Richard Shafer Autobiography: toc | previous chapter | next chapter
The Life of Richard Shafer
©1988 Glenn Shafer
CHAPTER IV. SOLDIER
I was in the United States Army for 1,166 days, from October, 1942, to December, 1945. I served as a mechanic in a bridge building outfit in Europe. We were in the middle of some of the most important American military action in France and Germany. We arrived in Normandy six weeks after D-Day, just as American troops broke through at St. Lo. We were with Patton in his dash across northern France. We were trying to put Patton across the Saar when the German advance at the Battle of the Bulge began. At the end of the war, we built the so-called American-Russian friendship bridge over the Elbe.
Each county made its own policies about who would go first. In Montgomery County, at least, they started with the men over 21. When they started on a new age group, they always took the oldest in the group first. My cousin Wiley Ralph Scott, my friend Gerald Woods, and I were very nearly the same age; we all had birthdays in the first ten days of January. We had talked a lot about volunteering, but we hadn't done it. When the county announced they were going to take the 18 to 21 age group, we were only about three months short of being 21, so we knew we were going to go soon. The draft board announced that Gerald and I were 1-A on September 4, 1942.
My primary physical was in Coffeyville. Then a chartered Greyhound bus took about 20 of us from Montgomery County to Fort Leavenworth for our final physical. Those of us who passed were sworn in and then sent back home for two weeks. I caught the bus back to Fort Leavenworth in front of Dale's cafe in Caney on October 15, 1942.
When they asked Air Force or Army, I said Army. I didn't think about the fact that you could be on the ground in the Air Force, and I thought I couldn't fly because of my ears. Gerald said Air Force. He was killed on a B-24 mission over Burma.
When we took our physical at Fort Leavenworth, we also took other tests. They decided to send me to Fort Warren, Wyoming, near Cheyenne, for basic training and mechanics school. The basic training camp there was designated as a camp for quartermaster training, as opposed to infantry training. All the guys I went through basic training with there were slated for mechanics school.
The basic training lasted a month. I hated it. It was bitterly cold and windy. When we stood for inspection, we had to put our eyeglasses in our pockets to keep them from being broken by the snow and pebbles blowing in our faces.
The first day of basic training the sergeant told us to put on our uniforms with leggings and fall out. I put mine on the wrong legs, so that the hooks and laces were on the insides of my legs instead of the outsides. That seemed like the right way to do it. It was easier to lace them up that way. But of course it was the wrong way, since it made you risk hooking your legs together and falling. About ten out of the hundred guys in the barracks made the same mistake, and the sergeant made us sit down in the snow to change them. I sure felt stupid. Mad, too. That was my first big lesson in what the Army was like.
The tear gas training was a miserable experience. We went in this little building and lined up against the wall. Then they told us the tear gas was coming. We grabbed our masks. We were supposed to blow on them and start breathing. I didn't get started right, and I got a whiff of the stuff. I headed for the door, pushed past the sergeant, pushed the door out the wrong way, and laid down on the slope, throwing up and crying for a couple of hours. There were three or four others with me.
One day while I was sitting on my bunk feeling dispirited, one of the guys who bunked near me said, "Hey, Shorty, let's go to a show." That was Floyd Schwanebeck. He was a farm boy from Nebraska and had been drafted at Fort Leavenworth along with me. Two other guys I got to know there were Bill Shuff, a logger from Oregon, and Joe Severo, a farmer from the San Fernando Valley in California. Our bunks were together because we all had last names starting with S. As it turned out, the four of us were together all through the war.
During the last week of basic training, we had to lay in the snow practicing on the rifle range. At first we practiced without ammunition. I was constantly wet and chilled, and I got a bad cold. I was too sick even to go to sick call. All I could do was crawl to the latrine. I had a few candy bars to eat in my foot locker. A kid who slept next to me brought me half a quart of milk. The sergeant would come in and say, "I'll report you to the captain." The captain would come in and say, "I'll report you to the major." All the brass who came in would bawl me out, even the major once. Finally, on the third day, I felt better and got some aspirin, and they put me on light duty. Then at about 10:00 a sergeant came in and said, "Everybody who can make it, out on the rifle range. If you don't go you'll have to take basic training again." So I put on my long underwear, OD pants, field jacket, overcoat, and raincoat. I carried my rifle about a mile to the target range. I found a little tent with a coal-oil stove while I was waiting my turn. I laid down beside it and went to sleep. I slept until about 4:00, when I heard someone yelling, "Shafer." I went out and someone said, "Do you want to fire or not?" The others had been practicing for a couple of days, but I had come down sick while we were still practicing without ammunition, and this was the first time I had ever fired a rifle that size. But I was a good shot, and I didn't have any trouble qualifying. Then I found a truck to ride back to the barracks, and basic training was over.
The next Monday morning I started mechanics school. I liked that. It lasted another month.
During mechanics school we were allowed to leave Fort Warren on passes, but I didn't do much off base while I was there. Once I went into Cheyenne intending to go skating. But when I got off the bus with Schwanebeck, he went into a beer joint. I looked around town a bit. The place looked pretty wild - a lot of cowboys with guns. I got back in the bus and went back to camp.
I wrote to my mother daily, sometimes more than once a day, though I seldom had much to tell her. There wasn't much to say in basic training except how much I hated it, and later in the war, when things were happening, the censors wouldn't allow us to tell about them. Mother kept the letters, and after her death I found them and reread them. During the thirty days I was in processing and basic training, I wrote her 28 letters. During my whole time in the army, I wrote her 406 letters.
Early in January, they sent some of us, including Schwanebeck, Severo, Shuff, and me, to the Stockton Ordnance Base in California for further mechanics training. The weather was so much nicer there that I said it was like going to heaven. We were there about three months. Besides studying the basics, we also practiced troubleshooting engine problems. I did best in the part of the course that covered electrical systems. Schwanebeck had to go to some extra night classes because he had trouble with that part.
My friends and I went on a pass to Stockton once and went to a bowling alley. That was the first time I had seen a real bowling alley. We had what we called a bowling alley in downtown Caney, but the pins were little, and the ball was the size of a croquet ball. There in Stockton I couldn't figure out when the pin setter was ready for me to bowl, and I kept bowling too soon. They warned me twice and then refused to let me bowl any more.
Schwanebeck had a neighbor from home who was an officer and lived in Stockton with his wife, and he invited Schwanebeck to dinner once. Schwanebeck didn't want to go alone, so he took me along. It was something of a stuffed shirt affair. They tried to talk, but they couldn't get much of a conversation going. Schwanebeck told me afterwards that he didn't think the guy was all that important that he should be an officer. "My brother has more than him," he said. Schwanebeck's brother was a Chevrolet dealer in Nebraska.
