Sgt. Francis Chesko was a part of the 148th Engineer Battalion, who found themselves temporarily attached to several different divisions and corps of the 1st US Army. As part of the battalion, their unit’s primary purpose was to build bridges. They were attached to the 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, 2nd Armored, 90th Infantry, VII Corp and VIII Corps. They served in the battles of Normandy, Rhineland, Northern France, Central Europe, and the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge) – and this is his War Story.
I left New Cumberland, PA on March 2, 1943, for Basic Training in Camp Shelby, MS. We spent our time building bridges, making roads, working with explosives, learning to fire rifles, machine guns & bazookas, throwing hand grenades, burying land mines, searching for mines and detectors and learning how to dig them up and disarm them, learning how to blow up bridges and build tank traps, etc.
I came home in July on a 10-day furlough, and then it was back to Mississippi for more training before traveling to Rhode Island on October 8, 1943 for departure to England. After ten days of zig-zagging in order to fool the German subs, we made our arrival in Gottington, England on October 18, 1943.
Our next home from October to June was in six man tents at Swindon, England. In our training, we built a “Baily Bridge” across the Thames River at 3 o’clock in the morning in 3 1/2 hours—“WOW!!” Then we built a landing strip at Swindon (more about that later).
Promoted to Corporal, and one day I was on C.Q. (Charge of Quarters) at the C.P. (Command Post) when a girl came in. I asked her what she wanted and she said she was looking for a soldier named Chesko. I told her I was Chesko, and she asked if I was Joe Chesko’s brother. I told her I was, and she told me Joe was stationed at Devizes, which was about 25 miles from me. Joe and I couldn’t write to each other because the enemy might find out where we were (yeah, they knew where we were all the time).
I went to see Captain Zadney and asked him for a Jeep and a weekend pass. Wow, you should have seen the look on his face!!! But after I explained the situation, he gave me the Jeep and the pass. Brother Joe was in the 4th Armored Division and his tank was called the “Coal Cracker.”
I got into the Jeep and departed on my journey to see brother Joe. I got to Devizes where he was stationed and found his barracks. I proceeded up the steps and he was sitting on the bunk with his back to me—he was writing a letter home. I snuck up on him and grabbed him with both hands around the neck and wouldn’t let him turn around. He said a few unprintable words and then I let go. Boy, was he surprised to see me! I stayed the weekend with him talking about the Army and, of course, of home too. It was just too bad we didn’t have a camera!
Shortly after my visit with Joe, our outfit got orders to move south in England to the front of Southampton to leave for France and Normandy Beach sector code-named “Utah.” A twenty-year old kid, wet behind the ears yet, scared to death and seeing mangled bodies all over the place—some alive, but most were dead.
The first night in France, we were going up a road and the Germans started shelling us. We all jumped into a ditch and I landed on a body. It was pretty dark and I couldn’t make out if it was a German or an American. I could feel his ear and face but no movement. (Boy, did I get out of there in a hurry!) After going through the dreaded hedge rows, we were advancing on a little town called La Haye-du-Puits. The next thing I know, I’m in a field hospital and doctors are pulling the skin off my legs, face, arms and hands because I had been burned.
Remember a paragraph or so back I said we built a landing strip at an airport at Swindon? Well, on the plane over the English Channel, I asked a nurse where we would land in England and she said, “Swindon.” (Thank God we did a good job of building the landing strip!)
The first morning at the hospital, the head nurse asked, “Whose bed is this that isn’t made up?” I told her it was mine, but I couldn’t make it because every time I tried to tuck in the blankets, I would scrape the skin off my hands. So she was kind enough to find someone to make it up for me. (Wasn’t that nice of her?)
After 50 days of recuperating in England, I was back to France on September 7, 1944. I joined the 7th Armored Division on October 16th in Holland. On October 29th, we were attacked by tiger tanks. On December 1st, we were in Aachen, Germany, which was the first city in Germany to be taken in the war. What a sight it was around the outside of the city—hardly a tree was left standing, and holes are all over the ground from all the shells falling from German and American artillery and from American bombs.
On December 16th, we were told to load up our trucks because we were going back about 50 miles. We thought, “Oh boy, a rest at last!” However, we were mistaken because that was the start of the “Battle of the Bulge.” It was very cold, with snow and fog, and we had no winter clothing or boots. Boy, did we suffer—sometimes our fingers would stick to our rifles.
One day we were building a small bridge out of logs that we had cut down in the forest when an 88mm shell came over my head and struck about 10 yards away. One buddy of mine, Michael Haase from N.Y., got the full force of the shell. It almost took his head off. He died instantly—what a terrible sight.
While fighting the Battle of the Bulge, we joined up with the British 1st Army. One day we spotted some smoke coming from behind a concrete bunker. We thought it was Germans trying to keep warm, so we crawled on our stomachs through the snow while some bullets were flying. You’ll never guess who it was!!! That’s right, you guessed it…it was 4 o’clock and the British were having tea! One of them asked me, “Would you care for a spot of tea, Yank?” I accepted.
Another time we were advancing and couldn’t figure out where the bullets were coming from. Then we spotted movement under haystacks where the Germans were. One of our tanks blew the haystacks down. When we got to the spot where the haystacks had been, we found one German who was cut in half, with his intestines strung out along the ground. Both of his arms were cut off near the shoulder. He was covered with gun powder and looked like a bust. Now comes the worst part: one of our soldiers picked up an arm and took off the wrist watch. He also tried to pull off the man’s ring, but he couldn’t get it off. So he hacked off the finger with his bayonet. (“Ugh,” and double “Ugh”—gruesome!!!)
Up in Holland, we were on one side of a canal and there were Germans on the other side. There was a bridge across the canal, so we planted explosives on it and left two men to blow it up if the Germans tried to cross. It was getting dark and most of us went into a house and bedded down. About 6 o’clock in the morning, I was on guard outside of the house and I heard tanks coming down the street. It was just getting light and I could make out that they were German tanks. I went in and got the Lieutenant by the shoulder and woke him up. I told him the German tanks were coming down the street, but he said that they couldn’t be, because the guards left on the bridge had orders to blow it up! Just then, an 88 mm shell went right through our truck and the Lieutenant gave the order to grab a bazooka. We aimed it at a tank, but it misfired, so we went out the back door of the house and went into the field. The German tank came right through the house after us. We were running alongside a fence and all of a sudden something hit me and knocked me over. A bullet had hit a fence post and a piece of wood hit my cartridge belt and that was what knocked me over. I was lucky I was not hurt. God was with us. Some American tanks and tank destroyers knocked out the German tanks. The next day, one of the men who was left to guard the bridge caught up with us and told the Lieutenant that the Germans took the bridge by surprise, and he was the only one who got away.
One night the Germans bombarded us with mortars. I was under a ditch overhang alongside a road. When it got light, I saw that there was a mortar stuck in the dirt above me. Thank God it was a “dud”—otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this!
by William “Bill” Armstrong, Service Battery, 263rd Field Artillery Battalion, 26th “Yankee” Division
There was one occurrence in France of which I am not very proud. It turned out all right and, as a matter of fact, probably saved some lives. At the time, however, I was very disappointed in my own lack of bravery.
