Father's WW2 Experience

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One young man's story of his experience in war...

As part of a class project for his grandson, my father wrote this account of his personal experience in World War 2. I found it fascinating, and got his permission to publish it on this website. Here is his story in his own words:

War began with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7th, 1941. At that time I was sixteen years old. Because of the nature of the Japanese sneak attack the whole country was solidly behind the war effort and young men and women rushed to join the Armed Forces. The minimum age for service was eighteen so I was not eligible to enlist at that time.

I started college and completed two years before I went to the Draft Board and volunteered, over the objection of my parents who thought I should have applied for an exemption from the Draft, since engineering students were Draft exempt.

I might explain that all young men of eighteen or over were required to register for the Draft. The Draft Board was a group of people who passed on eligibility for service or gave exemptions depending on a personís occupation. People who were in war related work such as steel workers, aircraft factory workers and certain students were not required to serve. All others had to report to various locations to be given a physical examination to determine if they were in condition to meet the hardships they would face.

I reported to the old Post Office building in Pittsburgh where with hundreds of other men I was poked, jabbed with needles (shots), listened to, x-rayed and pronounced healthy enough to be a part of the U.S. Army.

After a wait of several weeks I was told to report to Fort Meade in Maryland. A large group of men boarded a train in Pittsburgh and was transported to Fort Meade, which is a large, well-equipped Army camp. We were given another physical exam and issued uniforms. We were then assigned a place in the barracks. Barracks are large buildings, which are equipped with beds and bathrooms to meet the needs of a large number of men. Everyone lives in a large room with beds placed in rows. Privacy is soon forgotten since no one has a place were he can be without lots of company.

You learned to make your bed in the correct way, keep yourself and your clothing clean and keep your belongings in a foot locker at the foot of your bed. The food we were given in the dining room (Mess Hall) wasnít home cooking but was plain and good. We learned that when the whistle blew in the morning we had only a short time to get up, shave, shower, make our beds and get out and line up in front of the barracks and be ready for whatever you were required to do. Everything we did was ordered by the noncommissioned officers. There was no choice about what we did. You simply did as you were told when you were told.

After a short stay at Fort Meade we were put on a train. We were not told where we were going but simply took our seats and waited. A long trip brought us to a place called Camp Blanding in Florida. In this miserable place we were to spend the next seventeen weeks. Camp Blanding was infested with everything that bites and stings as well as wild razor back hogs, which would destroy your property in search of food. It was very hot and humid in the daytime and freezing cold at night. The food was terrible. After finishing basic training we were given a weeks leave to go home.

We were sent to Camp Atterbury in Indiana where we were assigned to the 423rd Infantry Regiment. After a few weeks of further training we were sent by train to Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts where we spent only a few days before being sent to New York and put aboard a very large ship which we found out to be the Queen Elizabeth the largest passenger ship in the world. Everyone was assigned a bed for the voyage. There were beds on the deck, in the empty swimming pool and in the ballroom. They had to transport a lot of men so they put them everywhere they could. I was in a stateroom with twenty other men. This stateroom is ordinarily occupied by one or two people.

Since the ship was so fast we traveled alone, without a convoy and after five days at sea arrived in Glasgow, Scotland. We went by train to Cheltenham, England where our quarters were a converted stable.

We spent six very cold rainy weeks in Cheltenham before being sent by train to Plymouth, which is a seaport on the English Channel, where we boarded a small British ship for the trip to France. It took two days of very rough, cold sailing to reach Le Havre. Almost everyone was seasick but I was fortunate enough to avoid it. We disembarked and were loaded into trucks, which took us east through Brussels into the Ardennes Forest.

As we approached the front we could hear gunfire and realized that we soon would be in a place where the Germans would be doing their best to kill us. All of us were scared but tried not to show it. We got off the trucks and walked for several miles through the snow until we reached the dugouts and foxholes of the Second Division. They pulled back and we moved into their place.

