C. William Taylor
Letter to children May 8, 1995 – 50th anniversary of V-E Day:
Dear Jeff and Suci:
This is yet another milestone in my life and I want to share some of my thoughts and feelings with you while they are still fresh. The compelling images of the celebrations and memorial services her and in Western Europe that I have seen today on television have aroused different emotions in me. On one hand, I recall that momentous day 50 years ago; on the other, I see myself reflected in the aged faces of the WWII veterans.
You see me now as your aging father – let me take you back 50 years to a 21-year-old soldier. Assistant Squad Leader and machine gun crew chief, already a two-year Army veteran, who experienced first hand, one of the great moments of modern history, the defeat and surrender of the German Third Reich and the end of the greatest war ever fought on the European continent. I was proud to have been a part of General Patton’s Third U.S. Army in its drive from the Rhine to the Czech border in the final episode of the war on the Western Front and glad that we had left an obscure combat area, the St. Nazaire-Lorient Pocket on the Atlantic Coast of France, to join in the climactic events of that Spring.
In my youthful outlook on life, I anticipated my return to college at the end of the War the camaraderie of me classmates and fraternity brothers who had serves in all branches of the Armed Forces. I wanted to be able to tell “war stories” like those I expected from them as we reunited, with few notable exceptions of those who had been killed in action, to recount our experiences.
The Third Army advance into the heart of Germany would make up for having missed, due to the sinking of that troopship on Christmas Eve, the greatest battle of the war in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge in December and January.
I also felt repelled by the human misery and the physical devastation that surrounded us as we penetrated deeper and deeper into Germany. The towns and cities lay in ruins – there were none of the amenities of a civilized Western society such as electric power, sewer, and water. Frankfurt, Schweinfurt, Nuremberg and Regensburg were heaps of rubble with paths where streets and boulevards had been; the ruins were populated by gray-faced adults and pinch-faced children, the adults being mostly women and old men, all of whom were malnourished and dispirited – the aspect of defeat and ruin was their mien.
As I have been writing this letter, more images have come to mindâ€¦
THE GERMAN BOY, about ten years old, who befriended me and my comrades when we were operating a check point on a bridge across the Main River in Frankfurt in early April. We gave him food. Before we left to move on, he looted the tent we had erected at one end of the bridge to serve as a resting-place while we were off duty.
THE LOOK OF FEAR, disbelief and thinly disguised hatred on the face of the German hausfrau in a small town as I and two of my men gave her 30 minutes to clear her kitchen and dining room so that we could bulldoze them aside to widen the street to accommodate the armored vehicles and supply trucks heading for the front.
THE HOLLOW-FACED, HUNGRY AND RAGGED refugees from the slave labor camps, freed by our advancing forces, wandering the streets of the towns begging for food. (For the first two weeks after crossing the Rhine, all of us in Third Army were issued only packaged combat rations because Patton gave priority to shipments of ammunition and gasoline to keep the advance moving. Upon seeing the near starvation of that was endemic in the towns and cities we entered, we stopped complaining about the lack of hot food.)
THE REVULSION felt by the GI’s of the 287th when they learned of the unbelievable horrors discovered by some of the American units who liberated the death camps in the path of our advance.
THE LOOK OF SULLEN RESIGNATION on the faces of the two or three guards we found in a slave labor camp of Polish miners near Nuremberg when the miners, armed with axe handles, took them off into the woods and returned 20 minutes later without them. We did not ask, nor did we care, what had happened to those guards.
THE ANXIETY we felt rolling through Schweinfurt on a dark night in our truck convoy, to suddenly come under sniper fire from an unknown source. We could hear the bullets pinging off the hoods of the trucks and we felt very vulnerable sitting in the back of the truck protected only by a piece of canvas. No one was hit. We later learned that there, as in many cities we passed through, teen-aged boys of the Volksturm (Home Guard) wee stationed in church steeples or on rooftops to harass our troops with fire.
THE DISAPPOINTMENT we felt when we read in the Stars and Stripes in mid-April a report that the German High Command was moving its headquarters to the Alps where they would continue resistance to our invasion for an extended period. The prospect of fighting and blasting our way up and down every mountain Germany and Austria was indeed a dismal one. Fortunately, Hitler preferred to remain in his Berlin bunker, to which he had repaired when the Red Army overran his HQ in East Prussia.
THE APPARENT FRUSTRATION of several German officers in the POW group on V-E Day when we failed to respond to their assertions that the Allies were making a huge mistake in allowing the Red Army to occupy so much of Eastern and Central Europe and their pleas to rearm the German POW’s and join them in counterattacking the Soviet forces. They contended that once there, the Soviets would never leave willingly and would try to spread communism throughout Western Europe. How perceptive and prescient those officers proved to be!
I should not stop here, because it would be natural for you to think that, with victory in Europe, our troubles were at an end and we could celebrate our survival. It was not that simple, for the war in the Pacific was still raging and growing more and more costly, the nearer our forces came to the Japanese Home Islands. On V-E Day, the Battle of Okinawa had been raging for five weeks; by the time it was over in June, 12,000 GI’s and Marines had died in what was the largest battle of the Pacific War (and the last great battle of War World II).
We all regarded as inevitable an amphibious invasion of Japan, for the Japanese seemed bent on fighting every foot of the way on the islands and could be expected to put a real Kamikaze defense of their own homeland. Of course, we knew nothing about the development of the atomic bomb.
