PAPA'S WAR , PART 5
The Second Siegfried Line Assault
The 103d Division was now getting into familiar territory again. Up ahead of the 411th Regiment lay Gumbrechtshoffen, Gundershoffen, Zinzwiller, Reichshoffen, Lembach, Wingen, Climbach, Bobenthal, and a route through the Siegfried Line, but the quality of the opposition was much lower than that encountered in our first assault on the Siegfried Line back in December. In addition, the German reserves had all been pulled from the Siegfried Line and sent elsewhere so each of these towns was easier to take, but still at a price in lives.
There were brisk fire fights for Lembach, Wingen, Climbach, all familiar to the 411th, and then into Germany at the same place where we went in back in December. Bobenthal was rough once more and then defenses stiffened in the Siegfried Line. The 411th bogged down in sharp fighting near Nieder Schlettenbach. Casualties were high.
One pillbox in that area was particularly troublesome. It was located where artillery could not get to it. It was so tough that a tactical air strike was called in. After it was softened up by bombs that did little physical damage but shook up the defenders, infantrymen were preparing to assault the pillbox with satchel charges.
General Mc Auliffe, and other officers including Col. Yeuell, had come up to see how the attack on this troublesome strong point was going. Mc Auliffe stepped out from behind a tree for a better look. Suddenly, about a dozen Wehrmacht soldiers ran out of the bunker waving white flags. They ran right up to Mc Auliffe and surrendered to him giving further credence to his reputation as a hands-on front-line commander. It was another boost for moral. Men are more willing to follow a leader who leads than a leader who stays behind and pushes, although there are many who would criticize Mc Auliffe for unnecessarily endangering himself in that manner.
Elsewhere, on the right flank of the 103d Division's sector, on March 22, 1945, the 409th Infantry, after four days of hard fighting around Reisdorf suddenly punched clear through the Siegfried Line. In that action, the 103d Division Artillery had a field day. They caught an enemy column of 500 German vehicles fleeing the Siegfried Line for the Rhine River and inflicted immense damage as accurate fire was directed by liaison planes. They also smashed several smaller columns bringing the total to 600 vehicles. Doughs of the 409th piled on tanks and an ad hoc task force, "Task Force Rhine", was organized to exploit the breakthrough and push all the way to the Rhine River. This task force caught up with a retreating German column consisting entirely of horse drawn vehicles. The tanks brought all available guns to bear on the column. The Germans and their horses panicked and wagons and their contents were strewn all over the road. A tankdozer was brought up to clear up the mess and the advance continued.
The 411th Regiment that had been on the Division's left flank, moved through the 410th's zone and quickly caught up with the 409th.
As the 411th, now sandwiched between the 409th and the 410th pushed toward the Rhine Plain, Colonel Yeuell took a shortcut to his planned next advance CP. We moved over into the 409th's zone and followed Task Force Rhine into Klingenmunster. Between Silz and Klingenmunster we passed along the road where the horse drawn column was overtaken. There were piles of wrecked wagons, many dead German soldiers, and large numbers of dead horses shoved off the road by the tank dozer. There was a long grassy field parallel to the road and hundreds of horses grazed contentedly as though nothing had happened. A few GIs were trying to catch horses that still had bits and reins to ride instead of walking but not many succeeded. The horses were still too skittish for that.
While General Patch's Seventh
Army, which included the 103d Division, was pounding through the Siegfried
Line, General Patton's Third Army had swept down the Saar Basin and cut
off any need for further attack to the North. Similarly, The Divisions
of the Seventh Army between the 103d and the Rhine River had pushed along
in parallel with us. After a brisk fight by the 409th for Klingenmunster,
the 103d Division had been pinched off by friendly forces and there was
no one left to fight.
Landau, Germany, SHAEF Reserve, Occupation Duty
The 103d Cactus Division now had another new role, It was placed in SHAEF reserve (technically, about as far back from the war as you can get but actually only about 30 miles from the front where bitter fighting was still in progress). We were charged with the occupation of a major part of the Palatinate also known as the Saar, Moselle, Rhine Triangle, a big chunk of Germany west of the Rhine. The units of the division were scattered over a large number of towns with Division Headquarters located in Landau. The infantry units occasionally had to mop up pockets of resistance that had been bypassed earlier but the routine became mainly one of acting as guard for Allied Military Government, restoring power, water, phones, and other services and processing a never ending flow of POWs.
