the civilians and the attention they paid to us." At least some people appreciated their sacrifices. But Harry Arnold spotted garrison soldiers, "resplendent of uniform," who "stonily" regarded "[our] rude looks — frayed uniforms, unkempt, holed helmets and hollow eyes." Arnold angrily concluded combat soldiers "may have more in common with enemy infantry across the way than with the army in his rear." Awareness of the differences between those at the front and those out of danger only became apparent when combat soldiers visited the comfortable world of the rear echelon, where, Y.B. Johnson D/394 wrote his parents, they "stare at you as if you were some wild animal." Frontline GIs were viewed as an alien species deserving neither admiration nor gratitude for their sacrifices. Such attitudes gave them more incentive to stay with their own kind.
The troops were distributed to villages in the vicinity of Aubel, the original jumping off place the previous November. Thor Ronnigen and his squad finally enjoyed a hot shower in tents erected by the engineers. Afterwards Thor commented, "I hardly recognized many of my friends; it had been so long since I had seen them clean." When platoon sergeant Charlie Swann L/394 shed his layers of clothing, he overheard one of his men say about him: "Jesus, I thought he was big, but he's skinny." In stripping down, Swann literally and figuratively lost some weightiness.
The Checkerboarders rested, showered, drank beer and cider, ate hot meals, watched Hollywood movies, devoured letters from home, visited the old city of Liege, and enjoyed a respite from the tension of combat. Jay Nelson happily informed his mom he was "finally back in civilization," for it had been months since "I even saw a house in one piece." Besides electricity, a source of light they hadn't enjoyed since England, there was an added treat, namely, "two genuine American girls" serving coffee and donuts from a Red Cross Clubmobile. Nelson thought it "the best coffee I ever drank." The volunteers also helped serve chow that night, and the troops kept returning to the line for seconds. He added, "It's hard to explain just how good it is to hear and see the girls." American women represented home, nurturing, and peace, which they had not experienced in months. The troops knew their break would not last, and this fleeting exposure to civilization made a return to the fields of battle more difficult.
No one looked forward to more misery and danger. The respite from combat gave Maltie Anderson E/394 time to think about his family in Alabama, and he grew increasingly homesick and sad. When told they would move out on Feb. 27, Oakley Honey became depressed: "I had the feeling if I go back into combat, I'm not coming back." For several days he pondered how he might avoid combat. On the front some men had shot themselves, several deliberately froze their feet in snow, and a few broke down and left. Oakley did not want to become "a coward," for that would "smudge the family name," and a self-inflicted wound "could get you court-martialed." Eventually he overcame his apprehension by adopting a fatalistic approach. He told himself, "if I am going to get it, I am going to get it, but I am not going to run off." Adopting a resigned attitude, when few alternatives existed in combat, offered a coping mechanism for many facing the possibility of being wounded or killed.
Replacements arrived to fill the ranks, and while the veterans were pleased to have additional help, the new guys were kept at arms' length. As Robert Hawn G/393 explained, "after three months in combat, those of us who survived found that we were reluctant to accept anyone as more than an acquaintance. It lessened the pain of seeing or hearing of their death if they were almost a stranger." When Ralph Oldroyd joined E Company/394, he discovered the others pretty much ignored him. Upon Fred Kampmier's arrival at the 3rd Platoon, I/394, a veteran told him to empty his duffel bag and hand over the extra set of new clothing.
Before departure General Lauer ordered a review and inspection. The troops spent a day cleaning equipment, clothes, and weapons, an annoying throwback to pre-combat training. Each man received a new pair of socks with instructions to pull them on over his boots before the marching to the parade ground, thereby keeping their footwear spotless. Lauer arrived (an hour late) and moved along the ranks scrutinizing the soldiers. John McCoy F/393 remembered the General was displeased about "our raccoon faces," but he didn't understand that soap would not remove the layers of soot accumulated from gasoline flames. Lauer stopped before a man with a bullet hole in his helmet. "Soldier," he asked, "did you put that hole in your helmet?" "No sir!" The GI replied. "Get a new helmet," the General ordered. Lauer failed to comprehend that a soldier who miraculously survived a bullet through his helmet had acquired a talisman, a good luck charm he believed would save him from future harm.
