517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team
"How I Saw It"
SSgt. Milton D. Rogers
460th - Battery C
World War II was big and all covering. It really touched almost everyone in the world in some way or another. Pearl Harbor was the real wake up call, I guess, for America. I was doing an LDS Mission in the Central States Mission: Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
I had served in Arkansas for about seven months when I turned twenty-one. I was required to register for the draft, and did so on my birthday, May 8. This was in 1941. In another couple of months I was transferred to western Kansas, and did the rest of my mission there. I was in St. John, Kansas on Sunday, December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor happened. We heard it on the radio at the home of the branch president where we had gone for dinner. I had just under a year to go to make my two years, and they went on about the same as always for a missionary.
Sometimes people would want to know why we weren’t in the service, but we had draft cards and would be draft eligible when our two years were over. Their ministers had the same draft cards, I think 4A-- but theirs were permanent.
The 25th, I think, of November, I got my mission release. This would be 1942. I got home for Christmas, and got a week or two cowboying down on Bluff Bench. My dad had a permit for a few cows in what was called the “League of Nations,” several small operators.
It turned out I had a cyst on my tail bone that would keep me out of the Army. I had an operation to remove said cyst between Christmas and New Years, and by the last of March was ready for the service.
I was working for Redd Ranches, Charley Redd, at La Salle. I was also offered a job by Al Scorrup, Indian Creek. Either could keep me out of the draft. I had worked for both of these outfits before my mission. I knew I wouldn’t feel right to miss the war that my contemporaries were in, so I surrendered to the draft board.
I was called in early April to report to Ft. Douglas, Salt Lake City. In my group were Lark Washburn, Keith Redd, and Nolan May, a Ute who had gone to school in Blanding that we all knew. There was another man we didn’t know. I can’t remember his name, but I think he was of the Ben Black tribe. That’s a safe guess in Blanding. We also had George Ballinger, whose father was a dentist, from Monticello. Already at Ft. Doug were Kay Lyman and his brother Almond. They had been there a few days and left soon after we got there. Owen Burnham, a cousin of mine, was also there. He had been going to Utah State and had been called from there.
My brother, Arthur Rogers, went in at the same time, but he was signed up for the Army Air Corps and went directly to a training field, not through Ft. Doug. He had been at the University of Utah, sort of going to school and playing basketball.
We went through the usual examination and tests and interviews, and many things that are done because that is how the army does things. I was being interviewed in a booth next to Nolan May. He and a New York native who both thought they were speaking English were having a terrible time. I went and volunteered to interpret, and Nolan got in the army. He really wanted to go. Most of the Utes forgot how to speak English immediately on reaching Ft. Doug and didn’t recover their speech ‘til on the bus home.
We got uniforms, no stripes, no insignia, no braid on the cap, nothing. I felt like a turkey in a flock of turkeys. I didn’t like it.
We were marched, or herded, into a big hall, I think two or three thousand turkeys, and heard a lieutenant talk about volunteering for the parachute troops. We had heard it was coming up and had been discussing it. One of the things we had discussed was we wouldn’t have to walk as much with the flying in planes. I wasn’t feeling very adventurous, but when they said, “All who want to volunteer, stand up,” I stood. It was really the first choice I had been given. I was a turkey stepped out of the flock.
There were four of our group, Washburn, Burnham, Ballinger, and me. Believe it or not, we stayed in the same outfit throughout our military careers, which was highly unusual. And we didn’t have to walk as much. The good old Airborne ran all the time.
It seems like my military career took almost as long to get started as long as it lasted. The Airborne-bound got on sleeper cars and headed east. We laid over in Denver, in Kansas City, Mo., and in St. Louis. They would pull us onto a siding and hook us up to a steam line to keep us warm.
It seems like it took at least a week to get to Nashville, Tenn., another layover. After Nashville, we went south through the night to Atlanta, Ga. Here we left our faithful Pullman car and got on a puddle jumper headed north. We went to a place called Toccoa, Ga., right by the South Carolina border.
Here we go out of the train and in a truck, and went to an alleged place called Camp Toccoa. A demon screamed, “Get out of that truck!” Loudly. Later we found out he was a corporal, not too much power but more than we had. He then said, “Get down and do 15 pushups for getting out too slow.” We found out this was the favorite order of all the noncoms and most officers. After a day or two the 15 pushups had become 50! And yet we stayed!
It rained a lot and the dirt was as red as Blanding, Utah soil. A pushup wasn’t acceptable unless your chin touched the mud, and there was usually a boot on the back of your neck to help your chin reach mud.
And still we stayed!
We were interviewed by a Captain Vogel, who had the crossed cannons of the field artillery on his collar. He was quite upset at me for being a preacher, as he called it. He asked me if I would be able to kill a man with my bare hands. I said yes. I meant him or any of the corporals and sergeants I’d seen so far. It would have been a pleasure. Of course I didn’t add that last comment out loud.
We were there two or three weeks. We ran up mountainsides days, ran or fell down them, then did it some more. The idea was to drive out anyone with any sanity, because no sane man would put up with the torture. Sane people can’t be depended upon to jump out of airplanes under all conditions. Being crazy, they told us, wasn’t necessary; but it helped. I now know, and really knew then, that they wanted us mad enough to say, “You SOB’s, I can do anything you can do and do it better.” Even with my knowing this, it worked on me. This doesn’t say much about my sanity.
After three or four weeks of these fun and games, we go on a train and rode to Camp Mackall, North Carolina. This was our home away from home for the next year. Our keepers, the officers, had access to our tests from Fort Doug. I was just off a mission, and have always been able to test a lot smarter than I am, therefore I was designated for control and declared to be the instrument corporal of C Battery of the 460 Field Artillery Battalion of the 517th Regimental Combat Team. I was still there when I was discharged after the war, but I’d made it to Recon Sergeant and then to Chief of Detail, which was Staff Sergeant-- three stripes up and one down.
Lark was put in the machine gun section. He had worked in the mine and had worked a jackhammer, so he could handle a 50 caliber machine gun. Owen Burnham was in Headquarters battery of the 460th. He training was similar to mine. We were sometimes in classes together learning to be surveyors and such. Ballinger was the company clerk, which also carried the corporal rating.
We got the jobs right off, but not the stripes or the extra pay. I got made a Private First Class at the end of the first month, and had corporal stripes on a band around my arm, but only during the working day. At the end of the second month, I was made a sure-enough corporal. Sixty-six dollars a month instead of fifty. This was the last of my spectacular rise in power.
We were a new outfit just forming up. We had a 10 man per battery cadre, more or less experienced men from the 102nd Airborne. Their insignia was an eagle’s head with beak open. It was officially “The Screaming Eagle,” but more commonly called “The Puking Buzzard.” We were in the 17th Airborne division. Our insignia was the leg and extended talons of the eagle. You don’t want to know what we called it.
Being a new outfit, we had to clean the brush and small trees from our training area. We had axes and pickaxes. Most of our troops didn’t know which end of an ax to take hold of, but Lark had worked as a logger for Vern Rowley and was a mighty man with an ax. I’d hauled many a load of wood and cut fence posts and such. I wasn’t near in Lark’s class, but better than most anyone else. One day we were alone in a bunch of trees and were leaning on our axes catching our breath. A captain came along and said, “Why aren’t you working?” We were surrounded by trees and brush that had been cut, so someone had been working and we were the only ones there. I said, “Sir, we had just stopped to puff a minute.” He said, “Oh, we can’t have that. We don’t care how fast or slow you go, but keep moving.” That misguided captain caused a surprising drop in the training area clearing. We never go excited about work again.
There was a tower erected about15 feet high with an enclosed platform on top. It had a ladder up the back side and a door like an airplane door on the front. A cable ran from a post outside the door, platform-floor high, to a post near the ground. We would put on a chute harness, snap it onto the cable, assume the proper position in the door, and when the appointed person slapped you on the back of the leg and said, “Go!” you went. It was sort of fun to slide down the cable, the first few thousand times. Not so much fun to run to the ladder and do it again and again and again and… We had an airplane body or reasonable facsimile of the same mounted about 4 feet off the ground. We spent a lot of time shuffling down the aisle, making the proper pivot and jumping out on the ground. Again, on and on and on.
We were taking basic training all the while in the heat and high humidity that prevailed. We started the day by falling out in a pair of shorts, boots and dogtags on a chain around our necks, and ran for thirty minutes, sometimes more-- never less. Then came reveille, in full uniform of the day. Then breakfast, then to training classes. The Army as a whole had 50-minute classes then a ten-minute break. We had 40-minute classes, then ten minutes of vigorous exercises, then the ten-minute break. Any real or imaginary lack of attention got extra pushups. Fifty was the usual assessment, but it could reach 150 quite easily. A happy summer.
About the middle of August we were ready for jump school. They had a noncom meeting. The captain read off the name of each man and we voted yes or no for him to go to jump school. There were several noes, and these were immediately sent to another outfit. We never saw them again. Our San Juan County Four made the cut.
We were issued jump boots instead of shoes and leggings. This was a thing of great pride. We didn’t get to wear our pants legs laced in the boot tops until after jump school. We took the train to Fort Benning, Georgia and entered into a three-week program of serious torture. There was one week of physical conditioning that we were spared, having had six months already.
They had things to slide down for landing training and towers to jump out of, and fun and games of all sorts. One demon-inspired one was to get into a chute harness attached to a real parachute, and then the demons turned on a high-powered fan that inflated the chute and dragged you over the ground. If you got it just right you could spin so that the chute pulled you onto your feet, and you let the air out of your chute by pulling the bottom lines.
I got dang lucky on this, surprising being a klutzy as I was (and am.) Washburn made a wrong turn and got dragged. I think the demons worked extra hard on him because he was so tall. The maximum height for a paratrooper was 6’2” and he was 6’4”. These regulations were to be used in case they needed an excuse to get rid of someone and didn’t really have one.
The last week of jump school was sort of the last straw. We had learned to pack our own chutes; why, I don’t know-- we never did it again. We packed our chute the night before and jumped with it the next morning.
They fell us out and marched us to the landing strip. There was a building there where we had packed the chutes the night before. We picked up the chutes and put them on. The harness fit so tight you had to hunch over to buckle it. Your main chute was a backpack, and your reserve in case the main didn’t open was a small round package that hung at your waist in front. They marched us to a lean-to shack on the side of the hangar/ chute-packing building-- its name was the sweat shack. We soon knew why,
It was a tin-roofed shed heated by the Georgia sun and a bunch of terrified soldiers. There was a cheerful little ditty playing over and over on a juke box. The name of the song was “Blood on the Risers,” words set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” There is a version of this on the internet a little different from the one I know and love, but the one I know and taught to my twelve kids when they came is as follows:
There was blood upon the risers
There was blood upon the chute
There was blood and guts a-dripping
From the paratroopers’ boots.