As usually happened when things calmed down, our radio team was relieved and we relocated to Division Headquarters in Landau for vehicle maintenance and a number of administrative matters. It was great not to worry about 88s, or mortars, or mines for a while. We had to bathe and shave, which we had not done for some time, and get into clean uniforms, and the inevitable "chicken" started up again, but we didn't mind too much.
For months, the only things
female that we had seen were the klutzy, husky, rural French farm women
clomping around in their wooden shoes and slinging manure with pitchforks.
Landau was a city with many lovely blond frauleins. They were nicely shaped, dressed, and coiffured and obviously knew that there were strict rules against fraternization with the enemy. However, they flaunted their femininity, committing a little hormonal sabotage ----- but the rules did not say that we couldn't look so we did and sometimes they looked back. Hubba! Hubba!, but no one I knew was willing to risk a court martial to carry it any further than that.
While we were occupying the Saar, Moselle, Rhine Triangle, Cactus GIs happened upon a cave near Schifferstadt containing tens of thousands of bottles of French Champagne that the Germans had taken from the French. General Mc Auliffe decreed that every man in the Division get one bottle (officers each got three). We drank all but one of the bottles allocated to our crew over a period of several evenings but I wanted to save mine for a really special occasion.
Checking out one public building in the area, I had found a large Nazi flag. I carefully wrapped my bottle of Champagne in the flag and put it in the tire chain compartment of our truck hoping that it would be safe until that special occasion.
While billeted in a home in Landau, I found a Haenel air pistol in a drawer. It resembled a Luger. The handle was pushed down and forward to cock it and the barrel unlatched and broke to permit the loading of the projectile. It shot lead pellets and that was the problem. A tin box stored with the pistol contained only a dozen or so pellets and I quickly used those up. Then I had an idea.
There were quite a few candles around the house so I lit one and poured hot wax down the barrel. When it cooled, I pushed out the thin wax cylinder, broke it into pieces about a half inch long, rounded one end of each piece with the warmth of my fingers and "voilà", --- wax bullets.
Having nothing else to do at the moment, I made a large batch of them. Looking out through the nearly drawn shutters of a second floor window, I spotted a German kid with his hand under the tarp of one of our trucks stealing whatever he could reach. Taking careful aim at his rear end, I squeezed off a shot and he took off down the street rubbing his butt.
There being no more targets of opportunity, I sat down at a table and then noticed that there were many flies on one wall of the room. I steadied my arm on the table, aimed at one of them, and fired. To my surprise, the fly was pinned to the wall by my wax bullet.
Going up for a closer look, I discovered that the wax had splattered and while I had not actually hit it, the fly had been killed by the wax "shrapnel" from the near miss. Returning to my seat, I proceeded to dispatch all of the flies in the room.
About this time, in walked
another GI billeted in the same building.
"What are you doing?"
"Shooting flies with this air pistol."
He walked over and examined the wall. "Out of the air?"
I looked around the room and seeing no moving flies, replied, "Sure. Of course I don't hit every one, but I get most of them." What the hell, he asked a dumb question. It deserved a dumb answer.
At that moment, a fly buzzed in the window. He said, "There's one now."
Without hesitation and obviously without thinking, I swung the pistol toward the fly and squeezed off a shot. It caught the fly in mid-air, carried it across the room, and nailed it to the wall.
In that instant, with that trillion-to-one shot, all the other flies splattered on the wall became totally believable.
The GI muttered, "My God! That's incredible," and ran out of the room shouting about my marksmanship. Before long he was back with a group of skeptics but he showed them the wall and swore that he had seen me do it.
Meanwhile, I had hidden all of the candles and the rest of my wax bullets because there was no way I would ever be able to repeat that performance. The GI brought parade after parade of other GIs through the room to show them the wall but I made certain that I was always "away" when others showed up.
I had always been a pretty good shot with air guns and small bore weapons but none of that rubbed off on me where the heavier caliber weapons were concerned. The first time I fired the 45 caliber pistol in basic training, the target looked as big as a barn door, and the bulls eye was huge. When I went to check the target after firing, I thought all of my shots would be in the "X" ring so I was very embarrassed to discover that I had not even hit the paper. I never did qualify with the 45 automatic.
This discrepancy between my newly acquired reputation and the realities of firing for record with the 45 automatic would become a problem for me later.
Even though the Cactus GIs were enjoying the break from hostilities, the VI Corps continued its advance establishing a bridgehead across the Rhine near Worms on March 26th and then pressing east and southward along the eastern side of the Rhine.
