GIs in snowImst 1945 44th soliders rest

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Now I Must Really Be Careful
John Alrich, Company A Scout, 71st Infantry Regiment

The soldiers of the 44th were fighting to the last. The desperate Nazi's clung to the hope of a Bavarian Redoubt. Desperate and deadly battles raged even after Hitler's death. The soldiers of the 44th were climbing Tyrolean peaks, waging war and paying the cost through May 7, 1945.

Hitler in his final days in Berlin, April 1945

"A friend of mine once said, 'An adventure is simply an inconvenience properly considered.' I think what follows can properly be said to be an adventure.

It was May 1, 1945, just four days before we were to be told that hostilities in the Tyrolean Alps, Austria, would cease as of 1800 hours, May 5th. Three day later, May 8th, was to be the official end of hostilities in all of Europe. Of course, none of us knew at the time that this action would mark the end of the war for us in the 44th Infantry Division, USA. These momentous events were all to occur later, like the denouement in a cheap paperback thriller. The day before, April 30th, Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin; we didn’t know about that either.

What we did know was that if we could just hang on for the next several days or weeks, we might survive the perils of the world’s most destructive and terrible war. The Pacific war was still raging against the Japanese but most of us gave little thought to what might happen later in that distant theater. The European Theater was enough to worry about. I would like to relate some of the background leading up to what happened to me on May 2nd and to describe some of my experiences over a period of perhaps eight hours on that fateful day.

Up to this point in time, the soldiers in our Infantry regiment, the 71st, had received more than 1300 Purple Hearts in recognition of wounds suffered from the enemy and our company, Company A, had sustained a number of casualties, including 19 killed. We weren’t the most lucky company but we weren’t the least lucky either. I should note here that much of the general facts that follow were abstracted from the Regimental and Divisional history books which were printed shortly after the war, as well as from my memory.

alps austria sherman tank gis 44th infantry 1945Try to imagine some of our thoughts and feelings as we were told on this first day of May that our First Battalion was assigned the mission of reconnoitering a series of mountain passes which skirt a strongly defended main highway leading south through the mountains to the cities of Imst and Innsbruck in western Austria. Imst is about 30 miles west of Innsbruck and is at the same latitude (47 degrees North) as Olympia, the capital of the state of Washington. We were directed to take a route other than the highway because forward movement of our Third Battalion, just adjacent to ours, was proving difficult and continued head-on progress against the Germans was deemed too costly.

Reconnaissance, sending out our patrols to observer enemy dispositions, throughout the day proved futile. A strong German defense was set up in the snow-covered mountain pass known as Fern Pass. Roads and trails could not be located and could not be navigated by our best equipment. Situated four and one-half miles beyond the German-held stronghold in Fern Pass was the small village of Fernstein, from which the German defenses were directed. A route of march was needed which would permit our forces to attack the enemy positions in and around Fernstein and the Fern Pass, from the rear. The route chosen was so steep and precipitous that the Germans left it relatively unprotected. The obvious routes along the highway and narrow valley were heavily defended.

At 1100 hours on May 2nd our Battalion Commander received a “Plan of Commitment” which told the First Battalion to punch north through the mountainous country to the east and southeast of Fern Pass with the mission of capturing Fernstein, saving the large concrete bridge over the end of Fernstein Lake, and attacking Fern Pass from the rear. A route was outlined which skirted the slopes of Mount Wanneck (elevation 8,200 feet) immediately to the south of Fernstein. Time estimates by cooperative Austrian underground members was seven hours with properly equipped and trained mountain troops. Our Battalion, untrained as mountain troops, faced with the impossibility of evacuation of wounded and re-supply of materiel, moved to accomplish the mission.

At this late period in the war, we were witnessing the dissolution of the armed might of Germany. The woods all around us swarmed with German soldiers, but the fight was gone out of most of them and if encountered, they would flee in confusion or surrender meekly. But always there was the sprinkling of fanatics who were determined to win or die. And it was just possible I was about to meet one of them, one of Hitler’s misguided zealots.

In climbing the steep, icy slopes of Mount Warrneck all officers and men traveled light. We did not carry packs, blankets and other equipment pertinent to an infantryman living in the field in the winter. We stripped off all unnecessary gear and carried only light arms, rifles, ammunition, grenades, K-rations, water and ponchos. I even saw our battalion commander carrying a mortar plate (the base plate used to attach the mortar tube and hold it in position before firing). At times human chains were formed to help us up the hillside or to prevent someone plunging to his death below. We ascended for about a mile just reaching the timberline. Sufficient distance from the German garrison had been attained so as to prevent our detection. Speed was considered essential, as failure to occupy the Fernstein area before nightfall would certainly have made the climb more dangerous and perhaps disastrous.

Six Austrian members of the German Resistance led the way over the mountain. The Austrians were responsible for our rapid advance over the mountain and in large measure were responsible for our surprising the German garrison at Fernstein. However, as reported in the news clip below, perhaps their leader was not as pure “Resistance Fighter” as then we were led to believe.

