We regretfully depart from Normandy, not because we are not anxious to go the Alsace-Lorraine region, but because this has been such an enjoyable part of our trip. The people that we met, the activities we were involved in and the places of history that came alive through the translations and assistance of those who were so very willing to help brought about a renewed faith in mankind. We have programmed Matilda to take us to Chalons en Champagne which is a small village approximately 40 kilometers east of Paris. It is our mutual feeling that avoiding Paris may be the wisest thing two American drivers on French roads with very little if any knowledge of the French language may be the wisest thing to do.
We have made a reservation at a hotel in this village, program that information into Matilda and depart. The countryside is absolutely beautiful, large green fields with cows and sheep grazing in them, corn fields both cut and waiting to be harvested, all types of the final remains of the harvest. The drive is along a winding country road with vegetation on both sides, old stone houses are apparent everywhere, some with much repair having been done to them, you see the occasional American WW2 tank, jeep, artillery, and other unidentified artifact from the conflict. It is increasingly obvious from the amount of artifacts we are seeing that the allied army pulled out took their men and left the rest. Bob is quiet. He had a wonderful time in Normandy and voices that opinion. He feels “honored and fortunate” to have net Marc and his band of brothers. He has picked up a stone from the beach at Omaha. “Now, I have a piece of their history”.
As we travel across the county it has become a concern that our direction is not North around Paris but East, directly towards Paris. By the time I pull out a map, a Google translator and figure all this out we are on the main highway through Paris. No, to be truthful, we are in downtown Paris (or whatever the French call it) and playing a very strange game of dodge ball with small foreign cars. Bill is a rock. He handles this all very well as I sit it the back seat cringing, Bob is in the front having the ride of his life and Matilda continues to guide us. Good news – we survive, get to the east side of Paris, no one as wet their pants or will admit it) and we are only 20 kilometers from our destination. We have learned NOT to program Matilda for “quickest way”, but instead “least use of freeways”. We arrive, we are alive, the town of Chalons en Champagne of quaint and easy to navigate, the hotel is very good. All in all we have had a good day. Tomorrow we head for Niederbonn to meet up with Linda Bergman and begin the tour of Bob’s personal battlefields. Below is an excerpt from what he calls his memoirs – this is his view of the war from his eyes when he was twenty – we shall see what his view is at 89 in the days to come.
From Marseille to the battlefield
After less than a week at C.P.2, we were ordered to prepare for the train ride to the front. The box cars were from W.W.1 and were supposed to carry 40 hommes or 8 horses. Luckily our set up called for 20 to 25 G.I.s per box car. Cold air came in from many holes and cracks in the cars. Some of the G.I.s built fires in the corner of the cars, but this was very dangerous with straw on the floor and the old wood of the cars. The trip to Brumath, the end of existing track took 5 day and from there we walked to Bischweiller to arrive on Christmas Eve. For the first time in a month we were able to sleep in buildings for the night. It was an emotional experience, we were cold, homesick scared, lonesome and the sound of artillery in the distance added to these emotions. We survived.
Shortly out of Marseille I developed frozen feet, a carbuncle on my leg and ptomaine poisoning. Boy: was I a mess. To this day, I believe that if it were not for the care of Staff Sgt. Ed Haller, I would not have made it. From Bischwiller I was taken back to a field hospital for 3 or 4 days. Best thing about the hospital. other than the nurses, were the pancakes. They tasted so good and I made such a pig of myself.
By December 29th, I was back with my outfit standing guard duty on the West bank of the Rhine River. We could see the Germans on the East bank, but there was little exchange of fire. We seemed to have an unofficial truce for the time between Christmas and New Years. Later records showed that this winter was the coldest in recorded history for the area. On guard duty we found a small remedy for the cold – double distilled potato schnapps. One jigger would help warm you and the story goes that you could see a red trace thru many layers of clothes as the stuff entered the body. It was very, very potent.
Then for a week or so we moved every night by foot, amphibious truck or regular truck. These were very dangerous operations on slick roads in extremely cold weather. Found out later that our line was so undermanned that the movements were intended to make the Germans think we had many more troops than we actually did.
This story of my experiences is not intended to give the big picture of what actually happened to the 7th Army or even to the 70th Infantry Division and Task Force Herren. That story is told and retold in a number of books. Here I am intending to tell of my experiences as I remember them.