He lay there and wallered
In the welter of his gore
And he ain’t gonna jump no more.
Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die
Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die
Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die
And he ain’t gonna jump no more.
This is the tender lullaby of my children’s early years. They loved it. My mother was here visiting from Utah and she told stories and sang songs to the kids. Sally, the oldest girl, about three at the time said, “Granny, don’t you know ‘Blood on the Risers?’” This didn’t do my stock any good.
Anyway, they marched us to the plane, a C47. The door had been taken off and anything that could snag a chute was taped over. We went into the plane and sat in assigned seats. Mine was number one, closest to the door-- the privilege of rank. I was to go first because I was a corporal. I had never been up in a plane before and I felt just a trifle uneasy.
We went up about 1100 feet, so we were told, and leveled out. There is a routine. I may forget it when I die, but not before. There is a red light up by the door that comes on. The jumpmaster bellows, “Stand up and hook up.” There is a cable running the length of the cargo space where we are. We have a static line on our backpacks that will open our chute. We fasten it to the cable. The other end is fastened to the chute on our back. It will break away when (if?) the chute opens. “Sound for equipment check.” We check the guy in front of us. I didn’t have anyone.
“Close it up and stand in the door.” those several months of practice on the mock-up plane at Mackall are paying off. The only problem is now I am standing in the door of a flying plane plenty high enough to kill me, and wonder, “You idiot, what in the hell do you think you’re doing?” About then I feel the hit on my leg and the jumpmaster said, “Go,” so I went. I guess it’s all in the training.
You go out the door by kicking your right leg out and bringing your left leg to it. This puts you facing the tail of the plane, and it’s coming right at you to cut off your head. Just before this happens, the plane jumps up over you. That’s what it always looked like to me. There was no sense of falling. As the plane jumps your chute pops over your head and opens, and jerks you like you’re on the end of a bullwhip. It seems as if you are going to fall apart, but you don’t. That waits until you’re old like I am now.
The ground that looked so far away looks pretty good now. The ride down is fun. Just as I start to enjoy it, the ground started to rise to meet me real fast! I hit hard, landing first on my right foot and then splattered; it felt like, all over the ground. I hurt my right knee and now, 64 years later, it still hurts. I do get some disability compensation, which tends to ease the pain.
I jumped my five jumps in 5 days on a lame leg. I only jumped, I think, five more times, the last on the invasion of southern France, and I never learned to like it. Looking back, I still wonder why we-- the San Juan Four-- did it. They try to drive you out until you have made the five jumps and are “qualified,” and from then on you can’t quit if you want to. The first time you get shot at in combat you find out you weren’t really afraid in the jumping. Germans trying to kill you is much worse.
All the time along with the work and Airborne stuff, we were learning the trade of war. We were artillery, so our main thing was the cannons. We had four 75-mm pack howitzers per battery, three batteries per battalion, twelve guns in all. These are small cannons, about 3” in diameter. They were made to be packed on the back of mules. It took, I think, six mules to carry one. Ours had rubber tires and could be pulled by five cannon balls. Cannonball was what we of the instrument, radio, telephone, machine guns and everyone else called the cannoneers. We figured their heads were of the same density as an old-time steel cannon ball. It turned out they had the best job of all. They stayed with the guns, one to four or five miles behind where the infantry fought, and shot at things they couldn’t see. The lobbed the shells over hills at targets the observers found for them.
In training my group went out early and ran a survey from the gun positions to the OP-- observation post. When we got it done we mostly lay in the shade and made fun of the mistakes the officers made directing the fire made. I liked the surveying and had a good crew. We did most of the surveying for the battalion. The others copied our work. Burnham’s bunch from headquarters battery ran a line along the OP and tied us into it.
I learned the radio and telephone procedure, and later on the communications were under my direction.
We had a practice jump in January of ‘44. We went to an air strip at Florence, South Carolina. Of course, the weather was too bad to jump. I had a miserable cold, and sleeping on the frozen ground in a pup tent didn’t help it all that much. I went to our doctors and they sent me to the Air Corps hospital, where it turned out I had pneumonia. I spent the worst of the winter in comfort and ease while my unit went on winter maneuvers in the Tennessee mountains. I guess it was very snowy, cold and miserable. I gloated over the ones that had to endure it.
I rejoined the troops at Camp Mackall. They had just gotten back from Tennessee. (They had kept me in the hospital after I was well because they had no place to send me). We were judged as combat-ready, so they pulled us out of the 17th division, and we were on our way.
We had gotten a guy named Phil Kennamer. He was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was in Washburn’s machine gun section. He had just been paroled from the Oklahoma State penitentiary where he had been doing time for manslaughter. He was quite a revelation to us country kids who had never been anyplace or done anything.
We got on the train and went to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, close to the seaport of Newport News. We moved into barracks and went thru the processing that never ends. My 23rd birthday happened there, and the bunch I hung with decided to have a party. They took up a collection and bought some beer and some pop, and the party was underway in the barracks.
Phil Kennamer decided we needed sandwiches. I said, “There’s no place to get anything here.” He said, “There’s that mess hall right over there.” He said to one of the other guys, I don’t remember who, “Follow my lead and do what I tell you.” They went to the mess hall. The cooks had piles of baked hams they were slicing off the bone to serve for lunch or dinner the next day. The meat was on huge platters, piled high. He said to the accomplice, “Pick up an armful of those bread loaves and follow me.” The kid did so.
A cook got between Kennamer and the door, and Kennamer said, “Get out of my way, you @*!#, or I’ll break your @*!# knee.” The cook got out of the way, and the raiding party returned triumphant. When he decided we really needed mustard, too, we restrained them from going back. It was a dandy fine birthday and going away party. (Among other things, we had been given judo training. I don’t suppose it anywhere near made us invincible, but the other servicemen seemed to think it did. Wearing the paratrooper badge, the pants tucked in your boots, and a high-peaked cap pulled down over your eye did give you an attitude. I haven’t lost mine yet).
A day or so later, we loaded on the ship. It was a small freighter that had been a cargo boat running to the Caribbean, at least we were so informed. They had put in pipe framework and hung canvas on them to make bunks. The man above you was only two or three inches above you. We got on the ship in the evening and they made us go below deck. Somehow we slept, and in the night they set sail. When we woke up the next morning, we were out of sight of land. This is a strange sensation for a person who had never seen the ocean before, especially someone from San Juan County who has hardly seen enough water to drink. I loved the ocean.
It took about two weeks to reach Naples, Italy. The sea was relatively smooth and the weather was warm. We got a pitch game going out on the deck, Washburn and Burnham against Phil Kennamer and me. There are several thousand varieties of pitch, be the same game is played in Oklahoma and Tennessee as is played in Blanding and Bluff, Utah. I was on the losing side most of the time because my partner overbid his hand severely. He couldn’t let anybody else win the bid. We made fun of him and reviled him. He named us those SOBs from Utah. In army language that is almost a compliment.
Kennamer was on night KP for part of the trip. He went down the first night reviling the Utahans. There was a merchant marine in charge of the kitchen, his second in command being Sergeant Prill, our own battalion mess sergeant. His cooking fit the army term “mess” real well. Anyway, this merchant seaman said, “What part of Utah are those guys from?” Kennamer said, “A hick town you never heard of named Blanding.” The merchantman said, “Heard of? I was in the CC camp cooking for two years. Go get those guys.” Kennamer came and got us, and down in the galley we went. Sergeant Prill saw us coming and said, “If you guys are going to stay here, you’re going to work.” The merchantman said, “They are my guests and they are not going to work.” Instead of gaining three more hands, Prill lost Kennamer. It wasn’t much of a loss, because he wasn’t much for work anyway. We transferred our pitch game down to the galley and slept mostly daytime on the deck. I’d recommend this as a pleasure cruise any time.
There was a navy gun crew on board to fend off any air attacks. They did drills by running through the pitch game yelling, “Gangway, Gun Crew!” We saw nary an airplane. There were a couple of destroyers circling us like sheepdogs herding sheep. The gun crew had got hold of some denatured alcohol. It was poison, but they had figured out a way to drink it. Two of our guys, high-ranking noncoms from headquarters, drank with them, and it killed our guys. We got our first casualties the easy way.
We sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. The water there was even smoother. The rock looks just like the pictures. It almost made you want to go out and work for Prudential insurance. We saw the coast of Africa on the south, and the coast of Spain on the north. I don’t remember seeing France; I guess we swung too far south. We landed at Naples. The harbor was full of wrecked ships sticking one end up. They had taken quite a beating there. Italy had surrendered, and about the time we got there they joined our side and declared war on Germany. They were not much more help than we expected.
Naples may not be the filthiest place on earth, but it beats anything I’ve ever seen. We marched through some of it, out to a camp in a village called Bagdollio. (It probably isn’t spelled anywhere near that way). That camp was vile beyond belief, but in a couple of days we moved out to an extinct volcano crater that was pretty nice. We had field conditions, camping in pup tents, but the field kitchen was working so we weren’t yet blessed with K rations.
Like always, if there was any chance the army started training us again. One of our officers, Lt. Freestone from Arizona, came up to me as we headed for a map-reading class. He said, “Rogers, have you had this class?” I said, “Yes sir, a couple of times.” He said, “Good, you teach it.” So I taught it. I was pretty good on maps. This one had a flip chart and was teaching how to read a contour map. About the time I got going good, here came the colonel prowling around. Lt. Freestone ran up and saluted, but the colonel said, “Go on with your class, corporal,” so I did. It goes on about hills and valleys, gradual slopes and steep slopes. It was a real good prop, one of the best army props I had seen. I built up the drama pretty good and flipped the last page. We’d been studying a contour map of Betty Grable.
When we got over to the main camp the captain said, “The colonel asked me to bring you over to his tent.” Colonels don’t ask, they tell; so we went over to his tent and saluted. He said, “Corporal, that was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. You must have been a teacher in civilian life.” I said, “No sir, I was a ranch hand.” Well, he went on and on. It’s cheaper to blow smoke than to come out with another stripe and a little more money. On the way back the captain said, “Why didn’t you tell him you were a preacher?” I said, “Because I’m not. I’m a paratrooper.” Anyway, the turkey had stepped out of the flock again.
We stayed in the crater for a few days. One morning we got the word that something big was going on, to be careful what we shot at. We weren’t doing any shooting, didn’t even have ammunition except on guard duty, but that’s what we were told. What it was, was D-Day, June 6, 1944. We knew nothing of what was going on. I found out that people fighting a war know nothing about what is going on outside their little area. We learned about the Normandy landing, and that the 101st and 82nd divisions had jumped in and got shot up. How bad we didn’t know until much later.
