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Before | After

Veteran's day, part deux

Last year on Veteran's/Armistice Day, I posted something my dad had written to me about "what I was doing this day 65 years ago." I was kind of stunned by how many people wrote to me after that; it seemed to get passed around afterward to a lot of non-LJ links and people sent me all this email, which I duly passed on to Dad. Even my LJ friends seemed to like it. So I had him write up a bunch more, including the one about how he earned his bronze star, which my sister and I were fascinated by growing up. I was traveling at the holidays, so I never got a chance to post his holiday ones, nor this one, but even though it's putting me behind work, I really wanted to get this up and acknowledge my dad's service. I know for a fact that he's downplaying his role in this tremendously, but that is kind of how he is. As you'll see from his account.

*****
On April 16, 1945, I was part of our combat trains: five trucks of ammunition and five trucks of gasoline. We could resupply our tanks with 7,500 gallons of gas and 37.5 tons of ammunition within five to fifteen minutes after we received a radio call. We had rejoined our company on a very narrow dirt road cut into the side of a mountain, about 50 miles north east of Bayreuth, Germany. I was towing a loaded cargo trailer, and my truck was empty. At one point, our column pulled to the outside of the road and stopped.

The mountain sloped down on what I suspected was its natural angle of repose of 33 degrees for an estimated 700 feet. I had no sooner stopped than I felt my truck slipping over the edge of the road. Cal Limbach, who was riding with me, got out, and after about 20 minutes, he had managed to get a half-track to hook a tow chain to my front bumper. I put the truck in all-wheel drive and low gear range. As soon as my truck moved, the trailer slid off the road, pulling my truck with it, so only my front wheels were on the edge of road. This spun the 10-ton half-track from parallel to the road to almost a right angle to the road. The only thing that kept me from a 700-foot ride down the hill was the tow chain and the half-track. The half-track then climbed up the hill, pulling me back on the road. I did not know a half-track could climb an incline that steep. I was not particularly scared, because I figured I could dive out the canvas door of the truck and stop myself as I slid down the mountain.

After I was back on the road, Staff Sergeant Johnnie Dean, our transportation sergeant, chewed me out for parking so close to the edge. I did not need him telling me of my error in judgment.

That night we backed our vehicles between houses located on either side of a road in a gully. This prevented aircraft from shooting us up and damaging our vehicles.

After breakfast the next morning, I asked the company barber to give me a haircut; he had set up in the living room of a German house with a big view window looking down on the street. The barber had just started cutting my hair when a fighter plane strafed the street. The barber dived for one corner of the room after he cut a chunk of hair off my head—he could not get the his hand out of the scissors. I dived for the other corner. This happened four times that morning, but fortunately the strafing had no real effect. My hair was a mess, so we decided to shave my head. After this, I went looking for a truck with a machine gun mounted on the cab; about a quarter of our trucks had either 30 or 50 caliber machine guns mounted that way.

I had found the truck I wanted, but its machine gun was so dirty it wouldn’t fire. I asked the soldier who was responsible for the gun how his rock-throwing ability was, because his machine gun would not fire. While the gun was being cleaned, we were strafed for the fifth and last time.

It was suggested that that night, we should light up the German truck column we had over-run at the edge of town and shoot down "Bed Check Charlie." We could place machine guns on the bluff above the column and catch him when he came down to strafe. The captain vetoed the idea because it would reveal where we were.

That afternoon, Lt. Darr told me to take Cal and go to Division Forward to get some 105 ammo for headquarters assault guns, and told me how to find them. I asked how badly they needed it--he said, “Get it.” This meant going back as far as I had to in order to get the ammo, clear to the Normandy Coast if necessary. I was to take Cal with me. I asked where they would be if the company pulled out, and he answered that they’d be down the paved road though town that led to Bayreuth, some fifty miles away; they would turn off the road somewhere. We had outrun our maps.

Division Forward did not have any 105 ammo, but Division Rear had some coming in in two hours. So we sat and watched a soldier take a bath out of a helmet. The only thing interesting about that was that his penis hung down to his knees, and we wondered how that worked.

A truck with five tons of 105 came in and we took all of it, heading back to the company--only to find they had pulled out. So down the road to Bayreuth we went. It was getting dark by this time. Had I know what would occur that day on that road, I would have waited till morning.

Charlie Wright, a chemist with our Battalion Medical, told me later that he was in a column sitting in the passenger's seat of an ambulance. When the column stopped, the next thing he knew, a GI was using the left front wheel of their vehicle for cover while firing at Germans advancing up the road. Another GI was firing a bazooka at the same advancing Germans. Almost as soon as the battle started, it stopped.

Tanks leave a track, even on asphalt, where they’ve turned. Somehow we had missed the sign of the track in the road. But on to Bayreuth we went. We were concerned when we hit the outskirts of Bayreuth, because there were no sheets or pillowcases hanging out the windows of the houses, indicating surrender. Then I saw one of our new light tanks out posting the town.

