Our Division the First to Cross into Germany
Maginot Line to the Rhine
One day when we had overrun enemy positions, in Alsace now, Harold John Howell, my best buddy, my "foxhole" buddy, and I came across a foxhole almost hidden in the snow. We were approaching the Maginot Line, where the Germans had set up no MLD (main line of defense). The French had constructed it with all guns facing east, a useless line when outflanked by Hitler's treacherous Blitzkrieg through Belgium.
Photo of 103rd Division troops at the Maginot Line.
The only photo our inexcusably negligent photographers took of the Siegfried Line is of the Division Band (Can you believe it?) celebrating atop an atypical bunker after the action was over.... The Siegfried Line, so named by Hitler himself, stretched from the border of Switzerland up to Belgium. It had "dragon tooth" defenses against tanks at any point where they might be able to attack plus bunkers close enough together to cover any necessary field of fire.
Infantrymen of the 90th U.S. Division, demolish part of the dragon's teeth of the siegfried line in Habscheid, Germany
as they move to the front. Most of the barriers were made of reinforxed concrete, but had little effect on the forward
march of american troops. TNT and new tank guns were able to clear the way without great difficulty.
I haven't been able to find a photo typical of what we encountered. To the best of my recollection, I was sprinting on concrete, not dirt, through a long, imposing concrete construction enclosed with concrete overhead and on each side. Sorry, guys! Adrenaline was pumping with such pressure it wouldn't let me slow down or stop for a proper look around.
Don't know what there might have been there other than that concrete corridor. Nowhere to take cover. At each end, a tree, a rock, a bush, a feature of the terrain. Inside, nothing. A mite scary you might suppose. We automatically resorted to speed and zigzagging as our only recourse. We all made it. The Line breached, the enemy was scrambling east.
The band! Who knew we even had one? Were they back behind the front tootling on horns and pounding on drums to fire us up, encourage us and urge us on? If that doesn't beat the band!... But let's not beat them too severely. I probably would have sought a spot on the band myself, if I'd had the requisite talent and skill.
I was Harold's best man in Gainesville, where Harold was married not long before we boarded trains for Camp Shanks, New Jersey, and embarked for Europe. Though a Quaker (a member of the Society of Friends), Harold had not asked for deferment as a pacifist. He wanted to do his part. Quakers are such wonderful people. But they occasionally can lose their tempers and patience.
Have you seen The Friendly Persuasion, based on Jessamyn West's novel, starring Gary Cooper? Remember how the wife and mother (Dorothy McGuire) cheerfully fed the Confederate troops and fully lived up to her principles until a Reb started after her pet goose with roast goose in his eyes? That cooked his goose! She took after him with a broom.
After the war was over and children came along, the Howell's first child was given the name John Wendell Howell. The Hall's first child was named John Wendell Hall. (Harold's full name was John Harold Howell.) Would Harold have risked his life to save mine? Yup. Would I have done the same for him? Yup. Yet, after some 60 years, I'm still shouldering the guilt of something that happened way back in basic training.
We were engaged in some kind of hand-to-hand going at each other as a company and Colonel Donovan P. Yuell, our regimental commander, as was not uncommon, was there with his riding crop dutifully flicking his highly shined boots as he observed and critiqued our performance. Harold was my immediate opponent. At one point I instinctively shot my knee up, a totally reflex action to ward off hurt to me (my complex conscience instantly assured me) and caught him in the groin.
Yikes! My best friend! I still flinch remembering the look and the rebuke he gave me. I've since reflected that in true friendship we must not only be prepared to lay down our life for another but be strong, restrained, and stoic enough to overcome our natural instincts and impulses for another's good.
The hole in the ground was the best foxhole seen by soldier eyes. It was deep, had shelves dug into the dirt inside, was commodious by any foxhole standard and covered with logs and dirt on top. How it was dug still mystifies me. Of course fear of booby traps made us very cautious, but finding nothing suspicious, we liberated it. All the talk you hear about foxholes.... Try digging one in frozen ground with a little folding shovel. Dynamite would work if you could get some.
That morning the German field artillery wake-up serenade had already started up and I had to complete my matinal ritual in a santiamÃ©n! (a holy amen). You couldn't have set your watch by German punctuality that morning! No doubt the trains were no longer running on time in Germany with Nationalsozialistische (Nazi) precision and everything was going to pot.
Harold and I darted for the foxhole. Blocking the entrance in a wild effort to scramble into it was a shrieking second lieutenant from another outfit whom we'd never seen before. He had been hit by shrapnel. As shells whistled overhead, some exploding nearby, Harold and I turned him over flat on the trampled snow and checked out the back of his heavy fur-lined jacket. It had a jagged hole in it, alright. Harold took out his trench knife and started slashing away. An emergency. No time to waste. A beautiful jacket. A shame.
