February 11, 2008

Lyle Haug, a Staff Sergeant with Co. A. 109th Engr, 34th Division in WW-II


We're billeted in the Armory at Madison, S.D. Activity abounds, new recruits are being processed, and they have enlisted to beat the draft, which seemed inevitable. The Company Commander was pleased because men were needed to bring the company up to full strength. The Supply Sergeant was busy giving each soldier an allotment which consisted of a barracks bag, two blankets, mess kit, canteen, fatigues, boxer shorts and shirts, O.D.s, combat boots, cartridge belts, 03 rifles and bayonets, flat steel helmets, leggings and a web belt.

A Medic was busy filing the medical records of each of us; a quick look by a Captain of the Medics was completed. We opened our mouth and said "ah" and bent over for him to take a quick look, and as long as he couldn't see clear through we were 1-A.

I signed up for a $10,000 G.I. insurance policy to be paid out of my wages of $21/month. I decided to keep $6 for incidentals and send the rest home to my folks. I stood in line to pick up my dog tags and received my serial number, 20717371. The final details seemed to have been completed and a farewell dance was scheduled just before our departure. A very cold morning greeted us, so we were issued a heavy overcoat, which we donned in a hurry, formed ranks, and began a march to the depot at the south end of Main Street. In spite of the cold, the sidewalks were lined with people wishing us a fond farewell. Flags and banners waving, we marched to the troop train and loaded for our trip to somewhere. I had been in and out, pushed back and forth, and now I was determined that I would make the best of the next year and be a good soldier.

We headed south on the Milwaukee Road and were picked up at a switch station by the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe. We continued southward and after three days and two nights we reached Alexandria, LA. A convoy of ton and one-half trucks waited for us to load and we arrived thirteen miles later at Camp Claiborne, a massive tent city. The only wooded structures were the mess halls and supply depots. Each tent would house five soldiers. William Proehl, Kermit Hansen, John Lowry, Arden Kern, and I were assigned our quarters. Five cots were made up without a wrinkle and kept that way. We purchased a footlocker for our individual belongings and kept each of them in good order. Our shoes were polished, our mess kits were spotless, and our rifles were cleaned and oiled to perfection. Our tent was recognized as the best in the company, and I was chosen best appearance several times.

We became accustomed to the early morning bugle call, joined ranks and answered roll call, fell out and waited in line to enter the mess hall. Policed the area, picked up cigarette butts, pieces of paper or whatever, fell back into ranks and awaited the assignments for the day. One day the first Sergeant said he needed volunteers to escort the Captains daughter and anyone interested take one step forward. Three of us stepped forward, Evie Hockett, Roger Loesch, and Lyle Haug. We were told to report to the Supply Sergeant's office where we were issued three sand shovels and three pick axes and spent the day digging a garbage pit. A humble lesson well learned.

I volunteered for K.P. and Guard Duty on every weekend so that I wouldn't get talked into going to town on a weekend pass. I didn't have enough money to go looking for fun, though now our wages had been increased to $30/month. I always felt good when we stood at attention as the bugler sounded retreat and the colors were lowered for the day. Lights out at 10 and as I heard "Taps" there seemed to be peace.

Orders came down that we were to be a part of the Red and Blue Armies and we'd be engaged in a mock war. This meant a move to the woods and bayous of Louisiana. We'd be in bivouac for a week or ten days. The area was littered with snakes; copperhead, water moccasins, rattlers, and corals. I hated all of them and remained on a constant alert. I pulled off one boner because I swiped two watermelons, one under each arm, and as I walked back to join my group I stepped on a hollow log. It collapsed with such a boom I though someone had taken a shot at me. When light came, we saw that we had amassed forty or fifty melons. As we settled back for a delicious feast, a bunch of local sharecroppers arrived pleading with us that it was their only harvest, so we gave up our treasures.

I was promoted to Private First Class and my wages had advanced to $36/month. It was October. We had been away about eight months, and we were eligible for a ten day furlough. There were about 35 of us who had saved up a few dollars, so we charted a bus from Alexandria, LA to Madison, SO, arriving there about 10 P.M., after a long, straight through drive. I slept on the bus and hitchhiked a ride to my folks the next day. Dad didn't have much to say, he was really pretty distant, but the little kids were happy to see me. Harvey was kind of smug; he was graduated from High School and was driving an F-14 tractor. He had rented the south quarter and harvested a crop of volunteer rye that had grown there after Norman Olson had left and had some money of his own. Norman though that he should have had a part of the crop, but Harvey had told him to go to hell. A ten-day furlough went by in such a hurry that I headed back before I had a chance to do anything. Oh well, I had but a few months left and my year of Army training would be over.

We returned to camp and fell back into the same old routine. I was promoted to Corporal, which would pay me $42/month. This meant no more K.P., but now I would be Corporal of the Guard and wouldn't have to walk a post anymore. I'd been a good soldier and was proud of it. We celebrated Thanksgiving with turkey and all the trimmings. Our tour in Louisiana would soon come to an end.

I had traveled very little in the area and I wanted to see New Orleans, probably never be this close again, so a three day pay would do the trick. Gerald (Bud) Slagel had a car and he was willing to drive, it was a snazzy '31 Model A, so Buford Gray, Lyle Sage, Dale Hytholt, and I made arrangements to go. We'd go the first weekend of December. We headed south to Baton Rouge, the capitol city, then over to Lake Charles and across over to Beaumont, Texas, just so we could say we had been in Texas, then over to Lake Pontchartrain and on to New Orleans. We strolled through the French Quarters, drank chickery coffee and visited with the locals.