Two or three days after D-Day we got in landing craft and went up the west coast of Italy. Rome had fallen the same day as D-Day. The Germans had pulled out. We made our landing uncontested. The army knew this, and didn’t count it as an invasion. The next day, however, I went to war.
I was sent with Lt. Freestone , who was the forward observer assigned to I Company, 3rd Battalion of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Nobody knew then, but I spent almost all the rest of the war with I Company. There were with us a radio operator and a telephone man. They carried the radio, which came in two pieces, the radio and the battery pack. Hooked together, it worked. Its official army name was Radio, Army SCR 609. If it was mounted in a jeep its number was 610. I don’t know why I remember this bit of trivia, but for better or worse this radio was a fact of life that made it all happen.
I carried a folding stock carbine that hung on my belt, a canvas case to hold maps also on my belt, and a pair of binoculars in a case, hung by a strap around my neck. What with pockets full of K rations, I was pretty well loaded.
We took off following the infantry. I don’t think they had a clue as to what they were doing. Their captain was totally useless. If he had ever had any ability, it had been scared out of him. He eventually blew clear up, but instead of shooting him or kicking him out of the army, they gave him a job back at Battalion HQ. But not yet.
We spent all day our first day following a small group of Germans. I think they knew we were green and were playing with us. We were out of range of our cannons and our jeep was far away, I don’t know where. We were of no use to anyone, and I was sick of the war. We had been shot at by machine pistol and rifles, and the Germans had led us into a minefield. A couple of mines went off and small cannon of some kind fired a couple of rounds into the area. We had several wounded, but no one was killed. This was the pattern for several days. A bad officer in charge can mess up a good unit.
Word got back to the battalion that things were not going well. They sent a major to straighten things out. I’ve forgotten his name. We were strung out going up a hill with the front scouts ahead as usual, then the major and the captain, and back a little the lieutenant who was platoon leader. We (the artillery bunch) were at the rear of the lead platoon.
We were green, but the Germans were not. They knew our marching order better than we did. They let the two scouts get over the ridge, and when the officers topped the ridge the Germans opened fire-- several rifles. The major was killed, the lieutenant wounded, and the captain was running to the rear, bellering like a branded calf.
We were well-trained. The infantry spread out into a skirmish line, and when the Germans came over the ridge they got blasted. We, the artillery, were of no use because we were out of the range of our guns.
The Germans, we found, were a very obedient people. If their officers were knocked out they were handicapped, because they needed orders. The Americans, on the other hand, were not all that obedient, especially the airborne army. When our leaders were out of action, the non-coms-- who were more often the natural leaders-- took over, and it helped that much.
Our Italian campaign was a good learning experience. It was sort of maneuvers with live ammo. We had four or five weeks of action, none as poorly managed as the first three or four days. We actually called in artillery fire a couple of times.
This captain who ran weeping I thought would be court martialed and shot, or at least given a dishonorable discharge, but when it came to officers, I guess we were a kinder, gentler army. He got a desk job at regimental HQ. He had access to the right paper forms, and he filled out two sets, one promoting himself to major and the other transferring him to another unit. He put them in a pile of papers for the colonel to sign, and when they were signed sent him through channels. The promotion came back first, but he just sat on it. When the transfer came, he put on the gold oak leaf of a major and he was out of there. I got this from the enlisted men who also worked in Regt HQ.
We had pulled out of the lines and moved to a pup tent camp near a small town called Frescotti, quite close to Rome. The camp was in an olive grove. It was a pretty nice camp site. Two or three times a week we would march to a lake in an extinct volcano crater and go swimming. We also got passes into Rome. I made it twice to Rome. I saw the Colosseum and other sights. I went to St. Peters and saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican is joined on to St. Peters. There were Swiss guards on the door between the cathedral and the Vatican. Soldiers of a nation at war can’t go into the Vatican because it was a neutral country. The Pope would come out of the Vatican and talk a little to the people there, including the American troops. Once when I was there, he came out. The guys were all lining up, so I got in line. It turned out that they lined up to kiss the Pope’s ring. When it got to be my turn, I stuck out my hand and he shook hands with me. I guess he was not too put off by ignorant Americans.
After a reasonably pleasant stay outside Rome, we were moved to northern Italy to an airport. As usual this bode no good. Southern France, here we come. I was at the radio shack and got to hear the announcement from Berlin Sally. She was the German’s spreader of cheer and happiness. She was probably an angry ex-American; her voice sounded like it. She said, “I have a special announcement for the ex-convicts in the 517th Airborne Combat team. We know when you are coming and we know where you are coming, and the fields will be red with your blood.” We weren’t all ex-cons, though some admittedly were.
After a day or two getting ready, the stage was set. We were to get in the planes at about 100 hours (one a.m.) on August 15, and get out where they told us.
My outfit was made up mostly of young guys, most of them right out of high school-- or in some cases reform school. I was one of the older ones. Phil Kennemar of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and the pitch games was three or four years older than I was, and partly due to our advanced years we had become pretty good buddies. We couldn’t sleep as well as those young kids without nerves, so we sat up and talked till time to load in the planes.
We were out of about everything to talk about, and finally got to religion. He said he didn’t believe in God, didn’t believe in much of anything. I said, “You mean you think that if you get shot tomorrow it’s all over?” He said, “Yep, that’s what I think.”
Well, a little after midnight it’s off to the planes. Lucky old Corporal Rogers gets to be first man out as usual. I was to push a 30-caliber machine gun out ahead of me. I had sharpened my trench knife real good to cut my way out of my chute harness if needed.
Contrary to what you may have seen in movies, you don’t float to earth with your Thompson sub blazing. The weapon is in a special case strapped under your chute. One of our infantry men, I didn’t know him, had worked his way into the top of the case and got his finger on the trigger and “accidentally” shot himself through the other hand, which just happened to be under the barrel. He was whining and going on, and nobody moved to help him. The crew chief from the air corps was trying to get a bandage on him. He said, “Somebody help me! He’s bleeding!” His worried comrades said, “Let the sonuvabitch bleed.” We never saw him again; I don’t know his fate.
We flew across the Mediterranean and also past the field where we were supposed to land. When it got to a place with enough trees and rocks to make it interesting, they pushed the red button. It’s stand up and hook up time. It’s out the door time. I pushed my bundle, the machine gun, and went out after it. The bundle had a red light on it that came on when its chute opened. I think it was supposed to last about 3 minutes. I was out the door, on the ground, and out of my chute-- sharp knife-- and broke the red light with the butt of my trench knife. I had jumped awfully close to the ground. I go the thirty-caliber out and fed the ammo belt into it just in case. I’d never been trained on the gun, never shot one, but I had seen the infantry guys do it, and it went all right.
Then started what I believe to have been the longest half hour in the history of recorded time. I sat behind my machine gun and waited, on and on. I’ve never been that lonesome before or since. Not a light in sight anywhere, no noises, nothing. Finally I heard a little shuffling. I said, “Halt.” The shuffling said, “Billy.” I replied, “The Kid.” That was the password. It was one of our company cooks. They had jumped in with us, and the field kitchen came in the next day.
I was pleased to see him, even if I can’t remember his name only 63 years later. He had been an infantry man in his time and dealt with a 30-caliber machine gun. I made him machine gunner of our little army.
It turned out that the guy after me had gotten hung up some way, and it took a while to get loose. When you are going 100 miles an hour you can get strung out. After you hit the ground from a jump you head back in the direction your plane was coming from. Pretty soon the rest of our plane load showed up, including Lt. Freestone. I lost command of southern France real soon.
The lieutenant and I got out our maps and compasses, and figured out about where we were. We weren’t even on the map, we were that far off target, but by the contours and such we knew where to go. We had some ammunition carts-- shells for the cannons-- that we pulled. It was down-hill travel, and pretty soon we started falling in with other groups, infantry and artillery, and go to where we were finally on the map-- and only about 20 miles from where we should have landed.
We had another lieutenant from a battery, Lt. Roberts, and pretty soon he came with the information that Phil Kennamer and Lt. Moore had just been killed. I got down the line a ways and there they lay. Phil had a nice row of bleeding holes, maybe four or five, across his chest. It had been maybe seven or 8 hours since we were talking about such matters; he then knew more about the hereafter than I did.
Phil had been in the machine gun section with Lark Washburn and a Charlie Nielson from Butte MT. Charley was sort of mourning about old Buffalo Phil. (I’d hung that name on him. He was bad out of shape when he got to our outfit and couldn’t keep up on the runs. I said, “Kennamer, you look like a buffalo at the end of a long stampede,” and the name stuck. He was an odd character, not your average ex-con. His dad was a federal judge and a figure in Oklahoma politics. Phil was subject to working under Lark Washburn when Lark was a corporal. Phil said to me, “He is a mean man. He worked me like a motherless mule.” We still use the term. Oh yes, I ramble.) When Charley Nielson was mourning Phil, Lark said, “Well, it’s probably for the best. He was always overbidding his hand.”
We finally got to the drop zone and found out the shiftlessness of the air corps had worked to our advantage. The Germans had planted posts sticking up 8 or 10 feet in the air and strung cables from one to another. Then they had hung land mines on the cables. If we had dropped there, we’d have been messed up real bad.
The engineers had disarmed and removed the mines but hadn’t taken down the posts. The glider troops came in along in the afternoon and tore up their gliders on them.
We were stripping some fabric off a glider to make a tent. Gauther came up with his knife as I leaned over and stabbed me in the shoulder. It wasn’t life-threatening, but it was bleeding so I went to the aid station, which was in a commandeered house by the drop zone. The doctor was sitting with a fine glow about him, and an opened case of wine at his side. He shaved around my wound with a steady hand and a clear eye, and put on a bandage. He asked, “Do you want a Purple Heart or a bottle of wine?” I said, “I’ll take the wine.” I didn’t drink wine, but I had my squad to think of. He passed me the bottle of wine, and was happy because he didn’t have to fill out the papers for the Purple Heart.
Two of the glider pilots came over and asked if they could camp with us. They were officers, but didn’t know anything about camping. I said, “Yes, but you’ve got to take a turn at guard.” They were happy, and since they were so good-natured I let them help drink the wine.
About evening here came Sgt. Richardson from Headquarters Company and wanted me to help him shoot in a baseline so the guns could tie into it. I took my crew, and we didn’t so much help him as do it for him. He had served a hitch in the Marines and was a good drill sergeant, would have been a good infantry officer, but never understood the mathematics of artillery. Our officers used the successful baseline to write him up for a field commission. He became Lt. Richardson, and I heard years later that he retired a major. C’est le guerre.