Lauer then climbed on the hood of a jeep and delivered a send-off speech intended to fire up the troops. Oakley Honey remembers Lauer saying, "We fought the Krauts in the woods and the mountains and beat them. Now we were going to get a chance to fight them in the open. We are in for a lot of new experiences, and we are happy, happy because we are at long last to go on the offensive." Carter Strong recorded the General saying, "We would soon be meeting the enemy in a different way. We would be routing him out of his defenses with our bayonets as we attack, and attack, and attack." Standing near the jeep, Emmett Jackson heard, "I have given you the opportunity of fighting in the woods, and you fought well. I shall now give you the opportunity of fighting on the plains. I know that you can fight because I can make you fight." A GI near Jackson added cynically, "I know you can die because I can make you die."
Despite Lauer's fervor for hand-to-hand combat, the men remained unmoved and unenthusiastic about more fighting, especially the sort entailing close, bloody killing. They also hated to leave Belgium, for its citizens, according to Jay Nelson, "didn't seem to be able to do enuf [sic] for us. When we left they were all lined up on the street and most of them were crying like they had lost their last friend."
On Feb. 27, 1945, the undermanned 99th shoved off in convoys onto the Cologne Plain, flat farmland that extended 35 miles to the Rhine River. Fred Kampmier remembered, "You could see for miles across the countryside," hear the "swish of spinning shells constantly going over," watch the flash of explosions, and "see dead Germans along the side of the road." Previously, in the forested, hilly Ardennes, the Division had fought from defensive positions, hunkered down in foxholes with artillery fending off the attackers. But now they took the fight to the enemy, emerging in the open, often supported by tanks, cannon, and fighter-bombers. For those who endured the withdrawal from the Belgium border and the long period of frozen stalemate during the Bulge, there was sense of accomplishment in moving forward, perhaps to bring the war to a successful conclusion. It was "a great sight," according to Robert Mitsch L/394, to watch the coordinated effort of "a big powerful machine." Surveying the awesome forces, Bill McMurdie A/394 recalled, "we felt like we were all-powerful." McMurdie's sense of invincibility was shattered when a shell hit an officer standing in the turret of his tank. A large steel fragment sliced him in two, "so his body was standing there in the tank minus his head."
The trucks traveled eastward through the ancient city of Aachen, which had been shelled and bombed to rubble. The devastation was so complete that Army engineers could only plow a single lane through the debris, where, according to Radford Carroll E/393, "the most intact building I saw consisted of two walls meeting to form a corner about two stories high." The Allies adopted a bulldozer approach to warfare. Using air and artillery bombardment, German cities and towns were smashed to bits without regard for historic significance, architectural heritage, or civilian casualties. Much of this destruction proved unnecessary and unproductive, but military commanders assumed it would shorten the war and punish the Germans for their transgressions.
The Germans, in full retreat, were eager to cross the Rhine River, a natural boundary and potentially a formidable barrier against the Allies. Along the way lay hastily discarded equipment and gray uniformed corpses, including a dead German on his back with an empty wine bottle in his hand, placed there by a "GI joker" who thought others would find it humorous. Reducing the enemy to a harmless object of derision made it easier to perform the dirty business of killing. In a few villages and towns, the 99th encountered stiff resistance and casualties. From March 1 to 6, when they reached the Rhine River, the 99th suffered 115 dead and many more wounded.
Rearguard German troops (often young boys and old men) and a few tanks were left behind to stall the American advance. Perhaps sensing they were being sacrificed so others might escape, these inexperienced troops showed a willingness to surrender. When Forbes Williams G/395 flushed out a German corporal, much to his surprise, the captive, a former resident in America, asked him: "How did the Cleveland Indians do this year?" After an enemy soldier gave up, a replacement in L/395 grabbed James Tolmasov's BAR and fired at the POW's feet to make him dance. Unfortunately he lost control of the weapon and shattered the prisoner's arm. One soldier from C/395 also recounted Germans were killed "unnecessarily after they had surrendered or were trying to surrender." It bothered him but "not enough to say anything."