Harold cut through three or four layers. Just before encountering flesh, he discovered a jagged chunk of shrapnel about the size of a large kernel of half-popped popcorn. No blood. The lieutenant hadn't even been scratched. Ah, man.... War is hell! Harold and I had only one night in the luxurious hole before moving.... back! The first and only time we retreated.
A glorious retreat. Hard to estimate how far we back-pedalled, but we stopped at a little French town (Civilization!) where we spent the night. Ah, that was so wonderful. We each accommodated ourselves the best we could in whatever shelter we could find. I myself curled up on the floor of a saloon (a bistro?) and had the most comfortable, comforting sleep in a long time. Ah, sleep, gentle sleep, that knits up the raveled sleeve of once-intact pride after an unheroic retreat.... Surviving, however, to fight onward, ever onward, the following day.... and days. Hold on there! You must pardon my phraseology! That was a brilliant strategic withdrawal, not a retreat.
The Little Battle of the Bulge (a salient projecting out dangerously far) had just begun. The first evidence of it: a Sherman tank that had passed us only moments before suddenly came roaring back in full retreat. With no preamble or explanation, obeying radioed orders, Corporal Wyborny all at once shouted out, "Let's get out of here!" We got out of there at full speed to avoid being cut off by a pincer movement. As it turned out, this was a German feint to the south to deceive troops engaged soon afterward in the vicinity of Bastogne, Belgium in the big or real Battle of the Bulge, where defiant General Anthony W. McAuliffe uttered his famous response to a demand to surrender. "Nuts!"
A few weeks later, our platoon and other troops were loaded up and trucked to Strasbourg, the newly liberated capital of Alsace. We had no idea what was going on. As usual. Troops not at the front (nine out of every ten men) received The Stars and Stripes, in which a certain amount of news and Bill Mauldin's famous "Up Front" cartoons were available to non-combatants, not depicted by Bill. Dogfaces up front knew nothing. With scant supplies of toilet paper sometimes running out, we'd have been glad to have a copy of The Stars and Stripes to wipe our behinds with. Of course for that, most of the time, we had snow.
The troops were arranged in order and marched up to a platform to present arms as Anthony W. McAuliffe took over as the new commanding general of the 103rd Infantry Division. Only much later, on learning of the other Battle of the Bulge, did we realize what a great honor this was for us.... and for McAuliffe. See? All that parading around in basic training served a purpose after all. I wish I had a photo of that. To any drill sergeant's eye, Infantry or Marine, the troops would have looked way beyond bedraggled. Hey, it was great. We were worn out but alive and away from the front!
Footnote: Relevant World War II reports and tales told at 103rd Infantry Division reunions categorically confirm our division's participation in the Battle of the Bulge. But what did we ever know in combat? No maps, no newspapers, no radio newscasts, no TV (not invented yet). Sometime, somewhere, I heard or read about a Little Battle of the Bulge but will willingly accept involvement in the big or real one as a fact. Our unanticipated escape indubitably muddled up the enemy's precise, pre-calculated moves on the checkerboard of battle. Yeah.... Sure.... A division is composed of regiments, batallions, companies, platoons, squads. A glimpse at one squad's action, however notable and historic, is but a small part of the big story.
Alsace-Lorraine.... that unfortunate area bordering the Rhine which has passed back and forth so many times between Germany and France that the inhabitants must feel like pawns in the grip of forces beyond their control on chess squares coveted for their strategic importance and the immense value accrued from the inhabitants' talents and labor. They are bilingual in German and French and have great traditions and customs. During a momentary break in the fighting, our squad found itself in a small Alsatian village. Reconnoitering through the rubble-jumbled streets, we encountered a friendly looking blacksmith standing before his smithy.
Lou Lifson, from Minneapolis, one of the four best buddies (five, including myself) was fluent in several languages, including Yiddish (from German JÃ¼ddisch, Jewish). In German, /j/ is pronounced like English /y/. It is basically German, with additions from Hebrew and other languages and usually written in Hebrew characters, right to left. Lou struck up a conversation with the blacksmith and found that his son, a soldier in the Wehrmacht, had just passed by in full retreat a few hours earlier. The uncertain course of war, in this instance, the fortunes of war, brought us back to the village a few days later. We eagerly looked up our friend. By the blacksmith's side was a nervous young guy just our age who could have been one of us. In civilian clothes. Our orders were to turn all German deserters in for confinement in prisoner of war camps. No way could we do that!