We captured many German prisoners the first few days. Southern France had been sort of a rest area from the Russian front, and maybe a few from Normandy. There was a bunch of French who called themselves FFE. That was supposed to be the French Resistance in the occupied area. They would volunteer to take prisoners back to where we were collecting them. If we took a German’s gun away and gave it to the French group, the French weren’t a bit afraid anymore. They would leave for the prisoner depot. About the time they got out of sight, we’d hear a few shots. The French would come back grinning from ear to ear and wearing the shoes of the prisoners tied together by the laces hanging around the French necks. “He try to escape,” they said. Shoes were a hot item on the black market.
The ground troops had hit the beach about noon of the day we jumped in. They hit little or no resistance, and joined up with us in a day or two. They spread out north and west, and we headed east toward the Italian border.
One of our gun crews had been pulling their cannon toward the meeting zone and had run into a little village with Germans in it. They turned the gun on them and got off a few rounds before they had to run. This was the only gun we lost, and it had been in action. The Germans set fire to the cannon. It burned off the paint and the tires of the wheels, but we got the gun back in a few days, and ordinance fixed it up as good as new. Ours was the most successful artillery the Americans had in the whole war. Damn, we’re good!
We marched as a unit through the town of Grasse. It is the perfume manufacturing center of France. You can smell the perfume a couple of miles in any direction. The Germans had left without a fight, and people were in the streets cheering as we marched through. The school kids were singing the French national anthem, which I can’t say, let alone spell. It was the Conquering Hero bit, just like in the movies. One of our guys had a camera taking pictures. I ran out of the ranks over to a French girl ad he snapped a picture. I had a copy for years, but it has gotten lost in the shuffle.
The French called the Germans “Boche.” They can put all sorts of venom in that word. I’ll refer to them as Boche from now on. The Boche had pretty much cleared out of the Mediterranean coastal area. It looked like we were home free, but when we got a little inland and east of Nice, we got into the war again.
If there is such a thing as a good place to fight a war, southern France is the place, and late summer/early fall is the time. The weather is warm; you can lie down and sleep on the ground. You can steal tomatoes, onions and garlic out of the gardens. With these ingredients you can make a stew with your C or K rations that, while not really first class, is reasonably eatable. We could get passes into Nice, a resort town, now and then. Life was reasonably good.
We fought over a few small towns. The Boche would pound us with mortar fire and machine guns, and then pull out and run. This worked until our brass sent a company around a town in the night and set up an ambush. When they did their shooting and ran, it was their last run.
One day when we were at the gun position, Maj. Kinser from Battalion pulled up with Lt. Freestone in his jeep. They got me, our radio operator, our wire man and the radio all in the back of the jeep and went north maybe 4 or 5 miles up a pretty steep road. There was a little town there, I’ve forgotten its name, and the major said, “Shoot anything you see, and I’ll pick you up this evening.”
The town was on the edge of a steep drop off to the east, not quite a cliff but almost. The other slide sloped off down to some farm land. There was a large stone building right on the steep edge. It must have been for storage, but was empty. There was a window about two feet square on the side of this building with a platform in the inside.
There were no Boche around. The people came out and tried to talk to us but in the small towns most spoke no English. One woman cooked up a good dinner and sent the one man in town who spoke English to invite us to eat and talk with us. This happened again in another town, only this time the translator was a woman.
After we ate we went back to the edge place to relax and wait for our ride home. All at once, war broke out. We heard a bang down in the alley and about the same time a crack as a shell went overhead. Lt. Freestone got an idea of where the shots came from as they kept coming. He said, “Get where you can see.” I got on the platform looking out the window. Lt. Freestone sent in a fire mission. By this time their gunner had his range. The lieutenant was down behind the building I was in, and I heard him say, “I’m under heavy fire and cannot observe.” At the same time I saw the smoke from the phosphorous shell from our gun (to take the reading from) and yelled, “I can see it.” He said, “Shoot if you can.”
Calling the firing commands is an officer’s job. It takes a least a gold bar on your shoulders to be smart enough. Two stripes on your sleeve just won’t do it. I had never called in the fire but I had seen it done much on the firing range, and I started yelling the commands and the radio sent them. About the fourth round I split the difference and yelled, “Fire for effect.” The whole battalion-- 12 guns-- cut loose, I think five rounds per gun. We got the 88, the Boche gun, gun crew, whatever-- anyway, it shot no more.
I was awarded a Bronze Star, the citation said for “heroic achievement beyond the call of duty.” I didn’t feel heroic, then or now, but I was glad to be rid of that Boche gun.
There was an attack on a little town on top of a terraced hill. We in America can’t conceive of the shortage of land in Europe. This hill had stone walls built about 4 feet high, and then the dirt leveled off-- sort of level-- for 6 or 8 feet, and another wall built. There were olive trees planted on the flat places.
Why an attack in the late afternoon I never figured out. Some things are just not meant to be understood in this life. The Boche had some mortars up on the top, and they knew how to use them. There was a trail zigzagged up the hill, with breaks in the walls and steps, not in a straight line like a stairs, but staggered. The Boche, who had had time to practice, dropped a mortar shell on each flat place on that hillside. They were good.
Lt. Freestone and I had gotten separated from our communication guys in the confusion. We were maybe halfway up the hill when the shells started dropping. We got a ways off the trail, not far enough, and were lying down maybe 8 to 10 feet apart close to the uphill wall for our shelf. The shell that landed on the shelf above us killed a man, and the shell on the shelf below us killed a man. I hardly believe this myself, but it happened. The shell that fell on our shelf lit between us. It probably would have killed or seriously wounded us both except for one thing. It was a dud. It didn’t explode.
We moved away from it and away from the trail a little farther, and since it was getting dark, we lay down and went to sleep. It doesn’t seem like we could sleep in such circumstances, but we were young and tough, and sleep we did. When morning came, we looked up and saw people moving around on top of the hill in the edge of town. We knew the Boche were gone or the French would have been hiding somewhere, so we figured our infantry had probably reached the top about dark the night before. We got up and climbed to the top, and were the only Yanks in town. We two had captured the town.
We got a sort of heroes’ welcome. We did make a breakfast out of it, and I got a free haircut from a lady barber. There was a bunch of our infantry that showed up about then, and after a while here came our jeep with our communications people and our radio.
Along about this time we got to some rough country. Lt. Freestone got another assignment and we drew Lt. Roberts for our fearless leader. We were in a holding position, just sitting around. Lt. Roberts was a social sort. He went around visiting with the infantry officers, and anyone else he could find. We were on sort of a point looking off into a valley with a road going through it. We shot in a point on the road and assigned it a number, I believe it was four, as we shot in three more. If there was enemy action, all we had to do was call fire direction center and give that number, and we could hit it at once. Roberts had let me do the adjusting, I guess as a training exercise to see if I really could do it.
Lt. Roberts was off visiting either that same day or the next, and I got a surprise. Down that road marching in a closed formation came a bunch of soldiers in dress uniform. They weren’t ours. I got on the radio and reported in. Fire direction checked, and they had the enemy. They said to shoot them. I said, “Battalion 10 rounds, concentration L4 at my command.” That means all twelve guns are aimed and loaded, and when I give the word they cut loose. They would run races to see who finished their 10 rounds first. Boche prisoners used to ask to see our belt-fed cannons. Those boys were good.
Anyway, the enemy troops reached spot 4 and I said fire, and the radio operator said fire, ad the operator at the fire direction center said fire, and the exec officer on each battery said fire, and 12 gunners jerked on the rope on their cannons and all hell broke loose. We completely wiped out that bunch of soldiers.
We had some Nisei soldiers, Japanese from Hawaii, whose folks were probably in the camps in the States, stationed alongside us. They were the meanest little boogers I ever saw, and I could see why. They had 4.2 mortars. They shot a shell a little bigger than our 75s, but not as long range. At this time our guns were shooting three or 4 miles and the Nisei were right by us at the observation post. Their mortars were mounted on trucks, and they backed their trucks up and joined the fun. Lt. Roberts, of course, came running over to see what was going on. It was a picnic. If any of the enemy seemed to be getting away, the Nisei would get them. That’s about as much slaughter as you can see with that small of guns.
Lt. Roberts was with us at one more fight. It was at a place called Col de Bras. The col was a mountain pass. We had been there and moved on, and the Boche had moved in and built what looked like an oversized Navajo hogan. It had logs and steel covered with dirt.
We worked up the mountain with the infantry, and the Boche apparently didn’t know we were anywhere near. Lt. Roberts had given out from climbing the hill, so he let me call in the artillery. I called for battalion five rounds with the last round to be smoke. Like I said, we’d been there before, so I got on target easy. When the HE ended and the smoke came, the enemy had gotten right into the hogan and waited. The first two Boche who stuck their heads out got shot, and after a little yelling back and forth, the Boche surrendered. There was a lieutenant and 30 men.
We had an interpreter named Wentzel. He had been raised in Germany until he was about 15, and then his family came to the US. He spoke both languages, I’m told without an accent. He had his rifle in his hands. He was questioning the officer, who was mighty snooty. He did not want to be questioned by an enlisted man, but there was no other way. He asked Wentzel how he spoke Deutsch so well, and Wentzel told him. He said, “Schweine hund” and some more German, but those were the only two words of German I knew-- they mean “pig dog.” Wentzel came up with the butt of his rifle and caught the lieutenant right in the mouth. The looie got up much more humble and civil, and after he spit out a couple of teeth we got along all right.
We passed among the prisoners and took up a collection. They had just been paid and had 6 or 7 dollars in Italian lire. We were near the border. We divvied it up, and I got my group in a black jack game that evening, and got lucky and won it all. I came out with about 30 dollars, two straight razors and a couple of watches. I got a dispatch case off one of the Boche shot in the Hogan door. It was a dandy, made out of leather. It was much better than the canvas one Uncle Sam issued me. I carried it the rest of the war.
In this case were the two razors of which I spoke. One guy in our outfit back in the gun crew had a dad who was a barber, and he himself knew how to cut hair but hated to do it. I gave him the two razors and he sent them to his dad. Said dad was delighted, he said the only good razors were made in Germany, and he hadn’t been able to get them since the war. The guy I gave the razors to cut my hair till we parted at Camp Kilmer, NJ. Altogether a profitable deal.