Some units faced a serious firefight crossing the 30-foot wide Erft canal just outside the prosperous city of Bergheim, about 11 miles from Cologne and 17 miles to the Rhine River opposite Duesseldorf. Heretofore the 99th had fought mainly in fields and forests devoid of German civilians, but now Checkerboarders entered towns and villages where the enemy could hide behind doors or in cellars, sometimes amongst civilians, complicating tactics and increasing the possibility of killing innocent people. If white flags or sheets were hung outside, troops moved in peacefully. If German soldiers in a town resisted, the infantry would radio for devastating artillery and tank shelling, resulting in massive damage. Then squads would move in, going house to house searching for the enemy. It was potentially dangerous fighting, and, if civilians lingered or were trapped, they could become victims too. Bolted doors proved an inviting target. Y.B. Johnson took pleasure in "doing one thing I've always wanted to do," namely "cut a nice circle around the lock and door [knob]" with a Tommy gun. On occasion German civilians were employed to open doors just in case an enemy soldier might be hiding in a room or cellar. Steve Kallas E/394 would kick open the front door and race through the house. When he reached the basement, he would call out in German for everyone to surrender. "If we received no response, we would lob two to four hand grenades into the basement and then run out the door." It was hoped that no civilians were hiding there, but no one knew for certain. Once, just before Byron Whitmarsh C/395 was about to toss a grenade in the basement of a monastery, a priest came up the stairs. Whitmarsh stopped. He discovered the basement was full of old men, women, and children.
Towns offered the chance to sleep indoors away from the elements (climbing into clean, feather-ticked beds with muddy boots on) and the opportunity to "appropriate" food, souvenirs, and alcoholic beverages. In Carsdorf, Fred Kampmier and his squad moved into a house and found canned fruit, dried meat, and live chickens that quickly hit the frying pan. George Meloy I/393 and his buddy grabbed one chicken in a hen house. As they were leaving with the dead fowl in hand, there, on the back steps of the house, stood the farmer, his wife, and two children who stared at the killer thieves with "blank faces — a scene that could be labeled "German Gothic." Meloy walked away speechless and ate the chicken. Yet, he could not forget that "scene of the enemy's loss and our theft of what was not ours." The fact that it bothered him showed that his former, humane self had not been lost.
After entering the town of Bedburg (the troops called it Bedbug) and flushing out the civilian population, Fred Kampmier ate "a little breakfast at every house" where food was cooking on the stove. Officers instructed enlisted men not to eat German food because it might be poisoned, but Virdin Royce I/395 said, "We ignored the warnings and ate anything we could get our hands on." Eating rock-hard, German black bread, which resembled sawdust in taste (it had become an added ingredient because of flour shortages), transformed Royce into a lifetime devotee of white bread. When Leroy Wagner D/394 entered a house and found a table set with food ready to eat, he and the others sat down and gorged themselves. Soldiers raided German pantries, attics, cellars, and even haystacks looking for fruit, jam, potatoes, and vegetables. Except for sauerkraut (one soldier urinated into sauerkraut-filled jars and placed them back on the shelf), anything was preferable to the unappetizing, monotonous regimen of K and C rations. Army supplies frequently failed to keep pace, so the men were always famished. Like armies of old, infantry troops, in the middle of the 20th century, frequently lived off the land, which meant confiscating civilian food. Eggs, plentiful and easy to prepare, became a favorite. Since the men longed for fresh meat, no German chicken, pig, rabbit, or cow was safe from ravenous GIs. Joe Thimm K/395 remembered, "we thought about survival and creature comforts. If we saw something we wanted or needed, we took it without any pangs of conscience." Breaking up furniture for firewood or taking food to appease hunger occurred out of physical need. Smashing bookcases and picture frames, especially if photos displayed a loved one serving in the Wehrmacht, happened out of anger.
In normal times taking from others would be considered a crime. But this was war. Even before American troops encountered Germans, stealing had become a fact of life for many. Soldiers "appropriated" food, clothing, weapons, gasoline, and liquor from the Army whenever the opportunity presented itself. Unlike rear echelon thieves who pilfered supplies destined for the front and sold them on the black market for money, front line troops took what they needed to stay alive. When the Army failed them, the combat soldier relied on individual initiative.
"Liberating" from the Germans seemed even more justified, if for no other reason than a right of conquest. According to Jay Nelson, the Germans "had been living in class off of other countries," so American troops felt warranted in grabbing anything they desired. Souvenirs included watches, silverware, jewelry, cameras, and weapons. Once a town was taken, citizens were ordered to turn in rifles, pistols (much-prized Lugers and Walther P-38s), swords, and daggers. The townspeople of Norf turned over an amazing and desirable collection, including rifles and revolvers dating from the middle of the 19th century. Cooks and service personnel with trucks, officers with jeeps, and military government detachments could and did accumulate great quantities of treasure. According to Willis Botz S/394, Lt. Col. Frederick Maxwell hitched a wagon to his jeep, which he loaded with plunder. His well-known reputation prompted his men to sing a ditty to the tune of the "Blue Danube" — one line went: "Stop your shooting, Maxwell is looting." But the ordinary GI faced a serious handicap, for everything collected had to be carried, and weight was the enemy of the infantryman. Robert Hawn "liberated" a 1928 model Thompson .45 caliber sub machine gun, but then traded a Sherman "tanker" for a case of 10-in-1 rations. The appeal of the Army's best-prepackaged food took precedence over a valuable souvenir.
