Soon we were racing down the Autobahn, a superhighway we had never seen in the States, at 40 and 50 miles an hour. The 89th (assigned now to Patton’s Third Army) was the easternmost United States Infantry Division and one of the closest to the Soviets. We were subject to both unit and air attacks. I can’t remember whether it was then or later but I vividly remember our column being attacked by a German jet fighter. The noise and speed of the plane scared the hell out of us and there wasn’t time to do anything but watch it fly away. Thank the Lord they didn’t have many of them.
As we penetrated deeper into Eastern Germany we drove through column upon column of German infantry and tanks that had been obliterated by air attacks. My division fought some major battles at Eisenach and Gotha as we pushed through to Zwickau and the Czech border but this story is not intended to be military history, just the memories of one soldier which are related below, but not necessarily in strict chronological or geographical order.
We were on the road somewhere in the province of Thuringia when we stopped for lunch. I remember it was a beautiful day and someone had turned the generator on so we could hear some music on the Army radio station when a bulletin was announced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just died. The entire battery was shocked into a deep and moving silence. Very soon we were in a small city called Ohrdruf. We were to stay there a few days so we kicked the German civilians out of their apartments and enjoyed the comforts of home.
Outside this apartment complex was a large field where we gathered to eat. Again, it was a beautiful spring day and I was relaxing for a few moments reading the just distributed Stars and Stripes. The headline read Eisenhower Says Luftwaffe Kaput. Comforting news and I did not look up immediately at the familiar sound of high flying planes but when I did it seemed to be just another flight of Allied fighters. After all, we just read they were totally destroyed. However, they began to circle and lose altitude rapidly and then peel off into a dive and head towards us. Something was wrong, including all those training sessions we had the past six months on enemy aircraft identification. They were Messerschmitts and went after some of our gun positions causing some casualties, damage, and considerable commotion before running off for another ‘back from the dead’ attack.
It was also in this area as explained just above where we were billeted for several days in an apartment complex after having ejected the civilian owners and enjoying their comparative luxurious accommodations. The Frau of our apartment was particularly worried about her china and glasses. We had no intention of damaging anything but soon grew tired of her interference and kicked her out. The kitchen was in the rear-facing a field where our artillery was set up. I was writing a letter home on the kitchen table when I heard a roar and some firing. A German fighter plane was strafing the field directly in front of me and seemed headed right for me. Automatically, I fell to the floor seeking protection under the flimsy table, an automatic but futile reaction, and when he was gone, re-emerged to see that he had also dropped a bomb, killing a GI in his foxhole. After a few minutes, I returned to my letter writing but was shocked to discover that my hand was shaking so badly it was impossible for me to continue. It took over an hour before I returned to normal.
THE HORROR OF THE CAMP IN OHRDRUF
I soon had another shock but of a different type. My division was the first Allied unit to liberate a Nazi concentration camp. It was located outside of Ohrdruf and was a subunit of Buchenwald. The discovery of the camp is depicted in the entrance to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, exhibited on the third floor. As you exit the elevator, you first see a life-size photo of a GI in a jeep talking to his headquarters in disbelief having discovered the Ohrdruf Concentration camp. General Finley, our Division Commander, insisted that every man in the division see this horrible sight, along with the town’s people of Ohrdruf. Although being a labor camp and not an extermination camp, it was difficult to note any difference. Most died from being overworked. As we approached, however, there was wholesale slaughter by the panicking guards. Bodies were everywhere, some half-buried or simply thrown in pits; others still in the furnaces.
We made this a major chapter in our division website, pictures, stories, and all, lest we forget what man can do to a man. Mark and I visited it together 54 years later during our Remembrance Tour but all traces of the camp have completely disappeared. The town mayor, claiming he knew nothing of the camp, committed suicide after being forced to view it. General Finley then made a statement, which was read to all the troops, highlighted by the phrase Go forward and kill as many Germans as you can. Sounds corny today but not then. When we returned to our apartment I am proud to say we restrained ourselves. Some wanted to destroy everything in the apartment and I was sorely tempted but we did not lower ourselves to the level of the Nazi beasts.
It is impossible to predict one’s reaction to combat. For example, we had a young Swede who, back in the States, had been given the assignment to handle our one anti-aircraft gun, a Cal .50 machine gun. In training, by constant repetition and dedication, he learned how to field strip the gun and reassemble it almost blindfolded. When permitted, he practiced firing and was very proud of his responsible assignment. One day we were in a small town for a long enough time to set up the machine gun for defense in a pit with some sandbags around to protect him and the gun. A low-flying, German fighter plane came so close that I could actually see the pilot’s face as he attacked us. Heroically, I unslung my carbine and emptied my clip certain I must have hit him or the plane but, of course, it had no effect except to make me feel better. On the other hand, the poor Suede didn’t fire a round off; his hands had frozen on the trigger. How do you explain those things?
