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The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.
-- Calvin Coolidge
I grew up in the small town of Ellis, Kansas during the great depression of the 1930s complete with heat waves, drought and dust storms. We thought such conditions were the norm.I graduated from Ellis High School in May of 1943. I could have loafed around all summer waiting for my draft notice but I asked for immediate induction. My father was furious - thought I was out of my mind.
I was inducted at Fort Leavenworth , Kansas and because of poor eye-sight was classified as "limited service:. This earned me a basic training as a "medic" at Camp Barkley, Abilene, Texas starting in 100 plus degree temperatures in August, 1943.
Upon finishing these thirteen weeks, I was accepted in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) and found myself at the University of Arkansas in December, 1943. With the prospect of needing more bodies for the invasion of Europe, this program was closed and over 100,000 "student-soldiers" were sent to largely infantry divisions, in my case the 99th Infantry Division at Camp Maxey, Paris, Texas.
About a third of the division were ex-ASTPers as the division had been raided for replacements. We "quiz kids" were greatly resented by the old-army types and that would not change much until combat put us all in the same boat. After another basic infantry training, we packed up and entrained for Camp Miles Standish, Taunton, Mass. In late August., 1944.
More training and we boarded ship in Boston harbor and sailed for England. While aboard ship, operation "Market Garden" ("A Bridge Too Far") took place and the two St. Louis teams met in the World Series. (my father and uncle attended). Arriving at Plymouth, England, we took the "toy trains" to Dorchester, (once home to novelist Thomas Hardy). We took over barracks once occupied by the 1st Infantry Division ("Big Red One"), then fighting in Italy.
About November 1, we boarded ship at Southampton and docked at LeHavre, France, the first full division to debark there since the Germans destroyed the port facilities. We went down rope ladders in full equipment at night and boarded "Red Ball" trucks for the drive across France and Belgium. On November 4, we started passing "Long Tom" (155 mm) artillery firing at the enemy many miles away. After fifteen months, we had arrived at the front.
We were stationed on a line running south from Malmedy through the Ardennes Forest on a "quiet" sector to get us used to battlefield conditions and artillery fire. Some quiet front!!
I had been in a rifle company at Camp Maxey but had been transferred to an anti-tank platoon of Headquarters Company of the 2nd battalion, 395th Inf. Regiment of the 99th Division. Our weapons were 57 mm cannon. By the time we arrived at the front on late 1944, the new German Panther and Tiger tanks had rendered our guns obsolete as an anti-tank weapon We trailed along behind the infantry to use our guns against houses, pill boxes and lighter vehicles. Sometimes we were handed "bazookas" to make attacks with the rifle companies.
We spend a relatively quiet month on line, as intended, watching the Germans across the way sawing wood, hanging out laundry, etc. and occasionally tossing a few mortar shells our way and we returned the favor.
The veteran 2nd Infantry Division was attacking pillboxes in the Siegfried Line, passing right through our lines. We were required to support them and to carry cases of ammunition, dynamite, and K-rations cross icy stream and snowy hills to a short distance from the attacking forces. On the return trip, we often carried litters with recent casualties.
Came December 16 and all hell broke lose. The early morning sky was lighted by searchlights, artillery fire was intense and it was evident our officers were alarmed nd confused. The attack on "Heartbreak Corners" had to be called off after many casualties and the retreat began.
We eventually found ourselves back on Elsenborn Ridge, a key position for preventing further German penetration. To get there, we had to pass through the "twin villages" of Krinkelt and Rockerath, described in stateside papers as "the two most valuable pieces of real estate on earth". These villages were held long enough by the 2nd Division to allow us to pass through and dig in on Elsenborn Ridge. To these brave 2nd Division soldiers, we owe our escaping a trip to German POW cages or worse.
We spent the next month on this ridge and I observed my 20th birthday there in a fox hole. Next we crossed the Rhineland, encountering German resistance along the way and ended on the Rhine River across from Dusseldorf. Sometime later we were loaded on trucks and speeded away on an all- night journey to where we had no idea.