I was an ammunition truck driver and my primary duty was to keep one of our three firing Batteries supplied with 105mm ammunition. My buddy, Bob Zellmer, and I drove one vehicle and we were with two other vehicles in a convoy when we got lost on the way back to our Battery. It was getting dark, so we decided to ‘hole up’ at the first place we could find. We saw a walled village that was situated on the top of the small hill off to our right. It looked like a good secure place to spend the night, provided we could get through the huge closed wooden gates. We had no idea if the gates were locked. Maybe we’d find a deserted village behind the gates, as so many villages had been abandoned.
As we approached the doors, the smaller door opened and a strange looking man appeared. He was dressed in dark clothing with black smudges on his hands and face. “You guys want in?” he called out. After hearing our surprised “Yes!,” the large doors swung open and our two trucks entered and parked. This strange man turned out to be an American soldier. He said he’d been watching us through a peep hole and was glad we decided to pull in.
I looked around and I will say that I never saw a place quite like this one. It looked very medieval. There were 12 houses in a rectangle and the whole area was surrounded by the fortress. The farmers who lived in this town must have worked in the surrounding fields during the day and then brought their livestock through the gate at night. They must have felt protected by the walls that were about 15 – 20 feet high. There was one thing that we noticed, though, and that was a big hole in the wall that was probably the result of artillery fire.
The American soldier told us that he was part of a unit of 8 men who were holed up in the basement of one of the houses. He led us to one of the houses and then down into a cellar, where there were other men in dark clothing with smudged hands and faces seated around a table playing cards. The men hadn’t shaved in long time and they smelled as though they hadn’t had hygiene in months. The lighting consisted of a number of burning candles placed about the room. It was definitely a very eerie scene.
The soldier said to one of the other guys, “Sir, these guys want to spend the night here. They could help guard the hole for us.” We couldn’t tell which of the men at the table he was addressing. There were no bars on their clothes or other means to identify the officer until he spoke to us. He explained that they were all Military Intelligence and worked behind the German lines at night—hence, the dark clothing and black smudges on the skin. He said that the hole in the wall needed to be guarded because German patrols came by there every night. He asked it we’d guard it that night so he could take all of the men on night patrol.
We agreed to guard the hole in the wall. He explained that although the German patrols came by every night, there was a mutual understanding that if they (the scouts) wouldn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother the scouts. Regardless, he felt that it was better that someone was there on guard, just to make sure this agreement was kept. Should the Germans decide not to honor the agreement and force their way in, he gave us two hand grenades to protect ourselves. We wouldn’t be able to use our guns, because that would give our position away.
The hole was in the back wall of the blacksmith’s forge. There was fuel for the forge and one of the guys lit it to have a fire to heat our K-rations. We all agreed upon a schedule to guard the hole with each of us assigned a 2-hour shift. My buddy, Bob, had the first shift, 10 PM to 12 midnight. After our ‘dinner,’ we spread our blankets on the ground around the forge. Talk soon stopped and we went to sleep, with Bob guarding the hole. It seemed I had just closed my eyes when I felt someone shaking me. It was Bob, telling me it was time for my shift—midnight to 2 AM. He added that he had seen no Germans, and that was good news. I got up, put on my overcoat, slung my carbine on my right shoulder, put on my steel helmet and clambered over the pile of bricks that had been blasted out of the wall so that I could view the “lay of the land.” The town was on a low hill with what appeared to be a brush-lined stream at the foot of the slope. The distance to the stream was about 100 feet. The land between the stream and the wall was filled with vegetation that looked like oats, and that was a perfect setting for someone to sneak up on their belly and surprise us.
It was foggy and the air was chilly. The warmth of my bed roll soon dissipated as I stood in the cold air. There was enough moonlight filtering through that I could see the trees lining the small creek at the foot of the slope. The thought of seeing a German patrol, and the possibility that they might approach and cause trouble, made me grip the grenade tighter. This was a job for an infantryman who had been trained for close combat, I thought, not for me—a truck driver! Sitting down on the pile of bricks, time crept by slowly—minutes felt like hours. It was very quiet and I made sure to listen intently to all the sounds of the night. I thought I heard footsteps, but soon realized I was hearing my own heartbeat! Then I heard swishing in the oats, but realized that was just a breeze that had come through.
Without being aware of it, I found that I had edged my way back away from the hole. I found that I was just a few feet from the place where my buddies were sleeping. How I wished I was back in my warm bed roll! But, I had a job to do, so I must get closer to the hole to guard it. I just got back to the hole and heard a voice “Just checking—is everything OK?” The voice startled me—it turns out that it was one of the American soldiers just checking on me. He had come over rubble without making a sound. No wonder these guys were selected to do what they did—they were very skilled at being silent. I thumped my chest and caught my breath and whispered back, “Please don’t startle me again!” He just chuckled and said he wouldn’t. I told him that I might have pulled the pin on the grenade in my panic! After he left, it dawned on me that the Germans could be just as good as he was with sneaking up very quietly, so I listened even more intently after he left.
I waited and waited. Dead silence. I had time to think. It was then that I realized that I was trembling with fear. What if Germans came? Would I panic? The more I thought of it the worse it got. I was feeling truly afraid! It was the first time I had ever felt fear that intense! “Was I a coward?,” I asked myself. I had one of the grenades in my right hand with one of my fingers on my left hand in the safety ring. One jerk and the pin would be out and I could throw it. My carbine was over my left shoulder. I was as prepared as I could be, but I knew I was rattled with fear and wondered if I would screw up.
Berating myself, I returned to my post and it wasn’t but a few moments later that I saw movement along the creek. Seven dark shapes. “Oh God!,” I thought, “Here they come!” Two of them separated from the others and turned toward the hole. I’m in trouble now. Time for action! Gripping the grenade in my left hand, I tried to pull the safety pin. No matter how hard I pulled, the pin wouldn’t budge. I put it between my knees and pulled with all of my might. Why wasn’t it pulling? In my struggle to pull the pin, the butt of my carbine struck the wall and the two shapes paused. I broke out in a sweat. Did they hear that sound? Was I going to be overrun by both of them? There was no way I could call my buddies. I just had to be as quiet as a church mouse and pray. Slowly, the 2 Germans turned and went back down the slope to join the others. It was a great relief to see their column continue and get out of sight!
I realized I was bathed in sweat and that only made me colder. I just sat on the bricks and tried to stay as warm as I could and regain my composure. My heartbeat returned to normal. When my time was up, I woke up my relief and told him that everything had been peaceful. (I was too ashamed of myself to tell him of the incident). At daybreak, I asked the last guard to hand me the grenade, so I could see it in the light of the day—to see if there was any clue why it malfunctioned. I could see that the pin had been hammered down making it impossible to remove. When I returned the grenade to the lieutenant, I said, “Thanks a lot, Sir! It was a damned good thing I didn’t need it!” He replied, “I knew you men were not trained for close combat. Had you used it, it would have created an incident, and my scouts would have suffered retribution. The gentleman’s agreement with the Germans had to be honored.” I thought of all of the angst I had—all for naught.
I’m not proud to say that I didn’t feel courageous that night. For a long time, I couldn’t share this story with anyone. I wonder if other soldiers had similar experiences?
