"In this one respect the front-line soldier differs from all the rest of us. All the rest of us - you and me and even the thousands of soldiers behind the lines in Africa - we want terribly yet only academically for the war to get over. The front-line soldier wants it to be got over by the physical process of his destroying enough Germans to end it. He is truly at war. The rest of us, no matter how hard we work, are not."
the great Ernie Pyle
Nothern Tunisia, April 22, 1943
by Beryl H. Haught Jr. - Company “A” 114th Regiment
"For the life of me I can’t recall just why the three of us were patrolling in that particular piece of woods in eastern France on that November, 1944 morning, but more than likely I never knew the reason at that time either.
It was probably the same old story—each of us was just following the man in front. I’ll have you know I was always known as a great follower! I learned early-on that the quickest way to get yourself into big trouble was to be up front leading an infantry column. This lead in military jargon is known as “the point” and it’s about the last place in the whole world you want to be if you can possibly avoid it.
Now I never did claim to be much of a soldier, but I had the uncanny ability of usually ending up back at the rear of these columns and this was especially true when going into an attack. This in and of itself was no small accomplishment since about ninety percent of the rest of the guys in the outfit were all trying to end up in the back too. I was able to con the other guys into believing I was more valuable back there in case the “Krauts” attacked us from the rear.
I swear that we must have spent over half our time in combat just walking around from here to there and there to here, with apparently no one having the least idea whether we were coming or going. I think what often happened, especially at night, was that the man in front of the column would often get lost and after wandering around aimlessly for awhile he would finally spot the man back at the rear and start following him, wit‘ the result that we would spend most of the night just walking around in circles following each other. If you did get up the courage to ask the guy in front if he knew where he was. going, the answer was always the same, “How in the hell do I know, I’m just following the guy in front of me.“
In fact, during the latter part of October, we in the 44th Division received a “Letter of Commendation” from General Alexander M. Patch, the Commanding General of the US 7th Army, which read in part as follows:
“You drove the Germans from their remaining strong points in the ‘Foret de Parroy’ and by your continued and active patrolling in this forest you kept the enemy from any offensive action in this section. “
The General was referring to a 24 hour “forced-march” that our battalion and others made thru a large forest located to the northeast of Luneville, a mid-sized city in western Alsace-Lorraine. What the General didn’t know was that our battalion neither shot, saw or even as much as heard a single German in the whole damn woods. Maybe all of them directly in front of us snuck out of the other side when they heard us coming in. We never were too quiet. Apparently some of the other infantry battalions did better than ours or else the division never would have received the “commendation”.
Since our side did end up winning, apparently some of the officers at least occasionally knew where we were going, but they were not about to let any of us privates in on the secret, knowing full well if we were captured the first thing we would do would be to “spill the beans”. They weren’t right about much, but they were sure right about that!
The old business about “If your taken prisoner only ‘give them your name, rank and serial number” was for troops back in the rear echelons—and I mean way back in the rear echelons.
Getting back to our patrol, the three of us were walking along rather nonchalantly thru this woods, with only the occasional whine of an artillery shell going overhead to distract our attention, when we stumbled onto three German soldiers sitting beside each other on a log. They made no effort to go for their weapons nor did we threaten them with ours. We never demanded nor did they offer to surrender; we stared at each other for a long while without a word being said by anyone.
They were battle hardened soldiers, not the young boys and old men we were often accustomed to fighting. You could tell by their general demeanor and look that they had seen a lot of action. The only thing unusual was that the one in the middle was stark naked and he was one bloody mess. If he’d been hit with one shell fragment he’d been hit with at least a hundred. There were small cuts and holes all over his body, some still bleeding. He’d probably been hit with fragments from a shell (maybe even one of their own) that had exploded high up in the trees. Had it exploded closer he no doubt would have been dead. Other than for the bleeding, he seemed OK.
The one on the right finally pointed to my canteen and then to the mouth of the wounded soldier and said “Wasser—Wasser.” To the best of my memory these were the only two words that were exchanged between us. I handed him my canteen and he held it up to his comrade’s lips and handed it back to me without taking a drink himself. I motioned for him and the other one to have some too. They must have been damn thirsty for they drank it all. They didn’t have any food, so we gave them all of the K-rations we had and most of our cigarettes too. They had nothing to offer us in return and we didn’t expect anything either.
You might wonder why we were so compassionate when at any time one of them could have grabbed his weapon and we would have all ended up trying to kill each other in a fire-fight. It’s not that we were so stupid or brave, but the one advantage you have in the infantry is that often you get to see your adversaries “face-to-face” and the look in their eyes often tells you when they’ve had enough. You could see in the eyes of these three that they had long since passed that point. Maybe they could see a little bit of it in ours too and that’s why they never feared us.
For just a few minutes we were just six “Kameraden” trapped by a set of circumstances beyond our control, in a place where none of us wanted to be and at a time when we didn’t want to be there. At least for a little while there was “peace and tranquility” between the six of us. It’s rather ironic that the infantry, which has always had to do most of the fighting, will often show more compassion for his enemy counter-part than the people in his own tank, artillery and other supporting units. There is an old saying in the infantry that, “Every person more than half mile behind your foxhole is a son-of-a-bitch.”
We left them sitting on the log and continued on with our patrol. I have no idea what happened to the three after we left. Maybe they ended up getting shot or taken prisoner or it’s even possible that they went back to their own line to fight some more. We cared less—once we left they became someone else’s problem.
We never told our officers about this incident. I’m quite sure that most of them would neither have approved or understood. This all happened so many years ago that I can’t quite remember all of the details, but I will lay you odds that once we got started back on the patrol, “Yours Truly” was in the back again bringing up the rear."