We walked down Canal Street, went up a ramp to a ship anchored in the harbor for a Saturday Night dance. The first girl I asked to by my partner told me she didn't dance with no damn Yankee. We rented a cabin with beds that had mattresses of foam rubber, which topped our nights on the army cots.

The morning sun came up big and bright, dressed in suntans we drove to Audubon Park across the campus from Tulane University. Pretty girls and pretty birds lolled on the grounds in the area. We were relaxed and comfortable, suddenly an Army jeep, carrying several M. P.s with a loud speaker blaring, Japan has just bombed Pearl Harbor, your units have been placed on alert, return to your posts at once, by orders of the President." There was a solemn air back at camp; a nation at war had a new meaning for seasoned soldiers. Activity abounded, orders seemed to be coming from everywhere. Within a couple of days we boarded a troop train and headed northeast. Four days later we unloaded at Trenton, N.J.'Tor an assembly at Fort Dix. Piles of snow were everywhere and it was cold for troops fresh from the South. We stood in long lines for identification pictures and shots for many infectious diseases. Guards were posted and air raid signals were being tested. Confusion was number one for all of us. Everything in order, we again boarded a troop train and a short time later we were unloaded at a post-side in New York City.

We were billeted in a warehouse close top harbor, took turns on guard duty and remained on an alert schedule. I wanted to see some sights in New York so I asked for a pass. Twelve hours were granted which suited me fine. I went to the top of the Empire State Building, visited the R.C.A. Music Hall, watched the King Sisters perform, and the Harry James Orchestra. Looked in on the Arthur Murray Dance Studio and danced a few steps with Ann Murray.

Had lunch in a fancy restaurant and reported back to Company Headquarters. Our ship, the Chateau-Thierry, was anchored and being loaded with all kinds of freight. It was used to transport mules to France during the First World War and it was now converted into a troop ship, not very glamorous but hopefully stable. On the afternoon of January 13, 1942, we threw our barracks bangs over our shoulders and silently boarded the ship. My quarters were on the lower deck up near the prow of the boat, dark and musty damp, I'd have to spend most of my time up on deck.

We circled in the harbor waiting for the convoy of ships to be assembled, and now it was the morning of January 15, 1942. Our ship slowly began to sail past the Statue of Liberty; soldiers lined the deck waving farewell with many a tear gracing the eyes of these hardened combat ready soldiers. We veered far left, as we must sail the north Atlantic to try and avoid the German U-boats.

The North Atlantic this time of the year was especially stormy and rough with waves and white caps as high as the buildings in New York. A couple days out and everyone was seasick. I puked and ate and puked some more, and ate some more. The lower deck was a real stink hole and men lay in their bunks sick as a dog, but I crawled up on deck and let the waves splash over gradually getting better with each day. The plates in the galley flew off the tables as we ate while the ship lunged up, down, side ways and whatever.

We sailed for ten days before slowing and finally a horizon appeared on the 26th of January. We anchored in the deep and a flat-decked boat came to meet us, piloted by English sailors. "Aye, " they said, "we've been looking for you yanks for a month now." They served us some tea and a slice of bread sprinkled with caraway seeds. We moved toward shore and came into port at Belfast, Northern Ireland, the first A.E.F. to reach the European shore.

We went single file through an air raid shelter and picked up a noon ration. A boiled potato, a couple of rank cabbage leaves, and a tablespoon of beef flavored juice poured over the potato. Then we were handed individual pies with an attractive brown crust, thinking at least we'd have desert. They turned out to be pigeon pies and most of them ended up in the garbage can. We joined ranks and marched to an area of Nissen Huts where we would be sheltered for awhile. Some idiot discharged his rifle and the loud bang scared all of us. We though the Germans were shooting at us.

We had boards on the ground for a bed and when I was given a typhoid shot, I really got sick. The boards rattled as I lay rolling with a fever. We were a combat engineer unit and we had to know infantry tactics, mine warfare, bridge building, tank traps and obstacles, wire concertinas for roadblocks and defensive positions, plus the attitude of survival. We began learning all there was to know about German soldiers and their equipment. Personnel mines, tank mines, booby traps, S-mines, bouncing babies, their tanks, trucks, and planes. I went to a special school on mines and mine warfare, TNT, bangolore torpedoes and the works. I was an expert on time cord, prima cord, dynamite and everything else. If and when we faced the Kraut forces, I intended to survive.

We moved from the Londonderry area to an old distillery building in Coleraine (the Coleens of Coleraine). Everyone thought that here would be a fun time but we went through a rigorous training schedule performing every tactical field maneuver known to the Army. We did get a pass to Port Rush, a scenic area on the coast. A big dance hall there was a gala affair. I went to the home of Jean Peacock, (an Irish lass) for tea and cakes. Then we were moved to Enniskillen near the boarder of the Irish Free State. I had been a line Sergeant for several months and now I was screened by three military V.I.P.s and promoted to a Platoon Sergeant. The responsibility weighed heavy on my mind but as a Platoon leader, I made up my mind to lead these fifty soldiers wherever we might have to go. I wouldn't send them, I would lead them, so help me God.

We had traveled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland; it's seven counties and most of the town. These are some omitted; Omagh, Lisnaske, Limavaddy. Joe Culver and I had our pictures taken in Enniskillen. Now we were getting ready to leave. We'd sail across the Irish Sea past the port of Glasgow, Scotland, and over to Newport, England. We went by convoy up towards Cardiff, Wales and across to Manchester, England. The towns of Coventry and Macalsfield and been seriously bombed in German air raids.

