I received my original induction notice for the military on April 17, 1944. I was
attending Marshall College on a basketball scholarship at the time, and withdrew
for military service. My father asked me if I would help on the farm that summer,
if he could get me a farm deferment. Most of the young kids who had worked on
the farm for the past several seasons were either gone, or going into service,
and help was hard to get that year. The draft board gave me the deferment,
and I stayed home and helped dad until the fall. However, come September 6,
1944. I was on my way to Camp Atterbury, Indiana. Me and about 500 other
Basic training was infantry oriented, but there were several other things we could
be trained for, to supplement it. We were given a set of tests, and on the basis of
those scores, I got some special training in intelligence and reconnaissance
"I and R" in Army parlance. During this training. I got to know a fellow farm boy,
named John Allen, who was from Creston, Ohio. John and I, mostly due to our
names both starting with “A” and the Army’s penchant for doing everything
alphabetically, were to spend most of the war together. We were both offered
Officers’ Candidate School, and both refused. It would have changed our draftee
status, which would enable us to get out of the army as soon as the war ended.
Before basic training was completed, the war in Europe took a nasty turn. The Germans mounted an offensive in northern Europe that resulted in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was a sort of last-ditch effort by Hitler to push the Allied forces back to the beaches of Normandy and perhaps even off the continent. He poured in huge amounts of tanks and troops and encircled a large part of the American forces trying to fight their way across France and Belgium. The Americans finally broke out, but the ensuing battle was bloody, with great loss of men on both sides. It resulted in an urgent need for fresh troops (Who, me?) in the American forces, and therefore, our basic training was shortened from 17 weeks to 15 weeks.
We left Camp Wolters on December 30, 1944, with orders calling for transportation by train to Fort Meade, Maryland. We also got a seven-day, delay-in-route leave, which I spent with my folks. My older brother, who lost an eye in the South Pacific, was home by this time, so my mom only had one soldier to worry about.
I arrived at Fort Meade, where we were issued clothing and equipment. Then, on January 13, 1945, we were shipped on to Camp Shank, just outside New York City. During our few days at Camp Shank, some of us were issued passes to go into New York for a day. Some of the boys in my platoon were from that area, and knew their way around, so we got to see nearly all the major sights in the city. One day after that, we got to spend a few hours with Joe Louis, who was heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He was a sergeant. with a special forces unit that entertained troops.
We had little else to do besides getting shots and trying to keep warm. It was middle of winter, and the barracks were heated with coal-fired, pot-bellied stoves. Just keeping warm was a major effort.
Leaving Camp Shank on January 24,1945, we loaded onto the Queen Mary, a luxury liner that had been converted to a troop carrier. I remember most of us stood at the rails as we steamed through the harbor, and watched the Statue of Liberty, as she sank slowly out of our sight. There were about 15,000 of us on board, all on our way to Scotland and points east.
A lot of us were double loaded -- two men assigned to the same bunk -- so we slept in shifts. I ended up sleeping on deck nearly all the way across, since the other man assigned to my bunk was seasick for most of the trip. The deck of the ship had blackout curtains, which were just wooden frames covered with plywood and canvas, which served to shield any lights on the deck, normally a big open space, from enemy submarines. If it rained, water was trapped on deck by the curtains. I always tried to find a high place to sleep, so that when the boat rocked, I didn’t get wet. You could hear the water running back and forth on deck when the ship rolled, but if you were careful, you could stay dry. There were several movies every night, and we were fed twice a day. There was a place to buy snacks, if you could find it, but mostly we were left pretty much on our own.
One day as I was going down a stairway between decks. I heard somebody call out my name. It was James I. "Sprig" Hensley, a boy from my home town with whom I had gone to high school. He had joined the Air Corps a little while before I was drafted, and was being sent to England as a tail gunner on a B-17. The Air Corp types and officers and nurses, got the luxury cabins on board the big ship, on "B" deck as I remember. The deck where I, and most other dog faces were assigned to sleep, was so far down it was below the water line, and we didn’t even have a port hole. But it was good to see a friendly face, even it was Air Corp. After the war, "Sprig" married my first cousin, and we remained good friends until his death a couple of years ago.
