REMEMBERING : 1944-1945 - The World war II Memoirs of David S. Smith - A Company - 116th Infantry Battalion 29th Division
By David S. Smith
Used with permission
Sometime in January of 1944, several of the boys around Mercersburg were sent to Harrisburg for physicals to see if they would make suitable clientele for Uncle Sam's Service. After I passed the physical, the Sergeant asked me which branch of the service I'd like. I said Navy. I thought that would beat walking to wherever we were going. In nothing flat, my papers were stamped Army.
On April 6, 1944, Bill Swailes, Forrest Bricker, Harold Blair, Dandridge Murdough, Bill Selser, and myself were on our way to Fort Meade, Md. for our first taste of Army life. My hair and I quickly parted company. In going through the clothing issue line, I remarked that the shoes didn't fit. I was told, "If they fit, bring them back." Some of the guys took that sort of humor pretty hard. The first night after lights out, I could hear plenty of sobbing. But the Army didn't give us much time for reminiscing.
In two more days, we were on our way, via train, to Fort McClellan, Ala. (Bill Selser remained in Fort Meade, and eventually was discharged.) The scenery on our trip was breath-taking. In Kentucky, the train would go out of one tunnel, over deep ravines, and into another tunnel. I tried to imagine how the laborers were able to build them in such inaccessible places with no roads or power equipment. Finally we arrived at Fort McClellan.
Our training was more or less on the theory You better learn. Some of the boys were serious; others, not. Every day we had exercises, rifle cleaning, field problems, K.P., guard duty. Our six-man but had to be cleaned as well as our clothes and bed, etc. No "Mom" to do it for us.
One day the K.P. Sergeant found chewing gum under one of the tables. We were informed that if any more was found, we'd be eating in the street, rain or shine. Some joker decided to test him by putting gum under the table again. Needless to say, we spent the next two weeks in the street.
After several weeks of training, we hiked 26 miles to a nearby mountain for some realistic warfare using all kinds of weapons. I was in the mortar squad. We learned how easy it is to get lost in the dark and to run out of food and water.
One day, one of our squad dropped a shell in upside down in our mortar tube. Everyone hit the ground waiting for the explosion. When our sergeant saw the problem, he yelled, "Get that damn thing out of there!" The guy that dropped it in just froze. I unlocked the mortar tube from the base, and holding it upside down caught the shell and firing pin. I dropped in another mortar which was close by, and bang, it went off, much to everyone's relief. We were getting experience.
On the last day, there was an argument between a big red-headed private and a second lieutenant. The private told the Luey to take off his uniform and they'd settle it. The Luey said, "no problem," we were supposed to rest between noon and 4 P.M. before beginning the 26 mile hike, but no one did. The fight took place in an area surrounded by pine trees. The trees were full of G.I.'s. The Luey started circling the private like a cat. After some moments of battling, the Luey got the private down and got an arm lock on him. No one challenged the lieutenant after that.
We hiked back to camp, and got in about 1 A.M., tired. After cleaning our equipment and barracks, we were ready to be sent home for about a week. I took the train to Washington, D.C., and then went by car to home. That week went fast, and then I had to report to Fort Dix, N.J.
Two days later, I was headed for the Hudson River docks to board the Queen Mary. When I got off the train, I found the engineer was Al Heeter, my wife's uncle. He was the last relative I saw when I left for overseas and the first I met coming back.
It took two 24-hour days to load the boat. About Sept. 8, 1944, we left New York for the Atlantic. The Queen went alone with no convoy. I was on garbage detail, seeing that the G.I.'s washed their mess kits, etc. I had to help get provisions and dump garbage. On one such trip, I found
myself on an elevator with Winston Churchill. He seemed like a regular Joe. His chow was better than ours -- he had his own chef.