There wasnít a lot of activity by ourselves or the Germans for a week although our squad leader was killed by a German mortar shell as he ran from one dugout to another. I was promoted to Sergeant to fill the vacancy caused by his death. Part of my duties was to take mail and supplies to some of the far out foxholes. I was able to run from the woods to these locations without being shot at but they knew I would return to the main area and fired at me every time. Fortunately they were far enough away and I didnít get hit.

After about a week we were suddenly under very heavy artillery and rocket fire. This happened at night and it was difficult to see who was firing at us and where they were. We were ordered to retreat when a number of large enemy tanks approached. The next day was very bad and a lot of my fellow soldiers were killed or wounded including some of my best friends. We were finally surrounded on a hilltop and came under heavy fire from all sides. Our commanding officer finally ordered us to break up our weapons and with our hands over our heads to walk down the hill. We were taken prisoners by a German S.S. division and were marched under guard toward the east.

After several days of marching without food or water we reached a place where there was a railroad line. We were loaded into freight cars and had a long cold trip into Germany. I was very lucky that through all the heavy fighting I only received a few minor wounds from shrapnel, but both of my feet were frozen from exposure to snow and cold. I took every opportunity to take off my shoes and socks and massage my feet to try and restore my circulation so I would not lose my toes.

Our train stopped at a rail yard in Cologne where on Christmas Eve we were bombed by British airplanes. There were not many casualties but it was a Christmas Eve we all will remember. {Note: This is the same Christmas Eve bombing in a train boxcar that author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. described in Slaughterhouse 5. Kurt was in an infantry division captured during the Battle Of The Bulge on December 22nd and was on route to the same prison camp in the same train.}

Our train ended its trip at a camp, which was called Stalag 4B where we were unloaded and put into barracks occupied by British soldiers. Some of these men had been prisoners since the battle of Dunkirk in 1940; over four years before. The British did their best to make us welcome although they had little to offer us in the way of food. After a week or so we were split up into smaller groups and sent by train to other camps. My group ended up in a camp in Halle. In this camp we were sent out under guard everyday to work. We worked in a number of places cleaning up debris from bombed out buildings, in a brewery and digging graves and burying the dead victims of Allied air raids. At this stage of the war American and British planes were dropping bombs day and night. Very few days went by without the sound of air raid sirens, which made us take cover and hope we didnít get hit. Some of our fellow prisoners were killed when they were trapped in a building that got a direct hit from a large bomb.

While working as gravediggers four of us decided that the people of Halle were used to the sight of prisoners with shovels and picks walking around the city so we just walked away when the guards werenít looking. We got several miles out of town and threw away the shovels and picks and headed west. We unfortunately stumbled into a German anti aircraft battery and were marched back to camp at gunpoint. The German camp commander shouted and waved his pistol but didnít actually punish any of us. I think he knew the war was ending and didnít want to risk reprisal when the allies arrived.

Shortly after this we had a heavy air raid at night and the fence and gates of the camp were knocked down. In the darkness and confusion six of us got out and made our way to the brewery where we had worked and went down to a basement and waited for the arrival of the Americans. We were in the basement for three days living on some potatoes we found there.

We heard gunfire outside and the door was thrown open by an American infantryman with a grenade in his hand. We shouted not to throw the grenade and told him we were escaped prisoners. We were escorted back of the lines to a field kitchen where we were fed a hot meal. It was the first decent food we had eaten in over four months. Our daily ration in the prison camp was coffee (made from acorns), black bread (one thick slice per day) and a cup of soup which was made with some kind of meat (probably horse). I lost thirty pounds over four months.

We were flown from Halle to a place in France called Camp Lucky Strike where we stayed for about a week. We were given physical exams and fed good meals. We were put on board a ship called the Marine Fox and spent the next fifteen days sailing to New York. The war in Europe officially ended while we were on board and we witnessed a German submarine surface and surrender to the convoy we were in.

After reaching New York I was given a sixty-day leave, which I spent at home. I was in the Army for six months after that and then given my discharge allowing me to go home to complete my college education and get on with my life.

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