Chaplain Maurice Powers
A letter from the chaplain:
With the American 7th Army somewhere in Austria
6th day of peace - 1945 - May time
My dear friend,
I sat in a long armored column of hundreds of vehicles with thousands of troops on Hitler's famed autobahn that stretches from Munich to the Austrian border close to the fortress of Der Fuhrer called Berchtesgaden the night when Germany was surrendering its forces to General Eisenhower.
Thousands of once-proud Wehrmacht in stolid gray marched by dejectedly. Forlorn, defeated, they hardly raised their eyes as they filed endlessly in column to a prison cage. Was was over, but we did not know it at that hour; we only knew the order: STAND BY. A few hours before, I beheld what I know now from memory: a hundred hills in flame, a dozen villages blazing, a thousand spiraling flares that lighted pathways of death, the whining terror of a "screaming meemie" or the dread curse of a tree-bursting 88 mm. On we pushed, down the Saalach Valley into Austria, far below Salzburg and Berchtesgaden, into the snow-crested mountains that lifted their hoary foreheads into the purple azure. Valleys were redolent with beauty; clean wholesome, white-stockinged Austrian children waving white flags and tossing flowers; maidens matching their Tyrolean costumes with their glistening blonde hair. Yes, the war is over; yet I see the faces of my men, their pallor, their hollow eyes, who look at me in death and say, "Father, we wished this day?" O earth! shall these men die! The tanks and armored cars roll on endlessly under spring cloudless skys, even into the night and early morning at the forming of the dew. There are crystal waters here in the Alps, but some will never drink of them; there are picturesque forests that only a Rockwell might capture, but many will never glimpse the beauty. Hills are broken by the blunt nose of a man-made bird of silvery steel, and woods are punctuated by the blunt nose of a ruined 88. The war is over!
When the sirens sounded over the world for V-E Day, they hurled ticker tape from stone cliffs into the canyons of Wall street; they lifted toasts of champagne along the Champs Elysees; Piccadilly Circus in London was in holiday mood; salvoes of artillery belched forth in Moscow. Commentators in American circles proclaimed the might of marching men across African sands, through Cassino, along Normandie beachheads, the break-through of the Siegfried Line (which I witnessed myself) and the drive into a prostrate Germany. Eloquent words. But I was with my men (New York’s own 101st Mechanized Cavalry armored unit), men who fought the SS into their last redoubt and won. They said nothing. They just remembered. For some there was Hill 609; others remembered Omaha Beach, St. Lo, the Hurtgen Forest, the Colmar Pocket, Saarbrucken, Nurmberg Munich. Theyknew the Purple Hearts on the way; they imagined neat, white crosses where Mack and Chuck were laid. They knew no glorious drives, no magnificent marches. They know only that it was HELL all the way. They were almost silent as I walked over two miles down along that column on Hitler’s arterial Autobahn.
“Heck, Father, why celebrate if it’s true it’s over. There’s still Burma and Tokyo.” They knew only that tomorrow meant more C or K rations, the 92nd day without a break. They were silent and humble, for it was a long way from America, from home, the kids, a bride, or the real “Fraulein.”
You’ve asked about my life. Censorship and prudence prompted a curtailed silence. It wasn’t indifference or forgetfulness. Life has been thrilling, swift, precarious and religiously rich. I’ve watched thousands kneel at my masses aboard a transport on the blue breast of the Atlantic. We have shared the vistas of Wordworth and Scott in the Lake Region of England, and the stone houses and pebbled streets. The Channel crossing in LST’s, the push across France through Joan of Arc’s Rouen; Verdun and Soissons, where we slept in the shadow of an old cathedral, down along the Marne and Moselle rivers that claim memories of blood from other decades, into the valley of the Saar under the aegis of the gallant 7th Army. Then through the Siegfried, on to Munich, to Austria on the heels of the swift fleeing SS and Wehrmacht.