I might add that the Queen was designed as a luxury ship. When the war started, all the good furnishings were re-moved, and it was outfitted to take 16,000 G.I.'s over and bring P.O.W.'s back. We slept on Navy hammocks. Mine was the top bunk in a clothes closet. Eating was twice a day, from 5 A.M. to 10 A.M., and from 5 P.M. to 10 P.M.
One day, I decided to explore the ship. Needless to say, I got lost. No one seemed to know how to get to the stern where I worked, but I finally made it back.
The Queen traveled a sawtooth course to foil submarines. After about four days, we arrived in Grennoch, Scotland. Everything had to be loaded into small boats as no deep water pier was available. One lieutenant was killed when he slipped and was caught between one boat loading and another moving to shore.
On the train to England, I could tell that the people were hungry. They begged food and cigarettes at the train windows. We proceeded to a place called Eden Castle where we had more training and our first taste of night bombing in the distance. After several days, we went to Southampton, crossed the English Channel, and landed at Omaha Beach, site of the D-day invasion.
There was war devastation everywhere. Only several buildings were standing in St. Lo.
Each night, we moved closer to the front. No lights allowed. When we arrived at our last staging area, we got ready to take over the front lines from another company. We were about one mile from the front, getting ready to eat our last cooked breakfast, when the Germans opened up with mortars and artillery and set our kitchen tent on fire.
The next day, Oct. 13, 1944, we were told to get our equipment ready to take over another company's place at 2 A.M. When morning came, we were ready to fight for the objective of getting the Germans out of a beet field. By the end of that first day, our 12-man squad was down to ten. That was the last day we would ever have 12 men in our squad.
Every night we had to dig fox holes in hard ground. Food and ammo had to be replenished at night. If the shelling was bad, our company service trucks would not come closer than about a mile. We'd have to go back and carry the supplies up. Some nights we got hardly any sleep. We had patrols every night to scout the area for the next day, so our Luey could plan strategy. Sometimes we'd get a prisoner or so.
On the last day of November, our Luey said, "We got a problem. The house and barn combination at the Rur River needs taken so we can cross. Two previous attempts to take it have failed. So tomorrow our squad is elected to do the job."
That evening the jerries sent up some flares just after dark to see if we were advancing. I told my buddy to cover me. I wanted to get a flare parachute as a souvenir. He said, "You're crazy." Anyway, I managed to get two, and gave them to our service company clerk to send home. (They did arrive home, which was real unusual. After I got home, I learned that Ron and Paul had played by dropping them out the upstairs window.)
Three A.M. found us heading for our target. Three squads were to make a try for that house and barn. Our eight men and one from each of the other squads were to make a head-on attack, and if we succeeded, the other two squads were to help. About 20 yards from the house, we saw a machine gun emplacement. The Germans were just changing shifts. We managed to capture two, but the other two got away and alerted the rest of their company in the barn and house.
All hell broke loose. With our two captives, we made it to the barn. We were unable to get the Germans out of the house, and they couldn't get us out of the barn. Our sergeant, myself, and one other G.I. managed to move to the cow barn. We could fire directly into the house from there.
After several hours of see-saw fighting, we settled down to plan our strategy. My rifle wasn't working right, so I went upstairs to clean it. After I got it working, I looked through a hole in the cow barn roof, and noticed another machine gun to my front. I managed to get one German; the other one either hid in the beet pile around the gun or he may have been wounded. About the same time, I saw a company of Germans proceeding toward us, making an arc column and coming in back of the house. It wasn't long after they got in the house that they began throwing bazookas and rifle fire on us. Two Germans managed to slip into our cow barn, but a hand grenade ended their feat.
About this time, the main barn caught on fire. Our boys couldn't get outside as a machine gun was covering their escape. We tried desperately to knock down the brick wall between the cow barn and the main barn. Finally all but two were able to get through the hole. Those two had to run out the front. One got hit in the hand; the other through the body. He died just as he almost got to us.