However it should be noted that the Infantry of the 70th Division spent several long weeks being attached and then re attached to several units that were having trouble against the German 6th SS Mountain Division. In effect we were used to plug holes in an undermanned line. The 70th, a new and untested unit was commended for a remarkable holding action.
On January 5th we were near Rothbach with most of the 274th, preparing to march up Rothbach Creek to remove any Germans in that sector. It happened that L Company, 3rd Platoon and my squad was at the point and I was in the lead. We left our packs and bedding to be picked up later. After crossing several high spots, we were looking down into a ravine with several caves and a bunch of Germans. Don Behren fired several rifle grenades into the area. Several Germans were killed and the rest surrendered. It was dark by then and we were told to prepare for the night. We found out that Germans had stolen our bedding and it was very cold. Several men went down and salvaged coats from the dead Germans. The rest of us crawled into the plastic body covers that were intended as protection from poison gas. They were not warm and also made so much noise that the Germans must have thought we had thousands of men. Late that night, we found out that we were in the wrong area and were pulled back to get ready for a major attack up Rothbach Creek.
Late that night, we found out that we were in the wrong area and were pulled back to get ready for a major attack up Rothbach Creek.
At 4:00am on January 7, we started the major push up the Rothbach Creek Valley. As so happened, I was in the lead again, with Rocco DiGeorgio right behind me on the left side of the narrow valley. We moved up the valley over several rises without seeing any opposition. Then at another high spot we encountered a huge rock. As I peered around it, there was a machine gun emplacement with three Germans. Luckily they were concentrating in another direction and did not see me. I took out a hand grenade, pulled the pin, counted five(a quick five) and tossed it over the rock in their direction. I didn’t know if it had been a hit and I was out of grenades. DiGeorgio gave me a WP, phosphorous grenade, I pulled the pin holding the handle and prayed. If they were they still alive and waiting for me? What then? The first grenade had done the job. It is my firm belief that the three Germans retreated leaving a small trail of blood. However the wording of the Bronze Star award for this action stated that the three were killed. If so, I do not remember it. We pushed on up the valley meeting stronger opposition as we moved.
An interesting thing occurred – Ken Kirby who was probably ten years older than me and he always preached “keep your rifle clean and ready because it is your best friend.” Kirby brought his rifle up to fire on some Germans on a hill. His rifle jammed. He held it between his legs to pull the bolt and an enemy bullet went thru one leg, thru his gun and out the other leg. The bullet did not hit any bone, or cartilage or muscle. He was in a field hospital for only a week to make sure that no infection occurred.
Late in the afternoon we were relieved by another outfit and went back to Rothbach for the night. We slept in a schoolhouse on bare floors. I remember waking up in night shaking like a leaf from reliving the prior day.
For the next month we were involved in defense of a line behind which was the German 6th SS Mountain Division. This was an experienced outfit spearheading Hitlers Operation Nordwind in an attempt to breakthrough and retake the land West of the Rhine River. This period is nearly a blank in my memory except that I can remember very cold weather, many moves and patrols and very little warm food. C and K rations were the menu. I do remember that while some men were up and on guard, others were sleeping. We rigged it so three men would sleep under blankets and shelter-halves together. One night I ended up with W.D. (Byou PomPom) Lawrence in the middle and me on the outside and I don’t remember who was the other one. About midnight W.D. kicked a couple of times and we realized that he needed to urinate. There was three inches of snow on top of our bedding. Up in the air went all the bedding, down on us came the snow. I don’t remember where he slept the rest of the night, but not with us. He found it difficult to find bed partners after that.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Behren, I developed strep throat and was running a high fever. By that time I was a squad leader and balked at going back to a hospital. My squad found a house with a motherly type woman and instructed her to take care of me, get me well and if not, she was in big trouble. She nursed me with schnapps, and whatever else and within four or five days I was back with the squad.
During this time period we inherited a new Company command “the brow”. His actual name was Mark Doane, and he was pitiful as a leader. On one occasion that I remember, we were going up a small hill to face the Germans. As we moved up there was Doane, face to his arm on the ground with the other arm waving us on. More on Doane later
It was at some point during this period that we found out that our unit was not far from the Swiss border. We also knew that once in Switzerland we would be interned for the rest of the war. This became our safety valve so to speak. Have never really determined how serious we were.