And what have I seen? My life was as varied as the weather in London. In America you monotonously read: American 3rd Army advances 12 miles, takes three towns, or the American 7th Army of General Patch spearheaded 9 miles and takes 3,000 prisoners. Over here it was different. A daily change of position, blackout driving at night as we moved “up forward.” Sniper fire along lonesome highways, towns burning as we rolled into them to occupy, being pinned down by unknown machine gun nests, the crossing of the Rhine on pontoon bridges, the sudden abandonment of one’s jeep when jets sprayed us with steel from the sky at Tauberbischofsheim or Lauda, the mad scramble for a foxhole when 88s spread their mantle of devastation, the terrible tree bursts that killed men of my unit, the panzerfausts that riddled the flower of my combat armored unit, the sleepless nights along a highway bordering the Danube near Augsburg, and the the dreaded ordeal of facing the insanity of Himmler’s madmen – called SS in polite society. I have seen what the product of warped minds can be: my own men blown to shreds by triple mines in the highway. I have helped gather one of the finest soldiers into a litter; his body was riddled in three pieces. Others are broken in body and heart, twisted frames that will never walk or speak again. This May morning, in a cloud of apple blossoms along a mirror-smooth Neckar River, I drove to an American Military Cemetery to see those I knew and loved. I found endless rows of white crosses set in perfect diagonals that stretched away endless in the morning sunlight, marking a design for eternity. Their valor is enveloped forever in silence: perhaps all too soon forgotten except by some obscure Gold Star Mother far away. As I looked on their graves, I could only think, “We build from ours that die.” There had been terror, treachery of the SS, and relentless pushing on and on. There were chanted requiems for some, evacuation to Field Hospitals for some; but hope lay hidden
in the concentration camps of Dachau, Ohndorf, in Munich, along the Arver and
Chiem See, in the snow-crested mountains near Salzburg. Hope huddled in
foxholes, in woodsheds near Hitler’s Berchtesgaden fortress. Love that lay hidden
in the fallen heroes of Leyte, Cassino and Normandie will rise again from gaunt,
diminished forms that I have seen released from atrocious prison camps
Most memorable of all my days was not the crossing of the Rhine, nor that of
watching the muddy waters of the Danube under our pontoon bridge, nor of
the visit to quaint old Heidelberg, the ride through devastated Munich or my
hours in Berchtesgaden on the Czech-Slovakian-Austrian border, but rather
the concentration camp on the Lech River near Landsberg and Munich. We
were waiting to cross a river bridge that had been under fire, when suddenly
one of my soldiers came running. “Father, see those smoldering ruins … come
quickly. There is the awfulest sight you’ve ever seen.”
I saw the unbelievable sight of hundreds of huddled nude forms still smoldering from the fires initiated the day before. They had been starved until their gaunt forms at death weighed less than 60 pounds in many cases. Twenty escaped from the atrocity the day before. I spoke with three of them; they told me the story.
“We were called political prisoners of Naziism. Some were from Belgium, Poland, Russian, Holland, England, Italy, Spain and Slovakia. We were given one crust of bread and three potatoes a week. We ate grass to live. The young Jewish and Catholic pair I spoke with were 25 and 28 years old. Sgt. Friedman, an IPW interpreter, was with me. Both prisoners were men of 170 pounds normally, who both now weighed less than 80 pounds. They told of special cases where prisoners were poisoned, how some were gassed and the lethal chambers of cremation. It beggars description in words. They even spoke of the staff men in the camp who celebrated these executions by a bacchanalian orgy, using even the skulls of victims as cognac flasks. Some were made to dig their own graves, then stand on the edge, so they could fall in after being machine gunned. This is not fiction. This was told to me by two prisoners who played dead for five hours under a work bench.
Any chaplain has poignant memories of his work. One cold March day, the whistled moan of the giant 155s came over, knocked the porch off the house we selected as a medical aid station. The second one killed four men who were eight feet from me. The third ripped the back porch to pieces, knocked us down, wounded two.