I remember only too well some of the details of my military service in Europe, and the first time I went on a reconnaissance (and not the last one). Every time L company made a counter attack with the 3rd Platoon leading the way, the first squad was on the left flank, the second squad on the right flank and the third squad with Sergeant Vogel leading the way as the point guard and the Platoon Officer and First Sergeant in the middle of the triangle.
I remember I was placed in charge of the 3rd squad of the 3rd platoon in L Company, 134th Infantry Regiment. A few weeks after we made the counterattack from the Ardennes Forest, one morning when we were standing for roll call, everyone was present except the 3rd squad. About 5 minutes later, the men from the 3rd squad came walking in. There was a Corporal in charge of the squad. The first Sergeant said, “Corporal, this is the last time the 3rd squad will be late for roll call. Sergeant Vogel, you are in charge of the 3rd squad.” I talked to the men of the 3rd squad and told the soldier with the BAR (Browning automatic Rifle), he’s 2nd in charge and where I go, he goes.
A few weeks later, L Company arrived at a small village by truck. The kitchen was already set up for hot coffee. We had ‘K’ Ration and hot coffee. I was sitting with the 3rd squad, drinking coffee, when the first Sergeant told me to report to the Company Commander. The Company Commander was standing by his JEEP with some maps. I reported, “Sergeant Vogel reporting as ordered.” The Company Commander said, “Sergeant, let’s take a walk across the street. See that large group of trees behind the houses on our left?” (They were about 1000 yards away). I said, “Yes, Sir.” He said, “Take the 3rd squad and check them for German soldiers. The First Sergeant will give you white sheets and a radio to keep in touch.” I replied, “Yes, Sir.” I walked around the one house with the 3rd squad. There was a large open field between me and the forest, but on the right side of the field there were large bushes for some protection. We decided to walk down the right side of the field. It was a good thing we did, because we were only about half way down the field when a barrage of mortars started exploding all over that open field. I started calling the company on the radio to stop the mortar firing. A few minutes later the firing stopped, and we could proceed to the forest. Every step of the way, we were waiting for the Germans to start shooting.
I was the first one in line and I told the soldier with the BAR to start shooting, and the rest of the squads to try and get back to report to the Company Commander.
We had no problems, and entered the woods and heard a lot of Germans talking. We proceeded through the woods and discovered we were about 60 feet above a road where there was a large group of German Solders running for trucks, and an officer giving all kinds of orders. One of the trucks had a large field gun connected to the back of the truck. This was the first time I saw German soldiers. We did not start shooting, because we were only too glad they were on the run. We returned to the company and I made my report to the Company Commander. He said, “Thanks, Sergeant. Get your men into a truck—we are moving out.”
I think my next reconnaissance (as I mentioned before), the Company moved into a wooded area with a few empty houses. It was after midnight when the First Sergeant woke me and told me to take the men of the 3rd squad and check a small village for German soldiers. We were given white sheets and the password. We walked to the edge of the wood and the First Sergeant pointed out the small village down over the hill. There was at least 1 1/2 or 2 feet of snow on the ground. We walked through a field to the first house. We found three women sleeping in one bed. They said, “No soldiers in here,” but I made a complete check of the house anyway. We checked the other three houses—no German soldiers. We started to go back when the tanks with a big spotlight turned on us. We identified ourselves. I talked to the officer in the first tank before returning to L company to make my report.
I think my next adventure was at the end of March. L Company was on the offense (walking—we were always walking). We came to a broken-down steel bridge (I mentioned it before). The First Sergeant walked up to me and said there was a concrete bunker on the other side of the bridge. He asked, “Can you get the 3rd squad across the bridge and check that bunker?” I said, “No problem.” I placed my rifle across my back and said, “3rd squad, let’s go.” I was the first one to start across the broken-down bridge. We could see a machine gun pointing out of the bunker and we knew if they started shooting, we were “dead ducks.” After crossing the bridge, we were on a hill above the bunker. We all laid down on the ground and I fired two rifle grenades into the bunker entrance. Out came a white flag, and four German soldiers with their hands on their heads.
We marched the German soldiers down the street to L Company Headquarters and turned the Germans over to the first Sergeant. There was a member of the Red Cross waiting for me, and handed me a telegram (and a blank form so I could write a letter to my wife to let her know I received her telegram and I was very happy,) informing me of the birth of our little daughter. Mother and daughter were both doing fine.
It’s about 7:15 AM on March 5, 1965 and my friend and I are sitting in slow-moving, toll bridge back-up traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, on our way to work, in White Plains, New York. This morning is bright and clear. Today is my friend’s turn to drive and I’m trying to nap. Suddenly he says, “Hey, look at that big ship under us.” I look out the window and there it is, moving south towards New York City. It is being pushed by a tugboat lashed to the port side of the stern. As the ship clears the bridge I can see its name. It is called “Wakefield.” I repeat the name to myself—it seems familiar. Then I remember: that’s the name of the ship that took me from Boston to Liverpool, England in 1944. I tell my friend and explain the circumstances to him. Traffic has now moved on and we are out of sight of the ship.
The next morning he gives me a newspaper clipping, from the Nyack News Journal with a picture of the ship and the title “Old Troopship Fades Away Into The Night.”
Evidently, the ship had been in the Maritime Administration’s Hudson River Reserve Fleet at Jones Point, New York just south of the Bear Mountain Bridge. This is where they stored old liberty ships until they are sold for scrap. Now it was on its way to the scrap yard In Kearney N. J.
The last sentence in the clipping reads, “Who knows but what some of those commuters once rode on her proud decks?’ I jotted down: “I DID.” Here’s my experience aboard the Wakefield:
The 106 Infantry Division was commissioned on March 15, 1943, at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. We trained while the Army took over 7000 troops as replacements for divisions in combat. After maneuvers in March 1944, the division moved to Camp Atterbury outside Indianapolis Indiana. Still more training of replacements.
Then, in early October, the division prepared for an overseas assignment. More training and arms qualification. On or about November 1, 1944 the division traveled by train to embarkation ports. The infantry went to a camp near New York City. The artillery went to Camp Myles Standish just outside Boston, MA. We spent two weeks waiting for our ship. Then, about November 18, we boarded the Wakefield. The headquarters battery was assigned to compartment 0 – 2, which was on the bottom deck and in the bow of the ship.
Shortly after arriving in our quarters, a sergeant announced that he needed volunteers for jobs while onboard ship. First, he asked for volunteers to be messengers. I immediately raised my hand. Secondly, he asked for volunteers to man brooms and cleaning equipment. I don’t remember how many hands went up for that!
Being a messenger meant taking messages from the radio room to various places on the ship. So, the next morning when we sailed, I reported to the radio room for duty along with three or four others. Messengers wore a white armband which allowed them access to various parts of the ship. For example, being able to go to the head of the mess line. I spent the morning delivering messages to various officers on the A deck and the afternoon sitting on the floor of the passageway playing cards.
Every morning an announcement came over the ship’s loudspeakers: “Now hear this, Army sweepers: man your brooms, clean sweep fore and aft!” The message was repeated twice more.