On April 7th we moved across
the Rhine at Ludwigshaffen- Mannheim. Mannheim was totally destroyed. Our
bombers had flattened every building in the city. There was one curious
thing about it, though. Virtually all of the chimneys were standing ---
not the chimneys of homes but the tall round chimneys of the factories.
From a distance it looked like the factories were all intact because there
were those chimneys, but up close, that's all there was. Something about
the structure of an industrial chimney seemed to make it impervious to
Bensheim, Germany, 7th Army Reserve, More Occupation Duty.
After crossing the Rhine the 103d was put in 7th Army Reserve and continued occupation duty. Its area of responsibility was long and narrow running all the way from Darmstadt down through Heidelberg with Division HQ in Bensheim.
In Bensheim, like Landau, we were billeted in homes that were taken over from the Germans.
The house that our radio team occupied had an enclosed back yard with a well tended strawberry patch. One day while collecting strawberries, I noticed that one plant seemed to be sitting up on a small mound of earth. It occurred to me that there might be a mine hidden under the plant so I took out my combat knife and carefully probed around it, then poked gently underneath it.
It felt soft under the plant so I pulled it out of the ground and dug around with my knife. Underneath was a Nazi arm band unlike any that I had ever seen. The usual arm band was red with a round white circle and a black swastika in the center of the circle.
Typical Nazi Armband
arm band was red but the circle was of what appeared to be beige silk embroidered
with a gold wreath surrounding a gold embroidered swastika with an embroidered
gold vertical Roman-style short sword superimposed. It was very elegant
and gave the impression that the person who wore it was way up in the Nazi
The Unusual Nazi Armband
The people who usually lived in the house were not extraordinarily well placed, politically, and they claimed to know nothing about the arm band or its owner. I suspect that they let a very important Nazi hide or change into civilian clothing in their home, found the arm band after he left and buried it. But that is just a guess.
I still have the arm band.
Fifty years later, and after watching hundreds of TV documentaries about Nazi Germany, I have still never seen an arm band like it.
Maybe it just belonged to a streetcar conductor. Who knows?
See "Addenda" for an update on this arm band.
On April 13th, word reached us that President Roosevelt had died. For most of us he was the only president we had ever really known. However we might feel about him now, we were all greatly saddened by his death. He left enormous shoes to fill and we wondered if Harry Truman would be able to fill them. I think that the ultimate verdict of history will be that he filled them quite capably. We lowered the flag at Division Headquarters to half mast, the beginning of a month of official mourning.
Since the 103d had been in 7th Army Reserve for a while the wire teams had time to get telephone circuits established among all of the headquarters of its regiments and attached units. This gave the radio teams a breather. Our routine consisted mainly of checking all stations in on the Division Command Net once an hour. This gave the on-duty radio operator a chance to do a little unauthorized listening via his radio receiver.
Seymour Fader was on duty but listening to a shortwave radio broadcast of the news. It was on one of the first warm days in April and he had the two makeshift doors on the rear of the radio truck open to get some fresh air. Some news-hungry citizens of Bensheim gathered around the rear of the truck and one who could speak English translated for the rest. It was at this moment that the news of FDR's death was announced. Seymour was stunned by the news but was equally stunned by the reaction of the German women gathered around the truck. They wept.
Military life in Bensheim was just as "chicken" as it had been in Landau, --- if possible, more so.
Some GIs started griping about it and said that they would rather be back in action (but deep inside, they didn't really mean it).
"Chicken" never killed anyone.
But chicken ala king can sure make you miserable if carried around for more than a week before consumption.
I still had the "GIs" from that late Thanksgiving dinner. I'd had them for over four months and they showed no sign of letting up. I had lost a lot of weight and did not have much to spare in the first place.
Around the 15th of April I had a minor change in mailing address. After nearly two years in the Army, someone made a monumental goof and I was promoted from Private to Technician Fifth Grade (T/5).
It would be a while before
I would have time to sew on the stripes because things were starting to
heat up again and we were about to return to the 411th.
The Return to Combat, April 16, 1945
On about April 16, 1945 our radio team was returned, once again, to the 411th CP and everyone there realized that the "First String" was back on the field and, to heap one cliche on another, the picnic was over.
On April 19th, the VI Corps achieved a major breakthrough southward, spearheaded by the 10th Armored Division. The 103d Cactus Division was committed just a few miles northeast of Stuttgart with a mounted attack, clearing pockets of resistance behind the 10th Armored and then catching up with the 10th Armored on April 20th near Kirchheim. The 103d relieved the 10th Armored on April 21st, enabling them to leap ahead again and close off major escape routes for a large German force retreating eastward through the Black forest.
