"JUST A HELL OF A BEAUTIFUL DAY"
by Beryl H. Haught Jr.
Company "A", 114th Regiment
After his successful march thru Georgia, Major General William, Techumseh Sherman (the South's most favorite general with the possible exception of Robert E. Lee) declared, "War is Hell!"
Considering all the things that happened to me on the afternoon and evening of Monday, November 16, 1944, I think the good General's assessment was a bit too moderate and tempered. Even though I never received as much as a single scratch, "Hell" would have been more like a place to go on holiday or a vacation compared to what I went through on that particular day.
Now I understand why they're called "Blue Mondays".
Of course I'm not the only guy in the service who ran into rough days but I'll let them tell you their story, I can only tell you mine. The continuous cry of "Medic" from our Company "C"; the death and wounding of some of my best friends; carrying some dead bodies; seeing my first large group of wounded at an Aid Station and seeing my first "shell-shocked" GI - all combined together to make my afternoon and evening one I'd just as soon forget.
The whole scenario took place in a patch of woods located about 2 kilometers east of the small but heavily defended village of Lientrey in central Alsace-Lorraine, about 60 kilometers south of the German border. Somehow, we in the 114th Infantry had broken thru the German defense line south of Lientrey and crossed over in front of our 71st and 324th Regiments. We ended up in a patch of connecting woods called the Bois de la Garenne and the Bois de la Amienbois, both located a little to the northeast of Lientrey and west of the village of Avricourt. During the early afternoon, we pushed the Krauts out of the woods and took over their positions. This may have been our first big mistake they knew exactly where we were and so we became "sitting ducks" for their artillery.
As best as we could tell, our "C" Company was located to our immediate right-front. There were so many trees around you couldn't see more than 50 or 100 feet in any direction so we didn't know if they were dug-in out in the open or in the woods itself. "B" and "D" Companies were somewhere in the area but we didn't know exactly where.
I was sort of an "unknown" soldier during this time. Since Verne Batdorf, my sergeant in HQ Platoon, had been wounded earlier and since the 1st Platoon that I was normally attached to was back guarding either Corps or Army HQs (I never did find out which), I really had no one in direct command over me. Consequently, I ended up with all kinds of screwy details and odd jobs. On this occasion, I was with the 2nd Platoon -although I think I could have "taken off" and no one in the platoon would have been the wiser. Looking back, I'd have saved myself a lot of misery and grief if I had.
Once the Germans started shelling, the men in "C" Company started calling for "Medics"! I shouldn't say called it was more like a cry than a call. It's at the same time a statement of fact that the caller's been wounded and a plea for help --both combined into one. It's also a sorrowful and unnerving sound -- like the whine of a lost puppy who comes to your door and wants in out of the rain and cold. This universal calling for a "Medic" by the wounded is a rather unique phenomenon in and of itself.
You'd normally think that when a guy's been hit and he's in a far-off foreign land that he would want someone around him that he's at least a little acquainted with like a buddy or even his squad leader. Strangely, such is not the case and for some unexplainable reason, all he wants is a medic. Even when I was wounded, guys who were there at the time tell me that I cussed out both Captain Williams and Lieutenant Meadows because they wouldn't go and get me a medic. I'm sure even if my best buddy Phil Yarusites had come over to see me I'd have said, "Phil, I dearly love you but would you please get the hell out of here and get me a medic!"
I question whether most wounded even knew what a medic could or could not do for them -- all they did know is that they wanted one and they wanted one quick! In any event, the poor guys from "C" Company kept calling for them but since no one gave us an order to go help, we like a bunch of dummies stayed in place and did nothing. This happens so often in combat. Unless someone in authority is around giving direct orders, everyone else has a tendency to do nothing. Deep down inside I knew I should go help but since no one gave me any orders, I remained safely down in my hole.
