Jostling rifles and carbines, some with hand grenades dangling from field jackets or overcoats, the helmeted and unshaven troopers advanced slowly in a seemingly static line.
It took time to get paid in the local currency, and, as they received their paper bills and coins, they acted doubtful as to what happens next with those oddly-colored foreign notes and coins.
This curious event actually took place on Jan. 5, 1945, at the peak of the Battle of the Bulge. Only one day before, enemy shrapnel and machinegun fire had raked many of these young infantrymen counterattcking not far from the Bloody Crossroads near Ochamps, Belgium.
Many were wounded; some in our company and other companies in the First Battalion, 345th Infantry, had died. In our company alone a dozen were captured.
Yet in a handwritten log that day, I noted that as mail clerk, I had collected the equivalent of $9,500 in Belgian francs, and, with a first lieutenant standing beside me, paid those soldiers in the local currency!
Apparently this curious event represented the Army’s way, no matter the misery and danger swirling around, of rewarding Depression-era infantrymen. No matter the situation, such payments apparently were intended to demonstrate that their country remembered and rewarded those who performed faithfully. Added to combat pay, a sliding payment based on rank, this was intended to be, along with medals, a demonstration of their nation’s supreme gratitude.
During our five-month war in Europe, this exercise in group psychology took place at unpredictable intervals in several European nations under sometimes amazingly-hazardous conditions. In a handwritten log I kept on my person, I noted the inauspicious arrival of those payments accompanied by written translations of the exchange rates into American currency.
It was clear, however, that those payments in French or Belgian francs, and later German marks, weren’t intended to remain in the serviceman’s hands for long. Each infantryman would count and inspect the bills and coins curiously, count them again, then convert them into American denominations, and immediately dispatch the American equivalent home as money orders.
It’s hard to determine now, 59 years after these events, what other military units were paid and whether entire battalions or regiments were paid at the same time. In order to rest fighting units, the Army sometimes took advantage of battlefield lulls to briefly designate companies, battalions, or regiments as “reserves” — sometimes to offer relief from punishing warfare and, apparently, to produce such payday rituals.
But there certainly was no lull on Jan. 5, 1945, when I noted the transmittal home of almost ten thousand dollars in Belgian francs. And looking back, from several viewpoints this chaotic and brutal period may have been among the least propitious times to leave our foxholes amid such critical matters as cleaning weapons, organizing Tiger patrols or preparing the next day’s attack.
For what could an infantryman holed up in a foxhole, whose entire personal inventory comprised a couple of weapons, a K-ration, and a pack of cigarettes, do with Belgian or Luxembourg (French) francs? The military was well aware there was no way to buy anything — no place to spend money.
On this score, I’ve been asked: Were the Hollywood scenes played by John Wayne accurate in depicting GIs meeting local girls? Sure, and we laid down our weapons to scatter fresh roses at their feet too!
During training days, I recall monthly paydays arriving fairly regularly, often being greeted with ironic remarks (“the eagle shits” or “$21 a day once a month”). At the time, the kidding seemed to lighten the sparse pay.
But at the front? It was a mystery to me then and remains one now.