About this time we-- me, Washburn and two or three more-- were taken up in the mountains to a place called Piera Cava. I think that’s how it was spelled. It was sort of a bed and breakfast place with a little bar right across the road, the only street there. The army stashed us there and, it seemed, forgot about us. They sent up food once a week. We were in 6-8 inches of snow, while they were swimming in the ocean at Nice, 30 miles south.
Two old ladies ran the place, and a young guy, the grandson of one of them, hung around as the handyman and bartender. The old ladies were the owners. They cooked the food, and we and they ate family style. It was a dandy fine gig. We were supposed to stand some guard out behind the place, but it was not very demanding. I got my sergeant’s stripe while there.
The young guy, Louis was his name, went to Nice and came back with a cute girl. I said, “Louis, is that your wife?” “Non.” “Your fiancée?” “Non.” “Then who is she?” “Oh, chust a fran,” he said with a leer. Our happy little group went on two or three weeks, then here came a truck for us and we went back to war.
There was a Captain Lannahan from Battalion who had broken his leg on the jump. He had just gotten out of the hospital and was out of shape. I company had gotten up on a hill right on the Italian border. There was a little town down in the valley in Italy, just a few houses and a little church with a steeple. They were just sitting there, the infantry, waiting for something to happen. There was no road up the hill, just a trail, and the army had some mules packing up supplies. We had a telephone line that had been run up there.
The Boche moved a few men and a mortar down a long, steep hill, not the one I company was on, and started shooting at the supply mules. The powers that be sent H company, Capt. Lannahan, me, Washburn, and one or two others from the artillery and down the long steep hill we went. The Boche didn’t seem to know we were coming.
We had a front scout out who was half Eskimo, from Alaska. He had a nose like a bird dog. Capt. Lannahan had given out; Lark was practically carrying him, and we weren’t down the hill yet. The Boche had built what the army called a hut or a pill box, but we from the four corners country knew it was a hogan.
The infantry officer wanted us to shell the area. The captain said, “Sergeant, I can’t stand up. Can you do it?” I said yes, and did. I blasted the area pretty good, which headed them into the hogan. Our Eskimo got down close, and the four Boche ran out of the hogan. The Eskimo killed two of them and wounded another, and one got away. The wounded one got back into the hogan, got his pants undone and his first aid kit opened before he passed out. The bullet had gone in the back and come out the front low on his abdomen. It left a hole about the size of your fist.
Now comes the moral problem: the Articles of War say that we treat him like we would one of ours. If it had been one of ours, we would have put him on a stretcher, I guess, and brought him out-- and he would have died on the way. What to do? I’ve never been too much of a fan of officers, but this time I think Capt. Lannahan and Lt. Jackson (I think that was his name) made the right choice. They had the medic fill him so full of morphine he’d never wake up, and left him.
We had caught a prisoner by then, and when he found out we weren’t going to shoot him he called to the one who had gotten away from the Eskimo, “Rudolph! Rudolph!” and chattered something only he understood, and Rudolph came in and surrendered.
It was a long hard climb up the hill, Washburn almost carrying the captain. The next day they sent Washburn with me back up on the hill to I company. The rumors were that we were about ready to pull out. They were keeping us scattered out so as not to draw airplane fire. We had been learning.
The battalion Sergeant Major had come up with Lark and me. He just wanted to get away from headquarters so he could say he’d been to war. What he found out was that between fights, war is tiresome and boring, so he caught the supply train and went down to his desk.
One evening there was a lot of commotion down in the Italian village. There were lights occasionally, and movement. Something was up. We were going to have company.
I got on the phone line and called the fire direction center. I got Sgt. Short. I told him what was going on, and that I wanted a round dropped on that road down in the village once in a while, through the night. This is called “interdictory fire” and has a settling effect on the enemy. Short said, “I’m not going to do it. I’ll shoot a problem, but I’m not keeping a gun crew up all night.” I said, “You can change crews. It will only take about an hour per crew, and they won’t mind it.” He said, “Not going to do it.” I said, “Put me through to Capt. Lannahan.” He said, “I’m not going to bother him.” I said, “A patrol will hit us about daylight, and if we lose one man, I company is going to know that you killed him.” He said, “You can’t scare me,” and hung up.
I talked to the infantry guys, and they took measures. Here’s how: you wire a hand grenade to a tree about knee high, then tie another wire to the grenade safety pin and the other end to a tree. You do this all across the access routes, and nobody sneaks up on you.
Sure enough, about four or five in the morning a grenade goes off, then another, then the machine gun covering the area. Then came the riflemen. I don’t know how many Boche came up that hill, but there were a dozen or so who didn’t go back down. We had to wait till it got light to clear out our own booby-trap, so we couldn’t chase the survivors--if any. Like I said, we were learning the game.
I think it was that day our phone line went dead. We had no radio, so we were out of contact. I heard from the supply guys this was their last trip, that we were pulling out and marching back to Nice, a two-day march. The infantry stayed up there, so Washburn and I did too. Toward the end of the second day we went down the hill, and sure enough there was our jeep. We loaded up and got to the camp area near Nice just as the marching men pulled in. Our friends, of course, cursed us.
The captain said, “Why didn’t you come down?” I told him that we didn’t have orders. He said, “You knew we were coming out.” I responded, “All I had was rumor. You know the general order: I’ll quit my post only when properly relieved.” He asked, “Who relieved you today?” and I replied, “Capt. Birder of I company.” He said, “I see you’ve got it all covered.” I responded, “Yes, sir.” He was, I think, rather admiring my craftiness in not marching back.
We were in a pup tent city in a field outside Nice until after Thanksgiving. During this time we had a big formation. A two-star general was there, and pinned on the medals of the southern France invasion. He was a PR-man type, and shook hands and said a few words as he decorated us. He pinned my Bronze Star on.
It was during this time that Colonel Kato, our battalion commander, took me to a reception of some kind in Nice. The French were putting it on. The commanding officer and two enlisted men out of each unit in the invasion were award a Croix de Guerre by the French government in exile, led by Charles DeGaulle. He had even signed the citation I received. Like almost everything done by the French of that era, they couldn’t do it right. They didn’t have the medals, just the ribbon, and I didn’t get my medal until on the way home nearly a year later.
Also while we were camped there an officer, I think a lieutenant, came around hunting me up. The government had decided to award scholarships to West Point, no less, to a few enlisted men. This consists of a free ride education in a prestigious school and a commission in the US Army. He asked if I was interested, and I was. The requirements were a Class 1 rating in both the general intelligence (IQ) and mechanical aptitude tests, both of which were given at the induction center. We had several guys with one of these, but very few with both. I had all ready been shot at quite some, and had experienced some of the caste discrimination that officers laid on the enlisted personnel, so I was ready. He had the papers all filled out and was down to my personal data. He said, “Date of birth?” I replied, “May 8, 1920.” Since this was in 1944, it ended my West Point career. The age limit was 22.
We ate Thanksgiving dinner at the pup tent city. Our cooks and mess personnel were not exactly the best, but they did a good job on this dinner. Like I have learned in later years, it is easy to cook a turkey.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, we loaded on trains and went to northern France. We rode the boxcars, the old 90 et 8 cars famous from World War I.
They hadn’t been fixed up since. We went through Paris but didn’t stop. We could see the Eiffel Tower as we went past.
The airborne divisions, the 82nd, 101st, and 17th along with several regimental combat teams like ours were gathered there waiting for the big invasion in the spring. We were in barracks, brick buildings without heat in them. It gets cold in northern France, not like Nice down on the Riviera.
About the middle of December all hell broke loose. It had clouded up and stayed cloudy, so the Air Force couldn’t keep the Boche scattered out. Also, they weren’t as near whipped as our leadership figured, and our troops had been spread too thin. The Boche had saved up for one last big gasp, the Battle of the Bulge! The only possible help was the airborne, and who better to rely on? A bunch of big army trucks, semis, pulled into our and we got in, men, cannons, and everything, and headed east.
The Boche had overrun most of Belgium, captured US equipment, and chewed up some US troops. We in the ranks didn’t know what was going on. I leaned out the back of our truck and asked an MP directing traffic in the edge of Belgium what was going on. He said, “All I know is everybody else is going west and you damned fools are going east.” Some of our infantry actually rode their trucks till they were fired on, then bailed out of the trucks and had at them.
The 101st Airborne wound up in Bastogne along with some of Patton’s troops and were surrounded. They got all the ink; they had a newsman with them. I don’t mean to put down what they did, because they were great, but the rest of us were fighting just as hard.
A Blanding guy, Bill Eichenberger, was there in Bastogne. He got shot up some and wound up with some shell frag in a knee that they never did take out, and had the bottom half of an ear shot off. They rebuilt the ear, and it barely showed the damage.
The last half of December, all of January, and the first week of February are still just one big nightmare to me. I remember many things that happened, a dozen fights in a bunch of little towns, a lot of good men killed, a lot of bravery. I don’t have it straight which town first, what order it happened in. Like I said, it was and is yet a nightmare, but I’ll tell about some of it-- just not in a guaranteed order.
Belgium is mostly quite flat, sort of like lots of Kansas. Our battery was in a sort of depression, and the guns (cannons) were set up and laid-- hooked together mathematically so they could shoot the dame way. If they were thirty yards apart, the shells would fall thirty yards apart, and in a line. So far, I don’t think we had fired a round since getting to Belgium. We were
trained to be attack troops, and we didn’t sit around too good. Since our infantry was sitting also, I was there at the gun position.
I had been given six or seven men, and a bazooka, which was close to useless-- not just that one, all of them. We were on a little rise a couple of hundred yards from the guns to guard against surprises. We had one watch among us, and at night we would take turns standing guard. The guard would stand an hour, then give it to the next man. I always took the last shift, and by the time morning came, the watch had been turned ahead. I always caught a long shift. I figured it was the burden of leadership, and I couldn’t prove who was changing the watch-- probably all of them. Somewhere between five and ten minutes each added up to a long guard shift for me.
It was bitter cold, and there was nothing to look at or do, really. I got to thinking that if a bunch of Boche tanks came along, we would all be goners. Our bazooka wouldn’t bother the tanks much, and neither would the cannons. I thought, now if I see the tanks coming I could just take off in another direction, and look for another US outfit. We would all be wiped out anyway, whether I stayed or left. I had to decide what I would do, and I was trained well enough, both by my previous life and by the Army, that I decided I would stay and go down fighting. After a few days in the cold, getting shot didn’t seem too bad.
We hadn’t seen the sun since we had come to Belgium, but on Christmas morning the clouds parted! It didn’t warm a lot, but it was a lot more cheerful. Instead of clouds, the sky was full of airplane, mostly ours but a few Boche. That was the only time I saw the planes dog fighting with each other like they do in the movies.