While I was in Stockton, the company commander called me in to talk about OCS, Officer Candidate School. He told me that they had been checking the records and had noticed that my IQ of 127 qualified me for it. Was I interested? I asked him whether I would still be in mechanics. He said he couldn't guarantee anything. I figured I would just end up in the infantry, so I told him I wasn't interested. The same thing happened again later in Texas.
THE 180TH BATTALION
After we completed our course at Stockton, nine of us, including Schwanebeck, Severo, Shuff, and me, were assigned to the 180th Heavy Pontoon Engineers Battalion. They put us on a train to Louisiana, where the 180th was on maneuvers. We must have gotten there in late March. It had just quit freezing.
Captain Russo of the motor section interviewed each of us and decided which section to put us in. Schwanebeck and Shuff were assigned to be stormboat operators; they also each had a truck to drive. Severo was assigned to operate a motor boat to tow pontoons. Another guy, named Roberts, was assigned to be a stormboat motor mechanic.
Russo interviewed us in the back of a truck out on maneuvers. He asked me whether I had experience moving dirt. He meant heavy equipment, but what came to my mind was that wheelbarrow in the greenhouse. He looked at my papers and said, "I see you have excellent as a score." He assigned me to his section, the motor section in H&S.
The 180th was divided into three companies, the H&S (Headquarters and Service) Company and two line companies, A and B. There were two platoons in the H&S Company. Captain Russo's platoon consisted of the 15 storm boat operators and the motor section, which I was in. The other platoon was the headquarters people. There were about 100 men in the company altogether. Both platoons provided truck drivers.
The heavy truck drivers and the non-coms who knew how to put bridges together were in the line companies. Our job in H&S was to keep the equipment going. Later, in Europe, our section would often be working on the equipment while the line companies went out to build bridges. But if the bridges had to be built under fire, we would all have to help. Sometimes I worked directing bridgehead traffic. I would have a radio, and they would tell me to send in a load of deck, or whatever, and I would send that truck in. I had my toolbox in case the truck wouldn't run.
The 180th had originally been formed from a National Guard outfit from east Philadelphia. The officers weren't from that group, of course, but most of the soldiers were. There were some mean Italians in that bunch. They would just as soon kill you as look at you. When I arrived there was a unit of forty of them in H&S. They were supposed to build footbridges. They called themselves the Forty Thieves, and they were always fighting among themselves. There were a lot of broken bones. About six months after I arrived somebody got fed up with it and broke the unit up. The responsibility for footbridges was turned over to a different battalion, and the forty men were shipped off to the infantry.
Sometime in April, we convoyed back through Louisiana and Texas to Camp Maxey at Paris, Texas, where the 180th was based. That trip was really enjoyable. We were big heroes in the small Texas towns we passed through. Paris is in northeastern Texas, only about twenty miles from the Oklahoma border. We trained there until January, 1944.
We were still learning mechanics at Camp Maxey, and Captain Russo was supposed to be the instructor. It wasn't until we were overseas that I realized that he knew less than I did and used me as a source of information. He would call me in to look at something and ask me what the problem was as if he were testing me. Then he would call somebody else over, tell them what the problem was, and tell them to fix it. He was from West Virginia. He told me that before the war he had been a foreman in a toothpick factory. He was a pretty nice fellow. I remember telling him about hauling hay in Kansas. He thought we did it with a horse and wagon. I told him no, we always used a Model A truck.
Shortly after we arrived in Camp Maxey, I lost my money belt. I had bought a money belt before I went into the army, and I had been wearing it all that time. For some reason, I thought I needed to have a lot of money with me. One day I left the money belt in the shower. I completely forgot about it. A sergeant got up in the mess hall and announced that whoever had left a money belt in the shower should come into his room and identify it and tell him how much money was in it. I went and told him that it had either $130 or $135 or $145 dollars in it, wrapped in newspaper. He made a big deal about my not knowing how much money I had, and he told me I was lucky to get it back. I told him I was afraid to take it out to count. He was right about my being lucky to get it back. After that I just kept my money in my billfold.
There were a lot of chiggers at Camp Maxey. I was used to chigger bites from Kansas, but the guys from the east didn't know what they were, and the doctors didn't either. For a while they were telling us we were eating too many pork chops.
Once while we were at Camp Maxey I was sent as an inspector to a colored trucking outfit. I was there for several days, inspecting their trucks. Everything was in great shape. That was the reputation of the colored trucking outfits. Another time I was sent there to give driving tests. I remember how those guys would drive through the course and then say, "How'd I do?" It was funny, because they were all better truck drivers than I was. They had the sense of rhythm for it. Later, overseas, we called them the Red Ball Express. They had big red balls on the bumpers of their trucks, and you would see the red balls on signposts, marking the truck routes.
In July I got to go home on a fifteen-day furlough. I had my first date with Anna on that furlough in July. I corresponded with her through the rest of the war.
Gerald Woods was home on furlough at the same time. That was the last time I saw him. Later, back at Camp Maxey, I got word that he had been killed on a B-24 mission over Burma. He was a tail-gunner. He had written me a letter just after his next to last mission. He said it was really fun shooting down those Japs.
While I was at Camp Maxey, I was asked again if I wanted to go to Officer Candidate School. Another time I was sent to take some electronics lessons. I went to a few of the lessons, but they got pretty complicated, and the whole thing didn't appeal to me as much as mechanics. I told them I wasn't interested, and they sent me back to the garage. I suppose there were some interesting jobs in electronics, but I figured that most of the people in the signal corps would end up handing some lieutenant a telephone up on the front lines.
Schwanebeck, Severo, Shuff, and I had plenty of free time to pal around in Camp Maxey. Schwanebeck and Shuff were right in the same barracks with me, and Severo was across the street. We went to the free shows together, and every Sunday, unless one of us was on KP, we would go in to downtown Paris and buy a chicken dinner. My mother came by to visit me once, on her way to see Helen in Corpus Christi, and she came with us to one of those chicken dinners. She was glad to meet my pals. She even corresponded with Shuff's mother in Oregon.
Captain Campbell was only a first lieutenant when I first met him, but he knew how to satisfy his superiors. Before long he was commander of the H&S company. He became a captain then or soon after.
I didn't like the man. But when I look back, I realize he didn't really treat me badly. We had a game during the inspections in Camp Maxey. When he tried to grab my rifle, I would let go so quickly it would fall before he could get it. He would pick it up and give it back to me without saying anything. But if I was too slow and he got it, he would throw it back and yell, "Do you eat off the thing?" Actually, it was always well polished.
One of the things I remember best about him was his favorite way of summing up: "Now if anybody doesn't understand this, come into my office, and I'll draw you a picture." He didn't have an office. Once, in Germany, towards the end of the war, we popped some popcorn with a blowtorch in a bivouac where most of the non-coms were staying. We were talking too much, and I said, "And if anybody doesn't understand this, come into my office, and I'll draw you a picture." Just about then, the flap opened and in came Captain Campbell. He looked around, and finally settled on Staff Sergeant Flynn, "Flynn, you're in charge of quarters, tonight." He walked out and everybody laughed.