Happily troops discovered wine, cognac, schnapps, champagne, and beer, which German families had squirreled away in their cellars. Fred Kampmier and his group dragged a couple of cases of liquor out of a cellar and quickly downed the contents. The U.S. Army granted a monthly allotment of hard liquor to commissioned officers, while abstinence was considered appropriate for noncoms and enlisted men, a condition no other army imposed upon its combat soldiers. Alcoholic consumption (especially by stealing officer liquor rations) became a way to rebel against discrimination and momentarily enjoy a release from combat stress. Ironically places of great danger, namely the front, also proved to be places of great freedom because commissioned officers were often not present. Imbibing alcohol wasn't the only source of merriment. Soldiers availed themselves of bikes, motorbikes, and "half-pint" cars for joy riding through the streets. One group cut the top off a sedan and drove around in the open car with a large bust of Hitler in the rear seat. In the village of Anstel, Emmett Jackson and Headquarters Company/395 "ran all over town on bicycles and motorcycles having the time of our lives." Jay Nelson wrote his mom about "these crazy guys who are going around with high top silk hats or derbies on and nearly everybody has some kind of fancy scarf or belt." Wearing fancy civilian accessories offered the opportunity to disparage upscale civility and to rebel against army regimentation.
Attitudes toward German civilians varied, though generally American soldiers distrusted and disliked them; however, the troops did not mistreat the German people. Grady Arrington considered Germans "misinformed, desperate, and treacherous." Robert Ortalda L/393 conceded, "we weren't friendly to the civilians; we hated them." The Germans, it was believed, had put Hitler in power and were responsible for the war. American soldiers blamed the Germans for their misery and time away from home. Replacements were instructed to lump all Germans together. When Fred Kampmier arrived at a replacement depot (popularly referred to as a "repple depple"), the staff ranted about the "terrible Germans" and encouraged the new recruits to destroy German house furnishings and "throw radios through windows." Robert Mitsch witnessed the "stupid" effectiveness of such harangues when his squad broke into a German post office. To demonstrate their toughness, replacement soldiers went on a "rampage," destroying numerous parcels of toys that had failed to reach German kids.
Lieutenant Y.B. Johnson wrote his wife Olene that sometimes he felt sorry for "some of the old people and kids, but when I stop to think I could be home now if it wasn't for them, I don't care what happens to them." In Bergheim, Grady Arrington described how they rounded up the "aged and decrepit," along with the young, "a despondent and anguished mass of humanity," and herded them like cattle out into an open field. But he felt no "mercy," for they were "responsible for the loss of our closest buddies." After finishing their chow, Richard Weaver's B/395 weapons platoon emptied their mess kits into waste bins. Hungry civilians appeared and tried to scrape out the remnants but were "unnecessarily and inhumanely" chased away. Carter Strong witnessed a similar scene as his unit ate breakfast. Germans kids, carrying little pails and buckets, "silently begged" for scraps of food without much luck. Strong admitted they had "no use for the German people, since we're headed back toward the front again to fight with their men folk and maybe not come back." Because cigarettes became the universal currency during the war (not to mention an addictive habit that soldiers on all sides shared), civilians followed GIs, ever watchful to pounce on a discarded butt. But some soldiers denied Germans this pleasure, deliberately "tearing up cigarette butts and scattering them in the streets, just so no German could pick them up."
GIs had been trained to fight and kill. They had been shelled and shot at; in many cases they had seen fellow soldiers wounded and killed, sometimes in appalling ways. It was difficult, perhaps counterproductive, not to hate the enemy, which included civilians, especially if the other side did not fight fairly. General Walter Lauer had reminded them of the "ruthless sadism practiced by the Nazi beasts" and cautioned them to be "on guard against booby traps and the treachery which they could expect to encounter more and more, for the Boche was full of such dirty tricks." According to Lauer, the "children were dangerous," and the women "were the most fanatical of the Nazi[s]." Rumors circulated among the troops that some civilians, including women, performed as snipers and artillery spotters. On a couple of occasions village residents hung white flags out windows to indicate the town had surrendered, but as the Americans approached, machine and mortar fire raked their ranks. Fanatic German soldiers had decided to ignore the wishes of the villagers. One such incident occurred at Fortuna when German troops began waving a white flag. Captain Joe Budinsky C/395 stood up to tell his men to stop firing when a German rifleman shot him through the head. Whether a misunderstanding or not, C Company men assumed the killing was deliberate.