There was a Messerschmidt shot out of the air that piled up right by my guard place. The pilot came down out of his plane, but I think he was dead before he left the plane. He lit real close to me and I looked him over for looting purposes, but his P-38 pistol was smashed. Here came our captain, yelling, “Stand back!” I had already pulled back before he got there. He went by me saying, “I’m going to get me a P-38.” I said to myself, “Dream on.” If there had been a pistol in one piece there, I would have already had it.
This is gruesome. The Boche pilot had hit head first on the frozen ground, and his brains had splattered out. You get to where such sights are mildly interesting. Twice I had seen enemy soldiers shot in the forehead with a .45 automatic, US issue, and both time it not only blew the back out of their heads, but also cracked open the skull clear across the top. (These were not prisoner executions; the same guy shot them both while they were back a way and still armed. He was an expert shot with a pistol or his rifle.)
Right after Christmas we went on the attack. I got sent back to the 3rd battalion, usually with I company. We fought anyplace that there was an attack to be made. I can’t remember the names of most of the towns. They were small; the bigger cities were taken by bigger units.
We went to Stavelot in trucks at night, and into a big old cold building. The people who had been holding there hadn’t pulled out yet. In the night these soldiers got into an argument. One of them had lost his helmet and claimed somebody had stolen it. It didn’t affect me or my crew, so I didn’t pay too much attention. I found out after the war that the soldier who lost his helmet was Harry Laws from Blanding. If I had listened more clearly, we might have visited a little. We had been on the high school basketball team together.
We left that building just when it was getting light. I was down to just my radio operator, Pete Peterson. I never did know his first name, but he was a dandy. We crossed a canal and went off with the infantry, each carrying a 35-pound half radio. Along in the morning the Boche found us with their mortars. They blasted us pretty good.
There were some tall trees near the road. When we heard the mortars coming, we would get down to leave a smaller target. One shell hit a tree near us and exploded. The frag came straight down. Pete took a hit on his back about over his shoulder blade. He was a gritty little fellow and would have stayed, but I didn’t know how deep the wound was, so I made him go. He said, “How will you handle the radio?” I said, “The infantry will give me a man to help carry it, and I can run it just fine.” Pete went on his way back. They sent him to a hospital near Paris, and sure enough, he wasn’t hurt bad at all. The shell frag hadn’t gone in; it just cut him and fell off.
The mortars must have been moving because they quit shooting. We were getting almost out of the range of our cannons. The Boche were in a great big farm house with stone walls over a foot thick. They had ammo and figured they had us bested. It was along in the afternoon, and they probably planned to sneak out when it got dark.
I told the infantry lieutenant in charge, “I think I can set that building on fire with a phosphorous shell.” He replied, “Have at it.” We had given them every opportunity to surrender, and they wouldn’t. I had one gun firing because I had to have a direct hit. I couldn’t get close and fire for effect because the shells wouldn’t explode except on contact, and the frag would just bounce off the stone walls. It took 6 or 8 shots, but I got a direct hit and started a dandy fire. The Boche were both tough and stupid. I guess they thought they could always surrender later, but they’d had their chance.
When the fire got down close, they came out with their hands up, saying, “Kamerad, kamerad.” (This particular bunch of Boche were awfully young, and looked to be 16 or 17 at the most. They were the Hitler Youth, who were the most fanatic of the kids and had been in special training all their lives.) One of our guys was sitting behind a little hedge and he shot them as they came out, some right in the door. War is tough all over.
The fire burned down. There was a lean-to shed on one side of the building, and we slept in it. The walls were still standing solidly and were warm. We even took our boots off, unheard-of luxury.
Our guard outside was a Sioux Indian named McQuade from one of the Dakotas. He was crazy even for a paratrooper. His stupidest trait, which he did all the time, was to refuse to carry extra ammunition. An M-1 rifle carried 8 rounds, and that was enough for McQuade. On his watch that night, 4 or 5 Boche came up to the building. I guess they thought we had gone on, and they could have a warm place. McQuade fired his 8 rounds and killed 3 or 4 of them and wounded one, who started yelling. One of the guys said, “McQuade, shoot that SOB so we can get some sleep.” Of course, McQuade wasn’t going to admit he was out of ammo, so he answered, “Shoot him yourself if you want him shot. If somebody else besides me had been doing some shooting, maybe he wouldn’t be hollering.” I guess the kid must have understood some English or the facsimile of thereof, because he yelled no more, and was still alive come morning.
The sun come out the next morning. It was a pretty decent day. We had a prisoner, a tall gangling young kid who had been wearing GI pants and boots. His captors had taken off his US clothes, so he had a coat, cloth hat, long underwear and heavy socks. The guy herding him told him to pick up the wounded kid. He had a flesh wound, no bone, in both cheeks of his rear. I guess one bullet hit from a sideways exposure. When his buddy started to pick him up it hurt him, and he yelped. The tall kid set him down and was jabbed in the rear with a bayonet. The tall kid picked him up, and down the trail they went.
Our interpreter, Wentzel (I’ve talked about him before), came up with a prisoner. He said, “This SOB is going to tell you where those mortars are.” This kid-- they were all real young-- had a mortar insignia on his collar. I got my map out, got out my compass and zeroed the north line, and pointed out where we were. I asked, “Where are the mortars?” and Wentzel repeated it in German. The kid responded, “Nicht verstehen.” Wentzel said, “I’ll verstehen you, you SOB,” and whapped him on both sides of the head. After three or four times, the boy verstehened. He pointed to another farmstead down the road two or three miles, and said the mortars were there.
It was out of range of our guns, but I got on the radio to fire direction center, and they got in touch with the big boys-- I think a battery of 155s. The ground was flat with some trees, so I couldn’t see to adjust the fire. They just plastered the area. It is soul-satisfying to hear the big boys going overhead.
The lieutenant was going to be heading that way with his company, so he sent a patrol to see if the mortars were taken care of. They found 12 dead Boche and 4 mortars. They banged the mortars up till they couldn’t be used, and came back happy.
About the middle of the day, here came a truck with my replacements, a first lieutenant and four-- count them, 4-- enlisted men. I turned my radio over to the truck to take back, and I started down the road. About a hundred yards along was my jeep, and he took me back to the gun positions, where I got to stay a few days. They had a field kitchen and real food! I had been on K rations quite a while. They had to be thawed out under your uniform before you could eat them. It was barely worth it.
While I was there, the artillery captain gave me a fatherly talking-to. They had been dangling a field commission in front of me like a carrot in front of a donkey, and it did look promising. This captain said it would greatly further my chances if I were more careful who I hung out with. He even told me about one officer who had to quit hanging with another officer to get promotion, and now he was a captain and battery commander!
He didn’t mention any names, but he didn’t have to. He meant Lark Washburn. Lark in his own way was a great soldier, but it was his way and not the Army’s. If he had been properly handled, he would have been the first sergeant he was born to be. My position was that a man should succeed or fall not on who he hung with in his free time, but on what he could do, what he had done, and what he would do in the future. I thought that somebody along the line would come to this same conclusion. I also know I could not turn my back on someone I had known about all his life, and whose family I knew and liked. As my kids say, I have my standards, low though they may be.
After a couple of days it was back to the infantry for me and a new crew. (My radio man, Pete, had two weeks hospital vacation). We went this time to a little town near Bastogne, where the 101 was still holding out. This town was on a railroad and a highway that the Boche were using for supplying their troops at Bastogne. Two other outfits had tried to take it but failed in the attempt.
The brass had decided to give it a big-time artillery barrage, really lay it flat. They had 4 or 5 battalions of 105s and 155s all set to start shooting at the same time and shoot for five minutes, then all to stop-- and in we would go. It should have been foolproof, but some fools can’t be dealt with. Our little guns weren’t even firing, but I was there with a crew and a radio for after we got in.
The time came, and so did the shells, right on time. It was the biggest blasting I ever saw, before or after, and really flattened that little town. It seemed to shake the ground for quite a way. At the end of five minutes, the shelling stopped and in we went, I company in front. My position was at the end of the first platoon, as usual. The platoon, about 30 to 40 men, had reached the edge of town and wham! One battalion of the 155s came in late. Their watch had been wrong. My radio and the smaller infantry radios were all screaming, “Cease fire!” but they shot their full five minutes. It totally wiped out the first platoon.
We went in and took what was left of the town. We blew up a highway bridge and the railroad, and sat there a day or two and shot up a few trucks that tried to use the road. The day after we got in, one of our own planes dive bombed us, but didn’t do much damage. We lost a lot of good men in that town.
We made another attack, a little different than most, on another small town. We went in just as it was getting dark. The Boche didn’t seem to be there, but they were playing it cool. Our two front scouts got right to the edge of town, and rifle fire knocked them both down. The infantry captain said to wait until the medics got the two scouts out, then blast the town. I asked him if he wanted a little light to see by and he said yes.
The litter bearers came out with the two scouts. One had a rifle bullet through the knee. It wasn’t a life-threatening wound, but he went to the hospital and never made it back. We heard that he lived, but his knee was badly damaged and he would soldier no more. The other had a shot through the lower abdomen, not dead center but off to the side. It had gone in the front and come out the back, but somehow hadn’t hit any bones or vital organs. He was back in a couple of weeks, no worse for wear.
I called for a blast of fuse delay mixed with phosphorous. The fuse delay would go through a wall or a roof and explode inside the house. The phosphorous would set the building afire.
I walked into the town with a lieutenant who had just come to our outfit. He was a combat vet, however, from some other outfit. There was one of our men, a sergeant with a Thompson machine gun, shooting around a corner into an open space-- kind of a patio or something behind a house. The lieutenant said, “Everything all right, sergeant?” The sergeant answered, “Yes sir, there were four of them and I put them all down. One of them may be alive; I thought I saw him move.” The looie said, “Wait till I get around the corner and give him medical attention.” “Yes, sir,” was the reply.
We went around the corner and heard a couple of shots from the Thompson. Again, “Everything all right, sergeant?” The answer came back, “Yes sir, he was dead.” Like I keep saying, we had learned some things. That man, if wounded, was going to die anyway. You didn’t get through the cold night wounded unless you got attention, and got it quick. The Boche had a way of lying there with a hand grenade, and when one of our medics or anyone else walked up to tend them, they pulled the string on the grenade and you both died.
This night we found a basement to get out of the snow at least. I heard this new lieutenant say to the captain, “I was a little leery of Sgt. Rogers handling the artillery fire, but he did just fine.” Capt. Birder said, “Oh, he’s been with us a lot. I’d rather have him than any observer in the 460th.” In a military way, that’s the nicest compliment I ever got. I’d trade both my decorations for it.