Another thing that made Captain Campbell famous in the whole outfit was an incident involving Zinn and Engels, about the time we built our first bridge in France. Engels threw a knife at Captain Campbell. It went into a tree beside his head. But nobody saw Engels throw it, and they couldn't prove it. Campbell said to Zinn, "You go find Engels, and I want only one of you to come back," or something to that effect. Later both of them went when Patton called for 5% of each outfit to fill out his infantry because the higher brass had cut him back. Patton did that twice. I don't know what became of Zinn and Engels.
Early in 1944 I went home on a nine day furlough. Then the battalion went to New York to sail for England. We left New York on the Duchess of Bedford on February 11. We were in a convoy of a hundred ships.
The Duchess of Bedford was a wooden English luxury liner that had been converted to a troop transport ship. It was crowded and unpleasant. There were 5,000 troops on it, and we vomited all over the ship the first day out. Each soldier had a hammock, and we piled our duffel bags in the corner of our room. I was so sick the first day that I curled up and tried to sleep on the duffel bags, but Sergeant Arts and Oliver J. Johannsen drug me out to the deck to get some fresh air, and then I felt better.
Sergeant Arts was a welder, and Johannsen was a carpenter. Johannsen was a Swede from Oregon. He was 38, a lot older than most of us. He looked like John Wayne. Arts and Johannsen were both really good friends of mine. We often bunked together overseas. I didn't bunk with Schwanebeck overseas, because he was in a different squad.
After zigzagging across the Atlantic to avoid the German submarines, we landed at Greenock, Scotland, near Glasgow, on February 22. Then we moved down to Congleton, in the county of Cheshire in England. We were stationed there from February 24 until early July, when we left for France. It was beautiful country.
In Congleton, our motor pool was put up above a cigar factory. Once we were told that we were going to have a "general" inspection. We joked that Patton was going to come inspect our quarters. Some of our officers got the idea that we should splash water on the floor and scrub it down like we had done in the States. The result was that we washed the dirt out between the planks and soaked everything downstairs. The U.S. Army got to pay for a lot of cigars. That was the last time we had to scrub our barracks floor.
We were attached to the Third U.S. Army, under the command of General Patton. We traveled all over England to pick up equipment from supply dumps. Most of it we got from a supply dump about thirty miles from London. I made one trip there, but most of the trips I went on were shorter than that. They sent me out a lot because I was a mechanic and a truck driver, too. I didn't see much of the cities; we just went to the supply dumps. I do remember going through Coventry. It was well known because the Germans had bombed it so badly. I was really impressed by what I saw. There were hardly two buildings in a row left standing. Of course, that was nothing compared to what we did to some of the German cities later.
I went to Manchester about three times. One of my trips there was on a pass; I went roller skating. It wasn't too much fun. The rink was very crowded and dusty. I think it was a metal floor. It was so rough that it made my legs hurt. I suppose it also wasn't as much fun as skating at home had been because I didn't stand out as a good skater. I really was a good skater. I had been one of the best in Caney. But there were a lot of good skaters among the soldiers in Manchester. I suppose they were the best from quite a large group of soldiers.
Schwanebeck got in trouble in Congleton trying to sneak the name of the place into a letter to his brother. It was really silly. He picked out the letters c-o-n-g-l-e-t-o-n in his letter and made them extra thick. The censors could see it just as easily as his brother could have. That made the headquarters staff pretty suspicious of him, especially because he had a German background. They were a little suspicious of me, too, because I had a German name and hung around with him a lot. He had to do fireman duty (firing the boiler) all the time we were in England. We had the idea that headquarters was especially hard on him because a lot of the officers there were Jewish. The Jews had plenty of reason to be against the Germans. The good part about having Jewish officers was that later on, in Europe, they usually managed to get us bivouacked in pretty good places.
We had a lot of free time in Congleton. I played a lot of penny poker with Schwanebeck and Shuff. I also played catch with anybody I could get to play. Johannsen played catch with me a lot. The parts man played, too. He had been a semi-pro pitcher back home. I got to be a real good catcher.
The first Sunday I was in England, I went looking for a church. I found a real fancy one. It wasn't time yet for the service, but I went in and sat down and waited. After a while, I noticed that the other side of the church was filling up. By the time the service began, it was packed but there was no one else sitting on my side. The service began with some singing, and a preacher with a flowing robe preached a pretty good short sermon. Then they started to get ready for communion, and an usher came over and told me that it was time for me to leave. So I left. I didn't go back to a Church of England service after that.
Later, the Army chaplains got Sunday services started, and I went fairly often to the Protestant services. We also found the Methodist and Presbyterian churches downtown. They were very cordial to the American soldiers. They made their basements available as recreation areas.
I went singing in a Methodist church basement once. The people there were very friendly. There was a woman there who must have thought I was a nice soldier boy. She asked me to go home with her for a cup of coffee and to talk to her son. He was ten and his father was away in the British army, and she wanted me to tell him what it was like being a soldier. Later she sent word to Captain Campbell that she wanted me to visit again, but I never did.
All the English girls wanted to marry an American soldier. They made all kinds of passes at you.
While we were at Congleton the line companies practiced constructing bridges across the River Dee. They built heavy pontoon bridges, floating Bailey bridges, and fixed Bailey bridges.
The pontoons we used were hollow aluminum floats, four feet wide, thirty-three feet long, and about three feet deep. They were open on top like a boat. We would set them cross-ways about eight to ten feet apart to build a heavy pontoon bridge. The bridge on top of the pontoons was built from bulk, deck, and tracks. The bulk consisted of 4"x4" or 6"x6" beams about 12 or 14 feet long that were set parallel to the bridge. They hooked the pontoons together. They would be set about 10 inches apart. The deck and the tracks consisted of 2"x12" planks. The deck was laid on the bulk, perpendicular to it, to form the floor of the bridge. Then this was covered with more planks, laid lengthwise like the bulk; these were the tracks. That would be a thirty-ton bridge, which would not be heavy enough for a tank.
To make a floating Bailey bridge, we would start with a pontoon bridge, strap a floating rubber raft between each pair of pontoons, and reinforce the sides with timbers.
A fixed Bailey bridge was made of wooden planks laid on steel sides. The steel sides were built from sections four-foot square, joined with big iron pins. The bridge would be built on a slide. After building twenty or thirty feet, we would start sliding it out over the river. To keep it from tipping, there always had to be more on the bank than over the river. So we would have to build twice as much bridge as the width of the river. You had to pick a spot where it was higher on the side of the river where you were building than on the opposite side, and you could only span a short distance.
On D-Day night the sky in England was alive with American planes pulling gliders across the English channel to France. We didn't understand what we were seeing until later, but we all figured it must be the invasion getting underway.