On February 8th 1945 the 70th Infantry Division was again united with all units –artillery, engineers, support and other units to become self-supporting. Task Force Herren was dissolved with an exceptional record. On February 14th, our complete division was included with several others to go on the attack with the object of capturing Saarbrucken. We would be going from defensive positions to offensive attack. At this time we were only 6 or 7 miles from Saarbrucken, but in our path were the dominating Kreutzberg and Forbachberger Ridges which were key to the success of our mission. Later we learned that this sector contained the strongest remaining part of the Siegfried Line.
Much of the time from February 14 to our attack on the Simon Mine is a blank in my memory. I do remember some fierce fighting, several advances and several retreats. Several incidents do stand out.
After several patrols it had been determined that I was able to get around with much more ease and less noise than most of the other troops. This was a result of my outdoor experiences in the Forest Service. It was a requirement that at least 3 people on patrol but I was afraid of the commotion that other soldiers tended to make. On several occasions I would take a full patrol out several hundred yards from out bivouac, have them sit down and be quiet, while I accomplished the goal of the patrol.
As I remember, it was much more comfortable for me not to have the confusion and responsibility of troops with no experience in the woods .
Somewhere on a wooded slope just a short distance from the Sigfreid Line and Spichnern Heights, L Company prepared to set up for the night. About that time, the German artillery started in with “tree bursts” which was causing a panic in the outfit. John Cathy came to me and suggested that he had heard about a pillbox just over the hill, with German troops ready to surrender. It would be much safer to go down to them than stay under the shelling. Seeing the sense of this action, away we went. At the pillbox we tossed a grenade through one of the apertures and hurriedly opened the door. Inside was a little old man with his rifle on his lap and his hands in the air. What little we could understand of his talk let us believe that he was a shoe cobbler and all he wanted to do was go home and cobble. He let us know that the full complement of the pillbox was back for a warm meal and would return soon. We turned their machine gun. fully loaded, toward the door and waited. My memory is that the Germans all surrendered with the exception of an SS Officer who wanted to fight. He was squelched by his own people. We then took all prisoners (10 or 12) back up the hill to be turned over to our intelligence people.
Somewhere in the vicinity of Spichern Heights I liberated a Colt 45 from a dead German tank soldier. He must have gotten it from an American POW or KIA. This gun had been in moisture so long that a bullet going out the business end would start spinning sideways and put a hole in a wall the size of a softball. The only time that it was used was to shoot locks off of doors and cabinets. In my spare time after combat I remodeled the grips to have plexi-glass with a picture of Betty Grable on one side and I do not remember who was on the other side.
About six months after returning home, I decided that guns were no longer necessary in my life. I gave the Colt along with a German P-38 to Stacey Reeves who was a State Patrolman out of Bingen, Wa.
Although it was not my Company that liberated Spichern Heights, it was my privilege to stand on this site. The Heights was a memorial to honor Germans who had at one time or another caused so much trouble to the world. Many monuments had been placed there for involved units and Adolph Hitler had declared that it would not be taken by the Allies. It was.
By March 4th we had reached the flat area adjacent to the Metz Highway. The Germans had amassed their firepower on the far side of the highway and were giving us much trouble. They were using “screaming memmies”, 88s and heavy mortars. Oh Yes, the memmies were rockets shot from a series of mounted tubes and were capable of 20 or more rounds per minute. The noise of them going over was scary – if they hit nearby it was worse. On the next day we saw a long stream of people coming down the Metz Highway. At first we thought it was a German counterattack, but on closer observation we saw that many were staggering and could hardly walk. They were Russian prisoners who had been held in a mine on the outskirts of Forbach. They were emaciated and near death. We had all of the captured Germans help get them out of range of enemy guns and to where they could be trucked to field hospitals. They were given all the food that we had, but it did not agree with them – too much starvation. Later I went down into the mine on a ladder – 30ft. give or take. It was indescribable. On March 6th L company was ordered to attack the Simon Mine. We pushed up a road to the mine structure thru a wooded area into an area with swamp and shumines on each side. If I remember right, we captured a dozen or more Germans. As we neared the wall that surrounded the site, German snipers opened up on our column.
Pvt. Zoebelein stepped on a mine and lost a foot. I remember his comments before the pain set in “oh god, I will never be able to dance again”
As we got to the perimeter wall, the German fire made it inadvisable to enter the gate without first lessening that fire. John Cathey on one side of the opening, told John Bissenger to bring the bazooka to him and to hurry passing the opening. Bissenger at his usual pace of loping was hit several times in the chest and died. PFC Roger Wagner was also hit and was killed. Cathey hooked the bazooka with the forward sight on his rifle and fired one shot into the building which did nothing to slow the fire. Then the Germans opened up with cannon, machine gun, mortar and rifle fire The entire company was pinned down outside the wall. At this time we decided that some tanks were needed, so Cathey and I went back up the road to where the L Company command post was.