After a few more days we crossed into Germany. The Battle of the Bulge was declared over, but it was still cold and we were still in action. The liaison officer, the go-between of the artillery and infantry, took me with him to an officers call. He was Capt. Woodhall, a great guy who had always been more than fair to me.
The 3rd battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel from Flagstaff AZ, almost a neighbor, was holding the meeting. I was the only enlisted man there. The colonel had a map and was drawing on it with a marker, just like in the movies. There was a small town at the edge of the Hurtgen forest, which we had fought on our way there, and an open field on the other side. The field had land mines planted in it. Across the field was a hill. Down a steep bank on the other side of the hill was a small river. Our job was to cross the minefield, take the hill, go down to and cross the river, and take and hold the high ground on the far side of the river. Our engineers would crawl through the field, probe for mines, and tape a trail. If we stayed on the trail, we wouldn’t step on a mine.
Capt. Woodhall said, “Colonel, we’ll all be killed.” The colonel said, “I know it,” and went on explaining what we were to do. Well, that night it was dark and cold. It was cloudy and spitting a little snow and sleet. We got quite a way out into the field, and guess what? We were expected.
The Boche had moved to the edge of the woods across the field and off to the left. They had rocket launchers and machine guns. They would shoot a flare up that made it bright as day, and we would stay motionless while the flare was in the air. When it went out we’d drop to the ground and the machine guns would rake the field. This went on I don’t know how long, until even the brain who plotted this strategy gave up, and we pulled back out. They then did what they should have done first. They plastered the woods where the Boche were with artillery, and we went across in daylight.
I company with Capt. James Birder commanding had, as usual, been heading the night march. They had crossed the field, climbed the hill, and gotten down to the river. When it got light they found they were there by themselves, except for a bunch of Boche paratroopers who had come from the town of Schmidt, across the river.
I would normally have been with I company, but for some reason they had kept us, I think 9 men, in a bunch. There were Capt. Woodhall, Lt. Disutto, 1st Sgt. Whitson, S/Sgt. Westbrook, me, Sgt. Corbett, T4 Kolzinski, Cpl. Washburn and T5 Moore, whose army name was Frog Eye. We got up on that hill, and the captain left me, Westbrook, Corbett and Kolzinski, who was my radio man. The captain, lieutenant, 1st sergeant, Washburn and Frog Eye went to another vantage point.
There was a Boche with a machine pistol across from where my bunch were, and he kept shooting. He must have been almost out of range, because he was more of a nuisance than a threat. There were mortar shells coming up out of the gully, and rifle fire. Sgt. Westbrook never did want to be an observer up with the infantry; I don’t know why they sent him. He knew the work, had been the sergeant over me most of the time I’d been in the army, and had taught me a lot of the trade. He had a bad cold, and it wasn’t going to get any better, so he said that if I didn’t mind, he’d go on back. They never had bothered to say whether he was in charge of me, so I was glad to see him go. If I was going to get killed, I’d do it my way.
Capt. Birder and I company fought their way back up the hill. They all got back, which was almost impossible, but they had quite a few wounded. We were short-handed in the infantry anyway, going into battle with 90 men to the company instead of 130, I think it was. When Capt. Birder got back up with his men, he flopped down to rest and lit right on a small land mine. I saw them taking him out on a stretcher and could tell that if he wasn’t dead, he soon would be. I was told later that he died before they got him on the ambulance.
About then our machine gunner from over the gully got a hit on Sgt. Corbett. He was hit in the leg and broke a bone. I gave him a shot of morphine and wrapped a bandage around the wound, but couldn’t get him out. We were getting blasted pretty good. The litter bearers finally got Corbett out, and I never saw nor heard of him again.
One of the infantry guys said he saw some Boche in the edge of the woods across the gully. I couldn’t see them, mostly because they weren’t there, but called the fire in and raked the hillside to shut him up. I did get that pesky machine pistol-- he quit firing anyway.
Pretty soon here came Frog Eye Moore. He had a cut across his cheek bleeding pretty good, and was holding a knit cap-- like we wore under our helmets-- up to his face to stop the bleeding. I asked, “Where’s Washburn?” He said, “He’s dead. They’re all dead but me.” I pointed him in the right direction and sent him on his way. I told Kolzinski that if I lived I’d have to go see Washburn so I could tell his mother just what happened.
After a little while here came Lt. Disutto. He was carrying a radio battery, for reasons known only to him. He said, “My radio was hit by a shell and ruined, so I brought you this battery.” As far as I know, the battery sits right where he put it down-- it didn’t fit my radio. I asked, “Where’s Washburn?” He said, “He’s dead. They’re all dead but me, and I’m wounded.” He was plinked by shell frag, a small spot on each of his buns. I told him that Moore had already come out, and sent him on his way.
A while later, here came Lark Washburn, carrying Sgt. Whitson on his back. About that time the Boche came in with the mortars and Lark said, “I’ll have to put you down, Sarge.” Whitson said, “Oh, that’s OK, Slim.” He was high as a kite on morphine-- some people it works that way on. I asked Whitson, “What did you think you were trying to do?” and he answered, “Well, Blaze, I just didn’t have the right attitude.”
(I had been in a hole under a little piece of a house, trying to sleep beside a charcoal stove. I had dozed off and fallen against the stove, setting my coat on fire-- not flaming, just smoldering. I woke up and thought I had beat the fire out, but while I dozed again it started smoldering again. I woke up again, how I don’t know, and this time got the fire put out. Whitson named me Blaze after the fire. The attitude bit was because he had heard the officers say that I didn’t get a commission because I didn’t have the right attitude. I ran into that same problem during my time in good old San Juan High School).
Lark went back to the aid station with Whitson and saw him on the meat wagon headed for the hospital. Then Lark went back to the gun position because his group was out of business. He was the only able-bodied one left. Captain Woodhall had been killed.
This left Kolzinski and me as the only artillery men left. After dark the infantry pulled off to get ammunition and wait for morning. Kolzinski and I came off the hill also, and slipped into the first aid tent. I needed to see if Washburn and Whitson had made it all right, and they had. It was warm in the aid station and rush had finished, so we stayed there.
The only patient that came in while we were there had got a sniper bullet that had taken two knuckles out of his hand, leaving his middle and ring fingers still attached, held on by the bottom skin and a little flesh. I knew the guy, name of Tryon. He was from Oklahoma and had been a friend of Phil Kennamer, my ex-con buddy. The Okies seemed to hang together like the Utahns, but there were a lot more Okies.
This Tryon kid was a mean, tough little cuss, but the wound, the cold, and the lack of sleep had gotten to him. He was going into shock. The medics got him lying down, covered him up, and went to work. One of them started asking questions while another gave him a morphine shot, then disinfected and covered the wound. He-- the Okie-- got to talking and came out of the shock, and by about half an hour after he came in, he was in an ambulance headed for the hospital. It didn’t make me want to get shot, but I did have a lot of confidence in those front-line medics. They hung in with the best, and did a great job. I knew if I got wounded I’d be in good hands.
The next morning the infantry didn’t go back up the hill, so we didn’t have to go either. We were waiting for orders. I was standing by a rock wall about when I should have been down behind it. I was talking to one of the infantry men named Bundy. I remember he was from Denver CO. Whang came a rifle bullet from a sniper; it hit the wall and ricocheted off. It knocked off a little piece of rock that his me in the cheek. I reached up and found it had given me a tiny scratch. I turned to show it to Bundy, and the bullet had hit him square in the forehead just above his eyebrows. The medics came running, but I could tell it was no use. He died real quick-- I don’t think he felt a thing.
After a while, here came a jeep from the 460th. It was Major Lantz from battalion HQ. He said, “We need to go up on that hill and get those mortars out of action.” I told him, “Those mortars are down in a deep ravine, and our shells can’t clear the ridge and drop fast enough to reach them. We shoot over them.” He said, “It’s got to be done.” I answered, “I’ve carried that radio up and down that hill for three days, and I can do it again.” He promised, “If we go again I’ll carry it for you.” An obvious lie.
I said, “We can’t go up until the infantry does.” He asked, “Aren’t they up there?” I replied, “No, or we would be.” “When are they going?” I said, “Who’s going to tell me? I’ll have to wait until they start to move out.” He said, “I’ll to talk to the officers.” He came back in a few minutes and said we were being relieved, and that a regiment from the 82nd was moving in. Sure enough, here they came.
I found out since I’ve lived in this area (Missouri) that the whole mess we had been in was a planned thing. They taught at the command school in Leavenworth about how to do it, and one of the battles they studied was the battle of Schmidt. We were the bait to draw that parachute outfit of the Boche out to fight us so somebody else could sneak in and take the town. (I haven’t quit fishing, but I’ve always felt a little more kindly towards the bait since learning this). The major sent Kolzinski and me back to the gun positions. I didn’t know it, but I had fought my last battle.
I sat down in a couple of days and wrote up a citation for Lark Washburn, and also one for Stanley Kolzinski, for Bronze Star citations. I felt they rated the medals, and have seen medals given for less. I couldn’t sign the recommendations-- that took an officer, not a sergeant. After a couple of weeks-- we were back in France by then-- I got a call to report to Major Lantz at battalion. Down I went, no choice. He said they had sent in the recommendation for Kolzinski but not for Washburn. The officers had ruled that Washburn should have stayed there. That was stupid beyond measure, but often it is the army way.
I was furious. An attitude problem, I suppose. For some reason I’ve never figured out, Major Lantz handed back the recommendation for Washburn. I took it and left. I knew if I went back to the battery, I’d probably revile an officer and wind up in serious trouble, so I went over to I company to visit. I was mad, and making no secret of it.
There was a Lt. Carpenter from Arkadelphia AR who had been the 1st sergeant of I company and had been field commissioned. He used to come sometimes to hang out with his old friends. He said, “Sarge Rog, what are you so mad about?” I told him. He said, “Is Washburn the tall, white-headed guy you sometimes had in your party?” I told him yes. He said, “Let me see the paper.” I handed it to him; he looked at it and put it in his pocket.
About the time we started home from Europe, Washburn got his Bronze Star. It turned out that all the men who got wounded got not only a purple heart but also a Bronze Star, except for Capt. Woodhall, who got a Silver Star. Since I got medals for Washburn and Kolzinski, I was the only artillery man in that particular fight that wasn’t decorated. I didn’t even care. I already had two decorations and they haven’t made life any easier for me.
After our last fight in Germany, we headed back into France. I remember Washburn was in a jeep with me, and maybe one other besides the driver. We went through the city of Achen, or where it used to be before the bombers flattened it. We cut across a corner of Holland, just enough to say we had been in the country but not enough to see any windmills. Washburn and I talked about taking off a boot and freezing a foot so we could get sent home, but all we did was talk. Some people resorted to such tricks.