January 30, 1945. We landed, after five days, at Glasgow, Scotland, where we boarded trains that took us down to the port city of Weymouth, across the channel from France. I didn’t get to see much of England on that trip, since we moved through it mostly at night. We were only at Weymouth for five days (more boredom, pot bellied stoves, and wet, windy, cold weather) before we were loaded onto an L.C.I. for our "cruise" to LeHavre. A large meal provided the evening before by the Navy left many of the men seasick during our rough, night crossing.
LeHavre was a ruin. The dock area was just rubble, about 15 feet high as far as you could see, except for an occasional tree stump sticking out of the debris. The Germans had extensive submarine pens along this whole coast area, and the Americans had bombed and shelled these dangerous naval bases out of existence. Consequently, much of this old port city was destroyed, along with the docking facilities.
We off loaded, and marched through the ruins of LeHavre to a tent city on the edge of town. We spent the night there, and the next day were loaded on “40 and 8” box cars (40 and 8 was a WW I French designation meaning 40 men and 8 horses) to a replacement depot near Givet, Belgium.
We had received all our equipment except fire arms at Ft. Mead, before shipping over. Now, we were issued M1 rifles that were still in gooey cosmolene grease. We were told to clean them, and zero them in on a short range of about 30 yards, with a target 6" by 6" square. I never adjusted my sights again.
About 15 of us that had basic training together, wound up being transported in 6 x 6 trucks to Strasburg, France, for assignment to the front lines. John Allen and I, good old A and A again, had been the first two people assigned to anything: guard duty, K.P., whatever, wherever, we went. We both went as replacements to B Troop, 116th Cavalry Mech. The others all went to the 100th Infantry Division.
The 116th was on the front line, on the eastern side of St. Avold, France, in the little towns of Ludweiler and Fredricksmueiler, Germany. It was part of the 7th Army, with the 5th Army joined on the north. John and I were the first replacements the outfit had. The unit had spent much of the three preceding years patrolling the North Carolina coast to guard against action by German submarines. They had been shipped to England, where they were stationed for six months and then assigned to combat when the re-enforcements were sent in to relieve the men who had fought the Battle of the Bulge, during December of 1944 and January of 1945.
When we joined the outfit, I was assigned as a scout to the 2nd platoon to replace a man who had been killed. Each platoon had an armored car and two jeeps. I rode in the back of one of the jeeps and manned a 30-caliber, air-cooled machine gun. The other two men in the jeep were a Sgt. Giza, who was a squad leader, and the jeep's driver, Grover Cleveland Wilson. Wilson was a motorcycle nut, and a little bit of a hot head, from somewhere around Danville, Virginia. He didn’t get along too well with Pennsylvania-born Giza, but he and I got to be pretty good friends, and spent the rest of the war together in the same jeep. (After the war, when I worked for the Corp of Engineers in nearby Martinsville. Virginia, I spent quite a lot of time trying unsuccessfully to find Grover. Long years later, from information gathered at my old outfits reunion in Goldsboro, N.C., I found some of his relatives. Wilson had been killed in a motorcycle accident about two years after the war ended.)
Our first assignment after I joined the outfit was to an observation post overlooking an enemy-held town of Schaffhausen, Germany, located on the Saar River. We were there for several days, rehearsing taking the town, but the order to proceed never
came. Finally, after about a week, somebody captured a German soldier, who told us the enemy had pulled out of the town and gone across the river. We were ordered into Schaffhausen the next day.
My first patrol. Combat engineers assigned to our group went ahead of us with mine detectors and laid out a safe path marked with white tape. We were to proceed through the area to a house on the edge of town, where we could observe German troop movements in the distance, without being seen. We were told to take this position and hold until relieved.
It was very early morning in the dead of winter, cold, barely daylight, and foggy as all get out when we started. You could barely see 15 to 20 feet ahead. There were about a dozen of us spread out over a city block, walking quietly along a narrow cobblestone street. There were four of us up front, two combat engineers, Lt. Borkowski, who was the officer in charge, and me. After several minutes, the lieutenant stopped and told me to go back down along the line and tell the men to close up a little. Visibility was so limited that he was afraid some of us would get lost. I had just turned and started down the line, when, from somewhere behind me, a voice with a German accent yelled, “Halt! Hands Up!” Everybody, including me, hit the street, face down. Somebody, we assumed it was the man who had yelled, began to fire a machine gun down the middle of the street, spraying lead from side to side, right where we had all been walking before he called out his command for us to halt.