The mess hall was on the B deck, in the center of the ship. It was filled with rows of long tray tables from side to side. These tables were stainless steel with a 3 inch rim, on either of the long sides. The ends had no rim and when the ship rolled, the food trays would slide in that direction. The trays at each end would fall off. You soon learned to hang onto your tray.
The third day was very stormy. The ship was headed into the waves, so it would climb to the top of a wave and then crash to the bottom and so on, as well as roll from side to side. While waiting outside of the radio room, I noticed a door at the end of the passageway and walked over to see outside. But, because there were no windows in the door, I opened it and stepped outside to a platform. I watched as the waves rose and fell before the ship. I hung on to the railing tightly and looked up as we hit the bottom of the trough, and believe me, that wave was at least 40 feet high! I quickly went inside.
On the fourth day of the crossing, in calm seas, I could see we had picked up an escort of destroyer escort vessels. That meant we were nearing our destination. On the fifth day we arrived at the port at Liverpool England and disembarked to travel by train to a camp somewhere in the middle of England. Two weeks later we again boarded a vessel, for another sea voyage—this time an LST to cross the channel.
We sat outside Le Havre for two days and finally the General raised his one star flag. We finally docked about 6:30 PM that evening. The rest is history.
Seventy three years later, I still remember it as though it happened last month.
by Joe Landry, 776th Anti-Aircraft Artillery, Automatic Weapons Battalion
I’m 18 years old, and it’s October 1942. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred just 10 months prior to my 18th birthday. My friends were being drafted. I knew my time was coming. I was ready to serve my country so I went to the draft board to sign up in January, 1943. This is where my story starts…
Once I completed the enlistment process, everything happened fast. After a week at Ft. Devens, MA, I was shipped to Camp Davis, NC on 5 Apr 1943 for training in the 776th Battalion, learning to shoot anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). The weapons included 40 mm and 50 caliber quad guns as well as the M1 rifle, the 45 caliber semi-automatic pistol and submachine gun. I was also trained to be a heavy truck driver. After training in Camp Davis, our outfit was moved to Ft. Fisher, NC by motor convoy and was there until 27 Oct. Not long after that, our outfit was shipped back to Camp Davis and then to Camp Pickett, Fort A.P. Hill and then Blackstone Air Base, VA. We performed maneuvers until the middle of Nov. We had to live in tents and I remember it being very cold and snowy. On 13 Dec, we were moved to West Point Air Field in Arlington, VA.
On 12 Jan, 1944, we were moved to Camp Edwards, MA for more training and then on 16 Feb, our outfit moved to Camp Miles Standish, MA. On 27 Feb, we boarded the SS Borinquen in Boston Harbor and left for Europe the next day. We landed in Gourock Bay, Scotland and boarded a train to Camp Lianmartin Monmouthshire, South Wales. It was there where we received our equipment and we became ‘operational’ on 9 Apr. We moved to Cornwall County and set up our guns around Carrick Rd and Falmouth Bay. Our HQ was set up in the Trulissick House. The Batteries A, B, C and D were situated nearby. Not long after arrival, we had an air raid. A jerry hit a large oil tanker in the harbor and this caused quite a fire.
At the end of May, we received orders to ship out on 1 June for D-Day but our orders were canceled because the whole battalion couldn’t be moved at the same time (there just weren’t enough trucks.) Hence, we missed all the action on D-Day. On 14 Jul, we received orders to move to a marshalling area near Chasewater (about 3 hrs away). On the 17 Jul, we were back at Falmouth Bay and loaded our vehicles and equipment on the ship. The ship passed by Cherbourg, France and dropped us at Omaha Beach on 18 Jul. We unloaded the vehicles and equipment, but it took a few days due to the rough seas. We set up our guns in the vicinity of Insigny, France. Many of our men witnessed the bombing of Saint-Lô (nearby). The town had been occupied by the Germans. In an effort to liberate Saint-Lô and eradicate the Germans, hundreds of dive bombers from the 8th and 9th Air Corp from England dropped their bombs Saint-Lô. The town was 97% destroyed (it became known as ‘The Capital of Ruins’ as a result). Saint-Lô was one of the key cities to the opening of the Falaise Gap, which ultimately allowed Allied forces to expel German forces from Northern France.
After Omaha Beach, I remember going through many towns in a convoy, moving either troops or supplies. They include Bayeux, Saint-Lô, Mont Saint-Michel, Le Mans, Saint-Hilaire, Paris, Reims, Verdun, Étain, then to Belgium: to Malmédy, St. Vith, then to Luxembourg City and then to Germany: to Saarbrücken, Bad Münster, Nuremberg and Munich. At different times during the war, we were attached to the 1st Army, 7th Army, 3rd Army, 8th Air Force, 9th Air Force, 12th US Army Group, 21st US Army Group and the 9th Air Defense Command. When we were attached to the 3rd Army, we were with the 49th AAA Brigade and we protected airfields, ammo dumps and important rail road bridges from German aircraft.
I spent a lot of time on the Red Ball Express, chasing down General George Patton’s 3rd Army to provide him with supplies, so I wasn’t in one location very long. My brother, Harold, was in the 9th Air Force, 43rd Repair Squadron and was attached to the 3rd Army Field Artillery, but neither of us had any clue where the other one was during the war. When I was in Verdun, a very interesting thing happened. I just happened to see a jeep from my brother’s outfit on the bumper and asked the driver to stop. I asked him where the outfit was stationed, and when he pointed and said, “Over there,” I set out to see if, by chance, I could find my brother—and lo and behold I found him! It was quite a surprise to both of us. We were able to spend time together before he left for a new assignment. Coincidentally, it was Thanksgiving. Our visit lifted both of our spirits. We didn’t get to see each other again until we were back home in Dec 1945. Luckily, we both returned from the war with no major injuries.
Stories that I recollect as a truck driver: One time, we were up by the front line and an MP told us we couldn’t go any further—we were blocked by German forces. We weren’t sure what was going to happen next but we sat patiently, waited for further word from the MP and could finally move on. Thank heavens the MP was there to warn us. Another time, we were near St. Vith and I was sleeping under my truck (we slept any where we could). I could hear shelling and knew it was from the Germans. It dawned on me that the truck had a full load of gas cans on it. If a shell were to hit the truck, I wouldn’t be telling this story now. As soon as I realized the danger, I ran as fast as I could into the woods to find a safer spot. When the shelling stopped, I returned to the truck. This was just one of many close calls.
Another time, I was leading a 15-vehicle convoy behind an officer who was driving a jeep. He was in the lead and he was not watching behind him. He drove like crazy and disappeared into the dust. I instructed my convoy to pull over and we’d wait for the officer to come back, because he’d soon realize we weren’t behind him. He did eventually return and threatened me with a court-martial because I didn’t keep up. I just told him that I was watching out for my safety and the safety of the convoy. Nothing more was said. As he resumed the lead, he paid more attention to us.
I remember it being very cold during the Bulge, at times below zero. I felt more prepared than some of the guys because I was raised in MA. Also, I was 18 – 19 years old and could ‘tough it out’ more than I can now at age 93. The guys from the warmer states weren’t so prepared and they’d try to find ways to keep warm. I remember that they’d empty sandbags and wrap the burlap sack around their feet to keep them warm.