We practiced forced landing attacks and simulated air raid runs. I got a three-day pass, hitched a ride to Crewe and rode the train from there to London. I visited St. Paul's Cathedral, No. 10 Downing Street, Trafalager Square, Piccadilly Circus, The Tower of London, the River Thames, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, saw Buckingham Palace, attended church service at Westminster Abbey.

Back at camp we rehearsed shore landings with L.C.I. (landing craft infantry) near Liverpool and were aware of preparation for a convoy of movement to somewhere. It was late September, I had forgotten about home and family. I hated the Germans and all the havoc that had been ravishing the British Isles.

Now it was October 1, 1942, we loaded on a ship at Liverpool in full combat gear. The flat helmets and the 03 rifles were replaced. The M1 rifles were issued to all the privates, I carried a .45 pistol and a Carbine, plus binoculars, map case, knap sack, bedroll and cartridges for two weapons. This was some convoy, troop ships, supply ships, torpedo boats and even the huge carrier "the Wasp." We headed south, on the outer edge of the Day of Biscayne on the West of France. The torpedo boats dropped depth bombs off and on as they searched for Kraut Submarines. We kept southward in pretty mild seas and rumor came that we were approaching the Rock of Gibraltar at the opening of the Mediterranean Sea. I stayed up because I wanted to see what it looked like, but our trip was made in the dark of the moon so all I could see was a big dark mass. The Mediterranean was calm and we sailed eastward. Bright lights dotted Spanish Morocco otherwise the world seemed to be a complete blackout. We had been given clues for the beach landing - but weren't sure just where it would be. Our movements were top secret so we sailed and waited.

Our troop ship began to slow and we could see land probably thirty rods away, a barrage of heavy artillery was exploding in the water to our left. This was the coast of northwestern North Africa west of Oran. Marshall Petain of France, Head of the Vicy Government, had established Headquarters in North Africa and was in sympathy with the Nazi Party of Germany and he was a greater threat in this area than the Germans, but we didn't know this until later. The ship ground to a halt, snubbed into a sandbar at least twenty rods from land. We were ordered to throw rope ladders over the sides and hit the water and onto shore as fast as we could go. I hit the water not realizing the depth, at least nine or ten feet deep. Full pack, bedroll, loaded down with guns and ammunition, I hit the bottom and struggled with all my might to keep from drowning. The deep water lessened as we continued toward shore.

We hit the beach and took cover behind a low bank. I lay panting beside Roger Loesch, (my tent mate) who was earnestly repeating Holy Mary, Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. I think the date was October 8, 1942. We scattered and infiltrated the area finally assembling near Tlemcen where we dried off and began to establish our bearings. Our task force commander, General Mark Clark was in conference with Marshall Petain trying to straighten him out in the course of new front now taken in the war. General Rommel (the Desert Fox) was commanding the German Panzer Division; moving west out of Egypt and Montgomery was the Commander of the British Eighth Army engaged in heavy fighting at EI Alamein. German troops were scattered the length and breadth of North Africa.

We moved to Sidi Bel Abbes, home of the French Foreign Legion and turned northeast-ward in battle formation and were engaged in our first heavy combat at Fondouk and Kasserine Pass, everything seemed to go haywire with many stupid moves, it turned out to be a total disaster. Casualties and prisoners totally disillusioned us. Arabs pilfered the dead bodies and gathered all they could of wares lying about. We reorganized and were joined by masses of new troops and equipment all intent on moving east.

We went beyond Algiers out into the open country and found bridged wadis (deep ravines) sometimes wet, sometimes dry but difficult to cross in any manner. We had to capture some high points called djebels; one in particular was Djebel Trozzia and Hill 609. Here we encountered hunger
amongst the natives. The children jumped into the garbage pits to recover the grapefruit rinds covered with coffee grounds and dishwater, also the moldy bread crusts that had been cut from the bread arriving in gunny sacks from the Quartermaster Supply. I cut holes for the arms and head on the bottom of a sand bag and slipped it over the head of a little naked Arab and he beamed with pride over his new apparel. I managed to strip milk from a camel into my canteen cup and gave him a drink. It tasted like goat milk. I had my picture taken with my arm around a baby camel too; I think Vernon Jackson has the picture. The camels would take a bite from the huge cactus plants and I wondered how those long stickers kept from piercing their tongue and cheeks.

We were an offensive Army continually on the move. We went through Bone and Philipville, Bizerta and down towards Gafsa and Constantine. We took a position in a huge cactus patch, dug foxholes and felt some security put soon our location was sighted and a barrage of heavy artillery blasted us beyond belief. St. Sergeant Kline from C Company was killed so we were moved to a new defensive area and posted our platoon in a guard situation. Sergeant Roger DeBoer, Joe (Red) Zwolski and Gureno Rossolini were sent out on a Recon patrol to see where all the small arms fire was coming from. Six hours later Red and Gureno returned out of breath reporting that Roger had been shot.

Our Lt. James Robertson was really nerved up, he said the value of a soldier was only 37 cents so we'd leave him be out there in no man's land, there being no way to know if he was alive or dead. I protested and Stan Hanson agreed so Donald Davids drove the half-track out In the open area between fronts and when Roger fired his weapon, Stan, Bob Berry and Red discovered the wounded man and brought him back to us. A bullet had pierced his lung just below the heart and came out in the back. Medics took care of him and he was returned to the States.