German soldiers had resorted to booby traps, nefarious devices that seemingly gave the victim no fair chance to avoid injury or death. Since German soldiers occupied houses, it was presumed they, and perhaps even civilians, set booby traps. Leroy Wagner had been warned not to even straighten a picture or painting hanging on the wall. In one village the retreating Germans had stacked a large pile of mines on the outside wall of a brick building. Some troops began to investigate the abandoned mines when they detonated, blowing soldiers apart. Immediately afterwards Robert Mitsch saw hot vapor coming from several spots on a nearby hay pile. An examination revealed those "steaming" parts were actually body fragments from the explosion, a sickening discovery that "made an indelible impression on my mind." Survivors believed the stack of mines had been booby-trapped.
Often the soldier was conflicted, caught between compassion and anger, between the person he had once been and the person transformed by combat. When Bill McMurdie came to the door of a house, an old man met him and started wringing his hands and weeping. Inside he showed McMurdie a "flock of kids not old enough to walk, and all crying hysterically." McMurdie decided to let the man and the occupants remain in the house. John Caglione A/394 offered testimony to the dilemma the combat soldier faced. As his platoon moved into a town, German civilians hurried down the road trying to pass through the American lines and out of harm's way. Caglione spotted "two little boys not yet school age, running with their hands high in the air and tears streaming down their faces. I felt bad when I saw them." Shortly thereafter he came upon a GI glove on the ground with a hand in it; "it looked like a piece of meat you'd see in a butcher shop. I didn't feel sorry for Germans" anymore.
When Fred Kampmier and his platoon entered a farmhouse, they discovered a young girl and her mother. The occupants were quickly chased out, and the GIs proceeded to "turn everything upside down," overturning drawers and depositing eggshells and discards on the floor. When the Hausfrau and her daughter unexpectedly returned for some clothing and personal items, they saw what a mess "we had made out of their house." As the two were leaving, the girl, with tears in her eyes, plunked two notes on the piano — a tiny, civilized rebuke to the soldiers who had vandalized her home. (Years later Kampmier could still hear those notes ringing in his ears, a shameful reminder of their unacceptable behavior) One of the GIs became angry, wanting to know who had let the mother and daughter back into the house. He told the others not to feel sorry for those Germans, as they were "the enemy." Then the squad descended into the basement and began to ransack trunks and suitcases. One soldier took his knife and cut off the leather side of one case. When several cans of American Red Cross food tumbled onto the basement floor, they felt much better. The occupants were not so innocent after all; they had apparently acquired food intended for POWs.
Robert Hawn confronted a similar emotional and moral conflict in Norf, a village G Company/393 had occupied without opposition. His platoon was billeted in a small chateau occupied by the wife of a German officer and her servants. Perhaps out of fear that it would soften attitudes or endanger the troops, Hawn and his buddies "were not allowed to fraternize with the enemy." Consequently the GIs moved into the upper stories of the house, while the mistress and her minions were banished to the basement during daylight hours. When evening came, all Norf's citizens, including the officer's wife, were escorted to several air raid shelters and kept there throughout the night under guard. A young German mother with a small infant approached Hawn and asked if she might return home to collect some necessities for her child. Hawn agreed and accompanied her to the house. Yet, he felt "embarrassed and uncomfortable in doing this small thing for an enemy," especially after she softly uttered "Danke" [thanks] to him as they returned to the shelter. His discomfort stemmed from an inner conflict. The Army expected him to be stern toward the Germans, and yet he could not ignore the plight of a woman and her baby.
It proved difficult to snuff out a sense of humanity toward others, especially children. Francis Chesnik A/395 felt sorry for the women and children, especially after one German lady fixed potato pancakes for them. The German people were frightened, docile, and eager to have the war come to an end. When American artillery raked a field leaving behind dead cows and horses (no creature suffered more in the war), the villagers, women and old men, emerged en masse carrying butchering knives to cut up the freshly destroyed animals. They offered medic John "Smokey" Marcisin I/394 (always the first guy to build a fire) a large piece of hindquarter horse steak, which he promptly cooked with garlic and scallions — a feast he rated a "10 compared to one-rated K-rations."