Driving southward from the
vicinity of Kirchheim, the 411th arrived at the Autobahn, Germany's super
highway, and, since we did not have a grasp of the big picture, assumed
that we would sail down the Autobahn to Munich, but that was not to be.
We came up out of a field onto the Autobahn, crossed it into another field
and continued southward through Metzingen and Munsingen. By this time,
we were getting back into mountainous terrain in an area known as the Swabian
Alps and headed toward Ulm, still in support of the 10th Armored Division
that was leading the fast moving assault.
Ambush, April 24, 1945
On about April 24th, we were in a rapidly advancing column consisting of a tank, Col. Yeuell's jeep, and our truck, followed by a line of tanks with GIs hanging all over them. We were spread out, maintaining proper intervals, as the column headed down a valley with dense woods on both sides of the road. There were Krauts hidden in the trees. They allowed us and the next three or four tanks to pass through. Then they ambushed the column, opening up with machine gun and burp gun fire.
There was a large stone building ahead on the right with a walled-in courtyard. The lead tank turned into the courtyard and we and Col.Yeuell's jeep followed. We could tell from the sound that the tanks behind us had swung their turrets around and were firing at point blank range at the dug-in Krauts. The infantrymen riding on the tanks took substantial casualties. They could not hide behind the tanks because they were under fire from both sides.
The Krauts, apparently anticipating our turn into the courtyard had already zeroed it in and immediately brought it under mortar fire. The building was securely locked so Col.Yeuell, his driver, and our team just flattened ourselves into the ground and ate a lot of dirt. The ambush did not last very long. The point blank fire from our tanks quickly demolished the Kraut positions.
Meanwhile, since I was lying next to a four-wheeled wooden wagon I crawled under it for whatever meager protection it might offer.
Eventually, an infantry squad located and neutralized the mortars.
When the mortar fire finally stopped, I stood up and looked in the wagon. The bottom of it contained hundreds of long slender bayonets of the type used by the French in World War I and on top of the bayonets were several hundred German "potato masher" hand grenades. If a mortar round had landed in that wagon while I was under it, it would have made me into some kind of shish kabob.
We were moving so rapidly that we were bypassing dozens of isolated pockets, some with a lot of resistance left in them and ambushes were a fact of life for a few days.
Several other columns were ambushed in this general area and General Mc Auliffe narrowly escaped ambush by a German squad hidden along a road where he was observing.
Never Argue With a Tank
Eventually, we were out of the mountains again and into rolling hilly terrain. The road rose to the crest of a hill and then dropped away quickly on the other side. Somewhere, not too far ahead, was a German 88. Due to its location, it could not depress enough to come to bear on the far slope. The best it could do was grazing fire that could not quite hit the crest of the hill. However, it came close enough to hit a tank or truck coming over the crest. The road had two narrow lanes. White tape hugged both sides of the road indicating possible mines on either side.
An American observer had been placed where he could see whether a vehicle that had cleared the top was far enough down the far slope to permit another vehicle or rather a pair of vehicles to attempt the dash over the crest. When conditions permitted, the "GO" signal was given to the next pair of vehicles and, with a good running start they raced over the top of the hill. The 88 crew was apparently delayed while an observer got the message to them to fire another shot. That gave us a very narrow window for the attempt. The 88 rounds, so far, had skimmed across the crest too late and landed harmlessly far to the rear of the vehicles cued up for the dash.
Now it was our turn. We were paired up with a Sherman tank that took up far more than its share of the road. We tried to get the jump on the tank but it swerved over the center of the road pushing us toward that white tape. I couldn't yield any more. My left front wheel was just skimming the tape.
Seymour Fader, in the assistant driver seat, was watching those tank treads grinding away just inches from his elbow and, quit uncharacteristically, shouting a barrage of unprintable words at the tank driver who obviously could not hear him.
French and German roads frequently have low stone markers along the edge with inscriptions like "20 KM" (We never figured out, 20 KM to what?). We were unlucky enough for there to be one of those markers right at the crest of the hill. My left front wheel hit it a glancing blow and it threw us up against the tank treads. Fader watched in horror as the tread started grinding off the side of the truck right next to our battery. I eased away from the tank a couple of inches, accelerated past him and roared down the road on the far slope.
