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02 - Training Camp
I want to ask about that. You described it as "Lousy Howze."
That was infantry basic.
Was it lousy?
It was really a lousy camp. I was in the air corps first for some months, stationed in Columbia, South Carolina. It was a B-25 training base. We trained all of the B-25 flight crews there. We were on one side of Columbia. On the other side of town was Fort Jackson, the largest infantry training base the army had. There were 70,000 GIs there. Our air base had 5,000 so it was a little bit different.
Why was there a change between when you were training with the air corps?
Going into the air corps and infantry was like being drafted all over again. The training was different. The air corps was high level at that time—they were very selective. They took—I don't want to brag—but they really took the cream of the crop of the draftees because of the training we were going to get.
So how did you end up in infantry?
They needed replacements in Europe after D-Day and a lot of us were in good physical condition and I was not on flying status, so into the infantry we went. That's when they sent us to Camp Howze for seven weeks of infantry basic. I remember we did a forced march under full pack—gas mask, forty pound pack—and we marched seventeen miles—the weather was terrible, sleet and snow—seventeen miles and then back again. A lot of guys dropped out and they had trucks following us, picking them up as they dropped, putting them in the trucks to take them back. But I made it. I think about forty percent of us made the whole thing. I was determined I was not going to drop out.
Did you feel like the training prepared you for war?
It was more physical certainly. We went through overhead artillery fire. We were going forward, artillery was in back of us and firing shells over our heads as if you were in combat and the shells were moving forward—they were supposedly hitting the enemy—and we were following that. Also we had, I can still remember, we went through on our stomachs, we went through a course—it was muddy, they used to hose it down—and they had machine guns set eighteen inches above the ground and they were fixed. And we were on our bellies going forward with that going over. Obviously they told you "Do not get up." Every week, every once in a while, some guy would get panicky, and get up and start to run. And these machine guns were firing—they were fixed. A lot of guys were killed in training, all over, through some of the overhead fire and everything else. The American public never knew all of that.
So they were firing live ammunition?
Oh yes, absolutely. I ended up in what was called a heavy weapons company as a squad leader. Heavy weapons company was mortars, bazookas, that sort of thing. We used to try to knock out the tanks. I became pretty good using a bazooka against a tank.
With the bazooka and the tanks...
We used the bazooka, the carbine, semi-automatics, we used everything, a rifle—I was certified with an M-1 rifle and I was pretty good at it.
Arriving in Europe
When you say you got pretty good at it when you were in training, the tanks you took out, those were in the war?
We were sent to New York to join a convoy going across to Europe. It was a large convoy, I don't know thirty to forty ships, I remember. We were escorted by the navy destroyer escorts, a number of destroyers that were going in and out of the convoy all of the time. We ran into a submarine pack about three days outside Le Havre, France. I can still remember the destroyers going around and dropping depth charges. It took us thirteen days to get over there because the convoys were slow. We slept in bunks, five deep, five high. You never got undressed, you just took off your shoes and that was all. When going over there and ran into this sub pack. I remember the subs sank a tanker at the end of the convoy because we could see it blazing. That was the only ship I think they sank—not sure. But we landed in Le Havre, France at the time. We got put into box cars and sent up through France, Belgium, and Holland to Roermond, Holland. We were not allowed out of the box cars, you couldn't have lights because two days before, German aircraft attacked one of these convoys and killed a lot of people and so you weren't allowed any kind of lights in the convoy. If you had to go to the bathroom you just stuck your rear end outside the door and held onto someone.
What kind of reception did you get from the European people as you went from town to town?
The first ones we really got to know was in Roermond, the Dutch city where the 9th Army replacement depot was. They were happy to see us. I remember we were there a couple of weeks probably. We were taking some training until we got reassigned to different outfits. But I remember a couple of us got acquainted with a family there in Roermond. We were invited into their house, I remember one day. They showed us, and I can remember this, in the dining room they had a carpet, in the middle of the room, with a dining table over that. They moved the table and they moved the carpet and they showed us they had a trap door going down into a tunnel which led off into the woods. Because they could hear the Germans—the German troops, when they were coming by—they had cobblestone streets—and the German troops—the boots made a lot of noise, so they heard them coming. And if they had people—this family saved a number of people, including a number of Jewish families—so they sent them out in this tunnel. The Dutch were just great as far as we were concerned.