By an extremely unusual coincidence I read the following paragraphs in the November 9, 1982 issue of the LA Times:

Alleged Nazi Said to Have Aided U.S. Forces
SACRAMENTO (UPI)--Otto Albrecht Alfred von Bolschwing, who died in disgrace last March amid federal charges that he was a Nazi war criminal, reportedly assisted the U.S. government during World War II.

Von Bolschwing died in March at 72 in a convalescent hospital in suburban Carmichael, 10 months after he was formally accused of war crimes that included the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

He lost his U.S. citizenship with the understanding that he would not be deported as long as he remained in poor health.  The Sacramento Bee reported that von Bolschwing’s activities on behalf of the Allies at the war’s end are documented in a letter dated June 7, 1945, and signed by Lt. Col. Ray F. Goggin of the 71st Infantry, U.S. Army.

The letter reads: “Otto Albrecht von Bolschwing, a member of the Tyrol Underground Movement, materially assisted the armed forces of the United States during our advance through Fern Pass and western Austria prior to the surrender of the German army. During our occupation, he personally captured over 20 high-ranking Nazi officials and SS officers and led patrols that resulted in the capture of many more.'  As visibility permitted and we came closer to the garrison, we could see intense German activity; numerous vehicles, artillery pieces and staff cars in motion, presumably preparing to defend their flanks and front sectors but still unaware that our attack would shortly penetrate their lightly defended rear. Obviously, up to this point in time, detection of our movement along the Pass had not been seen. I was later told that the defending forces thought we were paratroopers! Shortly thereafter, our lead units closed on the enemy and some resistance was encountered.

German Cossack troops soldiers soldaten German 19th Army surrender Landeck Austria  May 5, 1945.
A battery of German artillery supporting the defense of the Fern Pass was overrun as well as were several individual artillery pieces. German staff withdrawal was stopped and 20 staff officers surrendered en mass. The large concrete bridge was saved from destruction by seizure and quick removal of demolitions. One hundred and three prisoners were taken along with a complete battery of 88’s. More prisoners were captured as our two Battalions linked up. The complete disruption of the German forces in that area was assured as defenses in the narrow valley began to crumble. At this time, 1750 hours, May 2nd, most of the First Battalion was in Fernstein, three miles from the Third Battalion by highway. Units of our Battalion returned to Fernstein in a blinding snow storm.

After our company had reached the summit, we continued to walk in single-file, combat ready, about 10 paces apart, searching for the enemy on either side of our path. The earlier fire-fight, which seemed to be over, had taken place considerably up the line from my position (probably by Company C, just ahead of our company) and had claimed some casualties on both sides. By this time, our medics were attending to several in my immediate area. The captured German soldiers, not unhappily and quite willingly, were being taken to our rear, presumably for interrogation and confinement.

As I was walking along on the relatively level path, still aware that there may be further action, I heard a painful, anguished cry which seemed to be coming from my left, several tens of yards up the side of the mountain. The crier was completely hidden in the scrubby brush and I could tell by the voice that it came from a German. No one on the path seemed to be paying any attention. If I continued walking, in a few minutes I would be out of earshot and still alive. I had no interest in becoming a minor hero, particularly a dead minor hero, and most particularly a dead, minor hero just before the war’s end. Again and again we had been warned that there was a small, hard-core group of German fanatics who would willingly give up their lives for the 'Thousand-Year Third Reich' if only they could take one or more Allied lives along with them. Was this one of them? I did not know.

On the other hand, I thought surely the vast majority of Germans knew that the war was essentially over and if they could just survive for a few short weeks, they too would ultimately be able to return to their homes, their families and their loved ones. Just a few more weeks! The thought must have been ringing in their ears just like in ours.

Balancing the two alternatives, I decided that to bring what was probably a wounded soldier off the mountainside where our medics could help him was worth the danger but I would reduce the risk to its absolute, lowest possible value. I motioned with my M-1 rifle to two of the passing German prisoners that they were to step out of line and follow my hand signals. The cries were continuing so there was no question as to what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and who was going with me. I was wearing my helmet with the two holes in it which I hoped added to my image of authority and invulnerability.

The two prisoners moved cautiously ahead of me as the three of us clambered up the snow-pocked mountainside in the direction of the cries. My rifle was pointed just a few feet from their backs and my finger was on the trigger, eight cartridges were ready for the chamber, my mouth was bone-dry and my twenty-one-year-old heart was pounding adrenalin to every cell of my body. As we approached the wounded soldier, my focus was to make sure the two prisoners’ bodies were always close together and between the wounded man and me. Even though we were trying to rescue him, he could still be armed and dangerous. A rifle bullet could easily pass through the body of one of the prisoners and kill me behind him but at least my obscured position reduced the risk.

We found the soldier unarmed, wounded in the legs as I recall, and totally uninterested in putting up any further fight. The two prisoners made a basket carrier with their arms and struggled back down the mountainside where they laid him alongside the path. Shortly thereafter I was able to get one of our medics to attend to him. And I walked on----I felt that I really was going to make it through the end of the war! and perhaps I had helped one other to do so as well.

The situation of the Germans was hopeless and on the 5th of May General Brandenburger surrendered his Nineteenth Army. Troops of our division moved quickly to secure the Division Zone and to make contact with the American Tenth Mountain Division at the Italian border. The war for me and the 44th was over." 

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