The German kept firing, and I began to try and crawl over to the edge of the street, hoping I could throw a hand grenade at the gunner, but when I reached to pull one off my harness, they were gone. Apparently, when I fell flat on my face, I had lost all my grenades, and, in my present position, didn’t feel like it was too wise to go hunting for them. I was turned wrong way around anyway, since I had been heading down the street with my back to the gunner when he opened up on us.
The lieutenant and engineers were closest to the enemy, and we figured they were either dead or wounded. The rest of us lay pretty still, or took off for cover if there was any. Except for one soldier, an older man we called “Pop” (because of his advanced age of 40), who began firing his weapon toward the direction of the gunfire. This naturally attracted the attention of the jerry gunner, so that he turned his gun and began to fire directly at us. I could see the red tracers through the fog over my head.
Pop called out and asked why we hadn't all fired our rifles at the same time he did. Considering the amount of attention it called to our position, most of us didn't think too much of that idea.
We were lucky. Nobody got hit. Meantime, Borkowski and the combat engineers began firing at the Germans. Suddenly, the shooting stopped. We got ourselves together and reorganized the patrol, starting very cautiously back up the street, when we met the lieutenant and engineers coming back toward us. Borkowski said they had wounded one of the two machine gunners, who had been dug in at the corner of a building and had seen one of the soldiers carrying his wounded comrade into the basement of a nearby building. We tossed a grenade into the basement, and one German came out with his hands up. We found the other soldier, badly wounded, but could not stay to see what happened to him. We turned our prisoner over to somebody else, and proceeded with no further trouble to the house which had been our original destination.
We sat up an outpost that overlooked the Saar, and stayed there for the rest of the day and that night. Having no food or sleep for about 24 hours, we were very glad to see the Infantry who relieved us next morning.
We then moved to another part of the front, where we spent several days in cold, wet, underground dugouts, which had been constructed by the Infantry troops we relieved. There were three men in our group, and we took turn standing guard duty at night, theoretically two hours on and four hours off. Only problem was that none of us had a watch, and had no way of telling how much time had really passed. Sometimes you got kicked out in what seemed like 30 minutes, instead of the four hours you were supposed to have for sleep. I remember that the nights were very dark, with no moon, and sometimes it looked like even the bushes crawled around out there. Spooky.
That was my first taste of combat, but we had lots of close shaves. One day we were working with tanks, and an artillery shell landed within about 10 yards of me. Thank goodness it was an armor-piercing type, and it penetrated deep into the ground before it exploded. It made a hole big enough to bury a cow, and my ears rang for days.
We had several hard battles, but that first one was hardest on the nerves. War is mostly just being tired, or scared to death or bored out of your mind. But most of all, it is never, I repeat NEVER, getting enough sleep. The food was never very good, it was just portable, and it kept you from starving. Occasionally we would "liberate" a few eggs, or a chicken or two, but not very often. We were a mobile group, and there was never enough time to stop and cook anything, even if you had anything that needed cooking.
Once we crossed an area where the Germans had constructed fortifications known as “dragon's teeth,” huge blocks of concrete to stop tanks or anything else that rolled. When we got there, the enemy had withdrawn and taken all civilians, animals, everything alive with them. It was deathly still and not a little spooky. Of course, we were all a little jumpy, and the silence seemed more than ordinarily menacing.
We crossed the Rhine at Worms. Many years later, in 1969, my family and I passed this way on the train, and I saw again the spires of the famous cathedral at Worms. Only this time, nobody was shooting at me. In 1945, however, people were very definitely shooting at me/us. We traveled southeast to Wurzburg, past Heidleburg, and on to the south of Munich. From there we crossed into Austria, just south of Salzburg and the Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden.