The 180th Battalion landed in France with Patton's Third Army. In a letter I wrote to my mother a year later, after the Germans surrendered and we were allowed to write about where we were and had been, I told her that I had left Congleton on July 11, 1944. We embarked for Normandy from a beach in southern England near St. Giles Park. We landed on Utah Beach on July 22. I drove a 2 1/2 ton GMC truck off an LST onto the beach. The LST's were big. My truck was one of the pieces of equipment on the second deck. There were five semis below. I wrote a letter to my mother that day asking her to send me some things: my dad's extra razor, some blades, a good brush for lathering, a pair or two of shorts and short shirts, and some candy bars if she could get them.
The Germans were still attacking Utah Beach from the air when we landed. We came across with a fleet of 100 LST's, and each of them had a hydrogen balloon tied to its bow. The balloons were oblong shaped, like dirigibles, and they must have been at least 100 feet long. They were on two inch steel cables that must have been 300 feet long. Their purpose was to keep the German planes high so they couldn't strafe well. The anti-aircraft guns were going all the time. The dead had been picked up from the beach by that time, but salvage companies were still at work on equipment that had been hit.
The first night we bivouacked just off the road about a half a mile from the beach. All I had for a bed was two blankets, my overcoat, my field jacket for a pillow, and my "shelter-half." A shelter-half was half a pup tent. Sometimes two guys would put theirs together to make a pup tent to sleep in. I usually just wrapped mine around my blankets and used it like a sleeping bag. That's the way we slept all the time in France.
Infantry marched past us six abreast all night. They had to make a detour around the semis that we hadn't got all the way off the road. We could hear artillery in the distance. That was the first artillery battle we had heard. I was plenty scared.
The second night we bivouacked in a farmer's orchard. It was a very pretty orchard, and we had to be careful with our trucks. Somebody traded some cigarettes or something for some eggs. It had been made clear to us that we were not to treat the French civilians as enemies. We couldn't just take things or trample people's things underfoot. Later, in Germany, we took what we wanted and moved right into people's houses, but we were never inside a building in France.
After the orchard, we bivouacked for several days in a small field next to a hedgerow. That is where we were strafed for the first time. There was a German plane that came into the area every evening. We called him "Bedcheck Charlie." He seemed to be able to fly right through our flak. He would cut off his motors and glide down so that we would have no idea where he was coming in, and then we would hear his guns. There was only one night he got close to our battalion. Fortunately, the hedgerow he strafed was the empty one between us and one of our other companies. It would have looked narrower to him, because our camouflage made the hedgerows we were against look wider. Either he was fooled into thinking that the narrower row was a row of trucks, or else he was good-hearted enough to miss us on purpose. But we were scared. I was so scared it took everything I had just to roll over into my foxhole. I think most of the others were even more scared, because the next morning a lot of laundry was hung out to dry up and down the hedgerow.
When we first got to that hedgerow, we found a dead German with a blown-up half-track. I have a picture of the half-track and the headquarters guys unfurling the big swastika flag they found in it. I was curious about how the Bosch injector on its diesel engine worked, so I took it off and tore it up. My wrenches didn't fit it, but I got it apart with a hammer.
Patton's whole Third Army was crowded into a small area, and the different companies were all stacked right next to each other. One evening, while I was fixing my blankets to go to bed, some guard down the line thought he smelled mustard gas and sounded his alarm - a little rotary gadget that we had for that purpose. Each company that heard it repeated it, and everybody in the whole army ran for their gas masks. If it had been gas, I would have been dead, because my mask was at least half a block away, in a truck. As it turned out, the smell had been from wild onions. The next day we heard that Eisenhower had said that even the Germans had gotten the signal and put on their gas masks.
Shortly after I arrived, I saw the bombing that preceded the American break-out to the south. I had never seen so many airplanes as I saw that day. Early in the morning, I had been sent by myself in a jeep to an Autocar (a brand of semi) that had broken down to get the radiator off to bring in to repair. At about ten in the morning, the planes started coming. I could see them dropping their bombs - it must have been only a couple miles away. They were B-17's and B-24's, the biggest we had in Europe. They looked like they were wing-tip to wing-tip. The bombs made the ground underneath me shake so much I could hardly stand. It took me past noon to get the radiator off that truck. Then I headed back to the company. The ground wasn't shaking there, and the guys didn't seem to know what was going on. Later I heard that we had 3,000 planes each flying three sorties, from ten in the morning till three in the afternoon.
MOVING ACROSS FRANCE
The American armies broke through to the south of St. Lo on July 25. After that, Patton's army dashed across northern France.
Our battalion's job during the advance was to move supplies and equipment for Patton. It wasn't an easy job. At one point, Patton was moving so fast that we ran out of gas for the tanks. They drained every gas tank in the outfit to send trucks back to the coast to get more. Schwanebeck was one of the drivers that went back.
My job was just to work on trucks. I didn't know too much about what was going on, except that we were always on the move. We would move fifty miles, up to where we heard artillery, and then the next night the fighting would have moved on, and we wouldn't hear the artillery any longer.
A lot of our work was on the Autocar radiators. They weren't built strong enough for the rough terrain. They would break at the neck, where they fasten to the engine. We would reinforce them with the brass casings from spent 76-millimeter artillery shells. The Autocars were also bad for burning out their valves. They were made for slow, heavy work - speeds of up to 40 mph. Our drivers would move them as fast as the roads would allow - up to 70 mph.
Once a rod bearing in the engine of a Mac (another brand of semi) went out, and I made a replacement out of the brass of an artillery shell. It was still running when we turned in our trucks at the end of the war.
The shrapnel on the road was so bad that we had difficulty keeping enough tires. At one time, we didn't have a single GMC truck with dual tires on it. We had just singles on all of them.
In Normandy the hedgerows were really big dikes of earth with hedges on top. We built plows to put on the front of tanks so they could push through the hedgerows, and we built whip-chains they could use to knock out mines.
I remember a lot of good-looking wheat in Normandy. But there wasn't much modern equipment. I suppose the Germans had taken whatever there had been. I saw people harvesting wheat with scythes. Several times, I saw farmers cultivating with one ox and one horse yoked together. I only saw a tractor once.
The French people were friendly. When we went through a town the men and women would line the streets to welcome us. The girls and kids would yell "chocolate" at us. But I was surprised by how backward the country seemed. A girl would be waving out of one window, and you would see the head of a cow out of the next window. Wells would be covered with piles of manure. I remember thinking that America should keep France as a place to fight its wars.
We went within about 40 miles of Paris. I saw the fireworks from the big fight just outside Paris. For the celebration in Paris, they made a big platform by turning a Bailey bridge upside down. It may have come from our outfit.