The German Luftwaffe seemed to have control of the skies, and we were being strafed and bombed what seemed like forever. Christmas 1942 was approaching and propagandist stationed in the coastal town of Bizerte, we called her Dirty Gertie from Bizerte, played 'White Christmas," "Jolly Old St. Nickolas," and urged us to surrender so that we could go home for Christmas. We had been out in the field on "c" rations for a long time, and we were promised a hot meal. Dehydrated potatoes and canned strips of chicken were prepared in gravy form, which would be a delight indeed. I sat down with my mess kit fully served, and upon my first spoonful I discovered the tail with the oiler and the asshole intact. I threw that portion on the ground and ate the meal with relish.

A British Tank Corp had been severely defeated in the desert just north of Constantine. I crawled up on one and looked at the burned body of the driver. Someone had broken off his burned ring finger and taken his ring. I didn't have time to brood because enemy pressure was too great. We'd have to lay mine fields and protect our positions. One of our ton-and-a-half trucks loaded with mines blew up with such a tremendous explosion that it rocked the earth. Twelve of our men were blown to bits. My very dear friend, Roger Loesch, was among them. I was detailed with a bed sack to try and recover portions of his body for burial. The remnants were few, but I did find his dog tags and his Rosary. War was Hell!

Scott Crichton from Watertown, Charles Seip from Oldham, and George Haley were killed by small arms fire. Lt. Robertson cracked up so Lt. Welby Mathew King came in to command our platoon. Some of our men formed a Ranger BN and were to spearhead our force out of southern Tunisia. Gen. Montgomery's British Army was squeezing off the supply route for Rommel's forces. January, February, March, and April continued in a dogged fashion until a combined northward movement in Tunisia, plus the push from the east, pushed the massive German Forces out on the Bay of Tunis. Rommel and his staff managed to board a boat and escape, but the rest of an entire army surrendered there. Seems like it was thirty five thousand German and Italian troops held as prisoners. We hurried and built wire enclosures to secure the prisoners and posted guards on a continual routine.

It was May 1943. Lorres and tanks, weapons carriers and trucks stood in a line at least two miles long. Some of those hard-nosed Nazi soldiers drove their vehicles as far as they would go into the Mediterranean Sea. They ended up behind the barb wire enclosure that we had prepared for them.

The North African Campaign finally over after seven months brought a sigh of relief, but we knew it was a long way from being over. We gathered all the German small arms and took turns firing them into sand dunes to learn all we could about their war machines. It was their ammunition and their guns and some of them got so hot that we warped the barrels.

I visited several stores in Tunis and drove over to the Ruins of Carthage. Then it was time to get back to work. Some of the units were moved out, a new invasion was planned on Sicily but our group wasn't included in this. We received a new group of recruits from the Repl. Dep. (replacement center) to bring us up to full strength. We began a strenuous training program in new invasion tactics. This was to last through June, July, and August. The hillsides were covered with blooming poppies and the weather was hot - hot. We went on forced marches of thirty five to forty miles just about every day, full combat gear with a five-minute break every hour. I was in the lead going out and still leading when we came back to bivouac.

A Medic jeep followed to pick up the dropouts, but I never faltered on any of the runs. I did go to the Medics twice. Once when a scorpion bit me when I put my hand in my knapsack. A red streak went up my arm clear to my armpit, and I was in real pain. Another time a bug crawled deep into my ear, and the buzzing was crazy. They flushed it out with some water so guess I was okay. Had a little dental work done too. I remember eating lunch on the north edge of the Sahara Desert near a stable, and the flies flew from piles of horseshit to my mess kit like a parade of vultures.

The food still tasted pretty good. Raymond (Fat) Ellison and Joe Graves were scheduled to return to the States on a rotation program, so I sent my army issue pocket watch home to my Dad. The crystal had been broken, so I took it to Ordinance and there they took a piece of the heavy plastic dome cover of a downed Messer Schmidt airplane (this was a German plane) and cut a new crystal for it. I had purchased a Van Buren wristwatch from Jack Pahl for four pounds, about $12, because he had found a G.I. wristwatch. Fat delivered it to my Dad.

We had experimented with some one-quarter TNT bombs, cast them into a small river in our area and sever hundred fish came floating to the surface. We gathered them up and had a fish fry for the whole company. It was an illegal move but we enjoyed the fish all the more. I traded a package of cigarettes for a chicken and with my mess kit, Bunsen burner and some olive oil; I fried a pretty good tasting chicken. Food other than Army rations was always a treat.

Now that our company was up to full strength, we had new recruits that needed combat training. There were two new men that kept pace with me on all strenuous maneuvers, and I admired them from the start. They were Leo Comeau and Michael Nazarchyk. They and the rest of our platoon, about fifty men, pledged that as long as I was leading them, they would eagerly follow me all the way to Berlin.

The war in Sicily seemed to be pretty successful. It was September 1943, we were loaded aboard Lcl 's (Landing craft infantry) and headed across the Mediterranean Sea to make a landing at Salerno, Italy and establish a beachhead there. The sea was relatively smooth and when the front gates of the boats dropped open we raced for shore through knee deep water. Artillery shells were bursting in the water all around us, machine guns were crackling on the shore. A sand beach with no cover, a small brush plant here and there. A U.S. Gunship had lobbed some artillery sheIIs to rout the Nazi forces so the crater holed offered some protection. Our firepower strengthened and the Krauts retreated northward allowing us to bring in supplies.

