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War Stories: At the Front

Since we put the Veterans window in at Rossi Hardware’s display window on Armistice Day and, apparently because of the impact of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” I have had a number of people say I should write an article on what it’s like to be a combat infantryman.

First of all, if you have a choice, take the North Pole. The infantry is only 10% of the Army. But it sustains 70% of the casualties, and a good part of an infantry company are cooks, supply people, motor pool drivers, office personnel, the general, and other high officers who do not actually go to the front during combat making those figures more startling. Taking nothing away from other combat service people (tankers, flyers, medics, etc.), it is only the infantry that lives in the mud, snow and heat. When one sees a fierce battle like when they stormed Normandy Beach, you have to realize that the battle goes on only for a short time. The amount of shrapnel and ammunition flying around is unbelievable, and if it went on very long there would be nobody left on either side. But when you’re on the front or near the front you never know when artillery or gunfire will come at you.

All the training on how to hit the ground is wasted. It’s automatic. It isn’t at the first artillery shell that one hits the ground and looks for some sort of low spot — it doesn’t send a telegram that it was coming. It’s the ones that follow. And if you are in trees you hope it doesn’t burst in a tree sending wooden shrapnel down on you.

Then there was the cold. Think of the coldest night of the year, when you are going from your warm car to your warm house. Instead, you are going to dig a hole in the ground. Enough to get you and your partner below the surface (a fox hole). Once in a while you have to use a small charge of dynamite to break the frozen ground. You have five or six layers of clothes on but no blankets or sleeping bag. They’re on the half-track ten miles back. Armored infantry moves fast and light. Your hands with gloves on could be kept next to your body, but your feet, with only regular boots, would freeze. About March or April the Army finally issues what they called snow packs, when they were no longer needed.

Enough of the merry stuff. I have to tell how Lyle Guyer, a coupla privates and I captured thousands of German soldiers unassisted.

Armored infantry have about 13 men to a half-track (a truck with tracks on the back instead of tires). These halftracks stay about ten miles back at the front. But when a breakthrough occurs they pick up their infantrymen and dash to surround the enemy soldiers, or towns, etc. The Germans called them panzer units.

Toward the last days of the war we were ordered to make a dash to the Danish border. Since the European high command this time did not confide in two privates, I have to speculate that we were sent to secure areas that had been agreed upon — which was American territory and which was Russian territory. I don’t think we really trusted the Russians.

Our Sergeant put the two of us and our machine gun on this road and left, telling us nothing, mainly because I don’t think he knew anything (a very common circumstance in the Army). Apparently our company was stationed over a large area. Maybe half a day went by when down the road coming toward us were German soldiers as far as the eye could see. To this day I can remember Lyle’s words: “Holy shit! What do we do now?” It was apparent that someone was going to surrender to someone. The question was, Who?

As they got closer they saw we were American soldiers and it was the training of German soldiers that when they were going to surrender to put their rifles down, take off their helmets, and put on their gray caps. Having no idea what to do with thousands of German prisoners and since they didn’t leave us a cellular phone, we herded them into this big field. Apparently they didn’t want to be captured by the Russians. They would point back and say, “Ruskie, Ruskie.” They came all that day and far into the night.

In the morning it looked like Woodstock. The 7th Armored Division captured 117,000 German soldiers. Well thousands of those belonged to me and Lyle Guyer and I never fired a shot, which is different than the thousands of rounds I did fire in the previous four months. I don’t know if I ever hit anything, as we seldom saw much of the enemy up close. I always had a certain sympathy for the German soldiers as I figured those poor slobs didn’t want to be there any more than I did and for every shell that came at us five went back to them.

I know those German soldiers were sure happy to be captured by two 20-year old privates. Even the German officers didn’t mind taking orders from two privates. Which isn’t the general rule in the Army.

Old men make wars and young men get killed and wounded. If old men had to fight their wars, it would end wars.

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