One more of the many follow-up wishes that have nagged me long afterward. The wish to know what happened eventually to the young man. Did he find happiness? A wife, a home, children? Amidst so much destruction (his father's smithy escaped it), how did the people manage to rebuild? No doubt about one thing. Though they cherished Germanic aspects of their culture, very high culture indeed, in many fields, they undoubtedly were overjoyed to escape from Nazi Germany and become part of France again.
At Christmas time in Alsace, we found ourselves in a small deserted town atop a bluff overlooking a wide valley. Freezing cold. Somebody found a sled and we took turns warming up a little as we swished down the only street on it and then carried it back up the slope again. Thanks, little girl or boy whose sled it was, for giving us that rejuvenating respite from the rigors of adults' war! We juvenile semi-adults, most of us just barely or not yet old enough to vote (eligible at age 21 back then), left it in good shape.
The only picture in the whole 103rd Infantry Division history of combat conditions in the snow!
Of our brother 410th Infantry Regiment, not our 411th. We never had camouflage. Did these guys liberate some sheets? We learned later that it was the coldest winter since the turn of the century. We didn't need convincing. Where were all those brave photographers? Inside somewhere toasting their toes? These Signal Company guys are repairing phone lines. At our 103rd Infantry Division Reunion near Chicago, Sept. 7-9, 2004, a Signal Company buddy told me that they were always repairing phone lines torn up by our tanks. Radio communication was possible but apparently not considered very secure.
It was there that we saw Captain Sunbake right up front at the front for the first time. Colonel Donovan P. Yuell (with a name like that, he should have been the commanding general) wanted to inspect the front at our position so the captain had to come too. Yuell came right where our squad was and entered an abandoned house where I happened to be at that moment. I was right at Yuell's side as he looked out over the wide valley toward the distant enemy. A right guy, I concluded. Smelled of the sweat of a man, even in that cold. The man was an active man, always in motion. At the front without his riding crop.... I missed that.
It miffed me that Colonel Yuell failed to hand along his binoculars to me for a look-see so I could also survey the situation and co-cogitate with him our next move against the Boches (pronounced bosh, with o as in ocean, a French term derived from tÃªte de caboche, cabbage or kraut head, an etymology which I could only speculate about at the time since I'd had only high school Spanish back then and you could ask for a better clue from a brother... er... sister... Romance Language to boche than Spanish repollo or col, as in coleslaw, though col comes from Dutch kool.) As you know, the Low Countries were part of the Spanish empire under Carlos V and Felipe II.
Somewhere out there beyond the range of my government issue wire-framed eyeglasses the Boches no doubt were preparing to shell the hel- out of us if they had been aware of our whereabouts and what one of us, at least, or you could say two of us, was or were cogitating. "What was I doing there?" you might very well ask. Well, first of all, I got to that house first... the unforeseeable consequences of war, hard at work as usual, seeing to it in this instance that I would have the sense to combat frostbite by coming upon and entering into that house. How was I to know that the colonel would come driving up (that is driven up by his fearless driver) right up to the very front of the front?
Colonel Donovan P. Yuell was a courageous son of a whatever aspersion the troops were casting on their own sex back then. (Have you ever been hit in the gut by the loathsome, sickening, root implications of "son of a bitch"? In any event, never, never, never utter such a horrible thing!)
We were in Bobenthal after crossing the line. This is where Sexton earned his Bronze Star.
No one would expect to see any other colonel or even a general right up there. A fact. Inasmuch as it was cold as bloody blue blazes, if I'd known the colonel was coming, I'd 've had a fire burning to give him a warm reception.... except that at the first sign of smoke the Boche 88s, the most accurate and feared artillery of the war (I keep repeating that), would 've given him a really warm one, blowing the house and us to bits of thither and yon.
The second time we saw the captain, we were heading up to the not at all distant front when we were suddenly strafed by Messerschmidts. We dove for the lowest ground around at the edge of the dirt road. Suddenly, the roar of a jeep..... The captain, heading the wrong way. "Got to report this to the colonel.... Got to report...." with a wailing sound produced in part, one could charitably suggest, by the doppler effect at that speed. One of the guys by me rose up enough to holler in his loudest voice. "USE YOUR RADIO!" A racing jeep would be a far more inviting target than lumps at the roadside. Ever try outrunning a Messerschmidt? Don't. Just drop to the ground alive or else you'll drop dead. Comforting thought: You might be dead before you hit the ground in either case.