Finally we knew we were dead ducks. So we gave the prisoners back their watches and belongings which had been taken, and told them to tell their buddies that we were giving up. They stepped outside, only to get fired on. We threw out our rifles, and because of the fire, we had to go out. The Germans fired around our feet, but finally stopped. They wouldn't let us get our dead buddy out of the barn. The guy with the wounded hand got an old silk stocking tied around it. I don't know if he made it or not. I never saw him again.
The eight of us were escorted over the river to a German Command Post. Our company must have observed our progress or lack of it, because as soon as we crossed the river, our artillery and mortars were coming in from everywhere.
As soon as we crossed the river, we got rid of the Jerry money we had relieved the dead of, because the Germans go ape if they found any Jerry souvenirs on a prisoner. I had about 4,000 marks I'd got off a German sergeant, but I knew I'd better chuck it. Anyway, I only lasted from Oct. 14 to Dec. 1 on the front.
At the Command Post, the Germans threatened us and took all our valuables. After dark, they marched us parallel with our lines, maybe three miles from them. I suggested that we jump the guards and try for our lives. But most of the guys thought it was too dangerous, trying to get through the German lines to ours. Besides, we didn't know the day's password and could have been shot by our buddies.
Our pondering was short lived , as we began going directly away from our lines. After another day's walk, we were put on a truck and taken to a camp with other P.O.W.'s After a day or so, we were put on a train, about 80 men each in the old 40 & 8 boxcars (designed for 40 men and 8 horses). We were on the train for three days and four nights. We were each given half a loaf of bread and about a 2" square of cat meat. No water. On the second day, the train stopped, and we got a swig of water.
We crossed the Rhine River at Cologne. I had a knife, and I managed to cut a 2 inch hole in the siding of the boxcar. It took me a day to do it, and while I was working, someone ate my cat meat.
The weather was miserably cold. Some men got pneumonia. In our car, we lined up and slapped the palm of our hands on the backs of the guy in front. This must have helped, because everyone in our car made it. When we reached our destination, several of the boys in other cars were frozen stiff.
At the end of this ordeal, we arrived at a large P.O.W. camp near the Czech border. We spent Christmas in this Stalag. Every two guys got a Red Cross package to split. It was the first good food in days, but stealing food and fighting was the order of the day. As long as we didn't try to escape, the Jerries couldn't care less what went on.
On Jan. 1 we walked, sometimes riding a truck, to our next Stalag. Here there were over 5,000 P.O.W.'s. From here we got our permanent work assignment.
141 of us ended up in Gersdorf, Czechoslovakia. We were stashed in an old beer hall surrounded by barbed wire fencing. The guards and food were on the first floor. The Red Cross sent us parcels once a week from Switzerland. But we were in a troop training area and the troops stole most of them.
Six days a week we got up at 5:30 A.M. Breakfast consisted of burnt barley grains heated in a butcher kettle, and a brew euphemistically called coffee. It must have had some food value, for we survived. At 6:30 A.M. we headed for the work site 12.5 Km. away. There was snow on the ground from the sixth of Jan. to the sixth of April. Some guys had to walk in wooden shoes because the Jerries took their clothes to disguise their troops for the Battle of the Bulge. (That was why the 106th Division lost so many men at the Bulge. They couldn't tell their own men from the Jerries. We later found out the entire Division had been captured .) I was lucky; I had my sweater and shoes.
Anyway, after plodding to work, we had to dig tunnels inside a mountain. The mountain was maybe sixty or more acres at the bottom and shaped like an ice cream cone upside down. There were mountains like that one after the other. They were beautiful, but we couldn't appreciate them. Some had ski trails and guest houses for well-to-do Germans from Leipsig and other towns.
Our mountain had five entrances camoflaged with pine boughs, which we had to replace every couple of days. The mountain was honeycombed with tunnels about every fifty feet. Each tunnel was sixteen feet wide and twelve feet high. The Germans called them airplane factories, because they made airplane parts in the tunnels. They had all the necessary machinery for their work. Captured Russian girls brought raw material to the machines and took the finished product away. We had to lay narrow gauge track to accommodate the small cars that we loaded the sandstone on. We pushed the loaded cars outside and up an incline to dump them. Pushing those cars through snow was hell. In March, a railroad dinkey was trucked in, and we thought life would be easier. But when they on-loaded it, it jumped the tracks and rolled into a stream. It was still there at war's end.