I sometimes wonder why the medics were as good to us as they were. Because of the conditions in which we lived and the beating we took, most of us foot-soldiers became very thoughtless and uncaring about anyone but our very own. About all the medics expected of us was just a little respect and recognition. They were there when we needed them we were seldom there when they needed us.
I dont suppose this cry for "Medics" would have bothered me quite so much if I hadn't known a few guys in "C" Company. Every time I heard a yell I wondered if it might be one of them. My best friend in Company "C" was Charles Shafer from Wayne, Michigan. Charlie had been with me in the army ASTP program at the School of Mines in Rolla, Missouri. Apparently Charlie's family was pretty well-to-do because they owned a lot of the movie theatres in his home area. One night in the dorm at Rolla, he bet a bunch of us that he could name both the female and male leads of any movie we could think of. We grilled him for at least an hour and he never missed knowing one.
Among others in the company I knew were Verle and Vergil Lubberden, identical twins from the small town of Oskaloosa in southeastern Iowa. I never did quite understand why the army let them serve together in the same rifle company. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, one of them was seriously wounded on this particular day and the other the day after. Both, would you believe in the same leg. I understand that they are now Professors in a college out on the Pacific coast. At least all three of them made it through the shelling without getting themselves killed which is more than I can say for some of my buddies in Company "A".
The pounding "C" Company was taking wasn't bad enough. A little later on, some stray 88 shells came screaming down thru our part of the woods and killed Sgt. Rollie Cobb and two of my best buddies, Don Kraemer and Martin Thompson. And if that wasn't bad enough, my old pal Vince Hunter was seriously wounded. Had I been forced to make a guess, I would have said that Vince and me were the last two guys in the whole 44th Division that would have ended up as casualties. First, I didn't think that the whole German army could stop or even interrupt Vince's "joie de vivre" and as for myself, I just knew for a fact that nothing was going to happen to me. Even though I was wrong, it sure makes fighting a war a lot easier with that kind of self-confidence. I sure as hell would have hated to have fought in one "running scared".
It was at times funny about guys when they were hit. Because they wore so much and such varied types of clothing, often there were no outside visible marks or wounds. There were times when it was almost impossible to tell how seriously a guy had been wounded, or if in fact, he'd been wounded at all. Vince came half running and stumbling out from the woods and went right by my foxhole. Someone was beside him that he was leaning on but I didn't notice this. He thinks it was Wayne Lazenby but he's not quite sure. I never paid that much attention so I'm not sure either. About the only thing I did notice was that his face was white but it never dawned on me that he had been hit. I yelled at him as he went by and I'll admit I was just a little PO'd when he didn't answer me back. "What the hell's the matter with Hunter?", I asked. It was then that someone said that he'd been hit.
It was about this time that I realized that my infallibility to enemy fire might not be quite as infallible as I had previously led myself to believe.
On Page 22 of the combat history of our '114th Regiment "With the 114th in the ETO", appears the following item:
"Captured German Aid Station
On November 16, as the Second Battalion advanced behind their rolling bar-rage, they captured a German Aid Station, a German medical officer, chests of instruments and medical supplies. Captain Gordon Ross, Second Battalion Surgeon and his detachment immediately assumed command of the Aid Station, while the German doctor assisted and, unguarded, worked all day and the following night dressing wounds and aiding in evacuation of casualties."
Sometime in the early afternoon, I helped carry Don Kraemer's body to an Aid Station and Collecting Point. I don't think it was the one mentioned in the above article but I can't be sure. I do know I visited this German Aid Station later on that evening some-time after dark. I don't recall seeing where Don was wounded, although Hunter says he had a hole in his chest big enough to put a fist thru. Three of us were given the unpleasant task of carrying his body but I can't remember if the others were from "A" Company or not. It was one hell of a detail as they always were! It's unbelievable how much a dead body can weigh even one as small as Kraemers'. We half-carried and half-dragged him until we finally got him back to the Collecting Point. We laid his body down beside those of two dead Germans.