When the war was over, I was shipped back to France to La Havre to Camp Lucky Strike. The plans were that I would be shipped home for leave and then prepare to go to the Pacific. On my way home, orders to go to the Pacific were canceled because of the surrender of Japan. We landed in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and then eventually, we went back to Ft. Devens, MA. I was discharged on 8th Dec, 1945. I was 20 years old. When I returned home and I felt that I had lived a lifetime in the past 2 years. I was so glad to be home and with my family again. Not everyone was so lucky.
Not only did I serve, but all of my 6 siblings served in the war effort at one time or another. Three of my brothers were overseas in WW II (2 in Europe and 1 in Okinawa); one sister served in the Coast Guard in NY as a secretary; and another sister served in the USO at Ft Devon, MA. Later my younger brother served in the Navy in Korea and Vietnam (he had been too young to serve in WWII). Of 7 children, my parents had only 2 of them at home in WWII—the rest of us were away. When I came home, my mother’s hair had turned grey and I hardly recognized her. All of us stayed near Shirley, MA after the war and resumed our lives. We were a very close family. I married my sweetheart in 1953 and raised 3 wonderful children. My son, Steve, has joined me during many Veteran’s events, which I thoroughly enjoy.
New member William Jannace recently joined to honor his father, Anthony E. Jannace, 2 INFD 2 ENGR CMBT BN. The Second Infantry Division was part of Patton’s Third Army and the rush across Europe. From D-Day’s second wave (June 7, 1944) until May 7, 1945, the Second Infantry Division spent approximately 303 days in combat. They fought in St. Lo France, Alsace, the liberation of Paris, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Like so many of his comrades, Anthony Jannace got frost bite during the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Purple Heart after being hit by a mortar on April 7, 1945.
The Second Engineer Combat Battalion was awarded a presidential citation for its activities from December 13-20, 1944 in Belgium. The citation reads:
“The Second Engineer Combat Battalion is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy during the period, 13 December 1944 to 20 December 1944 in areas around Wirtzfeld, Belgium.
As its initial assignment, the Battalion proceeded to remove numerous road blocks, obstacles, and minefields on the only available supply road for the attack of the Division. This work was done under heavy artillery and mortar fire, within sight of the enemy, against adverse weather and over snow blanketed minefields. This road was cleared and opened up abreast, or even ahead of the assaulting Infantry troops advancing in the woods on either side.
With the sudden German counter offensive in the West, one company of the Battalion was sent from the rear in bivouac and suffered severe casualties. Pulling itself together, this company furiously fought back against the German armored spearhead, destroying several tanks and many Infantrymen. Pocketed elements held out for three days, though completely surrounded , until all ammunition and food was exhausted, when they were finally overcome.
Still other elements of the Battalion were twice thrown into the line as the only Infantry reserves to withstand the German push in the rear flank of the Division. Another company constructed a final barrier and obstacle belt behind our withdrawing Infantry. Mines, road blocks and demolitions were placed under heavy enemy fire and amidst infiltrating enemy Infantry on all sides, thus delaying his pursuit of our withdrawal. Without rest from duties or clearing roads for advancing fighting as Infantry, and placing road blocks and obstacles for withdrawal, the Second Engineer Combat Battalion took up its all important mission of keeping the only escape route for the Division open. This was a newly constructed one way road across swamps and hills which in spite of severest conditions of melting snow and ice, drizzling rain, was kept passable for the never-ending columns of tanks and trucks of the major part of two Divisions which had to withdraw over this route. The men of the Battalion worked unceasingly, night and day, until the last vehicle of the Division was successfully extricated.
All through the days of attack and withdrawal, the Second Engineer Combat Battalion skillfully, speedily, and courageously executed their tasks to assist and protect the Second Infantry Division in its combat missions. Through the seven day period, the Battalion worked and fought continuously suffering approximately twenty five percent casualties. The outstanding performance of the officers and men of this unit, under exceptionally difficult and hazardous conditions, exemplifies their deep devotion to duty and the highest traditions of the Corps of Engineers and the United States Army.”
On October 23, 2017, Paul Willis, 97, from Canton, NC, was awarded the French Legion of Honor by the French Consul General, Louis de Corail, at a ceremony in Knoxville, Tennessee. Willis, a Technical Sergeant in Company G, 329th Infantry, 83rd Division, landed in Normandy two weeks after D-Day. During his three years of service, he saw action in Normandy, Brittany, Luxembourg, the Hurtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Rhine River. Although he received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the Battle of the Bulge, Willis says the hedgerows of Normandy were his most horrendous experience.
Also present at the Knoxville ceremony, which was held at the Sherrill Hills Retirement Community Theater, were Amelie De Gaulle, grand niece of the late President of France, Charles De Gaulle, and members of the Alliance Francaise Knoxville. Consul General Louis de Corail, who represents France in six Southeastern states and is based in Atlanta, presented the award on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron. The Legion of Honor, established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, is awarded for service to France and is its most prestigious honor. Willis and one other WWII Veteran, James Mynatt, US Army Air Force 490th Bomb Group, were presented the Knight’s Badge as a pledge of France’s eternal gratitude for their courage and fight, after risking their lives for the freedom of France and Europe during the war.
The U.S. Memorial Wereth committee wishes that the year 2018 will fulfill your dearest wishes and keep you very healthy.
Thanks to the student exchange program initiated by the American Embassy in Brussels, the 2017 Wereth 11 ceremony was memorable. The students from Morehouse College made presentations that may easily be described as extraordinary. Hermann Langer’s memorial and the Wereth Eleven are no longer unknown in Atlanta, GA.
We were very happy to welcome almost 400 guests. The precious support from the Municipality of Amel, the Belgian Army and guests’ presence have made from this day a great success. We heartily thank all who attended.
Because of the many commemorations of the 100 years of the WWI, our next ceremony will take place on Saturday, April 28th, 2018 at 11AM.
Four of the Morehouse students, Christopher, David, Gary and Luka, who were our best ambassadors in Atlanta, have expressed their desire to go on working with our association. This makes us very happy, and will lead to a few small changes in the course of the next ceremony.
Your presence reinforces us in our efforts to honor the memorial, the Wereth Eleven as well as all African-American soldiers. It helps us keep sight of Hermann Langer’s goal. Without him, the event of 1944 would have been forgotten.
We hope that you will be able to join us in April 2018.
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The 28th Infantry Division Association conducts several annual events that fulfill the purpose of the organization. Their Annual Conference and Reunion is held the Wednesday through Saturday after the Labor Day holiday. Tours of Fort Indiantown Gap, local excursions and a day trip to a place of historical interest are some of the activities available to reunion participants. The week concludes with a memorial service at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery and a Veteran’s Banquet. Details are:
My father, Thomas Rye Hickey, died November 4, 1951, after falling 1,200 feet down a mine shaft. He was working for the Tennessee Copper Company in Copperhill, Tennessee at the time of his death. He was 39 years old; I was 3. My mother, Ollie, was left a widow at 30, with 3 young daughters and no means of support.
Since mother seldom talked about him, and there were few photos of him, he somehow never seemed quite real to me. But as I was nearing retirement age, I became interested in knowing more about him and their life together. And I wanted to put my family mementos in order, to pass on to my sons and granddaughter. When I began, I never dreamed what the end result would be.