I pulled up to the tank and opened my door to ask directions when I saw, in the moonlight, a big German cross. I cannot express the shock I felt. Was I going to be made a prisoner? Would someone open fire? What would happen to my mother when she received news about me, with her heart condition? Then I realized the tank had been knocked out. Cal and I decided to get the hell out of there.

On the way back, we tried to figure out what to do when we saw a flashlight flashing at us down a long straight stretch of road. We lowered the windshield and placed my grease gun and Cal's carbine on it for quick firing, and then slowly approached the flashlight. As I stopped, I recognized the first sergeant of the Service Company of the 499 Armored Field Artillery. One of their half-tracks had broken down and was being towed by another half-track using tire chains. The tire chains broke and the towing half-track did not even know he had lost his tow. I hooked up to their half-track, put my truck in all-wheel-drive, and drove them to their company. Got in about midnight, and spent the rest of the night sleeping on hay in a barn. Up at five the next morning, we had breakfast, and were then off to find the company. I drove back to the autobahn we had crossed the night before, found the new exit the tanks had made, and then drove down to a narrow road.

It was a nice day. The first couple of villages we drove through that did not have any sheets or pillowcases out made us uneasy, but they looked peaceful. A couple of miles past the last village, we found ourselves in a lightly wooded area where the road made a sharp turn downhill. On my left was a grass field about 100 yards by 200 yards. The road followed the edge of the field. I had traveled down it about 100 feet when I glanced down the road and across the valley and saw two German soldiers hit the ground. I slammed on the brakes.

I said, " Look Cal, see those two soldiers."

He replied, "You mean the nine over there," pointing to nine soldiers who were then hitting the ground about 125 yards across the side of the field. We sat there, looking at the nine helmets, trying to see if there were more soldiers around. I wondered if the field next to me had more, or if it would be safer to back up; however, backing up was awfully slow. Then a German burp gun, a submachine gun that fires at a rapid rate, went off. Someone across the field was firing at us. They did not hit the truck. Cal and I bailed out of the truck and crawled under it. I looked at my watch--it was 10:13 a.m. I knew if I survived, someone was going to ask what time this occurred. The burp gun opened up again, hitting the truck. One bullet ricocheted off a natural rock wall behind me, and off a wheel, and hit me in the ribs with no damage. Cal and I then climbed over the four-foot rock wall and ran down hill a few feet to where there was better cover.

I borrowed Cal's carbine and shot four holes in the gas tank of my truck, which was still running. I figured that would keep the Germans from using it and at the same time, it would be easy for us to repair. If they hit the radiator, my engine would not burn up.

Not liking the odds, Cal and I faded back into the wooded area and ran uphill until we came to the road. Keeping inside the reforested area, with pine trees about 10 feet tall, we ran back the way we came. After a quarter of a mile or so, we moved out into the road for speed, only to have a German officer fire a shot at us with a pistol. He did not even come close, but we moved back in the forested area. After about a mile, we went back in the road.

About two miles from the field, at the edge of the last village we passed, we met the part of the Service Company of the 191 Tank Battalion. As I was to learn later, this battalion had landed at Anzio and had fought as infantry. I told the captain what had happened, and the column proceeded down the road only to stop about a quarter-mile short of the field. There everyone dismounted. We looked across the valley and saw German soldiers running out of a group of buildings on a farm about 400 to 500 yards away. The 191 opened fire, then started to walk thru the woods to chase any stragglers away. Just before the 191st started to fire, an older German soldier walked out to the road and surrendered.

Cal and I walked in the brush on the uphill side of the road. The captain wanted to know where we were going, so I told him I wanted to get the nine we had seen earlier. From the pistol shot, I was sure they had reached the top of the field and I wanted to come in above them. He said no, they were all going the other direction. Reluctantly, Cal and I followed the 191st down the hill through the woods.

Just as we crossed the road that ran along the bottom of the valley, a burp gun opened up on our left. We could see the bullets hit the plowed field. A bullet hit one of the half-dozen men crossing the field. Both Cal and I hit the ground, facing the source of the shooting: it was the two soldiers I had first seen that morning, who had positioned themselves in a ditch at the intersection of the valley road and the road from the farm. Although I was less than five feet from Cal, I could not see them, but he could. Cal opened fire, killing the man with the burp gun, who was then engaged in a shoot-out with the other soldier.

I could hear the bullets ricochet off the ground in front of Cal. In the meanwhile, the Service company was getting their men off the plowed field. They used their prisoner to get the wounded man out of there. They would run past us out in the grassy field for 100 feet where there was slight depression in the ground and hit the ground, then make a sharp left turn and run up a logged-off area.

While this was going on, I looked over at the farm building about 225 yards away and saw a German officer with field glasses standing between two buildings, looking over the situation. Standing beside him was, I assumed, the first sergeant. The 30-round clip in my grease gun would not let me aim my gun without raising my head high enough for the soldier Cal was shooting at to see me. I took the clip out and hand-fed a round into the gun, and shot at them. I laugh when one dove for a doorway and the other one for another doorway when I missed.

