When I was a boy I learned of a g-g-g-grandfather who, when he died, was the last Revolutionary pensioner on the rolls(1). This was in 1867, nearly 84 years after the end of the Revolution. I will have to live until 2029 to match his accomplishment. In 1865 he and six other survivors were interviewed for a book, “The Last Men of the Revolution,” which included some of the wartime experiences as these aged men could remember them. Some of their stories were inaccurate and I am beginning to sympathize with them as I realize how time blurs history. Nevertheless, some things are indelible, and I will describe a few pictures that are etched on my memory.
In World War II in the American Army in Europe, combat infantry units stayed on the line continuously. Individual soldiers were there until killed, captured, wounded, disabled, or as in my case, until the war ended. For me, it began on my 19th birthday, November 9, 1944, in Lorraine, France. Our company, Company E, 397th Regiment, 100th Infantry Division, had landed at Marseilles, moved up the Rhone Valley, and taken up a position in the Vosges Mountains near Baccarat. We stood in the rain, had a small service, sang several hymns of which I remember two: “I Would Be True” and “I Need Thee Every Hour.” Shortly afterwards the trees exploded as the artillery found us. In the woods we could hear Johnny Chillemi, dying, crying in Italian for his mother. Welcome to World War II.
At the start I was a private in a rifle squad. Through attrition I became the squad leader, a staff sergeant. At the end of the war I was the only one of the originals in our squad remaining. Of our platoon, which consisted of about forty, there were six left, and at least two of these had been wounded and then returned to duty. The rest had been killed, wounded, captured, or in a few cases transferred or sent back for other reasons.
In an infantry division a rifle squad was the point of advance. One or two squad members were designated as scouts. They were the “feelers” who moved forward until fired upon. I have tried to capture the role of the infantry scout in a poem. In writing it I have felt a kinship with ancestors in the woods around Ticonderoga during the Revolution.
In bare December woods we lie
On frozen ground to wait and try
To look through distant trees to see
If we will live or we will die.
No hero’s choice has put me here
Caught between two kinds of fear,
One of safety bought with scorn,
And one of duty bought most dear.
At a hushed command I rise.
To those behind I am their eyes
Or, more, their blind man’s cane that probes
Until it meets with some surprise.
And now I fearful move ahead
Toward the forest-hidden dread.
True to them and true to me.
There’s little more that can be said.
Through the autumn we fought in the woods and in the destroyed villages of Lorraine and neighboring Alsace where the villagers switched between French and German flags in hope of surviving. A memory is of being on the march on roads through the snow-covered evergreen forests, which at other times would have been beautiful but were now full of fear and uncertainty, the smell of explosives in the air. To avoid shrapnel from shells that exploded above us we at first cut trees to cover our foxholes. We soon found that the sound of the axes located us for 88’s and mortars, so we huddled in our holes, often only a few inches deep because we seemed to be digging in bedrock. There we would chip frozen beef stew or corned-beef hash from a c-ration can.
On one occasion we made a march of thirty miles and captured a town. At night, German soldiers, thinking our column was a retreating German column, fell in with us and were captured when we heard them speak.
At the time of the Battle of the Bulge we were holding a thin line in northeastern Lorraine, a few miles from the German border and about 90 miles southeast of Bastogne. Although we didn’t know it, we were there because of General DeGaulle. Eisenhower had ordered the American troops in our sector to be moved north where the main German thrust was. DeGaulle had objected because it would have left the French towns exposed. There was a real row and DeGaulle won.
Around New Year’s Day I developed severe stomach cramps and couldn’t line up for food, which the cooks tried to bring once a day, if possible. When I showed signs of internal bleeding my buddy, who was older than I, took me to the medics and insisted they send me to a field hospital. I remained there four or five days and with travel time was probably gone for eight or nine days. On the way back to my unit I was congratulating myself on having had a week in comparative safety when I met a fellow platoon member who informed me that my company had been overrun by German tanks, most of my platoon was missing, and that my buddy had been severely wounded. When I got back I learned that he had died. He had been hit while kneeling in an open field firing his Browning automatic rifle at the oncoming tanks. He was the bravest soldier I knew, the bravest person I have ever known. He received no medals except the posthumous Purple Heart.
If he knew fear I did not see.
He was a brother’s arm to me.
And when he fell, fell part of me.
The action in which our company was overrun was part of a German offensive known by them as Northwind, though we didn’t know it. It was designed to slow down the American pursuit at the Bulge. In this action, which continued through January 1945, American battle casualties were about 12,000 and German losses about 23,000.
When I returned to my unit I found that as a result of the decimation of our company, the squads were being filled with replacements. We had a new squad leader, whom I didn’t know. I became assistant squad leader, a buck sergeant. A few weeks later the new squad leader’s war ended when he shot himself in the foot. I became squad leader, a staff sergeant.
During February and early March we were in a winter position, mostly defensive. There were night patrols, concertina wire emplacement, etc., but we had the luxury of staying in the same holes for several weeks. The army even came up with some crates that we could put in the holes, with a trap-door at one end through with we could bail water. It was cold. We still had long brown wool coats, and when they got wet they would freeze, so that we slept in a rigid cylinder. I think that during the whole winter we didn’t sleep inside more than a dozen times. A letter written in mid-December says that I had a bath (outdoor variety), the first one in two months. Until the middle of January we had no winter foot gear; just army leather combat boots in which your feet would freeze. Then we got boot-packs, like modern Sorels, and if we happened to stop at a building where we could have a fire the atmosphere was thick with the aroma of drying boot liners.