Again the 88 fired too late
and there was no damage. Eventually, an infantry squad got to the 88 and
silenced it but we were far down the road before that happened.
What To Do With a Crate of Eggs
There was one point in time when our radio team had not had a hot meal (or even cold "C" rations) for about three weeks straight. There were times when we only had one or two K ration meals a day and some days when we had no rations at all.
Remembering those days, when we came across a German warehouse containing hundreds of crates of fresh eggs we thought we were dreaming. By that time, we had encountered a quartermaster outfit in which every man had his own personal Coleman single-burner gasoline stove. That didn't seem fair. We were getting very good at moonlight requisitioning and duty demanded that we liberate one of the stoves for our crew, so we did. While we were at it we also liberated a pot and a frying pan so when we found these eggs we were ready.
We took a full crate of eggs for our truck. This was all we had room for though there was some joking talk of jettisoning Seymour Fader to make room for another crate -- at least I think we were joking. Time dims the memory.
We then proceeded to eat a dozen eggs apiece per meal until we chomped our way through the entire crate. We had eggs soft boiled, hard boiled, poached, fried, and scrambled. We chopped up cheese and that canned meat (often mistaken for Spam) from our K rations and made omelets. None of us knew it at the time but we probably consumed our whole lifetime quota of cholesterol in the short time it took us to finish off that entire crate of eggs.
Across the Danube and South Toward Austria
We crossed the Danube in the dark so I could not tell whether the water was blue or not. I was too busy watching the narrow treadways on the pontoon bridge to look anyway.
By daylight we could see the Alps in the distance. They looked rough. There were persistent rumors that Hitler had ordered a general fall back to heavily fortified positions in a Redoubt Center near his Berchtesgarten retreat and every soldier was expected to fight to the death in a massive Wagnerian twilight of the gods ending of the Third Reich. It was a scary thought but, for now, we had our own priorities.
General George S. Patton's Third Army tanks were rolling toward Munich, where Hitler and his Nazi bullies had started their rise to power, but slowed down because he had outrun his fuel supplies.
We felt that we had a good chance of beating Patton to Munich but did not know that the VI Corps plans for us were quite different.
I had not slept for more than two days. The 411th column had pushed forward more than 60 miles. I had not seen so many Krauts in my entire life. There were long columns of them pouring out of the hills waving white flags, so many in fact that we could not spare guards to march them back. We must have sent five or six thousand of them back to the Prisoner of War (PW) cages unguarded. We just showed them the way and they went.
We also freed thousands of slave laborers; Yugoslavs, Poles, French, Russians, and others. There are no words to describe their unbounded joy.
Best of all, my "GIs" finally cleared up, so there were no more delays due to that problem.
The speed of our advance and the nature of the terrain caused unanticipated difficulties.
The Signal Company wire teams did not have a prayer of keeping up.
They would no sooner start laying wire to some CP location when they received word that the CP had moved again. There was no time to recover the wire that they had just laid so they had to just leave it there, return to a wirehead and start laying wire toward the new CP location. Wire supplies were running low but there was nothing else that they could do.
They had not yet learned how to tap into existing German commercial telephone facilities to find lines to nearby cities and villages.
Our SCR-193 Radio Sets were not intended to operate over great distances because it was highly unusual for an infantry division to spread out over a very large area. The Army did not want more powerful radios employed than were needed to fulfill the mission because they would provide more opportunities for the enemy to bring direction finders into play with the resultant artillery fire. Also, they would cause interference with the communications of other units.
This made a significant problem for us in this phase of the campaign. Twenty five or thirty miles would ordinarily be the limiting range for reliable around-the-clock communications between SCR-193s in stationary positions. We were in highly mobile operations and with units leapfrogging over one another to maintain the initiative in the attack, we often had to communicate over distances of sixty or seventy miles while on the move. To further complicate the matter, we were in mountainous terrain where signals were often blocked from reaching their destinations.
It became necessary to set up relay stations on the tops of mountains in order to get the message through.
Ordinarily, attached units and units with which close coordination was required were provided with radio teams from the 103d Signal Company to operate in the 103d Division Command Net. Also, In these highly mobile circumstances there were often periods in which Division Headquarters operated a Main CP, a Division Rear CP, and two and sometimes three Division Advance CPs.
Clearly, the 103d Signal Company did not have enough SCR-193 radio sets, vehicles, or radio teams to handle all of these requirements so it became necessary for attached units to shift for themselves and provide their own communications to Division HQ. Their operators were often much slower at sending and receiving code and were unfamiliar with Division communication protocol and procedures.