Now comes a memory that I will swear to, but John Cathey later firmly denied. At the C.P. our Company Commander, Mark Doane was sitting with his head in his hands with absolutely no knowledge of what his Company was up against, let alone any plans to rescue them. John Cathey put the business end of his “burp gun” up to Doane’s chest and told him to get on the phone to battalion and immediately resign. Lt. Carlson was appointed Company Commander.
In the C.P were two tank commanders who volunteered to go down the road to the wall if we would ride along and show them the way. Cathey rode on top of the front tank and I rode inside the second one. When the front tank got to the wall, Cathey jumped over the wall and went after a machine gun emplacement. The tank fired four rounds and the Germans answered with anti-tank fire. Cathey was hit and seriously wounded. I had jumped off the second tank and the tankers decided to get out of there and raced back up the road out of range. Our people could not get Cathey out of there during the day because of the German fire. That evening S. Sgt Joseph Kohn pulled Cathey out of the enclosure and back to litter bearers for transportation to a hospital. He was very seriously wounded with broken bones and bullet wounds. John Cathey was awarded The Distinguished Service Cross and he earned it.
I received a Silver Star and have often wondered for what.
Other awards for that action, a Bronze Star Medal went to
S/Sgt Neal C.Gibbs
PFC Juan Torres
Sgt. Wm. A. Smith
PFC Bernard F. Robinson
PFC W.D Lawrence (P)
PFC George W. Kreiling
PFC Kenneth F. Kirby
PFC Rocco Diorgio
PFC Robert A Hessell
Sgt Homer C Hysell
PFC Earl King (Silver Star)
PFC Urban A. Kaufman
PFC Roger P. Wagner (P)
I think that 1st. Lt. Kenneth R. Carlson was awarded a Bronze Star Medal.
We were pulled off the line that night to regroup and to fill the positions that had been wounded or killed during the past few days. We spent the better part of the week in reserve. During the night of March 19th, everything we had in the way of artillery was fired at the German side of the river in the biggest display of firepower that I ever witnessed. On March 20, Regimental Commander Col. Sam Conley sent orders to Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Karl Landstrom to send patrols across the Saar River. Col. Landstrom balked at sending troops into the river unless guaranteed that no friendly artillery would shoot over them with the possibility of short rounds and casualties from our own troops. Regimental Cmdr.Conley relieved Landstrom as Bn. Commander. For the next 24 hours, patrols in rubber boats went into the river to test the reaction of the Germans. They were still on the other banks of the Saar River and very active. Landstrom was reinstated as Cmdr. of the 3rd. Bn.
Also, during the night the Engineers brought up small boats to take us across the Saar. At 3:00am, we packed up and started the march to the river. The boats started moving troops across at 4:30 and by 5:10 all of the 3rd Bn. was across the Saar River with no appreciable resistance. The Germans had retreated during the night of March 19th.
For our Company the fighting was over. General Patton’s 3rd. Army cut in front of us and with his mobile units were able to chase the Germans. We had no vehicles.
Several days after the capture of Saarbrucken and a few mile up the road Eastward, we came to an abandoned farm where we decided to spend the night. We found a large pottery cask full of water and EGGS. It had been months since fresh eggs and we reacted. A large stove in the back of the house was somewhat scrubbed on top, a fire was lighted, bread was acquired and wine was found. Eggs in groups of four were tossed on the stove, cooked lightly, tossed on a chunk of bread and eaten with a bit of wine to spice them. My memory is that I ate over two dozen eggs that evening.
At some time during the period between our end of combat and the end of the war with Germany my squad came upon a chicken house with nice, big, fat chickens. We were ready for stewed chicken. One of the squad from mid America had experience in how to get them ready for stewing. First, one of guys would the grab a chicken and hand it to him. He would take it by the neck and crank it a couple of times until the head separated from the body. Another person would catch it and immerse it in boiling water to loosen the feathers. The cook then took over and dressed it for stewing.
That was the best tasting chicken that I have ever had.
On May 8 the war in Europe ended.
So, there are his memories – we go to these places in the next few days – we will see what they shall bring.