One morning, I was aroused by a noise while I was drowsing on guard, sitting on a log with a couple of grenades in my shirt pocket and a rifle in my lap. I came to and saw a guy who looked like a German. When I called halt, he started babbling in German. He obviously wanted to surrender. I called for the sergeant of the guard. I was just a corporal. It was time to change guard, so I took him in to headquarters. Some of the guys who could speak German started to question him and give him a hard time. I left. They hauled him off to a POW camp somewhere. For a long time, I was the only one in the outfit who had captured a German.
About the same time, I nearly shot up a flock of sheep with a machine gun. I was the only person in the H&S company who had been sent to machine gun training school while we were in England. So if the company had to set up a machine gun I was supposed to sleep with the guard so they could wake me up to shoot it. One evening they set it up at the top of a clearing, and they woke me up to show me a bunch of guys creeping out of the woods a couple thousand feet away. I watched and watched, while they urged me to shoot. The creeping figures all bunched together in the clearing, and then something startled them, and they scattered all directions. Then you could see they were sheep. Later we learned that another company was bivouacked in those woods. I could have slaughtered the sheep and a bunch of American soldiers, too.
I never did fire a machine gun in combat. For a while, we had a mounting for our gun welded on a pipe rack on top of a truck. I was supposed to use it to shoot at German planes that strafed the convoy. I was up there aiming a few times, but at that time we never could tell whether the planes were ours or theirs. I'm glad I never had to shoot that gun. It probably would have knocked me off the truck and killed me. That welding couldn't have stood the recoil of a 50-caliber gun.
We always had air superiority during the day, but at first the Germans could fly around and strafe at night. It seemed like they could fly right through the flak. Then we got radar in the P-51's. I remember when I first saw the result. Colonel White came out one night when I was on guard duty and talked to me, and we saw a dogfight between a P-51 and a German plane. The P-51 got the German in about three minutes. Then Colonel White told me about the radar.
Colonel White was the battalion commander. I liked him. He came around to visit the motor section regularly, and I think he struck up a conversation with me three or four times. He knew me by name, and I suppose he knew his other 300 men by name, too.
THE GREAT BATTLEFIELDS
It must have been in early September when we came to the Argonne Forest. We bivouacked in the forest at Fort Verdun, where the Americans had fought in World War I. We called it Fort Verdun, but it was nothing but a six-foot deep trench that ran on forever. Behind the trench, we could see the forest that had grown up since the Battle of Argonne. Some trees that had been literally shot off four or five feet from the ground had put out new growth. We got in about 4:00 in the afternoon, so we had some time to scout around. Behind the trenches we found parts of old American C-ration cans and even parts of American helmets. This was the battlefield where twenty-six years before my father had driven an ambulance at night with the headlights off to pick up dead and wounded Americans. The forest was so quiet and so full of reminders of World War I that everyone felt spooked that night. I drew guard duty, and I stood perfectly still, hardly breathing.
The next day we moved south to St. Mihiel, another great battlefield of World War I. There we looked at great concrete pill boxes still standing from that war. Then we walked on down to the immense cemeteries. First the American cemetery with its white crosses, then the German cemetery with its coal-black crosses. The crosses were arranged in perfect rows, straight in every direction, going on for a quarter or half a mile. The cemeteries were meticulously kept, even then in the middle of another war. I looked at the inscriptions on the American crosses, and it seemed as if half of them said, "Here lies an American soldier, known but to God."
We were at St. Mihiel for about five days. I remember the German rockets. I think they were V-2's, but we called them buzz bombs. They sounded like Maytag washing machines, and they looked like minature airplanes. There would be three or four a day, and maybe that many more at night. They gave you the feeling that they were so close that you could reach up and knock them down with your hand. We thought they were on their way to England, but I understand now that they were headed for ports in Belgium.
On the second or third day at St. Mihiel, I borrowed a camera and caught a ration truck into Verdun. My father had often told me about Verdun. I had a picture, which I carried in my billfold through the whole war, of Daddy standing in front of a memorial to the soldiers who defended Verdun during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. I wanted to get a picture of myself in front of that same memorial. I found it in the corner of a little park right on the truck's route. It was drizzling rain, and we could hear machine-gun fire from fighting still right in the city, but there were people sitting in the park as if nothing were going on. The Germans had removed the iron statue, which had portrayed two French soldiers pulling a canon, but the base, with the inscription, was still there. I showed the picture of my father to a passing American officer and asked him to take my picture. He was delighted to do it. A few minutes later the ration truck came back by and took me back to camp.
THE APPROACH TO GERMANY
The first bridge our battalion built was across the Moselle at Pagny. It was a heavy pontoon bridge, only 200 feet long. We built it on September 16. I helped carry bulk and deck for it. I was so much shorter than the other guys that whenever we went over a ridge the planks would lift off my shoulders so that I wasn't carrying anything. The other guys didn't like that too well.
About that time our company got issued some German booty. Our troops had captured a German train that was headed for the Russian front, and we all got fur caps. I kept mine for many years after the war. It was warm. Years later, I tried to wear it one day while I was delivering mail. It almost smothered me. I still have the swastika from it. We were also each issued a small bottle of French champagne. I gave mine to our red-headed warrant officer, who was in charge of ordering truck parts. He was drunk all the time anyway. Most of the outfit was pretty stewed that evening.
In early October, we reached the German border. Our battalion moved into German barracks on the Siegfried line. The Germans had just abandoned them. The mattresses were still on the bunks, and there was still food in the cupboards. We had our first night inside and our first hot meal in 79 days.
I didn't get to sleep in the barracks that first night at the Siegfried line. I drew guard duty, and they sent our whole guard detail about a quarter mile away to the side of a hill. From our guard post, we could see German guards standing on the side of another hill facing us from about 1500 feet away. We could have easily shot each other from that distance, but we didn't because the fighting wasn't going on on that part of the front. It rained hard all night, and the only shelter was a tarp from a truck that we folded over our blankets. There were three of us, and we took two hour shifts. The one on guard had to stand in the rain. The other two could try to sleep under the tarp. We were soaked all night.
The next morning, I found my bunk in the barracks. It was a top bunk next to a large stove. It was really warm, but I had been so badly chilled that I caught a bad cold. I tried to do my job for a couple of days after that, but I kept trying to sneak back to the barracks to lay down, and the officers would come in and chase me out. I was leery of going to sick leave, because they seemed to be in the habit then of sending everyone who went to sick leave to the hospital. Finally a major told me that I had to go to sick leave. Sure enough, I was sent to the evacuation hospital in Luxembourg, which was only a few miles away.
The hospital in Luxembourg consisted of several huge tents. I was diagnosed as having sugar diabetes. They decided to evacuate me by plane to England.
That was my first plane ride. I didn't ride in a plane again until Anna and I took a helicopter ride during a vacation in Branson, Missouri, in 1978. The weather was bad, and instead of landing in England, they landed in Cherbourg. So they put me in the hospital there.