In addition, teams sent to the tops of mountains to act as relays sometimes found that they, for unexplained reasons, could not establish contact with anyone.
Despite these obvious impediments
to effective communications radio had to carry the ball and somehow, when
it was really on the line, we got the message through.
Landsberg - The Concentration Camp
On April 27th, we rolled into Landsberg, the city where, before his rise to power, Adolf Hitler, had been imprisoned with Rudolph Hess, and Maurice Grebel after the abortive Munich beer hall putsch. While in prison here he wrote "Mein Kampf" the blueprint for his future attempt to conquer all of Europe. His cell had been made into a German national shrine.
A bronze plaque in Hitler's "cell" in the suite of rooms assigned to these three Nazis bore the following inscription: " Here a dishonorable system imprisoned Germany's greatest son from November 11, 1923 to December 20, 1924. During this period, Hitler wrote the book of the National Socialist Revolution, Mein Kampf."
There was a bridge across the swift waters of the Lech River and a few miles straight ahead was Munich. It looked to us like we would beat old "Blood and Guts" Patton to Munich for sure, then it blew up in our faces, --- literally.
The Germans blew the bridge and that ended any thoughts about Munich. Those of us near the head of the column walked up to the still smoking bridge for a look. It was a hopelessly crumpled mass of steel girders. As we started back, there was a rifle shot from one of the buildings across the river. No one was hit but a GI saw where the shot came from and answered with a few rounds of tracers from a machine gun. Then tracers started lacing back and forth across the river as it quickly developed into a brisk fire fight.
I dove down between some railroad tracks and flattened myself against the ties. I turned my head slightly and saw a tight mesh of tracer fire overhead and the realization that for every tracer there were four other bullets that left no visible path made me glad that we wore O.D. underwear.
There was a shout relayed back down the street, "Bring up the tanks!"
The tanks came, turned left along the river, swung their turrets toward the buildings on the other side and moved slowly down the road firing as fast as their 75 mm guns would permit. In less than five minutes, everything was quiet again.
I peeked up over the rails and then ran for cover but there was no need to run. The Kraut guns on the other side of the river had been thoroughly silenced.
We had only been in Landsberg for a few hours when Fader told us he had discovered and opened the gates of two concentration camps and reported their presence to headquarters. The camps were organized along language lines to minimize communication difficulties. The first camp he opened was a French camp. He made the mistake of offering K-Ration food to a couple of the inmates. It was so rich compared to the diet they were accustomed to that it made them extremely ill. The inmates told him that there were other camps down the road. He noticed smoke coming from the next camp and investigated. This was a Jewish camp, Lager #2, and he had difficulty describing the conditions that he had observed.
Fader reported that he spoke in Yiddish to some of the survivors of the Jewish camp. He told them that he was going to get help and have proper food brought to the camp. To his surprise, these starved creatures said that they did not want food right then but instead wanted guns. They wanted to hunt down their guards before they could get completely away.
One even tried to pull Fader's weapon from his hands.
Fader came along to show us where Lager #2 was located as several of us drove out for a look.
All of the horror story writers in their most morbid states of mind could not describe what I saw in just a few minutes. --- Nor could photographers capture the scene with the best equipment.
Inside the electrically charged double fence were rows of huts built in the ground with only the roofs exposed. In these huts were crammed approximately 5,000 human beings although none could even be called beings, much less human, in the condition in which we found them. They were starved until there was nothing left but skeletons covered with skin. Their eyes stared out of deep dark caverns. Many had holes burned into their bodies by hot irons. These had been covered with adhesive tape but no medication had been given. Most of them could not possibly have been nourished back to life but the sadistic SS men who were in charge of the camp were not satisfied with that.
Untold numbers lay under the charred ruins of the filthy holes they lived in.
Unspeakable experiments had been conducted here including burying some of the inmates up to their necks in concrete to see how long they could survive immobilized --- information needed for planning the missions of one-man submarines having tight coffin-like compartments for the crew men who controlled the subs using only their fingertips.
This was as much a death camp as Dachau and was, in fact, a satellite of Dachau. However, there were no facilities for gassing the inmates. The inmates of this camp were forced to work in nearby underground factories producing war materials but their deaths were handled in a similarly gruesome manner. The were fed a bowl of nameless tasteless brown fluid in the morning and a bowl of cabbage soup in the evening. A survivor reported that, on a good day, one might even find a small piece of cabbage leaf in one's bowl. Obviously, the inevitable consequence of this was death by starvation. The SS commandant of the camp kept meticulous records and knew, to a high degree of accuracy, how many additional people he needed to requisition from Dachau to replace those who would starve to death each month.