I started by sorting the 182 letters, postcards, and v-mail he had written to my mother during World War II into chronological order. As I sorted, scanned, and copied the fragile pages, I read them. I was fortunate that he had dated each letter and written his location on it. After a while, I started a spreadsheet to keep track of his location and what was happening to him.
These letters enabled me to know him better in some ways than many people who have lived decades with their fathers. Through his letters, I followed his service from draft notice, through basic training, sleeping outside in Kansas in February without a tent, to a 26 mile march in the Mojave Desert. There were gaps in the letters when mother was able to join him for a few months. I was fascinated to hear him “talk” about his ambivalence at qualifying on the machine gun or about the time he almost sat on a rattlesnake in the Mojave Desert. He wrote that 10-11 men went “over the hill” every day, but that he never
would, no matter how bad it got.
I quickly became obsessed and began researching about the places he was stationed. He served with the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion. When he mentioned in an October 1944 letter that he had sailed to England on the Queen Mary, I began to suspect the extent of his service.
Early in my research I wrote to the NPRC to obtain a copy of his military records. That’s when I learned that 10-16 million military records were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1973. My father’s records, along with those of his 3 brothers, were among those destroyed. I was able to get a copy of his discharge document, which showed he fought in the Ardennes. There was the proof of what I had begun suspecting from his letters. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge and no one in the family was aware of it! He called the Battle of the Bulge “the storm” in his letters. He was awarded a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound he received while he was driving a half-track in Luxembourg. He mentioned it briefly in one letter, but said he “kept going.”
My parents had been married less than two years when he was drafted into service in August 1942. Every letter home reflected his homesickness and love for my mother. When my sister was born in 1943, he talked of his love for her as well. He smoked Camels, liked chicken and chocolate cake, and had a weakness for shooting craps. He never mentioned the hardships he endured. He worried about his brothers Joe and Dick, who were also fighting in Europe. Dick was wounded in Sicily and Joe was a German POW in Stalag VII in Moosburg, Germany.
In his letter dated April 26, 1945 he wrote that his outfit was the first to cross into Germany. That would have been across the Remagen Bridge. On May 8, he was in Czechoslovakia when word came that the war was over. The Army had been massing in Czechoslovakia for the next front. He returned to the States in early October, 1945. I inherited my father’s Purple Heart and Army Good Conduct Medal from my mother. I spent a lot of time researching the other awards and medals he was entitled to and spent a full year corresponding with the NPRC before I received them all.
This is the full list: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign – WWII, Europe-Africa-Middle Eastern Campaign with 3 bronze stars, World War II Victory Medal, Combat Infantry Badge 1st Award, Expert Badge with Machine Gun Bar, Sharpshooter Badge with Rifle Bar, Marksman Badge with Carbine Bar.
My son Scott, who served 10 years with the Navy, helped me organize a shadowbox to display them appropriately. I wish my mother was still alive to see it.
In 2014, my son Jeff and I traveled to Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. For me it was a pilgrimage. We visited Coburg, Germany, which was mentioned many times in his letters. At our hotel, we were fortunate enough to meet a woman who remembered where the American Army had camped and marked it on a map. I have no idea where in Luxembourg he was when wounded, but we did see the American memorial and walked down Franklin D. Roosevelt Boulevard.
Before leaving the U.S., I arranged a tour guide, Roby Clam, for our visit to Bastogne, Belgium. Roby took us to each of the roadside memorials dedicated to American troops, the Mardasson War Memorial, and to the place where the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion fought during the Battle of the Bulge. It was a moving experience to see where my father fought and to realize how grateful the Belgians still are to the Americans who fought and died there.
I am so very proud of my father and wish more than ever that I could have known this truly remarkable, courageous man.
After being drafted on April 10, 1943, Mark W. Kistler boarded a train to begin his basic in Florida. While at Camp Blanding, FL during boot camp, Mark was sent 2 separate telegrams from his family to go see his sick mother back home in Pennsylvania. His 1st Sgt. apparently had torn them up. Kistler never knew why. He finally got a letter from his brother asking him when he was coming home. Mark showed the letter to his Lieutenant and he told Mark to immediately head home, where he spent 2 weeks with his ailing mother.
When he returned, he discovered his 1st Sgt. had been busted down to Private and transferred out of the unit.
Kistler’s unit was shipped on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth from New York in April 1944 to Scotland and then England. He landed at Normandy on Utah Beach on June 11th, 1944.
His first major combat mission was in Cherbourg, France where along with the 101st and 82nd AB, they were able to cut off and capture over 20, 000 Germans soldiers. His troop’s main objective was to find the enemy, get information, and to capture prisoners. They advanced so fast that often his platoon never had time to dig in to foxholes.
On September 11th, 1944, Sgt. Kistler was driving in an armored car with his superior officer, Lt. Thompson, when upon reaching an intersection near Spa, Germany, they came across a German patrol.A German soldier hiding in a ditch by the side of the road, wielding a potato masher, hurled his grenade toward the jeep. Lt. Thompson turned and fired at the enemy, killing him. The gunshot threw off the direction of his grenade and it exploded near Kistler, wounding him, sending shrapnel into his legs. Sergeant Kistler believes that Lt. Thompson’s quick action saved his life.
After spending time in a field hospital, he was wounded again a few weeks later on September 30th, when he stepped on a booby trap trip-wire and the explosives blew up a tree nearby. He was thrown to the ground from the blast and wounded in the face and legs. After being taken to an aid station to get patched up, in three days he was back up on the line. His unit needed replacements so badly they sent him back, otherwise he may have stayed in the hospital. To this day he still carries pieces of the shrapnel and debris in his legs.
While passing through a small village, Sgt, Kistler was driving in his jeep and came cross a Frenchman, who came walking down the middle of the road with a large object in his hands. It turned out to be a large goose that he held. He walked up to Kistler and said to him, “This is all I have left in the world. I would like you to have it for liberating my village from the Nazis and the Italians.” The Frenchman hugged and kissed the Sergeant and walked on. Kistler really disliked the hash in the C-rations, and he accepted the goose and proceeded to tie it to the hood of his jeep. After advancing for several days, with the live bird still tied to the front of the jeep, his unit drove into a village where he met a French woman. He offered the goose to her to butcher and cook it for him and his men, in exchange for a bottle of wine. But unfortunately before they had the chance to feast on it, his unit was ordered to move out, and the goose was never seen again.
Fighting through the hedgerows, his unit came up through St. Lo, where over 3,000 planes leveled the town. In September of 1944, his troop made their way north, near the town of Aachen, to battle the Germans in the Hurtgen Forest. For two to three weeks they fought through the thick mud and artillery shelling. The Allies suffered heavy casualties during this battle, Kistler himself almost becoming one again when an artillery shell landed at the very spot he had abandoned only moments before.
During the battle, an American reporter requested to go into the frontlines of the forest with Kistler’s unit. They took him through the enemy lines and returned him safely. That young man’s name was Andy Rooney, the future “60 Minutes” reporter.
Kistler will always remember the sound of the hob-nail boots on the road as the German soldiers marched past him on the crossroads in Germany.