We moved inward and up a corkscrew lane to the top of the Apennines Mt. Range with orders to push northward and overcome the enemy. The British Tenth Crop. was pushing north on the east coast of Italy to capture Foggia and establish an allied airport there. The German Military were out to stall our forward movement in every way possible. They laid mine fields, blew up bridges, retreated northward and left a rear guard to harass us in our every move and their planes kept a constant vigil. Our first town after Salerno was Benevento (the Hollywood of Italy) here Gerino Rossolini deserted. He blended in with the Italian natives and there was no way to find him. G 2 in charge or Army intelligence said these delaying tactics would give Kesselring, the Nazi Cmdr time to build his Gustav line on the mountain above Cassino near the Abbey of Monto Cassino where religious scrolls for centuries were kept. The Rapido River running east and west on this side of the town of Casisno was a perfect position for a defensive line, as we would come to know.

Snow and cold moved in early on the mountaintop, mule trains brought rations and water. They removed the wounded and the frostbite victims on the backs of the miles. A temporary tent was set up to shelter some of the wounded until the mule train could return. One G.I. that I helped onto the stretcher had a raw shrapnel wound in his upper thigh, looked like a cut of beefsteak. He was luckier than most.

This was just a foretaste of scenes to come. Booby trapped German soldier bodies would be laying face down and some gullible, souvenir hunting G.I. would turn them over looking for a watch or a Luger, the body exploded killing the G.I. One learned fast.

The Kraut resistance finally came to an end on the high elevation. We moved westward to a lower plain with some rolling plains dotted with black olive trees. Our division was placed in reserve for a few days. We had to regroup and be re-supplied. I was given a three-day R & R pass (rest and recreation) so I climbed into the back of a ton-and-a-half truck and rode to Naples. I bought a coral necklace that divers had retrieved from the base off the Isle of Capri. I mailed it to my sister LaVonne. We spent some time in Naples, and then toured the Ruins of Pompeii. We rode an electric Tram up and around Mt. Vesuvius. This mountain had been erupting earlier and we had watched the smoke clouds reach up into the sky. The three days passed and we returned to our units.

The 34th Info Div. began moving northward again, slowly and methodically as an army moves. The German fighter planes, circling above were having a hay day. They zoomed down and around with their twenty millimeter machine guns blazing unmercifully. On one of their passes the bullets riddled our area killing Henry Sorenson, Wilferd Weise and Henry Koopman. Joe Kellar lost a leg and Ole (Buck) Davis was severely wounded. Pools of blood gave all of us a sickening feeling, but we had orders to keep moving. A grove of olive trees off to the right seemed to offer a little cover and here we were told to dig in and form up a defensive position because it appeared that we were to face a counter attack.

Everyone began digging their foxholes but one of my new recruits had lost his little spade that we carried on our backpacks, so I gave him mine and told him to dig really fast. A few artillery shells were being lobbed in and we posted guards to be on the lookout for troop movements when suddenly a barrage of big shells began hitting our area beyond all comprehension. I didn't have a foxhole so I took refuge behind a Half-Track, they had their 37 mm Anti-tank gun in place, and so I lay flat on my stomach with my nose in the dirt. Shrapnel was whizzing in every direction. I heard the guy next to me groan and a bubbling sound caused me to look sideways to see a huge wound in his stomach with his guts gurgling out. I yelled for a Medic and gathered up my platoon into a defiladed position behind a slight bluff on the edge of a shallow dry creek bed. Our heavy artillery finally got zeroed in on the enemy gun positions and we formed up a strong guard group for the night.

A little patrol activity Of or a day or so and by cover of darkness we moved to a low hilly area on the south side of the Rapido River. The Allied Army assembled here along this front was beyond belief, the 34th, 36th, 45th Div. The 1st Indian Army from India, an army of New Zealanders, proud and gallant men of many nations. The British and Canadians were moving up along the Adriatic Coast and along this line is where the Germans had prepared their massive defenses. A mountainous area with high rocky pinnacles, deep gorges cutting sharply between huge rocky ledges. Mine fields, concrete bunkers reinforced with railroad steel and iron rails, machine guns big and small plus artillery pieces were protected inside these emplacements.

The Huge White Abbey glistened in the sun on top of the Mount overlooking the town of Cassino and the Rapido River. The orders we received were to cross the river, capture the town of Cassino, pulverize the Gustav line and free the city of Rome. Our Artillery guns began firing into the city and onto the hillside and the retaliation was extended to us, so we had to take cover through the day and wait for night to carry out our missions. We carried materials for footbridges down to the rivers edge. Their machine gun nests raked the area and mortar shells continued to destroy our materials, we carried boats down to paddle across only to be driven back. The buildings in Cassino were being demolished by our big shells and patrols were sneaking in to capture some portions of the city. Allied bombers dropped bombs on the mountainside but their positions held and then low clouds and rain came grounding that activity. The river began to rise making everything more difficult. Lt. King had stepped on a mine, not wounded too badly but Lt. Belinski was killed.

Lt. Giroux, a tall, lanky new man, became our platoon Cmdr. The guys called him the Lynx, we had to train him. We finally got a footbridge up as bodies of dead soldiers floated by. Leo, Mike, and I managed to cast some hand grenades into the slit of the bunker housing the machine gun that had been molesting our site. However, a four wheel driven Lorre with mounted mortar type gun with six upright tubes lobbed shells in destroying most of the bridge. We called them the "Screaming mimies." Believe me, they did make a screaming noise and lowered the morale of everyone, Mike, Leo and I went out again and exploded a flamethrower burst into one of those bunkers, so that we could secure a beachhead on the north shore of the river. The 1st Sergeant was a nervous wreck making out causality reports as every night, week after week was the same old story.