When they died they were simply thrown into an open pit like so much garbage.
I had heard about concentration camps before but was always suspicious about the accuracy of the stories because everyone heard the story from someone who heard the story from someone else who read it somewhere or heard it from some other Joe.
This time it was not hearsay. I saw it myself and will never be able to forget it.
It turned out that there were five other camps just like this one situated in a ring around Landsberg.
Later that day we brought the citizens of Landsberg (the men only, because we Americans were too soft to ever think of showing the women anything like that) to the camps to bury the grisly remains of those poor creatures.
The American guards would not let them move the bodies with their shovels. They were forced to pick them up with their hands and carry them respectfully to the mass grave that had been dug and to lay them gently in it.
The people of Landsberg professed to know nothing about the camps but they knew. How could they not know?
It was impossible to put the finger on any one individual, except perhaps Adolf Hitler, and say that he was responsible for the whole thing. But it is too simplistic to lay it all on Hitler, The people of Landsberg, like the people of all of Germany, idolized Hitler and condoned whatever he did for the glory of the Third Reich. They were all responsible.
Within a few days, photographs of the these camps were published throughout the world but pictures speak only to the eyes. The senses of smell, sound, and touch magnified the horror a millionfold.
Corroboration of this account can be found in the May 4th issue of the 6th Corps Newspaper, " Beachhead News", in a delayed report filed by Beachhead News staff writer, PFC H.L. Welker.
Here is his story.
LANDSBERG'S HORROR IS GHASTLY
Life Is Ruled And Crushed By Nazi Hands
By PFC H.L. Welker
BHN Staff Writer
" Landsberg (Delayed)-- It snowed today at Lager No.2 of the Landsberg concentration camp -- where the inmates still die from planned starvation at the rate of 25 a day. The living -- they are technically alive -- shuffle aimlessly through the rubble-strewn ground inside the 15-foot double barbed wire fence. The gray and blue striped political prisoners' uniform hung on them in great empty folds. They did not seem to notice the snow, or feel the cold.
Their eyes are huge and round and look unseeingly from deep sockets. One crawled weakly form a hut. He wore no pants. You could circle his thigh with your thumb and forefinger. The skin was clammy yellow gray. They all have skin like that. You have seen it but only on the dead.
They were the Jews of all Europe.
Lieutenant J.M. Smith, Silver Springs Md., AMG officer in charge, said, ‘Please don't show any food or cigarettes. It means a riot.'
He took us to the center of the camp. There was an enormous pile of clothing and debris smoldering [sic]. German PWs were dousing it with gasoline to make it burn. The stench was retch-making.
Clothing of Dead Burned
‘This is the clothing of the dead,' he said. ‘A little of it. I have 70 PWs working here. For two days, they've been hauling clothing here to be burned. They're not half through yet.'
Around the area where the fire was, were quarters of the prisoners -- Hitler's prisoners. They are long narrow hutments sunk in the ground to the eaves. One door at the end. No windows. About the length of your barracks back in the states, and half as wide. Smith opened the door of one.
There were at least a hundred of them. They lay on the bare boards, tightly packed together -- pipestem limbs and grotesquely-swollen joints dimly seen here and there. The air was thick, fetid.
The forms did not move.
‘Are they alive?'
He said they were. They didn't look it. We turned away and he pointed out a pudgy, bald man about 50 who was helping the PWs push a cart laden with the stinking clothes of the dead.
‘There is the former commandant of this camp.' he said. ‘He was an SS officer who tried to get away in civilian clothes. Sometimes his former prisoners beat him -- those who still had the strength to raise their arms. At such times our eyesight and hearing seem to be awfully poor.'
Inoculation [sic] Used Too
He said there was a crematorium where they burned the dead -- and the not-quite-dead. The tough ones, who didn't die fast enough of malnutrition, were assisted with poison inoculations. There was another place where men were encased up to their necks in cement. Alive!
Smith would not take (me)
to any of these places. He said he didn't want to be sick again, nor want
us sick on his hands.
While he waits for hospital space for the inmates, the lieutenant has requisitioned food from the German civilians.