Marching through Belgium, he was surprised his unit met so littleopposition from the German army. The reason was, they were amassing outside of Malmedy, preparing for the ambush that would soon be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Kistler and his unit had just been transported back to Liege, Belgium for R&R, but that was the same day that the Bulge began. No rest for the soldiers.
Mark W. Kistler received 2 Purple Hearts, Good Conduct medal, European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with Silver Service Star, WWII Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation for efforts during the Battle of the Bulge.
by Keith F. Davis, 16th Field Artillery Observation Battalion
When the Allies planned the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe, they chose the Normandy Coast of France for their landing site and they were code named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. The English, French, Canadians, and others landed on Sword, Juno, and Gold, and the Americans landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.
I went ashore on Utah Beach and the beach was secure and the fighting was a few miles inland. We were near the town of St. Mere Eglise. We fought in the hedgerows, the towns and villages, and fought our way to the huge Nazi submarine base at Brest, France. The Artillery fired on this base from the land, the Air Force bombed it from the air, and the Navy fired on it from the sea. After much fire-power, the base surrendered.
I was in the 16th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. We were the eyes and ears of the Field Artillery. We fought our way through St. Lo, up to and through Paris, to the border of Germany. On Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi Field Marshall Von Rundstedt made a counter-attack on a 50 mile front in this area. He came through with the 5th Panzer Army, the 6th Panzer Army and the 7th German Army. We were right in the center of this attack. I was in the area of St. Vith and Bastogne. They really clobbered us. Thousands of Americans and Germans were killed in this breakthrough (later known as the Battle of the Bulge).
It took Gen. George Patton two days to bring in the 101st and 82nd Airborne and the 6th Infantry Division to help reinforce our position. One paratrooper asked me where the frontline was. I told him, “You are standing on it.”
The Nazis destroyed much Army material and killed many men. The German High Command sent an ultimatum to our Gen. McAuliffe at Bastogne, and told him to either surrender or be annihilated. Gen. McAuliffe sent a reply with one word: “NUTS.” The Germans did not know what to think of (or understand) the word “NUTS.” This was his American slang way of saying, “In no way will we surrender.”
The weather was very cold and the fog was over the whole battlefield. The Nazis pushed us back from the German border, back through Belgium, Luxembourg and into France. The fog was so thick, we could not tell if an American Sherman tank or a German Tiger tank was coming toward us. Two weeks after the Bulge started, the fog began to lift and the sky was clear again. At this time the Air Force sent hundreds and hundreds of fighter planes over the frontlines and they flew thousands of sorties, destroying supply lines, gun emplacements, infantry, tanks and everything they could see. We began to hold our position and slowly, very slowly, advanced again toward Germany. The Nazi SS troops captured the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. Our 16th FAOB was to meet up with the 255th,regroup and form a new battalion. This never happened. The SS herded almost 100 men of the 285th into a snowy field and machine gunned them down in cold blood. This was not war, this was murder. This was later known as the Malmedy Massacre.
One January 25, 1945, we were at the same position we were when the Bulge started on Dec. 16, 1944.
I was on an observation post in the city of Koblenz, Germany, and 12 Catholic nuns came up to me and in perfect English asked me to tell them when the war would be over. How would I know?
I watched the Army Engineers build a pontoon bridge over the Rhine River. The river was fast, deep and over a mile wide. It was scary to watch our heavy Sherman Tanks and Heavy Artillery guns being pulled by large prime movers and Army trucks loaded with supplies and soldiers cross this bridge. The bridge held, and supplies and men continued to cross the Rhine River.
I was at the liberation of the Ohrdruf Nazi Concentration Camp, just near Ohrdruf, Germany. The sights we saw were horrible and the smell was only a smell that can be made by torture and death. The Nazi guards fled the camp and machine-gunned many prisoners in the courtyard. I looked closely at a naked body with four bullet holes in it, with not a drop of blood coming out the bullet holes. They were starved to skin and bones. Bodies were stacked like cord wood. The live ones, with large eyes and sunken stomachs, reached out to us.
We fought our way through Nuremberg, and the smell of death was everywhere. We zig-zagged back and forth through Germany and fought in the Sudatenland, and fought our way into Czechoslovakia, where we met the Russian army. This is where we heard the war in Europe was over on May 8, 1945.
From the time I went ashore on Utah Beach until we met the Russians in Czechoslovakia, I was on the frontline. I know that “Freedom is not free.”
The threat of war in the early forties made every young man fear entering the service. I did not desire to be in the Navy, so I hoped the Army would draft me. I failed my first physical, but eventually got another notice to report.
We embarked from New York in the fourth largest passenger ship in the world, the Mauritania—it held 16000 of us. I never knew water could go so high! We went up and down, waves so big they could hide the whole ship. I had the top hammock of four that would swing back and forth with the pitch of the ship, Eating was an adventure, where we would hang on to a pipe with one hand and eat with the other. 50 gallon barrels were placed every few feet for the guys who got seasick and could not hold their food. Man, I was sure glad I didn’t get the Navy!
While in England preparing for the trip to France, we set about the task of waterproofing our trucks. That was sure a chore. While I was there I had a trailer fall on my hand, breaking four fingers. There was no hospital around, so we just wrapped them up and kept going. When I finally got to a hospital, they had to rebreak them and set them in place. I had to fight to get back to my outfit and headed to Normandy with a cast on my right hand.
We left England on four LST’s and landed on Utah beach 30 days after the initial invasion. We arrived at 6PM and waited in the dark there. We heard planes overhead and could hear gun fire in the distance. We disembarked and had to keep our lights off, following the truck ahead. It seemed hours before we stopped for the night nearby a bridge we were to protect. The Germans bombed and strafed us all night. I tried to sleep to no avail. I spent most of my time trying to take off all of the waterproofing that I had installed.
The next morning, I saw my first dead German. He had been laying not 50 feet away. He wasn’t more than a kid …… but then, I thought …. so am I. As a scared young man, sleeping under the trucks and in dug foxholes, I found myself wondering why I was there. It didn’t really seem to be my fight and these guys looked the same as me. The war was a cruel, confusing thing.
We rolled through France and found ourselves by a farm when the Germans found us. They strafed us and blew the tires on my trailer, which had 500 Ibs of TNT in it. The first time they came at us, I got as far as the ditch. The second wave hit the ditch and took out the man next to me—the bullets went right by my side. So, you can imagine that by the time they got back, I was across the farm and into the woods for better protection. It was there that I realized it was kill or be killed. 4 to 6 inches and I would not here today to tell this. After the strafing, I ended up dragging that trailer for some 35 miles before we stopped for the night.
I recall one time when we stopped after dark and we were told to park our trucks for the night. I found this lane with trees on both sides that I felt was a better, secure place and settled in under the truck. In the middle of the night, the Germans hit us with all they had. Their 88s were clipping the tops of the trees that were not that tall. One shell whistled through the canvas back of my truck. It didn’t take me long to roll out from under that truck and run down the hill to better protection. We then got our chance to shoot back with our 90s. We lobbed shells back and forth.
It was about that time that my hand began to itch and smell. I went to see the medics and the doc there got angry—the cast should have come off weeks before. The cast was cut off and I regained use of my hand and fingers but boy, were they stiff. It was months before I got full use of them.
