One reason people born after World War II find it difficult to understand why the final days of the war were so destructive is that they do not realize how angry we Allied soldiers had become - and to some extent still are. Once our forces crossed the Rhine, it was clear that Germany was doomed. But Hitler, in his madness, vowed to fight on. Generals and admirals, whatever they thought, supported him. Soldiers and sailors continued to fight in the misguided belief that they were defending their fatherland.
Anger became outrage and horror as our forces began to overrun concentration camps. As General Eisenhower emerged from one of them he asked an American guard if he still had difficulty hating Germans.
Shortly before the 4th Infantry Division crossed the Rhine on March 29 at Worms, I went from artillery liaison officer with an infantry battalion to command of the 29th Field Artillery Battalion's fire direction center. I was in no mood to see any more of my friends in the infantry die. When our troops came under fire from a town, we would shell it heavily.
We were, as always, well aware that we could be causing civilian casualties. The fact that these would be the German enemy, and not French or Belgian friends, made our task easier. The glum faces we met even in the towns we did not destroy reminded us that we were not being welcomed as liberators.
With our forces sweeping eastward across Germany toward a Russian offensive even more ruthless than ours, the 4th Division advanced on a line of attack that took us west and south of Munich. Not far from Munich, the 8th Regiment ran into determined resistance in the town of Ellwangen.
Ellwangen was an SS military training center, with a model defense. Its commander decided that his 400 troops should defend it to the last man. When the commander of the 8th Regiment suggested by telephone, that the German commander avoid a useless battle, he was rebuffed with an obscenity.
With the 8th Regiment's staff planning an attack for the following morning, I suggested we try to force the town's surrender. On the night of April 22-23, the 4th Division and supporting corps artillery fired 1,500 shells into the town. We used delayed fuses so the shells would penetrate buildings before exploding, and we followed these with white phosphorus incendiary shells. Other shells scattered leaflets about how to surrender.
For many years I wondered what went on in Ellwangen that night. In 1992, the town archivist, Immo Eberl, sent me a lengthy account.
The military commander rejected the recommendation of the town's deputy mayor that he and his men leave the town. But after our bombardment began, the German commander had second thoughts. Changing into civilian clothes, he and his men quietly disappeared.
A tragicomedy then ensued, as the civialian leaders tried to figure out how to communicate their wish to surrender. A propasal to send an emmisary in an ambulance was abandoned when it was noted that a key bridge had been destroyed. A plan to raise a white flag on the church tower was delayed; no one could find the key to the church.
We ceased the bombardment early in the morning to see what the response was. An emmissary soon appeared carrying a white flag, and our infantry took the town without an Allied casualty. The civilians had taken shelter in deep cellars. Fortunately, only a few were killed. Damage to buildings was, however, extensive.
A few days after Ellwangen, I visited a concentration camp that had just been taken, near Landsberg. It is hard for me, even today, to describe what I saw there without crying. Hundreds of bodies, I wrote to my parents soon afterward, "were laid out in neat, efficient rows. Some were burned. Some were shot. Some had been tortured and maimed. Others may have just died. All were unbelievably emanciated."
"This can never be explained or pardoned," I wrote, and "the leaders who caused and the men who performed these crimes must die."
Shortly after that, we learned that Hitler was dead - a joyous moment - and the war in Europe finally ended. The rumors that Hitler would make a final stand in an Alpine redoubt having proved wrong, we observed those beautiful snow covered peaks in the distance and congratulated ourselves on not having to fight in them.
Our assumption was that the war was over for us, however, proved wrong. Not long after V-E Day, we learned that the 4th Division would be returning to the United States. There, after an intense training period, were were scheduled to go to the Pacific, to participate in the conquest of Japan.
Having survived the fighting from Utah Beach to south of Munich, I could not help but wonder how long my luck would hold out. I am not inclined to question Harry Truman's decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Had the fighting in the Pacific been prolonged, with the death and destruction that would have ensued, it would have been even more difficult than it is proving now for Japanese and American veterans to escape their bitter memories and bury the past.
Note: by John C. Ausland, 29th Field Artillery
This Day in History
Joan of Arc leads French forces to victory over English at Orleans.
The Chinese Ming dynasty occupies Taiwan.
Austrian troops invade Piedmont.
Union troops officially take possession of New Orleans, completing the occupation that had begun four days earlier.
Americas WWI Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, scores his first victory with the help of Captain James Norman Hall.
The German Army in Italy surrenders unconditionally to the Allies.
U.S. and South Vietnamese forces launch a limited "incursion" into Cambodia. The campaign included 13 major ground operations to clear North Vietnamese sanctuaries 20 miles inside the Cambodian border.
Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation on record, begins removing the last Americans from Saigon.