Carter Strong admitted it was "hard to be rough on the little children, but that was the only case where our sympathy slackened." In fact, compassion also was extended to ordinary people. Under gray, cold skies, Carter watched dispirited people walking along a Stolberg street lined with destroyed houses, the picture "was one of hopelessness and of war." B.C. Henderson "felt sorry" for civilians coming out of towns, carrying all their belongings. Upon entering a house, James Larkey I/394 encountered a "little old couple." When he asked for some firewood, the man went to his oven and pulled out a single piece of wood. "I looked at the man, and he reminded me of my father. I thought, would I want this done to my father? I couldn't take the wood." Similarly Bill Galegar G/395 rushed into a house and came upon a dead grandmother sitting in her rocking chair. She bore no visible wounds though a shell had crashed into her bedroom. He surmised she had died of shock, alone in her own house. Seeing this innocent victim of war disturbed him as much as any death on the battlefield.
When Charles Roland, S-3 3rd Battalion/394, entered Dormagen, he witnessed the "most unsettling sight" of the war. The town had been shelled from both sides. Countless dead and wounded civilians had been deposited on the grounds around a small hospital: men in business suits, women in dresses, and children in street clothes. The victims displayed "every imaginable kind of wound, some lay with brains or intestines spilling out on the neatly mowed grass." His eyes fell upon a "golden-haired little girl who bore a striking resemblance to one I had kissed while in the first grade." While steeled to the dead in uniform, he turned away from "this ghastly tableau with a feeling of revulsion, horror, and remorse."
After Bergheim, the Division cut a six-mile swath and proceeded in a northeastern direction away from Cologne burning brightly in dark skies, and toward Duesseldorf some 17 miles away. Attacks were launched at night, offering the advantage of surprise but the disadvantage of uncertainty and confusion. Rapid movement interrupted regular sleep patterns, and the infantry was forced to grab moments of rest whenever possible. Swift advances and frequent direction changes proved disorienting to Bill Galegar, who felt like a "bug skating on top of the water." B.C. Henderson agreed, complaining we "hardly slept and ate our rations on the move because the push was fast and furious."
After marching along at five-yard intervals, a column on either side of the road, hour after hour, the first units reached the Rhine. When the second scout of K Company/395 spied the river, he turned and yelled to Bill Blasdell's squad, "I see it," whereupon the group gave a "soft cheer of triumph and release." Some men expressed feelings about their foe by urinating in Germany's most famous river. Francis Chesnick approached the Rhine opposite the city of Duesseldorf and heard train whistles sounding and saw civilians hurrying to their destinations. The scene was surreal; on the far side of the wide river, life seemed normal, while war raged on the other.
Once the situation seemed secure, Harold Hill, the esteemed commander of Company G, ordered up the kitchen and had the cooks serve a hot meal in the courtyard of a large house. But tragedy struck after he left for battalion headquarters. A single mortar shell, fired from the eastern side of the Rhine, landed in the courtyard, immediately killing five and wounding another 10 soldiers. When Hill returned, he came upon a bloody scene where even the survivors wept openly over the losses. Hill blamed himself, reasoning that if he had remained, he would not have allowed so many to congregate together in that narrow space. The deaths hit him hard, and he retreated, "like a wounded rat," deep into the cellar of the house. His despair was interrupted and dissipated, however, by orders to have his company prepare for an immediate move.
The Germans hoped and the American troops feared that crossing the wide, swift-moving Rhine River would prove a formidable and deadly operation. Small, unprotected boats would provide inviting targets for enemy machine guns and mortars. No GI wanted to think about the inevitable danger. Then on March 7, word came that somewhere upriver the 9th Armored Division had seized a railroad bridge. Early the next morning, the 99th Division piled on trucks and sped crazily south. No one knew what lay ahead, but a bridge might be a better option.
Next: "Crossing the Rhine River at Remagen"
Postscript: When I began this study of the 99th Division early in 2001, I had no plans to write anything. It was only after contacting several Checkerboarders (around 180 vets to date), who were friendly, straightforward, modest, and happy someone was interested in their story, that I decided to write some essays. Thankfully the Division had an active organization and its own newspaper. I never intended to write a book. But a number of 99ers urged me to publish my writings. I resisted because I know the work involved. A couple of months ago, however, I changed my mind. Since I teach, my free time is limited, but I will finish and send off the manuscript to a publisher — a couple of university presses have expressed an interest in seeing the completed result. So please bear with me and stay in good health.