One thing that impressed me was how small the countries were. They have been there so long, and divided so many times, that there are no distances like we have on the continent. San Juan County is as big as some of the little nations.
We got back to France after a stop or two on the way, to a town we had been stationed in previously. Its name was spelled, I think, Joigne. It is by a small river, I think east and a little south or Paris. (The only time I had to know directions and distances was when we were fighting, and then I always had a map, but only of the section we were in).
One of the reasons we were pulled back was to get and train new men. The artillery wasn’t hurt except for the forward observer parties, which included me, but our infantry had totaled out well over 100% casualties. A lot of those were men who had been wounded, then come back and done it again, some several times.
There was an infantry lieutenant named Benny Fenton whom I got to know quite well. One of his high school buddies was in C battery along with me, so I knew him that way. Lt. Fenton got wounded the first day we were in action in Italy, and I don’t know how many times thereafter. They used to say he had a room reserved in the hospital at all times. The last I knew, he had survived, and I think they finally gave him a rear echelon job.
We got put in a new division that had just come overseas, the 13th Airborne. It was the first time we had been assigned to a division since back in the States. We had been attached but not assigned to half the divisions in the ETO, or so it seemed. As members of a division we got supplies and equipment without even having to steal it from other outfits. This took away some of our best moves. We had been known as Col. Graves and the 3,000 thieves. Also, when you are just attached to a division and not assigned, guess who gets to point all the attacks!
From the latter part of February 1945 on, we went into hard training. We were getting ready for the big jump in the spring, across the Rhine into the heart of the Vaterland. They sent in a captain from the 82nd who had jumped into Normandy on D Day, and had directed fire from the naval guns. I got sent to his special classes.
We were assigned to crop in front of Gen. Patton’s army, I believe it was the 3rd. They were to have all their cannons, the big stuff, lined up, and my radio would be tuned to their fire direction center instead of ours. There were maps all drawn, and I was assigned to a certain hill and a platoon of good old I Company was assigned to put up a perimeter around that hill. We were supposed to call in the big guns on anything that moved.
I remembered too well how the Air Corps usually missed the drop zone, and I remembered the battery that fired late in the little town near Bastogne, and it looked like on of those good ideas that don’t work. More than ever before, I figured my chances of survival were lots worse than between slim and none. For some reason, nobody asked my opinion.
Sometime in April we got in the trucks and headed east. We got into Belgium, quite near Brussels, and into tents. We had the planes on an airstrip close by, and the planes were loaded. We sat, and sat, and sat. Then we moved a little farther east, in trucks, to another airstrip and sat some more. We started getting passes into Brussels, and it looked to me like we weren’t going to make that jump.
We had a doleful song we sang; I don’t know who or where it came from but I supported its message:
I don’t want to jump over Germany
jump over Germany
jump over Germany
I don’t want to jump over Germany
I just want to go home.
I just want to go home.
I just want to go home.
I don’t want no more of Airborne.
I just want to go home.
This is another lullaby my kids learned at their father’s knee, along with “Blood on the Risers.”
April turned into May, and still we sat. It got to May 8, my and Harry Truman’s birthday. I’d gotten tired of playing the army’s games. I told Washburn that I had a book I was reading, and I was taking the day off to hide in the woods. I showed him where, and sat to read my book. I had just gotten settled down, and here came Washburn. The Boche had surrendered, Le Guerre fini, and we had the day off.
We were all to meet up at Battalion HQ with our canteen cups. Col. Kato had popped for a couple of kegs of beer, and we were going to listen to Churchill’s victory speech-- and we did. We could get radio from England, but not from the US.
Well, of course we got back in the trucks and returned to Joigne. It had turned into our home away from home. Shortly after we got back and settled into barracks life, I got called on by a poor scared little boy from the 13th division chaplain’s office. He was an assistant to the chaplain and was trying to start a Bible study class. He had been over to the privates’ barracks and none of them had been very enthusiastic, but they told him that a sergeant over in the non-com barracks used to be a preacher, so he was trying to recruit me. I told him if he got something going I would try to attend once in a while, but I didn’t want to do any of the organizing. I think it was the first kind word he had received.
Later on a private named Derra had come over to see me, and asked about the kid. I said, “He acted like he was scared to death of me. What did you tell him?” Derra replied, “Oh, I told him that you used to be a preacher, but that you were a cold-blooded killer now.” That poor kid had been showing great courage-- he was a private and I was a S/Sgt; he was a glider rider and I was a paratrooper; he was a green hand and I was battle-tried; and to top it off, one of my friends told him I was a cold-blooded killer. I think he really thought he was risking his life to save my soul.
Shortly after this an edict came down from the higher-ups. We were getting to make a choice! In the military this does not happen. The 13th division was slated to go to Japan. The 517th team, including the artillery and a company of engineers, got their choice. They could go to Germany as the army of occupation, or after a 30-day leave in the States would go with the 13th to Japan, where we were to jump on the main island of Honshu.
We split almost down the middle, half and half. The San Juan County group split-- Owen Burnham for Germany, and Ballinger, Washburn and I for Japan. Burnham was addicted to going to college, and saw a chance at schooling. He actually got a term in Edinburgh at the University of Scotland before he came home. The reason I chose Japan was partly because I was in poor physical shape and didn’t think I would make the cut to leave the States after my leave. It wasn’t just because I was a cold-blooded killer.
We started our processing. There were two series of camps to go through before we came home, and we went slowly through the process. Before we left Joigne, we were back on a training routine. We had set up an artillery range and were practicing how to call in artillery fire. I already knew how, but that didn’t matter.
From Joigne I got a 10-day or 2-week, I can’t remember which, furlough to England. I saw the sights, ate fish and chips, and had a fine time. If I could afford it, I’d spend a month each year in England and Scotland.
I got sent with an officer and a half dozen privates up to a processing camp to get it ready. One of our guys was Frog Eye Moore, and I finally found something he was good at. There was a bunch of German prisoners, and you could check out as many as you needed to do the work. Frog Eye was a master at bossing prisoners. The lieutenant and I rode around in a jeep, drinking pop and talking to the nurses-- there was a big hospital there-- and Frog Eye got the camp into shape.
After a while, here came the troops. I can’t remember much that happened there, but it happened. Then we went to a camp near Le Havre, a sea port. Again, we did whatever. I guess it was just waiting our turn, and at these camps we couldn’t do any training.
We got on ships at Le Havre. We weren’t on a shabby little banana boat this time; we were on a ship of the Cunard line. Of course we were double-loaded; the enlisted men were two to the bunk except for higher-ranking non coms. I made the cut and had a bunk to myself.
We were on the northern route, colder and rougher than it was going over, and I got a little queasy. I stayed in my bunk for a couple of days and didn’t have to hit the rail, but many did. Washburn and Ballinger were immune to seasickness, and brought me food.
The third day out of Le Havre, the US dropped the H bomb on Japan. In a few days they dropped the second one and Japan surrendered. They announced the surrender over the loudspeaker and there was some rejoicing, but not a lot. Our guys, trying to be tough, said it was a dirty army trick to beat them out of a trip to the Orient. It suited me just fine.
The day after the Japanese surrender, they announced that gasoline rationing was lifted, and the troops went wild with cheering. The airborne army has its priorities straight.
I undertook the task of writing about the war as I saw it. When I read over some of it, it seems like I think I did the whole thing alone, but really I had a lot of help. I wasn’t in the army all that long, and many had it worse than I did. Cold weather and all, I would rather have been in Europe than in the jungles.
There were quite a few deaths from Blanding, especially from a town that size. My brother, two years younger than I was, was a pilot flying the Hump from Burma (now Myanmar) to China. He crashed and died, actually a few days after the war ended.
I think Denton Carroll was the first Blanding war death. He was in my grade in school for a lot of years, and was from the same end of town. We were never best of buddies, but were always friends.
Carl Hunt was from Bluff when the war started, I think, but his folks moved to Blanding before he was killed. His cousin Ben Hunt was my best friend and co-conspirator though high school, but Carl was a friend also.
Stuart Burnham was my cousin, a little over a year older than me, and we grew up together. His brother Owen was with us in the 460th as part of the San Juan four. Stuart was in the Coast Guard, and died in a naval hospital of spinal meningitis.
Jed Harris was a year younger than me. He was a roommate of mine one year at BYU. He died in an attack in the Pacific.
Amasa Jones, Halver Black and Alma Mangum were younger than I was, but I knew them and knew their older brothers well.
John Kimmerle lived in Blanding quite a while and I knew him fairly well. I think he was killed in the Pacific theater.
Glen Taylor was from the reservation; his folks owned a trading post. He came to Blanding quite a bit, and I got to know him. I liked him a lot. He was killed in the Pacific theater.
Gerald Shumway was killed in the St. George, UT area while in some kind of pilot training program.
I’m doing this from memory, and it’s been over 60 years, so maybe I’ve missed somebody. If so, it wasn’t intentional.
A lot of us who survived and didn’t even get wounded still brought back things that affected our lives. I think of the stress I was under, and all that I saw and felt, and I guess I have a right to be like I am. I don’t know if I’m a better or worse person as a result of my war experience, but I’m quite sure I’m a different person.
I was born in 1920, a couple of years after the end of World War I, and I always wanted to be a soldier. When I was one I actually liked it, but I also couldn’t stand it. I know this sounds sort of weird, but I am sort of weird. Sane people don’t volunteer to jump out of airplanes.
When I go to ball games, I hate it that I have to stand with my hand on my heart during the National Anthem. I’d much rather salute-- it feels more natural to me. I loved to march in a full dress parade, with the flags flying and the band playing. Now I walk with a cane, and don’t do that very fast.
I do my doctoring over at the VA (Veterans Administration) hospital, and I see fewer and fewer WWII vets. Now it’s more of the younger group-- Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. I have a 50% disability rating because of bad legs and joints, and the VA treats me very well. I am well taken care of.
I have never been a really successful money-maker. I was a carpenter and made a decent living, but just barely. I raised 12 children, and at the time of this writing have 36 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren with another on the way.
The lady I married, I am convinced, was the best person who ever lived. She put up with me, and if anybody ever reached the Biblical goal to become one flesh, we did. She died with cancer when she was 54. Our youngest boy was 11 years old at the time.
The good times and the tough times have come and gone. I’ve had an interesting life, if not an easy one, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I always expected to live and die in Blanding, but it was not to be. I was meant to spend my life in Clay County, MO. I hope I have made a difference.
Milton D Rogers, S/Sgt (ret)
received October 2007