The captain of Cannon Company, it was reported about the same time, had taken refuge in the cellar of a shelled-out house with only the floor above partially intact and wouldn't come out. Poor shell-shocked guy! He was passing his excrement up in a helmet, afraid to climb out and expose his bare buttocks to merciless shellfire. A sad fact of life: Some things, there's no way out of doing them ourselves. Not even an emperor can have someone else "go potty" for him.... A comforting fact to the downtrodden and oppressed. Here's another fact of life, its certainty bolstered by a crude, frequently snorted out G.I. expression: Top dogs like emperors and certain officers think their S-word doesn't stink.
But there was Abby. First Lieutenant "Abby" Abendroth. A high school teacher before the war. Solid as a rock.... Rough hewn, smooth-limned granite. A real man's man. Strong. Virtuous. A word he wouldn't flinch from. He embodied it. Everybody could see it. He didn't parade it. Didn't have to. A man of few words. A few words did it with a man like that.
Our platoon's second lieutenant, nicknamed "School Boy," got fairly good grades from us. At least he had the continuing good sense to inquire of Sgt. Coulter, "What'll we do now, Sandy?"
A horrendous turn of events in one sense for us, but a sure sign that the war was ending, was when corpses of soldiers too young to shave were found among the dead. Hitler was sending young boys and old fathers to die. Another horrible spectacle was horses' corpses. The German war machine was literally running out of gas. No motor transport.
When I zigzagged through a fortification in the Siegfried Line, knees and adrenaline pumping all-out, bullets zinging past, my buddies and I arrived on the other side to be shocked by an incredibly ghastly sight. Dead horses, smashed wagons, wreckage everywhere. The enemy totally dispersed.
Somewhat like described after the B-17 bombing of the Siegfried Line, but without lots of dead horses.
Corporal Stanley Ashburn, from Tennessee, an irrepressible joker, caught and mounted one of the surviving horses and rode it down to a castle on the not too distant Rhine. A fabled castle on the Rhine.... From which some of the troops looted random treasures. I might have remonstrated but.... already un fait accompli. Ashburn came out with a knight's helmet and a lance. He mounted the horse and went whooping around like a 10-year-old. We all felt equally exhilarated, having come so far alive. Finally tiring of his once-in-a-lifetime game, Ashburn just threw the priceless relics to the ground.
I won't pretend to be holier than they. I strive to be a worthy Christian but fall short. We will be judged according to our lights and I had received great light. As Mark Twain said, I will quote it again, Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example." The truth of this hurts, but should never deter anyone from doing what's right. I wouldn't have been able to put up with myself had I followed their example. I was excited to look at, not carry off, some invaluable artifacts. Twain meant this half ironically, of course. Good examples aren't sissies, little goody two shoes. Targets so often of derision, they have to be strong and struggle hard. They have to put up with a lot.
B-17 Flying Fortresses had bombed the Siegfried Line immediately before the infantry assault. Shortly before that, our platoon was as close to ground as we could get as a self-propelled 155mm howitzer mounted on a modified Sherman tank blasted away at a seemingly impregnable bunker. "Oh, no!" we groaned to ourselves. We knew what would happen next. It did. After firing a predetermined number of rounds, the howitzer clanked away at full speed. Who was still there to take the return fire? A sixty-four dollar question. You get three guesses.
When, a few minutes later, the Flying Fortresses appeared.... What an awesome sight!.... My buddies and I could have stood up and cheered. An unsafe procedure. We cheered wildly in our hearts. Without the U.S. Army Air Corps, I felt we would never have made it past those fortifications.
In retrospect, I deeply regret that in the euphoria of another battle won, our squad took no advantage of the opportunity to clamber up to the top of the Siegfried bunker and raise the flag. Every squad, naturally, despite the inconvenience, carried around a large American flag to heroically raise just in case a great photo op presented itself. Oh, well, we were only infantrymen. Let's hear it for the five or six Marines and the Navy medic who raised the flag at Iwo Jima! A courageously, bloodily won symbolic opportunity. Just our dogface platoon's luck, though! It would have availed us nothing. Not a single fearless photographer ever tagged along to click shots of us in action. Sometimes some were right up front though, no doubt.
Wasn't that a truly momentous event in the war when we fought our way past the Siegfried Line? The U.S. Army PR men could have arranged for Harold and me (No! Make that Marvin, Lou and Paul, soon to help liberate fellow Jews from the horrific concentration camps at Landsberg) to clamber up to the top of that bunker and plant a flag opportunely provided by them for the whole wide world to photographically see! Sure, we all admire the Marines. A brother-in-law of mine fought at Iwo Jima, where he was severely wounded in the leg. Surprising, though, eh? Us Dogfaces took the enemy in Europe without any assistance from them publicity-agglomerating Grunts!