If we had a cave-in, we had to go outside and lug logs from the forest (which had to be cut by hand), and roll them into place. Luckily, we only had one cave-in.
We got a half-hour rest at noon. No food. We had a big red-headed German supervisor whooping and hollering all the time because we couldn't do enough. In the evening, it was back to the ole' beer hall.
The factory workers, all P.O.W.'s of various nationalities, had their meals brought in by what we'd term a caterer. They lived in town. I guess their houses were warm and their eats much better than ours.
Back at the cold, flea, lice, and rat infested joint, we got one loaf of bread for each five men. The bread was uneven because it wasn't baked in pans. We made a 72° gauge and cut the bread. Fighting over who got the largest piece was finally solved by rotating our position in line. The guy that brought in the bread piled it in his wagon, then sat on it for a seat. We found out that the same guy brought dead bodies and dead horses from the front in the same wagon.
We also got a bowl of soup of dried grass that the P.O.W.'s had brought in from the field the last summer. Sometimes we got potatoes or beets, and a 2" square of horse meat. If not enough horses were killed at the front, we had no meat.
The only heat in the room was one stove and a few bricks of coal. Mornings and evenings were the only time that fire was allowed in the stove. If a prisoner was sick, he still had to go to work. The guard would pick a sick man out of his bed, stand him on the floor, and if he fell over, he might be allowed to stay in the cold room that day. The only way the sick boys could keep warm was to pile on blankets from the bunks of those who worked. We each had only one blanket. There was always about a dozen men with pneumonia and other diseases.
One night I heard a noise and saw a big rat run across my buddy's face. Nice place, eh? Our bunks were three high, built of 2X4's and boards with some grass or straw to lie on. On Sundays, if possible, we heated water in a butcher kettle, and tried to wash in the cold room. No clothes were washed while I was there. We had no toothbrush, no soap, no nothing.
We had two escapes of two guys each. The first two dropped behind a bush on the way home. They were captured the next day. With snow on the ground and cold weather, they didn't get far. Some time later, two more tried it. The guards simply took one man with a gun and about 50 Hitler Youth from school, and went after them. Several days later they were brought back, beaten, and put in solitary -- a cold closet under the stairs in the guards' room. In a British camp not.far from us, they killed the escapee and laid him by the gate for several days before allowing his buddies to bury him.
One day in April, some of our smart alecs decided to go on strike. The Britisher who was our unofficial leader tried to talk them out of it. I and some others told them, "Where do you think you are? This isn't the States.”
That morning, when the guards were informed we were not going to work, they simply put us in a large room, walked to the middle, picked out a guy, and took him out the door to kill him. They told us that this would go on until we went to work. Luckily, they had picked our best interpreter. He tried to reason with them and us. Some guys were dumb enough to think they were bluffing. I and others said,"We don't have a prayer, they mean business." Eventually, most decided to go to work, and the few hardheads finally followed.
That Britisher was one hell of a guy. He was captured in Italy and escaped. Then he was captured in France and escaped. Then he was captured in Germany.
Sometime at the end of April, we heard through the grapevine that the war was over. When some had the gall to mention this to our supervisor, he took a pick and, swinging it above his head, announced he would fill the pick blade with P.O.W. heads if we didn't keep working. Someone told him that the Americans would blow up his tunnels. He said, "You guys are going to be here for the next war. They'll never find you here."
On May 5, we had just arrived at work when an old German on a bicycle came pedaling in, out of breath and jabbering something. Our interpreter (one of the P.O.W.'s who understood German) said, "I think the war is over!".
