I was a member of K Company – 345th Regiment. I was in the Communications Section of Company Headquarters, carrying the SCR536 Handy Talky, relaying and receiving messages to and from the platoon leaders or carrying the SCR300, communicating with Battalion Headquarters. What follows are my experiences during this time. It may be totally different from the experiences of other surviving members of my company. You are generally only aware of what is happening in a radius of 100 feet or so. Some incidents I can remember as part of a chain of events. Other incidents are isolated and I can’t put them in context. I will try to contribute more as time and memory permit.
CROSSING THE RHINE
After several days of what passed for R&R (Rest & Recreation) in Koblenz, we loaded up and climbed on trucks in the late afternoon of March 24 and moved upstream on the west side of the Rhine to the small town of Boppard. We began to cautiously filter down through the moonlit streets toward the shingled beach.
The enemy had mounted 20mm guns on the heights across the river. We stayed in the dark shadows. Any movement into the brightly lit streets brought immediate fire from the 20mm guns. A reporter scurried from shadow to shadow looking for any soldier from Maine. Disappointed, he left. Colonel Woodside ambled in. We asked him to please keep to the shadows so he would not draw fire.
Around midnight, we climbed into small metal boats. With no explanation, engineers handed paddles to men with no training in how to use them. We set out to cross the river in bright moonlight. I was resigned. Nothing could be done. We were on the river without cover or concealment.
Nothing happened. We were not fired on. Apparently the 20mm guns could not be depressed enough to fire on our boats. We landed in some confusion, separated by current and timing. An embankment gave us cover. Firing from the town of Camp, our objective, made it dangerous to get on the road. I briefly found myself with men from I Co. They were moving on the heights above the town looking for the 20mm guns. I left them and went down to Camp, which by now was almost under our control. I saw one dead G.I. lying on his side, his face covered with a film of dust. I didn’t recognize him. I looked away. Dead Germans didn’t bother me. I never wanted to look at our own men.
Once the Division broke out from the Rhine crossing, we made rapid progress by truck, tank and on foot, overcoming light resistance from a retreating enemy.
In the vicinity of Ohrdruf in the Thuringer Wald, we met our first determined resistance. Hitler Jugend blocked the forest road. A fire fight began. A German officer under a white flag walked up the road and offered to surrender. Lt. McSpaden, our Company commander, and the German climbed on a Sherman tank to advance down the road and take the surrender. They were both shot and killed. We lost the best commander we ever had.
The Hitler Jugend opened fire again. They might have overrun us, but they charged two or three at a time and were cut down. Company Headquarters was about 30 yards behind the line. We sat down with our backs to the trees away from the fighting. We had protection from stray bullets and were warmed by the morning sun. As we opened our K ration boxes, Lt. Col. Woodside came up and ordered us to police the area and pick up our empty K ration boxes. We looked at each other, got up and started policing. As soon as he disappeared, we sat down. The Hitler youth were either killed, captured or ran away.
On April 12, as we marched on either side of the road at our five-yard interval, word was passed down the lines. President Roosevelt had died. There was no immediate reaction or dismay. It was just something else that had happened, which didn’t affect us. About this time, I developed a slight sensation – not a conscious thought, but a feeling I could be shot between the eyes. It occurred every time we were on the march or advancing. I knew what it was. It was the constant anticipation that something unanticipated could happen at any moment. Combat is all about uncertainty, combined with confusion and then sudden confrontation with enemy artillery, mortars, machine guns, rifle fire, snipers, tanks and mines. The feeling lasted until the end of the war.
A concentration camp at Ohrdruf was discovered by other elements of the 87th Division. Prisoners were in the same dying and emaciated condition as in other camps.
In the final drive from the Thuringer Wald to Plauen on the Czech border, we alternately rode or walked through small towns and villages. In one such place, PFC Milton Rein and I were told to check out a small hospital for German soldiers either in hiding or walking wounded. It was pointed out to us some half-mile distant. We set out – a two-man patrol looking for the enemy. Arriving at the small brick hospital building, we picked up two German soldiers unarmed and ready to surrender.
Rein and I elected to return through a valley, which we figured would return us to the town. We came upon one small farm after another. I would climb the ladder to the hayloft of the barn and shout “Komenzee out” followed by “Hander hoch.” We didn’t pick up any more prisoners, but at each farm one or two DPs (Displaced Persons) joined us. They were slave laborers from France and perhaps Poland, who were brought in to work the farms.
The only shot was fired and it was by me. We found a dog, one side exposed to its ribs, either from shell fire or a vehicle. I put it out of its pain. We became a single file of prisoners and DPs. I led and Rein brought up the rear of a column of 12 or so, men and women talking in three or more languages.
As we reached the town square, a dilemma was apparent. What to do next? Our Army trucks were rolling through. We didn’t know how far ahead K Company was. There were no MPs to whom we could turn in the prisoners. I motioned everyone to sit down on the steps of some monument. Then I said in English, pointing to the DPS, “You watch them” and pointed in turn to the prisoners.
Then Rein and I jumped on passing trucks. I lost track of Rein. After many miles, my truck stopped. I hadn’t caught up to K Company. Then I found a tank going to our battalion. Before I could climb on, I was handed a German prisoner to deliver to the MPs up ahead. We straddled the 75mm cannon. The German produced a bottle of schnapps, which we shared while I held onto his coat collar, so he wouldn’t fall off.
After dark, we rumbled into the Third Battalion area. I found an MP and turned over my prisoner. After much searching and questioning I found K Company Headquarters. They were in a big house. The door was open and Lt. Giglevitch was playing on the piano “I found a million dollar baby in a five-and-ten-cent store.” It was apparently the only tune he knew. He played it over and over. After eating some C rations, I went upstairs and climbed into a bed with a goose down comforter.
So we moved on and gained an autobahn. Now we were rolling toward Plauen, going east passing orderly columns four-to-eight abreast of surrendering German soldiers moving west. In Plauen, we saw a city of 100,000 in ruin — our transport weaving through streets choked with rubble. As I rode in the back of a jeep, a liberated British Red Devil paratrooper, captured at Arnhem, trotted alongside and thrust a handful of German medals and ribbons into my hand. “Thanks, Yank,” he said and trotted away.
It was late April. Everyone sensed the end was approaching. We were within a few miles of Czechoslovakia and were told to wait for the advancing Russians. On May 8, several of us gathered around a large aluminum container borrowed from the company kitchen. We were peeling and slicing potatoes on our own, preparing for a feast of fried potatoes, when we got word to go on patrol to the east. We were to go forward to encounter any Germans who might be between us and the Russians. We looked at each other. Who wants to be killed when the war is almost over? We reluctantly shouldered our weapons and set off. Fifty yards down the road, a messenger called us back. It was V-E Day. We went back to peeling potatoes.