We had started down through the Alps toward the Brenner Pass to cut off the German retreat from Italy, when we heard the news that the war in Europe was ended. It came to us via the radios in the half tracks, which were powerful enough to pick up broadcasts from London. The Germans surrendered and were ordered to stack their weapons. We stood guard over the ammo dumps with guards from both armies, as a precautionary measure. We were in a rural area, and the civilian population had not all gotten news of the ending of the war.
There were several divisions of German troops in Austria. They all seemed glad the war was over, as they were naturally concerned about their families. Most of them had not heard from home for some time, and the German cities were heavily bombed at the end of the war, by the Americans and especially the Brits. Churchill had ordered the beautiful old city of Dresden, bombed into smithereens as a warning to all future Germans, just in case they ever got any ideas about starting another war.
Several hundred thousand German civilians were incinerated by the fire storms that
swept the city. Many who were not burned to death were asphyxiated when the fires burned so fiercely that all the oxygen was sucked out of the air by the flames.
Easter Sunday, April 1,1945, was the toughest day we spent in the war. We had hard fighting all day, and two men out of our platoon, Pvt. Gawlick and Sgt. Hinck, were killed. Hinck was a native-born German, whose parents had immigrated to the United States years before the war started. He was killed within 10 miles of the village where he was born.
This was also the day my friend John Allen was hurt. He had the same position in Sgt. Hinck’s jeep that I occupied in our jeep. When the shooting started, the driver of their jeep swerved as Sgt. Hinck was hit, and the sudden motion threw John out of the jeep into a ditch. He banged up a knee pretty bad and was in hospital for some time. He rejoined us before the war was over, but the injury plagues him to this day.
We got strafed by German planes that day too. It was the first time I had ever seen a jet. It went over so fast that it was gone before any of us could react, but I fired my machine gun at it over a surprised Sgt. Giza’s head anyway. Of course I had no chance of hitting the thing.
Occasionally we saw our own planes strafing the retreating Germans ahead of us. When we advanced, there would be dead horses and cows and soldiers and wrecked vehicles along the road for miles.
We were in convoy one day. when a German ME109 passed over our heads, so low that we could see the pilot clearly. He circled back to strafe us, and the 50-cal. machine guns on our half tracks shot him down. He crashed and burned as we watched.
Overall, I didn't have it too bad. The war was pretty far along by the time I got into it, and I guess any war your country wins and you didn’t get killed in, and live to talk about is a pretty good war – if there is such a thing. About 30 percent of my outfit was killed or wounded. Bad enough, but many other outfits had much higher casualty rates than we did.
After the war, we manned a collection point on the autobahn, where surrendering soldiers turned in their arms, vehicles, etc., before being taken to P.O.W. camps. I spent most of June and July 1945 in Heidelburg, doing road patrol, and guarding a camp for Poles and Russians who had been in forced labor camps. Over time, they were loaded in boxcars and sent east toward Poland and Russia and home. The Russians in particular were very bitter toward the Germans, and wanted their pound of flesh. Many of them were primitives, and it was difficult to keep them calm.
We were sent to Camp 20 Grand near LeHavre about the August 1, 1945. The army took up all of our equipment, which we never saw again. We assumed that we were heading to Japan, to help bring that theater of operations to a close. Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered after the atomic bombs were dropped.
We left France on August 15. We sailed home a good deal less comfortably than we came over, since our conveyance was not the Queen Mary, but a slower, small vessel known as a Victory ship. Ours was named the S.S. John Morehead, and I was seasick all the way home.
We landed in New York harbor on August 26 and were shipped to Camp Kilmer New Jersey. I never have forgotten the big steak dinner they fed us. The first food I’d enjoyed for about a week.
I didn't have enough points based on battle stars and time in service to get out of the Army directly. I was, however, given a 45 delay in route on my way to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which I spent with my family at home.
When I arrived at Fort Campbell, the 116th was being deactivated. I was assigned to the 86th Chemical Mortar Battalion, where I eventually gained the rank of sergeant and was a squad leader. I played on the Battalion basketball team, where we won the camp championship and were runners-up in the 2nd Army tournament.
When I received sufficient points, I was sent to Fort George Meade, and on June 26,1946, was officially discharged.