The next morning we passed over a ridge and spread before us was the most awe-inspiring and frightening panorama I ever witnessed.. A couple miles away was the Rhine River and spanning it was the now famous Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.
German artillery was raining on and about the bridge, frog-men were in the river trying to plant explosives, the new German jets were dropping bombs. The bridge was a railroad bridge, unsuited for truck and tank traffic.. In order to make it passable, large iron plates had been placed across the railroad tracks. As vehicles rumbled over these plates, they were gradually dislodged from the tracks. Engineers had to leave the relative protection of the towers of the bridge and manually lift these plates back on the tracks! Casualties were naturally high and the crews had to be replaced every fifteen minutes. Even so, some went out of their minds.
A single narrow road led from where we were to the bridge a mile or so away. Along this road was numerous vehicles on fire and in various stages of ruin. The field next to the road was covered with bodies covered by shelter halves. Tanks, trucks, jeeps, etc. were lined up awaiting their turn to cross.
At last came our turn, sitting on a pile of 57mm ammunition, our truck raced for the bridge, rattled across nd in a few minutes was under the relative safety of the bluffs on the eastern side of the Rhine. We were among the first troops to cross the Rhine going eastward since the days of Napoleon I. (So I have read).
Gradually the bridge-head was enlarged, American forces surrounded the Ruhr Valley and over 300,000 German soldiers surrendered. I myself escorted over a hundred prisoners to the POW cages, I sitting on top of a German "jeep" and herding my flock along. It was a foolish thing to do as any fanatic in the woods could have shot me from my perch. As we moved along, many Germans came out of the woods and joined the procession.
Next the 99th was transferred from Hodge's First Army to Patton's Third Army and we went barreling through Bavaria, Patton-style, one village after another., white flags (bed sheets usually) hanging from most houses in the hope we might not murder their family or violate their women, as the Nazis had told them. We often jumped from tanks, rushed into houses with panic-stricken inhabitants and shouted "eir, eir" (German for eggs). They came running with baskets and pails of eggs and some tanks must have had a thousand eggs inside. At each brief stop, out would come the frying pans ( also "liberated"), down would come the fence-rails and soon fried eggs were being consumed sans any bread of condiments.
We ended the war at Landshut, Germany, not very far from the birthplace of the author of all of our misery. After three months in a quaint middle-ages village in Bavaria, we entrained for the channel ports in Frances with a short furlough and the invasion of Japan in our future-or so we were told.
With the dropping of the bomb and V-J day, the wheels were put in reverse. The veterans of North Africa and Italy, with more "points", took our places at the channel ports and back I went to Germany and the Army of Occupation. I spent six more months in the Bremen Port Command helping shuttle supplies to our army and half of Europe.
I sailed from Bremerhaven (where my grandparents had embarked for America 70 years before), sailed past the Statue of Liberty and took a bus to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Then it was a train to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where I was met by my parents, sister and uncle. In June, I started college at the University of Missouri under the "G.I. Bill of Rights", the greatest affirmative-action program in our history.
I married, fathered two sons, adopted a daughter and spent thirty-six years with McGraw-Hill, Inc. I now live in Bettendorf, Iowa, age 76 , with Polly, my wife of 46 years..
We only did our duty but the price was high for many.
Note: by Kenneth F. Haas.
This Day in History
Texan Colonel William Travis sends a desperate plea for help for the besieged defenders of the Alamo, ending the message with the famous last words, "Victory or Death."
Union General George Thomas attacks Joseph Johnstons Confederates near Dalton, Georgia, as the Yankees probe Johnstons defenses in search of a weakness.
Maj. Gen. Frank Merrills guerrilla force, nicknamed "Merrills Marauders," begin a campaign in northern Burma.
U.S. forces liberate prisoners of war in the Los Ba?os Prison in the Philippines.
The U.S. 40th Infantry Division launched the largest tank raid since the beginning of the Korean War. It was the largest deployment of armor without infantry support in a single engagement during the war.
General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition army, sends in ground forces during the Gulf War.