There was no separate Air Force then. There was an Army Air Corps, so the pilots and crews could ironically sing along with the rest of the troops, "Oh, the Army made a man out of me, a man out of me, a man out of me. Oh, the Army made a man out of me, A MAN OUT OF ME!" The infantry troops likewise liked to sing, "Oh, it's whisky, whisky, whisky that makes us feel so frisky, in the corps, in the corps! Oh, it's whisky, whisky, whisky that makes us feel so frisky IN THE UNITED STATES AIR CORPS! My eyes are dim, I cannot see, I have not got my specs with me, I HAVE NOT GOT MY SPECS WITH ME!"
It was B-17 bombs that had cruelly destroyed the faithful, innocent horses.
About this time we crossed the German border. No WELCOME SIGN and I don't know exactly where. My brother Donald, in England, saved a newspaper clipping for me which indicated that our division was the first to cross over. Our division history also has a photo commemorating the event.
On Gen. Patch's Seventh army front the American 103rd Division, which was the first to cross the German frontier in December has repeated the exploit west of Wissembourg. Men of the same battalion have again made the first crossing in the present advance.
Look closely near the point of the second arrow up on the left and you will see that our company advanced into Germany near the town of Sankt Wendel (Saint Wendell). Years later, checking out the saint's impressive hagiography, it crossed my mind that my dear parents Howard and Florence nailed it when they gave their little new-born boy this auspicious, oracular, though somewhat wimpy name.
Names are important and can exert an influence on our progress in life. There are those who, moving up economically and socially, move their name up too. A family I knew named Bunnell, moved on up and became the Bunnells. A choice part of my childhood was spent in Marriott, Utahâ€”pronounced Meryut. With fame and fortune, they have become the "Merryoughts." Hey, when I move up, I intend to replace Wendell with Wendell. Wo ho! Saintly and classy!.
In World War II, movie stars and other celebrities volunteered to entertain the troops in all theaters of operation. Bob Hope's appearances are well known and applauded. The dogfaces at the front were not entertained. The entertainers were kept well out of danger (though Marlene Dietrich got close enough to the front, I later learned, to come under shellfire). I didn't know about these fine supportive gestures until I received my copy of Report After Action, the Story of the 103D Infantry Division after the war. On page 112 is a photo of Marlene, her skirt hitched up enough to show a shapely leg and a garter with the Cactus patch on it.
Mention is made that Marlene always sang Lili Marleen (obligatorily) as part of her act. This German song, so popular with both Axis and Allied troops, didn't always make its way to the front, at least not to "Rugged" and his buddies. It was only in my first German class after the war that I learned to love it. I didn't know exactly what a "Kaserne" was like until arriving in Vienna to study at the University of Vienna. The large quadrangular multiple-story building constructed of stone and enclosing a training area/parade ground, with other urban structures tight up against it, was a novelty to me. Such a contrast with the rows of wooden barracks in the U.S. I walked past the Kaserne frequently and found myself spontaneously humming or singing:
From the castle on the Rhine we immediately advanced northward toward Ludwigshafen to a point where the Army Engineers had spanned the river with a pontoon bridge.
Terrible destruction in Ludwigshafen from bombing and shelling
Across the Rhine River in Mannheim the scene was similar, though to my sure knowledge at least the factory and the apartment complex mentioned later on escaped. My heart almost burst with sorrow for the German people and for our common humanity that such things could be possible. James Carroll, whose father was a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Army Air Force during and after World War II, has written the following in his Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, pp. 258-259:
Allied air bombardment killed 600,000 Germans during World War II, almost all of them civilians, and the majority in the last months of the war when the Nazi machine was all but defeated. In one city, Dresden, with more than 100,000 killed, there were not enough survivors to bury the dead.... When the Germans had first targeted cities early in the war, especially Coventry and Rotterdam, Franklin Roosevelt denounced an "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity." But near war's end, the Allied conscience had changed. The commander in chief of the British Bomber Command said, "I would not regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British grenadier." Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Essen, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, DÃ¼sseldorf, all were "bombed to rubble."When I arrived in Vienna in 1952 to study at the University of Vienna, I was dismayed to see the glorious Oper (Opera House) in ruins. Bombers flying up from Italy had demolished it in the final days of the war. It was totally obvious to everyone (especially to those of us who were approaching Innsbruck at that time) that the war was over. What a gratuitous, criminal attack on Austria and its highly cultured people! Where, oh where, was our vaunted moral superiority?