Not being either in the infantry or even on the line with a battery except when making deliveries, for me, combat was a series of unrelated circumstances, some already mentioned, limited to aerial attacks, occasional battery counterfire, and, rarely for us, small arms fire. In fact, I never saw the enemy except from a considerable distance or when he was dead or surrendering. We had seen the V-2s high in the sky on their way to England and knew the war was still killing innocent civilians. Sometimes I wished I were with the infantry (my old enthusiasm returning) and one time, after getting angry over something I can’t even remember now, I asked the First Sergeant for an immediate transfer to an infantry outfit. He calmed me down and told me to forget it. While I must have given him fits at times, he was a real man.
I did have one experience that made me realize the type of anxiety and fear our infantrymen experienced on a regular basis. For some reason I have long ago forgotten, one evening I was ordered to take a truck with two of our Sergeants to a unit some distance from us but located on our map. However, despite the extensive mapping knowledge of my fearless leaders, we soon got lost and it was rapidly getting dark. To make matters dicier, we were in an area where enemy infantry was likely to be close by, an unusual experience for Service Battery soldiers. Close to midnight, as we approached a small town in the pitch black, we ran into one of our tank destroyers guarding the entrance, much relieved to discover it wasn’t a German tank. Other 89ers, I don’t know from what unit, were holed up for the night in the village and we were advised to do the same. I don’t believe any of us slept well that night and were relieved when day broke and we could carefully find our way back to our unit.
During my combat experience, we had been shelled by 88s and strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe, no picnic I assure you, but I never had the experience and fear of dealing face-to-face with the enemy. This was as close as I got and it was not pleasant.
In combat, and moving so fast, food was always a problem but some of us became very skilled at feeding off the land. We arrived one night in a small farming village and stayed there overnight. The next morning I was elected to scrounge around the several hen houses in view and get some eggs for breakfast. I was delighted to find about a half dozen eggs still in their nets, placed them carefully in my helmet liner, and rushed back to proudly display my catch. Something was wrong as my buddies started to laugh. Only two of the eggs were real, the rest were porcelain eggs used to encourage the hen to lay. Needless to say, I was highly embarrassed but what could you expect from someone born in Brooklyn?
Another peculiarity of this time was the nightly visits of ‘Bed Check Charlie’ which is what we called the single fighters who flew only at night, flying very low, firing at any light they saw. They were mainly a nuisance but could be deadly. They were particularly interested in convoys moving towards the front. This is what the once-vaunted Luftwaffe is now finally reduced to.
THE END APPROACHES
As we drove through the cities of Werdau and Zwickau, we knew it would soon be over. We had a little song we used to sing as we passed German refugees on the road. It went something like this: Was ist Los? The Hund ist Los. The Burgemeister is tot. Alles is kaput. Our principal preoccupation was to keep our batteries supplied with food (c-rations) and ammunition. One night, I joined a convoy going westward for resupply of artillery shells. We, including me, drove all night, under blackout conditions of course, to the distant supply depot and returned exhausted well after midnight. As a reward for my attention to duty, I was put on guard duty immediately. You have to wonder sometimes what went through the heads of these junior officers and pray it wasn’t repeated at higher levels of command. There was plenty of cut-off Germans in the area requiring one to stay alert. I had to constantly fight the overwhelming urge to close my eyes, waking quickly in a state of alarm. Fortunately, no kraut was prowling about.
We were holed up in a small town outside and east of Zwickau, near the Czech border. We had stockpiled a supply of 105-MM shells near our makeshift motor pool area. It had been raining steady and the ground was a mass of mud. Of course, I was selected for guard duty that night. I was no longer on ‘extra duty’ but was still the lowest ranking soldier in the Battery even though Congress had passed an Act that promoted me to PFC. To keep my feet as dry as possible and avoid killer trench feet, I would take a break from walking in the mud and climb up and sit on top of a pile of shells for a moment’s rest. When I did this one time, I noticed distant flashing in the sky that kept coming nearer to us. About two or three hundred yards directly in front of me was a highway used by our Redball Express trucking units to get supplies to the front. Even though they were traveling with blackout lights, the pilot spotted them and started to fire his tracer-loaded machine guns. Being in a direct line with both the fighter and the trucks, the tracers began to arch their way to what seemed the very pile I was sitting on. Without a moment’s thought, I dived for the ground thereby immersing myself deeply in the mud. Another heroic but unsung event in my Army career.