I sat there for about two weeks before they got around to interviewing me. I didn't know what they were going to do with me. Each doctor I saw told me something different. On October 19, I wrote to my mother, "I truly have reason to believe that the war may be over for me." I asked her not to tell anyone, except perhaps my sister, that I had been hospitalized. I asked her not to tell anyone even if it turned out that I was returned to my outfit.
I was in a ward for blood diseases. The blood disease most of the guys there had was syphilis. I didn't quite fit in. The nurses treated me a little more kindly than they treated the others.
When they finally got around to my case, I was interviewed by a whole panel of doctors. One of them accused me of goldbricking, and I told him off in real soldier language. There were some nurses standing there in candy-stripe uniforms, but I figured that they didn't understand English. Then one of them said something in English, and I was really embarrassed. It turned out they were all American volunteers.
They kept testing me for a couple of weeks, but they couldn't find the sugar diabetes that the doctors in Luxembourg had found. They decided I was ok. I never did understand this until many years later, when I was hospitalized for trouble with my kidneys. I tested as having sugar diabetes then, and the doctor explained to me that in my case it is probably just something that shows up when I am really worn down.
They asked me whether I wanted to go back to my unit or be reassigned. In order to go back to your unit, the commander of the unit had to say he wanted you. So I wrote to Captain Campbell asking him to request my return. Word came back right away that he wanted me back. He knew I was a good mechanic. So they put me on a "forty and eight" car, one of the railway cars that was designed for forty men or eight horses. There were over fifty of us crowded on it for about three days and four nights. Then I was in replacement centers for about 30 days. Most of that time I just sat around, having no idea where the company was or when I would rejoin it. Finally, one day, while I was sitting in something like a corn crib, I heard someone calling my name. It was Tournikee, the guy that picked up mail for the outfit. He had heard I was there and had come to get me. That was December 9, sixty days after I had left the company.
While I was away from the company, they built more bridges across the Moselle. At least one they built under fire, and Schwanebeck had his boat shot out from under him. He told me about it later. The problem was that the infantry boys all crowded into the back of the boat to avoid the German fire. This often happened; the boats would move across the river with their prows in the air, and the Germans would shoot the prows full of holes. But this time they backed up too much, and the boat went over backwards. Schwanebeck couldn't swim, but he only had a field jacket on, and he held onto the empty boat until another stormboat operator could pick him up on the way back. The soldiers were each loaded with 50 pounds of ammunition and whatnot, and they must have gone straight to the bottom. But Schwanebeck said he knew one guy made it, because he took him across again the next morning.
In 1985, I told this story to Cecil Swindle, an interim preacher in the Caney Christian Church, who had been a chaplain to an infantry outfit in the Third Army that went across the Moselle in stormboats. Swindle told me about a friend of his who must have been that soldier who survived. He had gotten out of the river only because he was 6' 3" tall, and the river was shallow enough that he was able to throw his head back and walk out.
Swindle also had more to tell about that bridge. The morning after Schwanebeck's boat overturned we had a little bridgehead, but the boys were so scared they wouldn't go. The captain came to Swindle and told him, "I can make those boys go, but if they are so scared that they stay in a bunch instead of spreading out, the Germans will just cut them down." He wanted Swindle, the chaplain, to go across and tell each boatload to spread out as they came on shore. He thought that if the chaplain told them they would believe it. Swindle told the captain that he would do it if the colonel told him to. So they asked the colonel, and the colonel said yes. So Swindle went and stayed there until the outfit had taken an area about the size of two city blocks.
Let me tell you about shooting ice on the Moselle River. After we moved across the river, there was a thaw. It must have been a mid-winter thaw, because I remember a lot of winter afterwards. Anyway there was a lot of ice breaking up on the Moselle. It came down the river in great blocks, 50 or 100 feet square, and these blocks were putting holes in the pontoons. Only a few of the pontoons had filled with water, and the bridgeheads were holding, but if all the pontoons went, the bridge would go. So they took the whole company out there, with a lot of captured German weapons and ammunition. We arrived there at the bridge about at dark, all 100 of us in the H&S company. We lined up across the bridge, and we started shooting at the ice as it came. They had removed every other one or so of the pontoons to try to let the ice through. We shot ice all night, shot up all the German ammunition, and started on all our own. Our shooting worked, but the blocks of ice just kept coming. About daylight, we had shot up all the ammunition the company had, so they decided to break the bridge and lay the pieces to the side. They broke it into three sections. The sections on the two sides were allowed to float against the shore. We tied two inch ropes to the center section and put about 200 men on each rope and tried to pull it to the shore. It didn't work. The current just broke the two ropes, one after the other, and the center section floated down the river.
THE BRIDGE PATTON COULDN'T BUILD
The day after I got back to the outfit, we moved about twenty miles, through the Ardennes and Belgium, up to about three miles from the Saar River near Wallerfang, Germany.
On December 14, Company B started trying to build a heavy pontoon bridge across the Saar. Patton wanted to put the 90th Infantry Division across on it. He got about a fourth of the division across in stormboats, but the German resistance was just too strong for us to put that bridge up. They were throwing everything they could at us. It was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
Schwanebeck, who was bivouacked about quarter of a mile from the river, was one of the stormboat operators ferrying the infantry across. It was tough. He told me that at one point the stormboat operators were hiding in a straw stack. Only he and Shuff would answer when they called for one of them. The infantry colonel put Schwanebeck up for a medal for hauling a scout across. They lined up the whole company for Schwanebeck to get it. But Captain Campbell wouldn't put through the papers for it. He said all soldiers were heros.
The night before Patton gave up on the bridge, I was on road point back about a mile and a half from the river. There was a turn in the road there, below a bluff where we had a 76 millimeter gun with a 1000 rounds of ammunition. When our trucks came around, I was supposed to tell them about the turn and the bluff. The gun was setting right above the road. I saw the place in the daylight later, and there was a valley below. Our guys started shooting at what they said was a German tank. The Germans started shooting back, and our guys headed for a cave that was hollowed out under the road. I was afraid to go down there, because I was supposed to warn the trucks. So I just hid in the cut in the hill were the steps went down to the cave. Those 1000 rounds of ammunition were so close. The shrapnel was hitting below the road off to the side. Finally, here came a truck to pick me up and take me back to camp, about three miles from the river. I sure was glad to see it. A couple of hours later at breakfast, Captain Russo came looking for me. "Shafer, Shafer." When he saw me he said he was glad they still had me. He had been at that turn about an hour before, and he had seen that the Germans had hit the ammunition and blown the whole thing up.
The next morning, Patton decided we were going to build that bridge in the daylight. We loaded up about 10:00. When we got down there, we saw an abutment and a pontoon that they had put in during the night. The 155's were just lined up all along the river. Those guns were so big it took semis to haul them. We sat in the back of a GMC 6x6 truck watching the shells for about an hour. The near misses sounded like freight trains. We would get a crew out there, then the shells would get too close, and they would run for the ditch. Finally General Patton came out of a dugout, and Colonel White went over to meet him. From the truck where I sat I could hear Patton drawl, "Well Colonel, I guess we'll have to call it off." We were tickled pink. We got those trucks out of there in nothing flat.