The things that were men and women are now receiving 1,000 quarts of milk, 1,000 eggs, 750 pounds of meat, 2,000 pounds of potatoes, and other rich food items daily. Since they've had only two bowls of watery soup a day for as long as they've been at Landsberg, the prisoners cannot eat much at a time. It would kill them. So the diet is carefully planned by a doctor. Someday they may almost be normal again. The newer ones.
‘Come to the hospital,' Smith said, ‘ You can see one who just died. You have to see it to believe it. Sometimes the corpses weigh less than 50 pounds.'
The air in the building thickened your throat and made your stomach heave protestingly. You fought to keep from vomiting on the floor. This was a hospital.
Skeletons With Skin
The doctor asked in German where the dead man was. A couple of croaks answered. No one had the strength to point. On a narrow pallet lay a heap of blankets. It seemed impossible that there could be a man under them, but when they were pulled aside there lay a skeleton with skin.
You could not make yourself believe that this had once been a man. A man who had once laughed grumbled and sang. This thing looked no more human than an exhibit at a carnival.
Four more died while we were there. PWs gingerly carried them out and stacked them on a two wheeled cart. They all looked the same.
‘Pitch it strong,' Smith said when we left. ‘Pitch it strong.'
You can't pitch it strong enough. The words don't exist."
In Landsberg we were quartered in a house that had a baked enamel address plate, "2- 1/3 Adolph Hitler Strasse." We unscrewed the address plate and fastened it to the door of our truck.
It became our rolling address
for the duration.
Southward to Innsbruck
The final major objectives of the Cactus Division were the capture of Innsbruck, the sealing off of Brenner Pass, and the linkup with the Fifth Army pressing rapidly northward through Italy.
On April 29th, the 411th combat team reached Oberammergau and pushed forward to Garmich-Partenkirchen. It was still cold in the Alps so our radio team was pleased to find that the German owners of the very upper class home in which we were quartered in Garmich had left several full length fur coats in the closets. We cut up a couple of them and used them for elegant makeshift liners for our combat jackets and hoods.
I went exploring up into the snowy part of the closest mountain. My 20 dollar gold piece was in my pants pocket. I paused for a couple of minutes to rest and put my hands in my pockets to get them warm. When I withdrew them, I accidentally pulled out the gold piece and it fell edge-on into the snow which was quite deep at this particular spot. The gold piece left a narrow slit where it entered the snow. I dove for it and started carefully digging, at first just a few light handfuls of snow then bigger and bigger gobs of snow with no success. I carefully marked the spot, returned to the house and borrowed an entrenching tool, and got back to my excavation. Now I was digging in earnest. The hole got several feet deeper and wider as I dug and sifted but to no avail. It was getting dark. I had to face it, my "lucky" gold piece was lost. I don't know why I suddenly thought of it as "lucky" but now that I had lost it seemed that my luck had gone with it. When the warm summer days came, the snow would melt and some lousy Kraut wandering around up here would find my lucky gold piece. I did not believe it would work but before I left I put a curse on it, because I didn't want any Kraut to get any luck out of it, not after what we saw at Landsberg.
Far to the north on April 27th the American and Russian forces linked up on the Elbe River, cutting Germany in half and the Russians were pounding at the gates of Berlin.
On April 30th the Seventh Army took Munich. It gave us great satisfaction to know that even though the honor had not gone to the 103d, the Seventh Army still beat General Patton's vaunted Third Army to the birthplace of Naziism.
On May 1st, the German radio announced that Adolph Hitler was dead. The German radio said he died at his battle station but the truth was that he had taken his own life. His long time lover, Eva Braun, whom he had married just a day or so earlier, died with him.
The 409th Infantry Regiment led the way down the narrow pass to Innsbruck. There were brisk firefights at Mittenwald and Scharnitz, with the latter being cleared on May 1, 1945.
There were still obstacles to the capture of Innsbruck not the least of which was determining who had the authority to surrender the city and negotiating with them. This all took time.
On May 2nd, the 411th assembled in Mittenwald, Sharnitz and Farchant.
On May 3rd, the surrender of Innsbruck was finally negotiated but it still was not clear whether it would stick since the German negotiator had been stripped of his military authority by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring on May 2nd.
Nevertheless, on May 3rd
the 409th mounted up for a triumphal entry into Innsbruck and was met by
an overjoyed population who considered the American Army to be liberators,
not conquerors, and who celebrated the entry of the 103d in much the same
way as Paris had greeted its liberators. This would later turn out to be
a sticky problem for Military Government to deal with because the Austrians
were still, technically, our enemies.