Was that family part of a larger system, where once they had gotten people out into the woods they could get them someplace else?
It wasn't organized at that time. It was individual.
So they were really taking a chance?
Oh yes, they would have been shot if the Germans had found them like that, no doubt about it.
We got assigned out of the "repo depot" it was called—the redeployment depot—and joined another unit, and that's when we went into combat at that time, we went into some towns. And I remember the first town we went into—I can't remember the name of it, this German town—we had cleared out—the Germans had left most of it—and we bivouacked about a half a mile outside of town for the night. We set up, I remember, perimeter guards around our area. We just dug fox holes and we slept in the fox holes. The next morning, we got up and we found that three of the guards were dead, had their throats cut by German 5th Column guys. Then we went into the town and there were German troops still in the town. Most of them had left, but there were still some. But the one thing I remember in particular, there was a tall steeple, part of the church there and there were a number of German troops up in the steeple and the first thing we knew we were being fired at. They were firing down at us and they killed a couple of guys before we knew were it was coming from. Then we realized it was coming from the steeple, so we all just aimed our guns up there and we just fired away like crazy. We finally got them all. We killed every one of them.
How long was this after you got there?
This went on for a couple of days.
Is this your first combat?
That was the first time I was fired at.
So this is about a month after you got there?
Right, and then we joined the Battle of the Bulge. That was already going on by the time I got there.
Dutch Family and Locals
The Dutch family that you talked about, can we get a little bit more detail about that? Did you spend a lot of time with them?
The ones from Roermond, Holland?
Wee were only there a couple of weeks. We got acquainted with them. We gave them everything we could in the way of food that we were able to get, some of our rations and all that sort of stuff, clothes for the kids, you know.
Did they speak English?
Two of them did. I remember two of the younger ones spoke English.
What kinds of things did you talk about? Do you remember?
The war and family, and they had lost people obviously also. The Germans had sent some of them to slave labor camps also. But the Dutch were, for the the most part, very, very anti-Nazi. I mean, there was a small group that welcomed them, I think every country they went to there was always some.
How did you come to meet that particular family?
I don't know. We had a little bit of time and kind of wandered through the town and met this family and they invited us over.
Did you actually stay in the house? Did you spend the night?
No, we just visited. We didn't stay there. No, we had to get back to camp, but it was interesting to see what they had to do.
Combat was—you lived on the ground. Weeks went by and we couldn't change clothes. You were lucky if you could take your shoes off and change your socks. I remember we ran into the Ruhr, in Germany, was very industrialized and Essen and Munster where we went to, and we went into an area that had coal mines and it so happened that the coal mine there had a large facility with showers for the coal miners and those were the first showers we had seen in weeks. And we were so happy to get in there, so we spent a lot of time there in the showers. I can still picture that.
Can you describe the difference between meeting French and Dutch people and meeting German citizens when you were going through Germany?
The Dutch the first ones we really met, and then Germans—number of Germans and then Austrians. Every German we met, they all swore that they were not Nazis and they did not know what was going on and we went into towns where the concentration camp was right outside of town. There was no way they could not know what was happening. They were just, the Nazis—I don't know what kind of language I could use, but...
Anything you want to use.
...for the most part they were a bunch of lying bastards, as far as we were concerned. There was just no way that they could not know what was going on. They supported it or lent a blind eye to it. And this was all through Germany, wherever we were, the same things were happening. And in Linz, Austria, where I finally went, the Austrians were among the most rabid Nazis of all. And again, they'd say, "Oh, we didn't know, we didn't know." As American GIs there, we just got so we didn't believe any of them.