The dedicated soldiers of the 36th Div, the New Zealanders, and the Indians had been riddled to pieces. The weather cleared for a bit and a wing of bombers came over and dropped bombs totally pulverizing the Abbey. The G-2 (intelligence) determined that the Krauts were using it for a lookout and that it had to be destroyed. I didn't believe that the Germans were in there and later we found out that they never were in there, but they hid behind the rubble after the bombing so it didn’t do a bit of good. America would rebuild the Abbey after the war.

The Captain briefed us on the possibility of a new invasion south of Rome to cut off the supplies to Kesserling and his troops on the Gustav line and that the 34th Division would spearhead that landing. Lt. Giroux was on the verge of a nervous breakdown so Lt. King was being returned to us. This would be a blessing and we were to be replaced by new units. We gathered up what remained under the cover of darkness and hiked beyond the range of artillery fire to a line of waiting trucks. We were leaving one hell only to face another. The park lights and tail lights of our vehicles were covered with strips of black tape allowing only a small slit of light to shine through, this move was to be made in complete blackout. We traveled some distance in silence. The artillery noises seemed far away.

My jeep was leading the convey, Bob Sullivan driving, Welby King, Evie Hockett and me. I told Lt. King, I think we should stop and check on the welfare of these tired men. King agreed so signaled the convoy to halt. I stepped out and used my flashlight that was covered with black tape offering a minimum of light to the front of the vehicle and within two feet of the front of our vehicle was a crevice at least twenty feet deep. Evidently the bridge had been blown without our knowledge. This discovery caused us to bivouac for the night. I laid down beside a tree and woke up to find it was a fig tree. I tried a green fig but it was uneatable. Everyone talked of the miracle that caused us to stop in the night. Certainly an Almighty God had been watching over us. We detoured and continued our trip to Naples where ships were gathered in the harbor. We filed aboard and waited for the cover of darkness to move northward on the Tyrrhenian Sea. I believe it was early in January 1944 and our convoy sailed north in the night. Pre-dawn and the gun ships began shelling the harbor at Anzio just fifty miles south of Rome.

We went ashore to a battered shore area and met little resistance, just a few German guards that surrendered at our approach. One jeep, its driver and a scout managed to drive clear in to the outskirts or Rome. I think our commander was Gen. Truscott, a timid soul who felt that we should secure a beachhead with ample fortifications until a good quantity of men and materials would arrive. The area would be a half moon perimeter eight miles deep on a sandy beach with a few trees and channels of the Po River crisscrossing a little to our right flank. The smart move would have been to move eastward across the Appian Way onto the foot of the Alban Hills and cut off the supply route of the Germans south to the Cassino area. Instead we began laying minefields, springing barbwire concertina and moving artillery pieces into makeshift covered areas. We dug foxholes and covered them with bits of wood pieces and filled sandbags to give us a little cover. The calm lasted a couple of days and it gave the Nazi forces time to bring everything they needed to drive us back out to sea and from then on all hell broke loose. Axis Salley on the radio from Bertin told us to surrender if we ever hoped to return to our native America.

We had been overseas for two years, three years in the service and the future looked pretty bleak. Enemy artillery and small arms raked the area with a torturous effect plus daily passes by German planes dropping their "Butterfly" bombs (containers filled with bits of steel that would explode about five or six feet in midair) aimed for the head of its victims. I had a feeling of hatred for every German on the earth, I'd walk past the body of a fallen Kraut and could almost spit on them thinking they were just another dead pig. Every night would be a new experience, a reconnaissance patrol to seek out a gun emplacement and destroy, lifting anti-personnel booby trapped mined, patrols to contact the enemy strong points and direct fire power to these sites. Lt. King was relieved of duty because of problems with a previous combat wound so Lt. Greenough came in to replace him.

He appeared to be a good soldier, and I was thankful for that. The new Lt. along with Leo Comeau, Michael Nazarchyk, William Watts, Leo Canfield, and I took two mine detectors and reported to the Info C.P. to learn of the whereabouts of an anti-tank mine filed that was holding up our advance. An infantry runner came running in our direction in the pitch dark and the edge of his steel helmet collided just under the nose of the Lt., blood ran into his mouth and down his chin causing him to leave so I was in command. We went out into no man's land beyond the infantry outposts to find the minefield and remove it. Gunfire shattered the mine detector that Watts was carrying, but we found the mines, removed the detonators, tore the wire emplacement away, all the time machine guns were riddling the area and flare guns were shot into the air revealing our every movement.

A huge artillery piece was placed in the stucco house with the barrel pointing in our direction through a window. We relayed a call for our tanks to come in and destroy the gun that had been harassing our troops. We all would have been awarded the Bronze Star if there had been an office present to record our efforts. We had to move a Kraut stiff and because rigor mortis had set in, it was like rolling a post over into the ditch. Those "Master Race Nazi" were giving us a rotten attitude. We sneaked away from the hot spot and took cover behind a slight rise. It would be daylight soon, I was wet to the knees, hadn't shaved or washed up for such a long time that I couldn't remember when.

Whispers came through that a Chaplain was preparing for a sunrise service, it was Good Friday I guess, so we gathered just as the first rays of light appeared in the East. I was so tired that I barely heard the story of the Crucifixion but as the sun began to appear I felt a sense of remorse. A humble feeling came over me, I felt like a tiny mite in this vast world. I thought I heard a voice speaking, be strong in the Lord. I earnestly prayed, Lord, if it be your will that my life will be spared perhaps one day I'll be called on to do something good for your people. Then huge shells exploded nearby and it was time to dig another foxhole. Here I could use my little Bunsen burner to heat water in my canteen cup, stir in a little coffee out of the C-ration can and a couple of hard biscuits made up my nutritious breakfast.