When they finally got the infantry boys back from the other side of the river, they sent word that the stormboat operators wanted hot food. Campbell said, "Send them K-rations. Let them find out what war is." When Russo heard about that, he disappeared from the shop area just like that. I heard later that he walked up to Campbell and said, "You get them boys hot food, and you do it in thirty minutes, or you won't even be a captain any more."
Patton was the first general to realize that the Germans were mounting a big offensive. He moved us back 60 miles, to Rhombus, France. That was December 15 to 17, 1944.
At one point along the retreat, Captain Russo found some sheet metal that he thought would make good snowplows. Nine of us had to stay behind overnight so we could load it up the next morning and bring it back with us. There we were all by ourselves, hoping the Germans weren't coming too fast. Nine German soldiers showed up that night to surrender. Probably they were deserters who had slipped back to their homes behind the Allied lines and who didn't want to be around now that the German Army was coming back. We got the steel and our nine prisoners loaded the next morning and got back to Rhombus.
We spent Christmas at Rhombus. I remember Patton's paper telling us to pray for weather for battle. Not many of us joined the prayer. We made the snowplows and sat around. We lived in a schoolhouse there.
In early January, Eisenhower gave Montgomery priority in supplies to help him break through across the Rhine, and we did a lot of hauling to depots in Belgium. At one point we even went into Holland, right to the coast. It took us five days to get there.
There in Holland, the company lived in another schoolhouse, but the motor section was stationed about a mile into town, in a nice garage. We lived in the showroom. We loaded into a truck and went back to the company for meals. The showroom was nice because we were out of the weather.
THE PUSH INTO GERMANY
On February 6, 1945, the 180th Battalion was disattached from Patton's Third Army and assigned to the Ninth Army. We built a bridge across the Roer. Then we began stockpiling material at Linford for bridges across the Rhine.
Late in March, we built two bridges across the Rhine. I was involved in building the first one, at Wallach, on March 24 and 25. I was about a mile and a half from the river, directing traffic. They would call me from the river and tell me how many loads of bulk or deck or whatever they needed, and I would send that many trucks in. They didn't want everything there at once, exposed to enemy fire.
Everything was going fine until a mobile artillery unit pulled in and set up across the road. The mobile units would move in to a position, take some shots, and then get out fast, before the enemy could get a good fix on them. When the enemy started shooting back at this one, I grabbed a shovel off one of the trucks and dug a hole about a foot deep and four feet long, perhaps two feet wide. The truck drivers just laughed at me.
There was a smelter right in front of us, with a smokestack at least 100 feet tall. When the shells got to hitting the tile roof of the smelter, it sounded pretty frightening. I jumped in the hole, and those guys who had been laughing jumped in on top of me. There must have been about six of them. I could hardly breathe. Then a shell knocked down the smokestack, and a piece of it rolled right over to the edge of the hole.
Fortunately, the shelling stopped then. The artillery unit had already moved out. It had been there thirty minutes at the most.
In April, we drove and drove into Germany, three hundred miles to the Elbe. They say that our advance was just across a three-mile wide corridor. We put a tank at every crossroads. I went the distance, to the Elbe River. At one point we got cut off from our supplies for about nine days. I remember a mean little Italian who hadn't been in the outfit very long who Campbell would send to steal food for us. He brought us a lot of alcohol and potatoes from German cellars.
THE END OF THE WAR
Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and the war was officially over on May 8. After Hitler's suicide, the main effort of the German command was to get as much of the German army as possible away from the Soviet armies and into the U.S.-British area of control.
Schwanebeck and the other stormboat operators ferried a lot of German soldiers and civilians across the Elbe. They did it off and on for several days. They would do it for a few hours, and then orders would come down to stop. Then they would be allowed to ferry some more. There were a lot of Germans wanting to come over. Schwanebeck collected a gunny sack full of German guns and other souvenirs. He gave me a brand-new 7.65 millimeter German pistol and a pair of binoculars.
Francis Todd, my brother-in-law, was about 22 miles from us, in a town called Tangermunde. On May 5, Oliver Johannsen and I got a pass to drive there. For 20 of the 22 miles we saw surrendered Germans marching alongside the road, four and six abreast. When we got there, Francis was checking prisoners coming across a bombed bridge on the Elbe. We could see the vehicles they had parked on the other side of the river.
I remember a German kid who came across while I was there with Francis. He was probably about 16, but he made the mistake of wearing an American Red Cross sweater. The American soldiers assumed he must have taken it off a dead GI, and they really beat him up. I asked them why. Most of those guys had only been there for about three months, and I had been there during the whole European campaign, so I didn't figure I had to take anything from them. They finally let him go.
On May 12 and 13, we built a heavy pontoon bridge over the Elbe at Magdeburg, Germany. It was called the American-Russian friendship bridge, but there wasn't much friendship over it. A few American soldiers did cross over and the Russians held them for several days before letting them go.
That was the end of the war in Europe. After that, we just had to clean up and wait around to go home.
On June 11 and 12, we convoyed 330 miles south to Ulm. I drove about half the way. We were all highly impressed by the four lane concrete highways in Germany. We couldn't drive on them all the way, though. The bridges were all blown up, and we had to take a lot of detours to get across the rivers.
We stayed in some nice civilian houses in Ulm. We were the conquerors. When we decided we wanted to stay somewhere, the civilians left.
While we were in Ulm, each of our companies had a softball team. I had played catch with anyone I could get to play in England, but we hadn't had any teams there. Now we had games several times a week. I was the catcher. I had a lot of fun, but in one game the parts man fell on my knee, and it bothered me for many years afterwards.
I went fishing in the blue Danube at Ulm. It really was blue. The same day I went fishing, John Whitmore came to see me. He was a medic in A company. He was from Coffeyville, and he had found out that I was from Caney. It turned out that we knew a lot of the same people. I forgot all about him later, but in 1985, when I reread the letter I wrote to my mother at the time, I looked him up in the Coffeyville phone book and went to visit him. He had forgotten all about me, too, but he was the fellow. We talked about things we both remembered, and he gave me a two-page official history of the battalion that he had gotten when he was discharged. He got out sooner than I did, because he was already married and had one kid.
In July, we took our trucks and drove them back to France. We got everything ready for going to the Pacific. We had the name of the ship that was going to take us to States. We would have a thirty-day furlough, and then we would go to Japan.
There were seven camps for American soldiers around Paris. They were named after cigarettes. I was in Camp Lucky Strike.
We had softball games every day in Camp Lucky Strike. Unfortunately, I didn't get to play very often. They assigned me and four other guys to an electrician detail, and we had to go all over the camp wiring tents with electricity. The camp had some diesel generators, and before we were done, everyone with rank decided they needed electricity.
