March 6, 2015

1945. Stories from the Western Front

Tales from the Frontlines
Bill Downs (third from left) en route to Hamburg in May 1945

January 17, 1945: American G.I.s in Europe

An incident on a London bus is a good example of the American soldier's high spirits in a foreign land. This particular soldier was completing 48 hours leave and was returning to his billet after drinking a good deal of beer. He felt so good he started singing—sitting alone and singing all the verses he remembered of "Dixie." The British, being modest, retiring people, were a little shocked, and some looked disapprovingly on the doughboy's good spirits. The lady ticket collector asked him to sing a little more softly—but this didn't faze him. He grinned and kept singing at the top of his voice. When he'd finished the last stanza he looked around at the passengers and said, "Now I'll stop singing—thanks for listening."

. . .

A GI got on a train and went into a compartment and sat down opposite a very elderly lady. He was chewing gum vigorously. The old lady, who spoke some English, would look at him every once in awhile, but neither said a word. Finally she leaned over to the gum-chewing soldier and said, "Thank you very much for talking to me like this—but I'm deaf and can't understand a word you say."

. . .

Then the GI remembers with relief the comic aspects of his narrow escape. For example, PFC Nathan Gorochowski from New York takes great delight in telling you he was smoking a (blanking) cigarette when a (blanking) fragment from an 88 millimeter shell knocked it out of his (blanking) mouth—then he'll tell you it was a (blanking) Lucky Strike cigarette, too.
Sergeant Robert Weister, from Pittsburgh, will laugh when he tells how he was in the second story of a front line house—the best (blanking) observation point he'd ever seen—and he was calling down mortar fire directly on the German positions. However, after a while he found two (blanking) Germans on the other side of the (blanking) house, who were using the same position to direct 88 fire on our positions. Weister captured the Germans.

. . .

Eighteen Germans surrendered in a body to a company of the 30th Infantry Division north of Saint Vith. The Germans, it was discovered, had been ordered to fight to the last man and the last bullet. When the sergeant that marched the Germans back to the prisoner of war cages turned them over, saying "I guess those guys couldn't make up their minds who was the last man and who had the last bullet," one of the prisoners who spoke English translated the remark and to his comrades and they all grinned—except two who, being Nazis, couldn't see anything funny about it.

March 3, 1945: The Allies Arrive in Western Europe

We liberated scores of French, Polish and Dutch farm workers—men who haven't seen their homes for five years. But it's a funny thing, as glad as they are to see us, they often ask if the cattle will be all right. And sometimes they refuse to be evacuated until they're sure the farm animals will be cared for. One Frenchman explained to me, "After all, horses are not Nazi *******'s and I've got to like them horses after five years. They're about the only things around here that like me."

And as grim as the fighting's been on the Cologne plain, the GI's always manage to get a laugh out of something. An artillery outfit moved up near the town of Elsdorf and found that they had to corral half a dozen horses in pasture before they could begin shooting. Then someone got an idea. A bulldozer was commandeered and it cut a circle of turf around the edges of the field. Some artillerymen volunteered as jockeys and a horse race was staged right there in the middle of the Cologne plain. The betting was heavy with a road plowhorse called Marjorie winning all the heats.

April 20, 1945: German Soldiers Surrender Peacefully

We drove down an empty road, uncomfortably empty, with no sign of anyone on it. We reached the crossroads, when suddenly out of the woods appeared eight Germans; it was a frightening sight, particularly when I remembered that the only gun we had was the driver's Sten gun, and it was buried under our raincoats, and the bullet clip was somewhere in a corner of the jeep. However, these were very tame Germans, they all had their hands up. We stopped, searched them, and rigged up a white flag for them and told them to march on down the road and somebody would pick them up. That took care of the first eight.

Sergeant Arthur joined our party. We drove on down a side road, and there we ran on to five more German soldiers, who were waving a white flag. Again we told them which way to go, but this group were more frightened and one of them asked "What do we say when we want to surrender later?" Sergeant Arthur had the answer, and he wrote the words down on a piece of paper. As the prisoners walked off they were practicing the phrase "We have had it." It's a British expression used to denote the completion of anything. As the prisoners walked off, the five of them were muttering "Vee hev had it."
About that time, another young American flyer rode by on a motorcycle. He also was an ex-prisoner getting himself some food and fresh air for the first time in months. "There's a town down the road that's just begging to be taken, why don't you go down and have a look?" Then about that time he spotted a chicken running across the road and that was the last we saw of him.
We took two British boys back to the camp; there I told the story of two BBC engineers who had been with me making recordings at the camps. They were all for taking the town. Again there was kilometre after kilometre of distressingly empty road, but it seemed like a good day for conquering and no one worried particularly. Finally we reached the cross-roads village of Hohne just west of the town of Burgen. I knew the traditional way to capture a place and maybe stick a sword in the ground, and proclaim the place was ours, but I had no sword, and besides, it was a beautifully hard road, and no sword would stick in it anyway. But Sergeant Tinker knew what to dohe went in search of eggsfresh eggs, and meanwhile, Sergeant Arthur got interested in the farm across the road. There was a big German Army carwith a white flag flying from it. We went into this farmyard to find out what it was all about and to our surprise up stepped one of the most magnificent German officers I've ever seen, complete with Iron Cross and a number of other decorations. My first-year college German was still intact enough to understand that he wanted to surrenderhe had his belongings all packed including a pair of ski shoeswhat he wanted with ski shoes I was never able to find out. He turned over his pistol and said that we could drive him back to captivity in his own car. Then the German colonel said that he'd like very much if we would take his entire battery prisoner. He was the commander of a battery of 88-mm. combination anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. We decided against capturing the gun battery for we were not sure that a battery of 88's would appreciate being captured by just one Sten gun, no matter what the colonel said, but we took the colonel up on his offer to use his car. Sergeant Arthur drove the carSergeant Tinker reappeared with a cap full of eggs. The colonel climbed in and we made up a convoymy jeep in frontthe colonel's car in the middle with two sergeants, and the BBC truck with the two unarmed engineers bringing up the rear.