Orders came for me to report to the C.O. Lt. Greenough had several stitches in his upper lip, he would be unavailable for duty perhaps a week or two so I would be in full command of the platoon. He was recommending me for a Field Commission and would arrange for the paperwork to be done as soon as conditions would permit. Nothing really very different about it, I had been leading this Platoon of over four hundred in our efforts to defeat Nazism.

We were making attempts at breaking out of this place. A read bride had been blown up causing a halt in the movements of the Tank Corp., so I moved the platoon to a site under the cover of darkness. We worked most of the night laying a by-pass with broken pieces of concrete and rock, three foot deep and twelve feet wide lined with white tapeline to guide the tanks forward. Then we formed into a guard position to defend the little new area gained in the recent skirmish. Mortar shells and volleys of machine gun fire kept us in a low position throughout the next day. We'd have to sweat out the day and lift a field of S-mines, booby-trapped to prevent our forward movement as soon as darkness arrived.

Cliff Hullinger was pulled off the line to go back for his Lt. bars, what a break for him. That left Ed Jaeger, 1st Plst., Lyle Haug, 2nd Plst., and Joe Culver, 3rd Plst, all three wounded on the same night at a later date.

The minefield lifted, a different unit came in to replace us giving all of us a little respite. Victor Gallo gave us a little pep talk, one of these days we'd be in Florence to rescue his father and brother who had been interred there since before the war. There were the shelled remnants of a town nearby, but I can't remember the name of it however, I gathered up my guys and began leading them to what I though might be a little safer area. It was April 23, 1944, 4 a.m., machine gun bullets kept spraying us periodically. The tracers, every fifth bullet lit up to show the operator where his bullets were traveling, were pretty bright in the dark night. I scoffed at the stinking Krauts, when all of a sudden they spattered at my footsteps and I fell to the ground wounded like a stunned rabbit. This was too close, I rolled into a ditch filled with ten to twelve inches of water, and the whole platoon was smart enough to do likewise.

I crawled over to see that my men were okay and told Stan Hanson to lead every one to safety. Swede Halverson stayed with me and we crawled about fifty rods in the ditch because the machine guns came rattling over our heads. My combat boot was oozing with blood though I didn't really feel much hurt, but I knew that I couldn't walk. Swede, carried me piggyback for quite along way when we spotted a jeep. He gave us a ride to a waiting ambulance. They gave me a couple of sulfa pills and a shot of whiskey and carted me away to an Evac, tent Hospital near the beach. I was distraught, how will those guys survive without me. A nurse came and gave me a sedative and a Surgeon came and said that it looked pretty severe and that he'd probably have to take the foot off. But we would wait until morning for a second opinion.

Shrapnel cut through the side of the tent but by now I was dog tired and went to sleep. I was awakened in the morning to a mess kit full of juicy spinach and beans and I wanted to puke. My foot throbbed but I ate some of the crap offered me along with a slice of bread. The surgeon, a Major, sat at the foot of my army cot and gave me the report. The leg bones supporting the ankles have all been shot away, it is a compound complete fracture and you will be lucky to ever walk again. We will telegram you parents that you have been severely wounded in action. I was alarmed at what the telegram would do to my mother so encouraged them to say slightly wounded which wouldn't sound so bad.

I wouldn't give my permission to cut the foot off so the Doctor said they would cut into it and manage some kind of repair. The M.G. was an 8 mm that had cut a nasty path. I woke up after about five hours, pretty groggy with a cast all the way up to my crotch., Buford Grey, the supply Sergeant came to retrieve my army issue pocket watch but I didn't have it cause it was home with my Dad.

I spent a couple days at the Evac. Hospital then I was placed on a stretcher and placed aboard a flat ship along with another one hundred or more stretchers. We sailed out to an anchored hospital ship, as waves tossed the ships up and down we were cast aboard the deck of the white ship carrying a bright red cross. The boat slipped away to the south, we came into port at Naples, a convoy of ambulances waited for their cargo of stretchers. A trio of Salvation Army workers met me at the shoreline with a Yank magazine, a Mr. Goodbar and an orange, a real prize. loaded into the vehicles, we went to an Army Hospital located there. I was placed on a bed with a mattress and a white sheet, the first one in over three years. I was told to stay in bed as a bed patient and to ring for a ward boy if I needed anything. Well, I hadn't had a bowel movement for several days so I called for a bedpan (Bomber, B52, or whatever). I managed to lay on that pan with a sheet covering and what a hard job that turned out to be. When I raised the cover, the stench was so terrible, that I vowed that the next time would be different. Next morning I crawled out of bed and crawled on my hands and knees to the bathroom. The ward boys gave me some jazz, but from then on I was mobile.

Word came down that mortar fire had killed Comneau and Spencer. Oh, what a sad, sad day, my beloved Leo, I felt a sense of guilt. I should have been there to look after him. They carried him back to the burial detail, his once strong arms hanging limp and the proud head tilted back in total despair. He rests today beneath a white cross on Anzio and I shed a tear for one so gallant and brave.

The Chaplain noticed my grief and his consolation was that Leo was safe in the arms of Jesus away from the ravages of war. It was to last a lifetime for me, and when an artillery shell exploded into a rocky area sending fragments into the air striking Michael in the temple was another extreme loss. He too lies beneath a white cross on Anzio in Italy not to far from the Appian Way leading into Rome. I will never understand the reason why, but there are things beyond human understanding, and my grief would linger on.