An Ernie Pyle or Trogaskis couldn’t wish for a more exciting moment. I can’t understand why I am alive now, and a Bronze Star in recognition for bringing the two wounded to a medical aid station is small compared to the memory of valor displayed by combat men of my armored unit. You read that 200 were killed and injured – we see the flower of manhood melt under German counter-attacks. We know them as loving a girl, a mother, a petite wife in Pittsburgh or Dallas. We hear them say, “Will I make it, Padre?” And I know that they have 10 minutes left. A hurried Absolution, the Last Sacraments, and a promise to send his ring back to Bettie or Marian. Then, blood-stained eyes, and on we move into the next town. We must push forward.
In a few days, I write, “Your boy was hit by shrapnel. He lingered a time and then died valiantly. He fought like an all-American tackle, ripping a line to shreds while he manned that 37mm in the turret. He loved you. He only asked, as he died, that …”
We send him for burial in the American Military Cemetery, where he is now laid to rest with our honored dead. And so, a young girl or wife is without the arms of her lover tonight, because while a Paperhanger was making plans, people back home believed it was no concern of theirs. An empty pillow is stained with the oil we sold to our enemy. The mute body under the white cross speaks: “I am dead because of the mistakes of old men. I lie in the wisdom of the earth on a hillside above the Danube or Meuse. I am buried no deeper than the crippled of Chungking or the partisans of Belgium.
Religiously, I can vouch for my men. I have seen them kneel in full field equipment, dust-stained faces, weary from sleepless nights of combat. I’ve watched them kneel in adoration at Consecration in the rear of woodsheds, along the highway where mass was held, and in the stately churches left intact from the ravages of war. These men are spearheads, often the very first to enter conquered territory. Fearless, fighting, and at once gracious, smiling, amusing, and filled with a vivacity that only the American soldier has. I’ve seen them do coiffours (sic) in a conquered Fraulein’s beauty shoppe near Munich; clear the crèmes from the shelf and pack them away, then turn the shop into a chaplain’s office. I’ve seen them laugh when they had a manure pile for a front porch to their nightly rest under the stars. I’ve seen them weep when their buddies were announced as dead from sniper fire. For 91 consecutive days, I rode in column, went with them day and night, knew their fears, their lack of baths, their torn clothing, their best girls in Buffalo and Nashville and Omaha. They were with me Easter Sunday noon in Hartheim when a jet plane strafed the town and dropped two bombs – 8 feet and 30 feet, respectively, from the church as they knelt at my mass. I saw their faces in the early morning rain when news came that our great Commander-in-Chief [Franklin Roosevelt] was dead on April 12. I watched their eager faces when I spoke to them of the history of Augsburg, Speyer, Heidelberg, Munich, and the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. Or when I told them of the Brenner Pass and Mozart’s home in beautiful Salzburg. One doesn’t know an American soldier from the Pathe News at Radio City, or from an Alan Ladd movie, or the glowing account of an Ernie Pyle. You must be with them, eat the same K rations, watch them in the Ordinance motor pools, watch their humor in the mess line, glimpse their reactions when mail is handed out. They are real, sincere, wholesome, fearless, yet kind and forgiving: a flower of manhood.
I have a daily duty in my own life to constantly check myself to see if I am worthy to be the chaplain of such stalwart, noble fighting men.
I’ve a need to find a good German Frau to wash my clothes. There are monthly chaplain’s reports to file and a memorial service to plan. Why go on prosaically, when you can listen to Kaltenborn and Robert St. John for more lucid accounts of what we have seen and done. Perhaps it is on to Burma, China, Japan, or, perhaps, home. Whatever it may be, don’t relinquish a memory prayer for my men and a Padre who needs one too.
My kindest wishes,
Maurice E. PowersCaptain, Chaplains Corps
United States Army
Chaplain Powers leads a service for Memorial Day 1945 in Lorsch, Germany.