About the only thing I do know is that we carried him when it was daylight and that the whole thing took place through a woods. I can't remember walking along or even crossing any kind of a clearing or road. Maybe the reason I'm blank about seeing any kind of a building or recalling very many of the details was due to the fact that it was the first time that I'd helped carry a dead body --and especially since it was the body of one of my best friends. I never knew at the time that he and Hunter had been hit with shell fragments from the same "tree burst", even though the explosion probably happened no more than 50 yards from where I was at the time.
Now if it sounds like carrying Don's body was a "bitch', later on that evening you should have been along with six of us when we were given the gruesome detail of carrying Tommy Thompson's and two other dead GIs up to the German Aid Station. It took place after dark and turned into an unbelievable "nightmare".
I have no idea who the other five were or from which outfit they came. I assumed they were from Company "C" but I'm not suite sure. As far as I know, I was the only one from my own Company "A". Being with strangers on any kind of a detail or undertaking makes it far more unpleasant and difficult. That's the reason I have all the sympathy and compassion in the world for anyone who has to serve as a "replacement" in a combat unit.
The reason I question if we took Kraemer and these other three to the same place is due to the fact that we carried Don through a woods and yet we carried Tommy and the other two up a road or a clearing through a woods. It was too dark to tell if it was an actual road or not. Whichever it was, the Germans had dug big holes in the road-way clearing every 100 or 200 feet apart. I would guess that the holes themselves were about 5 feet across and 5 feet deep, give or take a foot either way. They were almost too big for foxholes and yet not big enough for tank-traps. However, they may have been big enough for one of our trucks or jeeps to get stuck in and that's probably why they were there.
Again, as always, the dirt from around them had been removed and it was practically impossible to spot exactly where they were until you stumbled onto one. The Krauts may not have been magicians at everything but I'll never be able to figure out how they could keep digging holes and at the same time make the dirt that came out of them disappear. About the only thing we had going for us was that we had been told that the path, or whatever it was we were to take, had been cleared of mines.
I can't begin to describe the misery and agony we went through in trying to get those three guys up to the Aid Station. How are you supposed to carry a dead body? I sure didn't know and apparently none of the other five did either. I still don't understand why the army didn't teach us some of these useful kind of things we'd run into in combat rather than having us waste hour after hour taking our weapons apart and putting them back together again. It looks like the army never heard of the old saving, "If it ain't broke don't fix it!"
We tried dragging them by their feet- dragging them by their arms carrying them on our backs carrying then with one guy holding their feet and another their arms and every conceivable combination in between. Nothing seemed to work! Things got worse when we stumbled onto the first hole, shouldn't say stumbled onto -- into is a better word. The lead guy would fall in the hole and usually a dead body would fall in on top, of him and then someone else on top of both. We'd all have to stop and it was not only a hell of a job to crawl out of the hole yourself but it took about the whole bunch of us just to get one dead body out and this continued on, hole after hole. Before we got half way there, we were all so exhausted we could hardly walk ourselves and this was even without the burden of trying to carry the "dead weight" of others.
Someone suggested that we leave all three of them down in the bottom of one of the holes and go back to our outfits and act like nothing had happened. Had Tommy not been one of the three, it's possible I might have agreed, but under the circumstances there was no way I was going to stand by and let his body be crushed or buried under the treads of a tank or the wheels of some big truck. Tommy and I had shared too many beers at the PXs and were together at too many USO dances in Salina, Kansas, for me to let him down at this late stage of the game.
Apparently, he'd had tough going from the very start. It seemed that he had completely lost contact with his family and he came into the army out of the Tennessee Industrial School in Nashville. He was absolutely the best dancer I ever saw. He danced "country' rock & roll
before anyone every heard of rock & roll and I'm sure he didn't learn how to dance in the Reform School. If I know Tommy -- he acquired his skills in some small town Tennessee "honky-tonk"! He may not have been the best looking "toe-head" in the 44th Division, but with his dancing ability, the gals sure flocked around him at the USO and other dances.