We moved up the Mosselle River in the direction of Belgium where we took part in the liberation of the town of Verdun where WWI ended. The name of our outfit is on a monument there. It was here that we were given a 7 day leave. I went to Paris and into Southern France to an old castle called Mont Saint-Michel.
We then began shuttling infantry to the frontline and prisoners back into France. Most of the prisoners were just happy that they did not have to fight anymore. We did this under the cover of darkness, watching the tail lights of the truck ahead. So, if they went into the ditch, so did you. One truck hit a landmine, killing some and injuring others. We loaded them into our trucks and kept going, leaving the dead behind to be picked up later. I broke down and when they fixed my truck, they kept my co-driver. I had to drive in the dark in unfamiliar territory by myself. It was scary, but I made it.
We were then sent back up to the front during the Battle of the Bulge, where the Germans made one last push back to Belgium. It was a hard and dirty fight, with some Germans dressing like us and driving our rigs. It was hard to know who the enemy was.
On one trip, one of our planes was shot down and landed in a motor pool that I was close by. The plane carried two thousand-pound bombs. The explosion blew a hole in the frozen ground 35 feet across and 15 feet deep. I dove under a trailer and things fell all around me. One of the plane’s motors dropped a few feet away from me. When I got my wits about me, I helped with the wounded. Eight ambulances took away the injured. When I got back to my truck, I found a bullet lodged in the padding of my driver’s seat. I have kept it all these years.
We crossed the Rhine on pontoon bridges that were just like big rubber rafts. They had metal rails laid out between them around 4 feet. These tracks were just wide enough for our tires and as we pulled out trucks with big guns across the half mile stretch, the trucks pushed down on the rafts so hard that they nearly went under. All this under enemy fire with shells coming down all around us. Somehow we all made it and were now in Germany. We crossed the Danube on Mayday of 1945 and moved into our last position. On May 9th, the firing stopped … the war had ended.
After the war, I didn’t have enough points to go home so I was sent to Metz, France to oversee a gas station there. Truck-loads of dead people were shuttled through that station. I had a detail of German prisoners who were tasked with running water and garbage to and from the kitchen. One of the prisoners did not want to be discharged, as he said he had no home to go to.
Finally, it was my turn and I was sent home with four of my buddies. After sailing to New York, we were lined up to go on a plane, but the line stopped some 35 ahead of me and I had to go by train. We later heard that the plane went down near Billings, killing all aboard. On Dec 18, 1945, I was discharged, arriving home before Christmas.
In those three years in Europe, I drove a truck more than 27,000 miles through England, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and even Spain. I had three stripes on my sleeve (one for each year,) five battle stars for five major battles, and several ribbons, but the best being an honorable discharge.
I am Tech Corporal Claude Oliver Davis, a proud member of the “Bend Band of Brothers.”
by David Ray Hubbard, HQ Co, Adv Section, Comm Zone, Signal Section
The beginning of a very enjoyable few days with two very lovely Belgian sisters, Louise (20), and Edmée (18) Van Espen, as described in the letter below, written to my Father while my unit was stationed in Flawinne Barracks, Namur, Belgium for several months in 1944-1945. Units under our command supplied all support functions required by the advancing Armies, beginning on D-Day.
23 February 1945
Want to tell you about the most wonderful experience
I’ve had while on the Continent. It came by sheer luck, I guess. Yesterday was my afternoon off and I spent it with my newly found acquaintances from a nearby hospital (Derrick is from Johnston, S.S. and is a very good friend of the Steadmans. The other boy is from Philadelphia). We had tramped around all afternoon taking pictures and had just sat down in the Red Cross Club when one of the American RC girls came over and asked the three of us if we’d like to visit in a nice Belgian home for the night. She pointed out the young girl who was there with the invitation and this convinced the three of us that we’d be delighted to accept the invitation. Directions were given to us and 7:30 was set as the time that we should make our appearance. From the very moment we stepped in the house, we were entirely at ease because of their very good hospitality. Both M. &. Mde. Van Esman speak fluent English—in fact they speak much better than lots of Americans I know. The two daughters, Edmée, who is 18, and another whose name I can’t recall (she doesn’t interest me because she’s engaged to be married) is 20. Both speak very good English, especially since they couldn’t speak a bit prior to our arrival in the city.
All in all we had a most enjoyable time, since there was absolutely no trouble to converse with them and we learned many very interesting facts that we did not know previously. The three of us plan to return tomorrow night since there is a standing invitation for us to come at any time we wish.
I have about three other letters that I must get off tonight, so I’ll sign off for now and will resume again very soon.
Lots of love, David Ray
P.S. The picture is especially for you.
Through all these years, I have often wondered if the Van Espen sisters were still alive. I had kept pictures and memories of the pleasant times my buddy, Jim Derrick and I spent with these lovely girls. Mathilde Schmetz and her husband Marcel have established the Remember Museum 39-45, located in the Belgian town of Thimister-Clermont. This museum is recognized as one of the finest World War II museums in Europe. At our December 2016 meeting of The S. C. Chapter Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge at Fort Jackson, SCI Matilde was our featured speaker, in which she gave many details of the Museum. Afterward, I asked if she could possibly check on any information concerning the Van Espen Sisters. She eagerly agreed to help, since she and Marcel have a son living in Namur. Through the efforts of Mathilde, from Belgium, I was able to get in touch with Edmée. I have been thrilled to regain the friendship that began 72 years ago. Modern means of communication, such as e-mails, have made this possible.
I had asked Edmée to write a synopsis of her life, and posed some specific questions. Her response follows:
It is me behind the desk in the picture at the Red Cross Club. I really don’t remember when we met in the Club. You know, I met thousands of GIs while I worked at the Club. We were there to give informations when the soldiers asked what was interesting to visit in town, or what films to see in the cinemas, and how to go to the Citadelle, for instance. Louise and I went only two times walking at the Citadelle with you and James. And another walk with John S. Twaddell and Ralph K. Younger. I still have many addresses from GIs I met at that time. Maybe I hoped to go once to the States and meet some of them!
Louise got married in 1947. With a “pharmacien” druggist or chemist. They had 2 children, a boy Philippe and an girl Chantal (she still lives in Montreal (Canada.) She got married and adopted 3 children, one girl and 2 boys. I never saw them but I know they are colored. Philippe got married and has a boy Nathan and a girl Nina. He divorced, and he just had, a few months ago, a baby girl Clara. He lives in Brussels.
Louise’s husband died (cancer) in 1987. And she died in June 2016. My brother Roland died in 1995—he was young, he was born in 1928. I don’t know the story of the Citadelle. It is a fortress build many centuries ago. To protect the country I suppose. One of the architects is French Vauban. And soldiers lived there—German during the last war, then the Americans and Belgian after the war, and still now, I think.
I got married in 1951 to an architect. My husband died in 2005. We have 5 children: Michel, Dominique, my daughter who died in 2014 in a plane crash in Mali, Etienne, Olivier, and Jean Paul, who lives in London. He is Blue Badge Tourist guide. I have eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
That’s all I can relate to you about me and my family. I hope you will get this mail soon.