Shortly after V-E Day, it became apparent that the War Department would be shifting troops from Europe to the Pacific and, in furtherance of that plan, a huge redeployment base was set up in Marseilles , from which units could be sent directly to the Pacific through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean.
What we did not know was that the War Department had planned the invasion in two stages; on November 1, 1945, there would be an enormous landing on the island of Kyushu with about 300,000 men in the initial assault, followed on March 1, 1946 by an even larger landing on the island of Honshu, on which Tokyo is situated. However, we fully expected to be part of the invasion of Japan.
We now know that General George C. Marshall’s staff predicted one million U.S. casualties in subduing the Japs on their home territory. Then, President Truman came to our rescue – with his decision to drop the big bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, As you know, that brought the Japs to the surrender table. It was all over while I was still in Bavaria with my unit on Army of Occupation duty and training, on the Danube river, to build a new type of assault bridge. Once again, fortune or God smiled down upon me and my comrades. It was then that I felt comfortable planning my postwar life.
To both of you, my deepest gratitude for your calls today to offer “congratulations” on V-E Day. It brought tear to my eyes to realize that you understood how much this day means to me and that you appreciated the contribution I made, no matter how small it was in the larger scheme of things, during my three years of military service. You have made the day even more memorable with your thoughtfulness and caring.
With my love and respect,Dad.
1 Of course, I realized then, as I believe now, that if I had participated in that battle as a combat engineer, my chances of survival of the war would have been greatly reduced. The Battle of the Bulge turned out to be the largest ever fought in the history of the U.S. Army. Initiated by the Germans in a final, desperate effort to split the Allied armies in the West and force them to sue for peace, they launched a surprise offensive in mid-December, 1944, in a “quiet sector,” the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg, held by several battle weary U.S. divisions and one division newly arrived from the U.S. In six weeks of fighting that threw the Germans back, the U.S. forces took 76,000 casualties, including 16,000 killed in action.
2 My fraternity brother and postwar roommate, Chuck Harrington, fought on Okinawa with the 96th Dicision. Between the battle of the Bulge and Okinawa alone, over 28,000 American were killed in action in th last nine months of the war, not counting those who died in the fighting in other places in Europe and the Pacific. I am told that the casualty lists in the newspapers across the land grew longer and longer that year.
Excerpt from “Reflections of a WWII GI” printed in University Club Quarterly Summer 2000.
On Christmas Eve, my unit, the 600 man 287th Engineer Combat Battalion, boarded a small troop transport in the harbor of Southampton, England, en route to Cherbourg, Normandy, to fill the ranks of General George S. Patton’s Third Army combat engineer forces; which were seriously depleted in the gargantuan struggle being waged in Belgium and Luxembourg in what already been dubbed the Battle of the Bulge.
As we crossed the English Channel the next afternoon, I shared my comrades’ anxiety about the danger that lay ahead in the dim, snowy forest of the Ardennes where the German Army, spearheaded by the elite SS panzer units, had smashed a hole in the American lines 80 miles wide and 50 miles deep, As a 21-year-old Assistant Squad Leader and Machine Gun Crew Chief, I realized that we would be undergoing our baptism of fire in one of the greatest battles of WWII. (Although we understood the significance of the battle, we did not realize that the American forces were taking 2400 casualties a day).
Unknown to us as we crossed the Channel, docking at Cherbourg harbor on Christmas Day, was the enormous tragedy that had befallen the men of the 66th Division on Christmas Eve, when 800 soldiers were killed and 500 wounded in a U-boat attack outside the Cherbourg harbor on a troopship carrying 2,200 men of the 262nd and 264th Infantry Regiments.
That disaster changed the course of the war for us as were diverted from Patton’s Army to be assigned to the 66th Division as “acting infantry” to replace the casualties of the previous evening. The 66th was on its way to Brittany to replace one of Patton’s divisions holding 60,000 Germans in the ports of St. Nazaire and Lorient on the Atlantic Coast of France, known as the “St. Nazaire-Lorient Pocket.”
That is how it came to pass that in February, 1945, my unit was in the front line north of the Loire River facing a battle hardened German force. Because we were outnumbered by the Germans, we stayed in our bunkers at night, when we were without the protection of our artillery, and carried our daytime reconnaissance patrols in no-man’s land between the front lines to monitor their troop dispositions.
Since the Germans, in their nightly incursions into our lines, left booby traps and antipersonnel mines planted in the fields and hedgerows, we had to be vigilant when we ventured into no-man’s land. The most vigilant of these devices was the German S-mine, buried in the earth, usually in a narrow path through the hedgerows with a trop wire concealed in the brush about a foot off the ground. When the wire was tripped by an unsuspecting GI, a detonating charge in the mine launched it into the air about ten feet high where it exploded, showering the area with jagged steel fragments, wounding anyone within range of the deadly spray of steel. To the GI’s, it was known as “Bouncing Betty.”
On one February afternoon, I found myself the last man in a 15-man patrol, heading back to our line after a tense, but uneventful reconnaissance of the area. Covering our rear with my rife at the ready, as we approached our line, I was looking backward when I heard a muffled explosion, followed by the patrol leader’s cry, “Hit the dirt.”
I spun around to find the rest of the patrol face down in the cold mud. In the air was a dark cylindrical object, which I immediately recognized as a Bouncing Betty. As I stood transfixed, exposed to the explosion and hail of steel. The mine dropped back to the ground, rolled around and came to a rest. It was a dud!
Although the detonator worked, the explosive charge had failed to go off! When I realized how close I had come to serious injury and possible disfigurement, I broke into a cold sweat, thanking God that I had been spared once more.