Eventually, Cal and I were the only ones left. Cal took off and reached the depression, when he was shot in both legs, breaking the thigh bone in the left leg. I ran up to him to check both legs, and saw that he was not bleeding from either wound, so I told him not to move. I had had first aid class in the eighth grade and knew a large artery ran along the thigh, so I was afraid if I moved him without immobilizing the leg, it would rupture the artery and he would bleed to death. I had no way of stabilizing the leg. I told Cal I could carry him up the hill but he would probably bleed to death. I did not see any good to my staying with him, and he agreed.

Up the hill I ran, mentally imagining the gunner drawing down on me, then cutting to the right. Then cutting to the right again. Then left as the gunner improved his aim, and so on, as I ran the hundred yards up the hill. Not a shot was fired. I was met at the top of the clearing with seven men, a sergeant and six lower ranks. We discussed how to move Cal. We could see the smoke from my truck that had been set on fire. Then we heard what sounded like two men walking down a dry stream bed. The sergeant motioned for four men to be alert. Out of the brush 25 feet from me stepped two German soldiers with their rifles slung over their arms, rabbit-hunting style. Seeing us, they brought their rifles up, but were promptly hit with a round each of carbine and submachine gun fire. I could see the slugs form rings of dust as they hit them in the chest. The smaller man collapsed. The bigger one, about 6 feet and 200 pounds, lowered his rifle took a half step forward and started to bring his rifle up when he was hit with another .45 cal. slug. This happened four times until he collapsed saying, "Alles fur Deutschland." I was surprised--my father had told that a .45 slug would knock a man down. I told him and another secret service agent what had happened when I was discharged from the army a year later.

The sergeant said let’s get out of here, and I considered what to do. I could stay but do nothing for Cal, or go and possibly speed up Cal's recovery. Down to only 16 rounds, I decided to go. I do not remember firing those 13 rounds that I must have.

Back on the road again, they brought up three tanks to the edge of the village. I rode on the outside of the lead tank to about 100 yards from the grassy field. We stopped and waited, for reasons unknown. I got to thinking I was going to cause more trouble than I was worth. If I rode down to Cal, I would attract all the small arms fire and still not have any way to move him. The only way I could help would be to apply a tourniquet to stop any bleeding. I got down off the tank. Finally they moved out to search the grassy field and could not find Cal. I felt sick. It was 3:15 p.m.

I rode back with the 191st to my company and reported I had lost Cal. No, they said, you were missing in action. Battalion Maintenance, hearing radio reports from the 191st, sent one tank in for repair back for support. That’s when they found Cal at the farm, and he told them he had last seen me running up a hill. [He doesn't mention here that the German citizens helped Cal and the GI medics because they were afraid of repercussions if they let him die, and they wanted to be in good favor with the Americans.]

I have a letter that Cal wrote on June 1st from a hospital in England. His letter had a PS, which said, "I got the better deal." [If anyone's interested, I can post the letter. It's really amazingly written, and I asked Dad if Cal was a writer or poet, which made him laugh.]

The next day we set a defensive position in case the Germans decided to counter-attack in celebration of Hitler's birthday. Also on that day I signed a Statement of Charges, certifying that I had lost one 2-1/2 ton truck worth $3,500 as a result of enemy action. Above my signature was a place for the company commander, the battalion commander, the combat commander, and the commanding general to sign.

I lost three brand-new pair of size 13 boots that the army would not replace until the first sergeant reported, several months later, that one man was not present for duty because he did not have any boots.

I did not do anything heroic that deserved a medal, but Lt. Darr thought differently, and wrote me up for a second time six months later. It got me out of the army two months early.

Comments

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spasticat
Nov. 12th, 2010 04:33 am (UTC)
That is incredibly impressive and I'll have to go back and read the other post of your dad's war service. (is very impressed)
gwyn_r
Nov. 20th, 2010 08:34 am (UTC)
Yeah, he's a pretty surprising guy. ;-) I think the one I posted last year was on Veteran's day as well. I'm going to have to post his Christmas and NY's ones this year since I"m not traveling this time.
gamiila
Nov. 12th, 2010 08:58 am (UTC)
What an interesting story, and how typical that your dad doesn't think he did anything heroic to deserve a medal! My dad was awarded the Bronze Star in Korea, and likewise, never believed he did anything out of the ordinary to deserve it (even though he went back into a minefield and under heavy fire to get a wounded comrade out).

I'd love to read Cal's letter, if you'd be so good as to post it.
gwyn_r
Nov. 20th, 2010 08:36 am (UTC)
Isn't it amazing, what they did, and they think it's so... average? I would have been completely pissing myself if my truck was sliding down a hill -- and that's before there are people with guns coming after me.

I'll try to make some time to get Cal's letter in.
dualbunny
Nov. 13th, 2010 01:49 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for sharing this! :)
gwyn_r
Nov. 20th, 2010 08:37 am (UTC)
You're welcome!
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