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The story of Lou Pedrotti

The story of Lou Pedrotti

is shared with readers

     I recall seeing professor Lou Pedrotti at University of California, Riverside when I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s. He taught Russian and seemed sophisticated, dapper, and quite academic — obviously a man who had spent his life in the library. Forty years later I discovered by accident there was more to him than I could ever have imagined, for Lou Pedrotti had served in the infantry during World War II. He was a bazooka gunner, a member of L Company, 395th Regiment that faced the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.

     Lou grew up in comfortable circumstances in southern California and entered Occidental College in the fall of 1941. After Pearl Harbor the government established the Enlisted Reserve Corps, which allowed college students to finish their degrees and become officers, or so the Army promised. Caught up in the spirit of "doing something for the war effort," Lou, his closest friend, Robert McNeill, and other Oxy students signed up for the ERC.

     Hopes of finishing college vanished when the Army ordered Lou and his friends, on St. Patrick's Day 1943, to report to active duty. Soon they were riding on a troop train bound for Mineral Wells TX, where they underwent basic training. The shock of being ripped out of friendly confines and thrust into the grueling arena of Army training was psychologically and physically painful. Stripped of privacy and individuality, civilian sensibilities were soon assaulted by all-powerful drill sergeants determined to teach privileged college boys a lesson in manly toughness.

     Lou survived and scored so high on the Army's intelligence test that he was accepted into the Army Specialized Training Program, which allowed the brightest GIs to continue their college education, but in engineering, again with the promise of becoming officers. So off he went to Tarleton College in Stephenville TX to "break (his) head" on logarithms and cosines. Then, as in the past. the Army changed course, canceled ASTP in March 1944, and consigned the most intelligent guys to the infantry as lowly privates.

     Training at Camp Maxey near Paris TX, involved taking 25-mile marches with 70-pound packs in blazing heat, camping out with chiggers, mosquitoes, and snakes, running obstacles courses, firing weapons, and learning military tactics. Once again uneducated, earthy Army sergeants, using the foulest language possible (a demonstration of manliness), tormented these soft "whiz kids" who had been whiling away their days in pleasant surroundings. But the college boys were determined to prove they could overcome any obstacle thrown in their path, and they succeeded.

     Lou, however, could never overcome his distaste for the Army mess food that replaced his mother's Italian cuisine, and civilized eating became chow hounds fighting for every item of food plumped down on long tables. Steaming black-eyed peas, served without seasoning, "tasted like boiled hay." There were grits, "a tasteless pile of corn discards that even a sow would reject," and boiled okra "wallowing in its own goo." At breakfast the Army cooks regularly provided those infamous powdered eggs that reminded him "more of yellow glue than eggs." These hot meals would be replaced on the battlefield by K-rations and C-rations, ready-to-eat food that was neither nutritious nor tasty. The tobacco companies also "generously" provided free cigarettes, which hooked Lou and thousands like him on "demon tobacco."

     The Army intended to build pride in the unit — not only in the squad and platoon but also in the company. Tossed together under oppressive conditions the men learned they needed each other, and a sense of loyalty to the group evolved. Naturally the college guys easily related to one another, but some infantrymen came from underprivileged backgrounds. Yet, by the time they broke camp in September 1944, they had coalesced into a "tightly integrated body" respectful of each other.

     Some 15,000 men left by train for Boston and then by assorted ships with the soldiers crammed in bunks six men high for various parts of England. On Nov. 1, the division departed for France, and then were transported in open, crowded trucks through France and Belgium. The long, cold, wet trip increased the misery, as did the final trek through snow to a small, picturesque village of Hofen, Germany, where the 3rd Battalion of the 395th Regiment took up winter defensive positions across from the German lines.

     The U.S. Army was not prepared for winter fighting. Men lacked proper clothing, sufficient food, and most importantly, boots that could keep their feet dry, a situation that produced "trench foot" and "frozen feet." Lou encountered another problem; he had no rockets for his bazooka. Another soldier found some German projectiles and wired one up for Lou's launcher. They decided to test fire the bazooka and accidentally bagged a roving German cow, an innocent casualty of war that produced beef stew for the platoon that night.

     Before long Lou's feet began to trouble him, though he only realized the seriousness of the problem when, sitting close to a pot-bellied stove, his feet swelled, and he had to cut his boots off. Lou discovered he had "frozen feet" and couldn't stand up.

     Evacuated to a field hospital in Liege, Belgium, he was placed on the floor of a huge warehouse, along with some 50 other men. Suddenly an officer appeared and his voice rang out, "Well, major, another set of amputees, eh?" A chorus of groans erupted as the men heard the terrifying news. But luckily for Lou, doctors were experimenting with a new treatment of letting the feet thaw out, gradually. Though the outer skin turned black and dropped off, as did the dermis, leaving only red, raw flesh. Lou's feet slowly, painfully healed. He had to learn to walk all over again, but he missed the Battle of the Bulge, a gigantic, desperate counterattack by the German Army, which commenced on Dec. 16, 1944.

     Lou recovered and was sent to Paris and then to Frankfurt to work in the offices of G-3 Redeployment. Eventually he came home and was discharged in April 1946, three years from the date he departed. Returning to Occidental College for his BA, he then completed a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley in Russian and joined the UC Riverside faculty in 1959.

     While luck and fate were on Lou's side, and he survived, others in the group from Oxy did not. Among the casualties were his best friend Robert McNeill, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. For Lou and other survivors a terrible sense of loss and guilt remained, as they questioned why they were spared.

     Lou's military adventures verified the authenticity of fictional accounts by the great Russian writers. Relating his own feelings and experiences to those Russian literary figures, he tried to convince his students this literature was based on authentic experiences, and they should analyze and question what they were served up as "the truth." Most importantly he imparted a lesson he learned from war — "that life is worth living, day by day, hour by hour, and drop by drop."

Robert E. Humphrey

2244 Swarthmore Drive

Sacramento CA 95825