I warned the other five guys in the detail that if they didn't help me get his body up to the Aid Station that I'd go back and tell everyone I could find that we had left the bodies down in a hole. This may have been the one and only time during combat that I asserted myself. My insistence must have worked because they finally relented and we grudgingly continued on our way.
As kind of a compromise, we finally decided to get off the road and drag them up through the woods that ran along side. We ignored the possibility of mines getting the bodies to the Aid Station was the main consideration. It must have been around midnight when we at last arrived. Maybe I didn't have too much to be thankful for but at least Tommy's body was the very last one I had to carry. Earlier, he had been in a deep, log-covered foxhole when suddenly, without warning, a large fragment from an exploding 88' shell sliced down thru the logs and almost cut him in two. Two other GIs, who were standing nearby, were knocked off their feet by the force of the explosion but neither received as much as a single scratch! Sportscasters who constantly philosophize about the games of baseball and football being games of inches obviously never experienced life's real game of inches being the target of an artillery or mortar barrage.
Tommy now rests in the American Military Cemetery in the Vosges Mountains, located on Highway N-57 about 6 kilometers south of the small French city of Epinal. The cemetery, 48 acres in extent, is situated on a plateau in the foothills of the Vosges', 100 feet above and overlooking the Moselle River. I like to think that I at least had a little bit to do with him ending up in such a peaceful and beautiful spot. He is one of the 236 members of the 44th Division who are also buried there. Included are 64 from the 71st Infantry; 64 from the 114th Infantry; 100 from the 324th Infantry and 8 from various other units of the Division.
Since it's possible that no one else knows or cares, my wife Jean and I. periodically have flowers placed on his grave. Some may smile and say it's a waste of time and money --but both of us would like to believe that maybe, just maybe, he knows!
As I've said many times before, I may not have been the best soldier but there weren't many who were more inquisitive. Come hell or high water, I was going to see what was on inside that Aid Station. I had no sooner gone through the door than I knew I'd made another stupid mistake. Often out in the field when men were wounded, it was some-times impossible to tell just how badly, because their clothing had a tendency to hide the wounds.
Hunter was a good example. When he staggered by my hole, I didn't even realize he'd been hit. It was entirely deferent inside the Aid Station. There, order to tend the wounds, the medics had to remove the clothing from around them about all you could see were white bandages and red pools of blood. Inquisitive or not, both of these, plus the moaning and groaning, were more than I could take so I beat it out of there as fast as I could.
During the short time I was there, I did observe one thing which leads me to the conclusion that one portion of the article concerning our capture of the German Aid Station is not entirely correct. Where it states that "our detachment assumed command" was not quite true. We may have taken the official command, but as far as I could see, the German doctor was really the one who ran the show. It seemed that all he had to do was take one look at any of the wounded and in effect tell out medics, "Work on him" or "Don't waste your time on that one he's never going to make it!"
Hunter was one of those who may have benefited from this doctor's experience. Vince had been hit with a large shell fragment that had cut across his upper left arm and was lodged in his chest. Part of it was still sticking out when they brought him in. The German doctor refused to let our medics pull it out. He warned them that part of the fragment might be embedded in Hunter's lungs and to pull it out without other prior medical precautions might create a so-called "suction wound" that could have ended up threatening Vince's life. Both "white hot" shrapnel and shell fragments had a way of sealing a lot of wounds unintentionally, but never the less at times miraculously impeding the loss of blood and other body fluids.
Vince remembers that it was some time in the early evening that he was evacuated by ambulance so evidently he was already gone by the time I got there. I must admit that I was so anxious to leave the place that I didn't even take the time to think about looking for him.
Aid Stations are somewhat like Extensive Care Units in a modern hospital - either as a patient or a visitor, they're an especially good place to stay away from if at all possible. I made up my mind, then and there, that this was absolutely the last time that I was ever even going to go near another Aid Station. Of course I was wrong! A week or so later, on the 22nd of November to be exact, I ended up in one except this time they had to carry me in on a litter. At least I didn't go voluntarily. Thanks to the medics, I was "stone-cold out from a much needed and much appreciated shot of morphine.