This wasn't really a surprise because for several days we could hear the Russians shelling towns down the road from us. Anyway, we marched back to the beer hall. When we arrived we were told to clean it up. This was a useless endeavor because the Russians would blow it apart. While we were cleaning, the guards took the cigarettes out of our Red Cross parcels, and dumped meat, cookies, soup powder, cheese, chocolate, and whatever else was in them into the butcher kettle, and cooked it. I never tasted anything so good.
About noon everyone lined up for what the guards said was a walk to the American lines. We put two guys who couldn't walk into a two-wheeled cart. The guards locked up the joint, and we took off. Once we left the town, we had about mile of open road. The Russians who were bombing a town about 3 miles away spied us and opened up with machine guns. We pushed the cart in as deep a ditch as possible and hoped for the best. No one was seriously hurt -- a miracle. We lost no time getting into a nearby woods.
That afternoon we made about 6 miles to a town for the night. Meanwhile, the guards told us to tell the Americans how nice they had treated us. "Oh, sure," we said. we slept on the floor of an old tannery. Lots of P.O.W.'s and civilians were coming into town.
When we woke up, not a guard was in sight. Only their uniforms were left behind. No one seemed sure which way to go. I threw my lot in with the Britisher. He seemed sure of himself. We walked a day or so, getting food at homes along the way. On the third day, we came to a German army column which had just been bombed by the Russians. The Germans were dazed and just wandering around. At the German field kitchen I got a can of Norway Salmon. It tasted great, but it must have been spoiled because I got deathly sick that night. I thought I was done for. The next day, though, I pushed on with the rest. The Germans had turned the road signs around, but that didn't seen to phase our British lad.
The next day we came to a diesel bus along the road. I checked it out, and said it needed fuel. From a nearby tank truck, we put stuff in that smelled like whiskey. But the darn thing ran. Along the way, we picked up people who climbed on the top and everywhere else they could. We chugged into a town and everyone left to find something to eat. I said I had to check the motor. I had seen two guys, probably Germans, put something under a seat. Upon investigating, I found a 7.32 Belgian pistol and a field telephone. I thought after I'd appropriated the stuff that I had better forget the bus. (Later I learned it quit running shortly afterwards.)
The next day we got shelled while crossing a bridge. In running to the other side, I lost a loaf of bread. It rolled off the bridge into the water. I could have bawled.
The day before reaching the Elbe, we encountered two American tanks at a road crossing. They told us we could not take our souvenirs any further. If we gave them the souvenirs, they would send them home for us. Oh, sure! I decided I was not going to give those guys my loot. So I told them I had a nature call and disappeared into the woods. I had a several mile circuit, but I came back on the road with my souvenirs.
The next day we made it to the Elbe and the Americans. They told us they had orders to go back to the P.O.W. camps and see if anyone was there. Several of our boys went with them.
We then crossed the bridge, and the G.I.'s gave us our first meal. I had pancakes, eggs, oatmeal, coffee, jelly -- boy, did I get sick. I guess the old stomach couldn't take it.
We stayed in the town a day or so, until the truck came to take us to Nuremberg. Here we got deloused by going through a gas chamber. We had to put face masks on. It was nice not to have any lice to pick off.
Finally, we got a plane to a tent city about 50 miles from Le Havre. Camp Lucky Strike. I liked the name. The staging area here was divided into four areas. At the first area, I got new clothes and six teeth pulled out. The place was so busy that the dentist didn't wait for the novacaine to take effect. But that was better than toothache. They gave me a little pack of salt to rinse my mouth, but I saved it to salt my food.
At the second area we got a number of shots. By now I was eating like a hog and my waist was swelling. I had been down to about 125 pounds in prison camp. At the third stage there was not much to do but yack and write letters. Speaking of letters, only two guys in prison camp ever got a letter. The Germans absconded the packages that were sent, too.
Finally, at the last staging area, I was pronounced free of disease and ready to leave for home. On a Saturday night about June 1st, we loaded on a Victory ship heading for the U.S.A.