Even though we were in a defensive position from mid-January to mid-March, there were casualties. In “All Quiet of the Western Front,” the book ends when the soldier having served throughout the war is at last killed “on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.” On such a day Richard Polhemus, a good soldier in our company, was singled out by a mortar shell as he sat defiantly on the edge of his foxhole.
In mid-March we went on the offensive, recapturing the ground lost during the German offensive in January. This included the Maginot fortress town of Bitche, leading as you would suspect to the formation of an organization known as the Sons of Bitche. At Bitche we were only about ten miles from the German border. We crossed into Germany on March 22, and crossed the Rhine at Ludwigshaven on March 31.
On April 4th we reached the factory and railroad town of Heilbronn, on the Neckar River about 45 miles from Ludwigshaven. We were being transported in trucks when we abruptly stopped in between buildings in a town. We learned that we were near a river on the far side of which the Germans were holding the town of Heilbronn. We were slated to make a river crossing almost immediately. For that purpose the engineers had already assembled a fleet of small boats, each of which would carry one decimated squad. My platoon led the crossing.(2) On the first night at Heilbronn our company, which can’t have numbered more than a hundred, had fifty-four casualties.(3) Among those killed were Chester Merrill, Lt. Petracco, and young Garo Yazujian. I have one poem about the first day and night and one about an event on the second day.
I remember the river,
The small boats, and the far shore
And, beyond, the broken wall,
The buildings, torn by war,
And fallen comrades.
I remember the catwalk and the factory,
The voices down below,
The grenade that fell among us, silent,
As if warning us to go.
I remember midnight,
And vivid in my mind,
Retreat, the burning catwalk, safety,
But a comrade left behind
Somewhere in the dark.
And I remember morning
And Roske coming back unharmed.
The next day I don’t know how I happened to be alone, but an event occurred which I have recorded in a poem called “The Meeting.” I came to the corner of a building at the same time a German soldier came from around the corner. We were both armed, but both reacted in the same way.
Once, in a contested place,
I met a soldier face to face.
We stopped and turned and walked away,
Both to live another day.
I often wonder who he was
And where he is and whom he loves,
And if he ever sees, like me,
A soldier in his memory.
Or if before the end he fell,
Leaving only me to tell
Of our meeting face to face
Once, in a contested place.
Overlooking the town was a high hill on which there was a tower. Sometime during the eight days it took to drive the Germans from Heilbronn I was ordered to take my squad to the top of the hill and clear it of Germans, if any were there.(4) We started out, met no resistance, and reached the top, which we found to be unoccupied. Returning, we reached the bottom of the hill on the same route as our ascent, when we heard voices and singing coming from a cellar or dug-out. We approached the entrance and called “Kommen sie aus – handen hoch” — Come out – hands high. From the opening emerged a group of men and officers. We had passed them on the way up. Fortunately, they had decided that their war was over and they were ready to surrender.
The war wound down after Heilbronn, though casualties continued, Jimmie Rembert among them. I stayed in Germany for about a year after the war. What I have described here are those things that have hardly dimmed with the years. In between these events, the days, villages, skirmishes, marches, the artillery and mortars, have blurred into a dream.
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, I wrote the following lines:
The war in Europe ended fifty years ago. A letter home dated May 8. 1945, says we were “on the march” when we got the news. Strangely, I can’t remember the exact moment, but I do know my reaction. First, that I had survived and what that meant to my family; second, that it came too late for many comrades and their families; and third, that we would have a short breathing space before going to the Pacific. How improbable, to have survived and to be here in this place. It is as if I have lived two totally different lives. I wonder how many veterans feel the same?
I will close with a World War I poem by Louise Bogan. It is “To My Brother Killed: Haumont Wood: October, 1918.” You will notice that the date is a month before the end of the war. My friends (that’s too weak a word) who died at Heilbronn came within one month of surviving the war. I believe that in this poem the author is remembering the things her brother had written home about. She is saying that those things endure, that he endures, that all endure — except peace. Peace does not endure because it is forever interrupted by memory.
O you so long dead,
You masked and obscure,
I can tell you, all things endure:
The wine and the bread;
The marble quarried for the arch;
The iron become steel;
The spokes broken from the wheel;
The sweat of the long march;
The hay-stacks cut through like loaves
And the hundred flowers from the seed;
All things indeed
Though struck by the hooves
Of disaster, of time due,
Of fell loss and gain,
All things remain,
I can tell you, this is true.
Though burned down to stone
Though lost from the eye,
I can tell you, and not lie, —
Save of peace alone.
(1) When Samuel Downing died in 1867 he was the last Revolutionary veteran on the rolls. However, two additional soldiers came forward after his death so finally he was the third from the last survivor.
(2) Elements of the 398th Regiment had crossed the river downstream from Heilbronn about 12 hours previously. Our crossing was directly opposite the factory district, and my platoon was the first in the 397th to cross.
(3)The Story of the Century (History of the 100th Infantry Division (Century Division)), Century Association, 1946, p143
(4)This hill had been the scene of an earlier action in which an element of the 398th Regiment had reached the top but was cut off and captured.