When I left the German Aid Station, I had no idea that the worst was yet to come. As I stepped out the door, I saw my first case of a GI who was "shell-shocked"! Shell-shock is defined as "battle fatigue" or as "a nervous or mental disorder caused by shock from bursting shells, bombs, etc". I'm certainly no expert on the subject, but after seeing the condition of this GI, I'm sure thankful it never happened to me. This poor guy was thrashing around on the ground, wildly sobbing and whimpering much like a puppy during an epileptic seizure. There was a guard standing outside the door taking it all in. Since he had a flashlight, he may nave been an MP. "What the heck's going on?" I asked. "Don't pay any attention to that yellow bastard," he snapped. "He's shell-shocked -- so get out of here and leave him alone!"
Now I may not have known "nothing from nothing" but even as young and dumb as I was, I could see that this guy was in trouble and desperately in need of help. "If you don't do something the poor guy's liable to crawl out in the woods and freeze to death," I complained. "Who cares?" he answered. "As far as I'm concerned, he's not worth saving anyhow!" I had a sneaky suspicion that he was from rear-echelon and was not one of us or else he would have shown at least a little compassion for a fellow GI.
I felt sorry back then, and I still do now, for men whose nerves cracked under fire. I'm sure that each of them, above all others, wished that it had never happened to them. The wounds of the men inside on the litters would eventually heal but his hidden wound of cowardice would last forever. If, as it's often said, "Infantry combat is life's ultimate experience" then certainly being branded a "coward" in front of your buddies and friends must be life's ultimate punishment!!
I don't believe either "Leavenworth" or a "firing squad" were the proper answers. After all, it's kind of dumb to cure a dog of it's "gun-shyness" by shooting it in the head, isn't it? The sooner the overly-scared and consistent stragglers were weeded out of a line company, the better for everyone concerned. As for me, sending them back to the rear in disgrace would have been adequate punishment enough. The troops in the rear areas wouldn't have had any right to complain. After all, how many of them ever volunteered to put themselves in a position to even get "shell-shocked"?
When I finally got started back to the "A" Company area, the poor soul was still out in the woods thrashing around. I hope for his sake that in the end he made out okay.
I honestly do not remember my return to the company. My mind was so cluttered with all of those things that had happened that I was too mentally and physically exhausted to know just how or when I got back. Evidently I made it okay, because the following morning we captured a lot of German prisoners and those that got away began a general retreat. I do know that if I had been forced to spend very many more days like this particular one, I might well have taken a little trip "over the hill" or else slipped a new clip of ammo in my trusty old M1 and die myself a little "fragging" --- my left foot being the principal target!
General George S. Patton Jr. was once heard to say that "War is beautiful!" Now if you think I was wrong when I jokingly took a small exception to General Sherman's opinion that "War is hell", listen carefully to what I have to say about General Patton's opinion that it's beautiful! It may not be strictly in the "chain of command" for an old ex-private like me to criticize a famous four-star general, but I don't believe General Patton had enough personal, first-hand fighting experience to make any kind of an intelligent judgment concerning real down to earth ground warfare. An occasional voluntary visit up to the front at his own personal whim and convenience was a far, far cry from being stuck up there day after day, week after week and sometimes month after month by men who were there and usually against their will.
To me, his inference that "War is beautiful" was an insult to mankind itself, and especially to those who lost loved ones and to those who gave their lives. Maybe the General had none, but rest assured that most of the men who served under him had stories to tell that were every bit as sad and tragic as mine. If Monday, November 16, 1944 was supposed to be a beautiful day I'm sure as hell glad that I never spent one that turned out to be ugly. "How in the world after all of these years could you possibly remember all those things that supposedly happened to you back on that particular day?" you may ask.
The answer is really quite simple. "How could I possibly forget!"