PRE NON-FRATERNIZATION & THE END
It was, I believe, at this same spot that an event happened which made me think that maybe the war wasn’t going to be all hell and/or that its ending would soon bring newly discovered pleasures. Near our encampment was a small, multi-unit apartment building and several homes. While-off duty, several of us made the acquaintance of some young and rather pretty German Gretchens. For the first time, my laborious efforts in high school German began to pay off. We were soon sneaking into their place at night with goodies. While they appreciated and needed them, they were obviously more interested in we vigorous young men. They were in their teens or early 20s and had had very little male ‘companionship’, most of them their age being either already dead, POWs, severely wounded, or otherwise unavailable. And here were us Yanks. It had been a long time since my initial and sole experience of the pleasures of the opposite sex in Oregon and an uncertain and dangerous future in Japan lay ahead. Need I say more?
It was here, I think near a town named Werdau that the war ended for us. The Germans were trapped in the mountains on the border with Czechoslovakia between us and the Soviets, waiting for the official cease-fire which, when it came, would signal their mass exodus and surrender to us, thereby avoiding the tender mercies of the Soviets. During this lull, I had an interesting or at least memorable experience.
A recent replacement Technical Sergeant and I were detailed to take a truckload of empty jerry cans to Zwickau after lunch and return with filled cans of gasoline. We were just finishing chow before taking off on a lovely spring day. The sergeant was a real jerk from an anti-aircraft unit and of no use to Service Battery except for keep-out-of-the-way tasks like commanding the gasoline truck driver, which is why he was given to me.
While relaxing before taking off, we got into some kind of oral argument over politics and raised our voices a bit. Along came a Second Louie trying to impress us (or the Captain) with his importance asking why we were talking so loud and relaxing when we should be working or doing something else constructive, I guess. When we explained that we were about to take off for Werdau as scheduled and why he was taken back a bit but recovered (read: saved face) by telling me (not the Sergeant, of course) to report to him when I returned and before dinner. Nothing said to the Sergeant, just me.
Well, that’s the kind of things you can expect in a Service Battery so off we go to Zwickau. When we pulled onto the main road we got quite a shock. There, alongside us on the road, we were passing an entire Panzer Division slowly coming into the Zwickau collecting area to surrender. We passed tank after tank and trucks filled with armed soldiers. Somehow, my little carbine and the Sergeant’s pistol gave me little solace.
Well, we made it into the depot safely missing my last chance to earn a medal. It’s not so bad offloading 240-250 empty gas cans but it’s no picnic loading an equal amount when they are full and I, having done most of the work and all of the driving, was tired. We had to wait our turn and also because of the heavy traffic didn’t get back to our unit until diner time and the chow line was already forming. So I said to myself, ‘The hell with it. I’m beat and he knows he was just being chicken’. But of course, military discipline had to be maintained, especially in the face of the enemy, and about 15 minutes after chow I got a call to come to Captain Fallow’s tent, our Battery Commander.
There he was with this little pretty-boy Lieutenant at his side. He asked me why I hadn’t reported to the lieutenant (by the grace of God, I’d forgotten his name) as ordered. I told him respectfully but straightforwardly that I was bushed when I returned and the lieutenant knew he was just being chicken-shit (I don’t think I use that exact phrasing but that was the gist of it). The Captain’s reply (he wasn’t a bad guy, really, a former bank teller I think) was something like ‘Kitchell, when am I ever going to be able to make a soldier out of you?’ I thought but didn’t say, ‘not while we are both in a Service Battery’. For the next week, when not on duty, I dug one of the deepest and largest sump pits you’ve ever seen. It didn’t bother me one bit. Military discipline is one thing. Taking crap is another.
Well, it was finally over – the European part, that is – and we knew it wouldn’t be long before most of us would be heading to Japan. Meanwhile, the Division was reassigned to the occupation of the province of Thuringia, which would eventually end up in the Soviet zone thereby freeing us for other duties and eventual reassignment, either as a division or as replacements. My battery was first located in the town of Reinsdorf and comfortably ensconced in some sort of a garden club (but I may have this confused with Waltershausen, discussed just below).
One late night on guard duty under a railroad trestle, I heard the unmistakable sound of German spiked boots and watched from my hidden position as the figure came closer. The war was just over and you didn’t know what kind of nuts or fanatics were still roaming out there. When within accurate range of my carbine, I loudly called out ‘HALT’ which is the same in German as English.
The figure, now an obvious German soldier, came to an immediate halt maintaining a rigid posture while I called for the Corporal-of-the-Guard. He said he had been released from a POW camp and showed us his papers (which none of us could understand) and told us that this was his hometown where his wife and family lived. The MPs or someone took him into custody but his papers proved to be valid and the next day he joined his family and profusely thanked me for not shooting him when he came in.
That event remains vividly in my memory to this very day. Reinsdorf is also where I learned, for the first time, to like beer. Germans did everything but cook the food, and they did that sometimes, and suddenly life for a PFC became much easier.