A lot of guys went on passes to Paris. I never went there on a pass, but I did see Paris when we turned in our trucks. We turned them in just outside Paris. They had three thousand miles on them. I drove one of them in. After we turned them in, we all got into a personnel carrier and went into the city. We just had a trip ticket. No passes. So we didn't get far from our vehicle. But we drove all around Paris that night. We slept on the roadside outside of Paris before getting back to camp the next morning.
In August the war in the Pacific ended, and that put us further down on the list for returning to the States. In September, they put us on a train to Camp Calais, on the Mediterranean, about twenty miles from Marseille. It was starting to get cold even there. We lived in buildings with a Spanish accent. The main camp was in tents, with boards about three feet high on the sides, in a vineyard.
By this time, we didn't have to work too hard. We had German prisoners to clean our barracks for us. I remember one of them who could speak English. I talked to him quite a bit. He really hated the French. He said that next time the Germans would kill all the French as they went. They would come with knives, not guns.
We played a lot of poker at Camp Calais. We had one building set up just for poker, and games went on 24 hours a day. I got into one once and won a lot of money. I stayed in the game until I had lost most of it, but I quit when I was $300 ahead. I didn't write home to Mother about that.
I went on a pass to Marseille at least once. That town had a tough reputation. We were told that when we went to the waterfront we should stay in groups of at least three, because there were people there who would kill you for the change in your pocket.
There was a point system, and the guys who had the most points got to go home first. I remember when Captain Campbell left. He called the whole company together, chewed us out, wound up with the line about our coming in his office and his drawing us a picture. Then he turned around, got into a jeep that he already had sitting there with a driver, and we never saw him again. When our farm school went to the American Royal after the war, I saw a policeman who really looked like Campbell, except that he didn't seem as tall. I always wondered if it was him. He was from Kansas City, and being a policeman was the kind of thing that would have suited him.
They issued us a whole new set of trucks to try to keep us busy. We went to work fixing them up. We even stood guard over them at night. We had a whole new set of officers. We didn't know their names, and they didn't pay much attention to us either.
We finally got rid of those trucks about November 10. Then we took them to a salvage yard, where men cut them up with big torches.
We were on the water going home on Thanksgiving Day, on the ship that carried the two-millionth American soldier home from the ETO - the European Theater of Operations. It took us five days to cross. We landed in Boston harbor. I had been a sergeant for quite a while, but I was on KP every day on the ship. Our company had all the KP. I didn't care. It wasn't a big deal. The ships had permanent cooks.
We got off the ship that day, and we didn't even spend the night in Boston. They took us out to a center and piled our duffel bags up like a mountain. Then they told each of us where we were going to go to get our discharge.
I got on the train that night for Camp Fannin in Texas, together with a guy named Zimmerman, the only other Kansas boy in the company. Schwanebeck, who was from Nebraska, went to Fort Leavenworth.
At Camp Fannin, nobody told us what to do. We wandered around until we found a bunk, and the next morning we found a mess hall. Finally I found a place where they were calling names to discharge us. I got discharged just before noon. That was December 4, 1945. I had been in the army for 1,116 days.
I waited until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon for Zimmerman and a couple other guys. We had agreed to pay a local guy to drive us all to Dallas. From there I got a train to Parsons.
I got into Parsons about 6:00 the next morning. I found a restaurant and ordered a cup of coffee. I asked where the bus station was. Where did I want to go, they said. Then they told me the interurban to Coffeyville was leaving from a couple of blocks away in five minutes. I left my coffee set and ran to catch it. Some officer and his wife were on the interurban, and when we got to Coffeyville, which was the end of the line, they woke me up. "Going home, soldier?" he asked. I said, "Yeah." Not "Yes sir."
From Coffeyville, I called Cliff Jones to come pick me up. He said, "I'll do even better. Your parents are in the store, and I'll send them to get you." I walked out of the station while I was waiting, and I saw Polly Pearsall, the first person from Caney I had seen since I had gone to England.
At the end of the war, I had the rank of technical sergeant. I had a three-year hash mark, an expert rifleman's medal, and a good conduct medal. The good conduct medal may not sound like a big deal, but not every soldier got one.
I was in five campaigns - Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe. I had a star for each one. I don't think any American soldiers in Europe had more campaign stars than that. The only other campaigns were the early ones in Africa and Italy, and those fellows weren't in Normandy.
I was fortunate, though. I went through the whole campaign in France and Germany without seeing anyone killed. I was never in small arms fire. I did see a lot of artillery shrapnel and a lot of dead Americans and Germans.
I was a different person at the end of the war. My experience as a soldier taught me a lot about myself. I had never been among those who did well in school, but now I had seen a lot of the world, and I knew that I was the kind of person who could accomplish more than most. The experience also made me think about what I wanted to do with my life. I went into the service with vague ambitions. I came out with definite ideas about where I wanted to go and definite plans for getting there.
Captions for photos to be added:
A group of us in front of the schoolhouse in Rhombus, France, where we spent Christmas, 1944.
Back row, left to right:
1. Davis, a fellow in his fifties. He was supposed to be a mechanic, but he didn't do too much.
2. "Chow Hound" Dooley. Another mechanic. He didn't know much, but he worked hard. He was first in line for every meal.
3. Rolly Denton. He started out a cook, but I taught him mechanics, and he ended up the shop foreman. He was Lieutenant Law's cousin, and he got promoted to corporal before me. I raised Cain about it, but it didn't do me any good.
4. Oliver J. Johannsen. He was the company carpenter. He had to fix something up for an officer now and then, but usually he didn't have too much to do. He was the smartest fellow in the outfit. I think he took up with me because I was the only one with a high school education. He was from Portland, Oregon, 38 years old, and apparently well-to-do. Sort of a gentleman farmer.
5. "Big Mike" Kervasky. He was Johannsen's buddy and helper. If you were a friend of Johannsen's, you were a friend of his. Nobody fooled with me, because they would have to answer to Big Mike.
6,7. The two guys on the right end were from the headquarters platoon. I don't remember their names.
Front row, left to right:
1. Dian. He was a welder. He worked under Sergeant Arts. Those guys had a lot of work to do. Captain Russo always had something for them to build.
2. Bill Conklin, from Wheeling, West Virginia. He was a body man. There wasn't much fender straightening to do, but he usually had something to paint. I never knew a guy who could drink so much beer. We called him Conky Bill.
3. Pitzel. He was the machinist for the company. He had his own truck, with a little machine shop in it. He used his lathe to machine the brass shell that I used for a rod bearing in the Mac truck. Before the war, he had designed a nationally known carburetor. He was always friendly, but quiet.
4. Roberts. He was a storm boat motor mechanic. He was always busy on those motors. He was a quiet country boy from Iowa, with almost no education.
5. Dick Shafer. He was a mechanic.
6. Another headquarters guy.
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