There were a lot of moans and groans on my ward, so I begged for a pair of crutches and began to hobble around to different patients, reading to some of them, writing letters for some of them whose arms were immobile. I tried to console one man whose legs and arms were gone and bad facial burns made him look grotesque. There were other mutilations too which made me count my blessing so I did what favors I could for many of these men. I made the daily rounds, met two soldiers from Bryant, Walter Peterson and Norman Hanson; I knew some of their families back home. A brother of Bernell Clark of Willow lake was also there so it was like old home week. Dale Hytholt, my oId A. Company buddy, came in as a wounded patient so we found a lot of things to do as we waited for a ship back to America. The troops that we had left had broken out of Anzio and were driving the Germans out of Rome. I felt that I should be with them, but Jack Pahl who had taken my place had caught a bullet between the eyes, I suppose that it could have been me, only the Lord knows.

It was early June, 1944. I had a new cast just from the knee down. I could handle the crutches like a pro. Lt. Greenough was commanding my platoon. Ed Jaegger and Joe Culver had been wounded the same night that I had been wounded and the rest of A. Company was on the move. Rumors were being passed around that ships were assembling in the harbor at Naples, among them a white Hospital ship bearing the huge Red Cross. It was true. We were loaded aboard ship for a six thousand mile ride home.

Two and one-half years (30 months) had been a long time. German planes still circled overhead, but we felt pretty safe aboard our ship though a stray bomb could easily have hit us. We sailed out into the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and east. I thought the ship moved awfully slowly, but we finally sailed into the wide South Atlantic Ocean at a steady pace. We were on the water twelve of thirteen days when lights appeared on the shore at Newport News, Virginia, on June 14th.

Someone was playing a record, "Harbor Lights." The ship halted, and we would have to wait until morning to unload. I hobbled down the gangplank with other ambulatory patients. We gathered into an eating area where a little black girl with a white head band and a white apron brought a breakfast to me of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, and orange juice. She was a pretty girl and the breakfast was super.

We were loaded on a train and rode to Martinsburg, West Virginia to a hospital there. We had a little check up there, a baggage check. We rested for a while and then boarded an ambulance convoy for a ride to Hagerstown, Maryland. I was placed on a stretcher and fastened to a position on a waiting plane along with my backpack with my shaving gear, toothbrush, paste, soap and comb, a wash rag and towel. The rest of my things were put into a barracks bag and left there because there wasn't enough room on the plane for any more baggage, however, Officers were bringing extra baggage on board. They promised that my things would arrive at my destination later but they never did.

I heard that my things ended up in a warehouse in St. Louis, Missouri and was burned up in a fire there. We flew in the D.C. 10 to Columbus, Ohio, landed there, unloaded some passengers and flew to Moline, Illinois. We were unloaded here, put into an ambulance, rode across the river to Clinton, Iowa and admitted to the Schick General Hospital there. June 15, 1944 and it was a morning to remember for and yet another evening for my Company in far away Italy.

Mr. and Mrs. Carl Anderson, Sr., Hazel (she had been my classmate in High School) and Lee, came from Rockford, Illinois to visit me. They had lived in Willow Lake for years so I felt like I was HOME. Schick General would be my home for the next six months. The first move had to be the removal of the cast for a little minor surgery. There were a number of bone splinters that had infected below the skin, which had to be removed, then a new cast covered a skinny wrinkled chicken looking leg, ankle, and foot.

I was granted a furlough so that I could go home to my folks in South Dakota. I boarded a train at Clinton, Iowa and had to stand in the aisle, leaning on my crutches all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota. The train was packed with passengers and nobody bothered to give me a seat. I road the Empire Builder from Minneapolis to Benson, Minnesota and from there I rode the Galloping Goose to Willow Lake, South Dakota.

This train made its daily run to Huron and back. I hadn't been home for three years and everything looked so different. My Mom and Dad looked so much older. Kenny and Roger, two gangling boys, were shocking oats in a field south of the mailbox. I couldn't put any weight on my left foot, but I did pick up a couple bundles and place them on the shock. Marlyce and Marleen were two little shy girls and as I looked around home it just didn't seem like home anymore. Friends and relatives greeted me enthusiastically and I felt a little pride but in spite of it all I felt a little awkward and out of place.

John Meyer, Tebbo Harms, and Augie Mudhenke were conversing in German on the corner near the cafe in Willow Lake, which was very distasteful. Those same guttural tones had caused many hours of grief for me just a few months back. Aunt Minnie was dying of cancer and news of the war plagued my every thought. Time passed quickly and I was back at Schick General just ninety miles south of Chicago. I was fixed up with a hinged cast, one that could be removed so that I could sit with my foot in a tub of hot swirling water that would return proper circulation to the wounded area. They called it physical therapy.

Fall came, Minnie died. I went home for the funeral and stayed for Ben Bahl's sale. Back at the Hospital, I was given permission to take the cast off once in a while and attempt a few steps. It was difficult, but I had every intention to start walking as soon as possible. I made good progress and on January 5, 1945, I was discharged from the Hospital and the U.S. Army. Thanks be to God. I guess that I was glad but a shadow of sadness would be with me for a lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. I want to thank the author for posting this article. Henry Koopman, who was listed in this blog as killed in action, was my uncle. It means much to our family to be able to read this and better understand the circumstances of Henry's death.-John G. Koopmann

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