The ship's anchor pulled up a bomb it had hooked, but after finding it was a dud, we were on our way. On the third day out we hit a nasty north Atlantic storm. For two or three days it blasted us with high winds and waves. On the first day of the storm I went on deck to find the crew
wrapping 2" rope around the ship. They told me that if the ship broke in two, the ropes might hold it. That story was sure comforting.
The ship held, but no one slept. Just about every one was sick. There was water in the lifeboats after the storm. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful.
It took us 13 days to reach Staten Island. The day before landing, I took my evening meal up on deck. Every one else was in the chow line, and I yelled, "Look at that tree over there!" G.I.'s came up the ladder like rats out of a hole. I figured I had better find a hiding place before I got tossed overboard. About dark I melted in with the rest of the boys.
We left Staten Island for Camp Shanks, N.Y. the same day. I tried to call home, but the phone lines were flooded. People were standing in lines over a block long, waiting to call home. I did manage a local call to Al Heeter in Jersey City. He was able to get through to Rudy later.
On Sunday morning we went by train to Fort Dix, N.J. About dark I arrived in the Philadelphia bus station. By 1 A.M. I was on the way home. About 5 A.M. I was let off in Ft. Loudon at Aunt Peg's house, and she took me home.
After being home for six weeks, I was sent to Asheville, N.C. for check-ups before going to the Pacific area. Rudy was able to come along. We lived at the swank Battery Park Hotel. We had a live orchestra with every meal, and took in the Vanderbilt Estate, Chimney Rock, and other attractions. One day we went to the Smoky Mountains in three seat touring Packards. On the way back, our car pulled onto an overlook, and we were told we'd have to wait for another car. Ours had no brakes. Anyway, we had no supper that night; we were too late.
I met Jack Hawley there, and it turned out we both had the same orders to go to Little Rock, Ark. He went back to Mercersburg with us (his hometown, also), and two days later Rudy took us to Martinsburg to catch the train for Little Rock.
While I was there, I checked out a Penna license on a Studebaker. The next day I found it belonged to Lieutenant Ted Daub from Mercersburg. His dad had bought my grandfather's house in Mercersburg. He and his wife, Sara, had Jack and me for supper the next Saturday and Sunday.
One day the stove in our hut didn't work. The post engineers said they didn't work Saturdays and would check it on Monday. The weather being cold, I went to the orderly room and called them, saying I was Lt. Daub. In nothing flat the stove was fixed.
In our hut we had an Indian whose dad received oil royalties, so he had some money. He had a "Caddy" touring car, and would take us any place. We went with him whether he was drunk or sober.
Another caper we pulled was to rattle the new recruits. We had orders for full dress and tie to get in the P.X. The guys in our hut said, "I'll bet you're afraid to go in the PX without a tie."
I said, "Gimme your money," and I hit the PX with unbuttoned shirt and no tie. The two draftees at the door were so taken aback at my behavior that they just said, "That SOB must be really drunk." I went in, made a purchase, came out, and collected my $5.00 bet.
Another night, Jack and I were waiting on a corner for a bus back to our area when I spied a recruit walking guard around his area. I said, "Jack, give me your Garrison cap (it looks like an officer's cap in the dark), we're going to have some fun." I stood in a dark spot, and the next time the guard came around, I let him go one step past, then called, "Halt." The soldier stopped, and I said, "Don't you salute an officer of the U.S. Army?" Boy, I got a sharp salute, returned it, and said, "Be more alert from now on." Jack was on the other side of the street reeling with laughter.
So much for horseplay. The war was over, and I never made it to the Pacific.
Jack and I got our discharges on Nov. 8, 1945. We waited in line for the train from noon till about dark. It was unbelievable how many soldiers were being discharged. We finally walked down the discharge side, and when the next train came in, we threw our bags across the divider and got seats in the first car. The regular loading procedure was to enter the rear car and move forward.
The trip to Martinsburg took several days. We were home to stay.