Nearing my 85th birthday on July 4, 2010, I wondered about the existence and history of my old Army outfit during WWII, Even as a tyro with my laptop computer I tried out â€œGoogleâ€ for the first time. I entered â€œ287th Combat Engineer Battalion.â€ I was unsuccessful. I initiallyÂ added â€œGeorge Patton’s 3rd Army.â€ What came up was the American Veterans Center and a letter dated May 8, 1995 on the 50th anniversary of VE day, from C. William Taylor to his children. I read it aloud to my wife and was choked up in tears. Here was a member of the 287th who traveled into Cherbourg on the very ship as me. It was an eloquent letter citing his service experience and in particular his involvement in the â€œBattle of the Bulge.â€ After my dialog with Laura Ymker at AVC I was certainlyÂ excited with the zeal to also recite my own Army experiences.
I, too, boarded the same ship at Southhampton. It was the â€œCheshire.â€ Luckily it could have been the â€œLeopoldville,â€ a Belgian steamer converted into a troop transport. In all the confusion that night, with no manifests, waiting troops were directed to one or the other ship. Crossing of the channel, although not so distant, was longer than expected, with at least six ships in convoy, zig-zagging at the speed of the slowest ship. During the trip we could hear the subterranean depth charges detonating, fired from the accompanying Naval escorts.
As greenhorns we were ignorant of the fact, we were in dangerous waters. About four or five miles outside the harbor the Leopoldville traveling about a mile ahead of us was torpedoed! Our ship captainÂ was ordered to proceed right to the harbor docks without stopping to rescue survivors, for fear of also being torpedoed. We never learnedÂ of the outcomeÂ of that attack, except we were all advised not to talk about the incident, and that 800 infantrymen were killed. It was until the young German U-boat captain, after returning to their compound in France, reported his success, and it made headlines in the Berlin papers. â€œThe SS Leopoldville Disaster, December 24, 1944â€ by Allen Andrade, written in 1997, gives you a complete and through recapÂ of the greatest singular loss in US Army history.
After debarking on that Christmas day, we bedded down in a French farmer’s barn. It was the coldest winter in Europe in many years. We had hay and straw to bed-down on, and we were all freezing. I can remember that night, we had a small fire going, and were able to heat up water in our helmets.
Within our K-rations was a small packetÂ of coffee like powder that we used in our canteens of hot water. It w as the best drink I ever had in my life, and I swore that when I returned home I would gladly promote a new commercial for â€œNescafe.â€
I was one of the unlucky passengers that night, whose duffel bag was lost on the trip, among about 20 others. From many of my fortunate buddies, I borrowed pants, fatigues, sweater, underwear, and wore everything on double for over three months. My firstÂ shower was in late spring. The bags were located and returned months later, mine sans the cigarettes I carefully saved. As green troops, we were sent to the St. Nazaire region on the French coast.Â We slept in three man pup tents in such freezing weather. I recall a young 2nd Lieutenant from NY , who regardless of the weather, bathed outside his tent every morning. My headquarters unit on one occasion billeted in the stable of a very nice French chalet estate. The chalet was still occupied by the family. We slept on folding cots in the loft of the stable. While in our cots in this dark unlit, low headroom attic,Â one guy screamed â€œthere’s a bat in here.â€ It’s continuousÂ flight, zooming down near our faces, frightened everyone.
In the dark I rigged up a net from the camouflage netting on my helmet, and my M-1 rifle, and caught him in the air! I scroungedÂ around to find something to put him in. I found an old bird cage stashed away in the eaves under the rafters. I caught a second bat later in the night, and he joined his partner in the cage. The cage may have been gilt also, was very nice and may have housed an exotic bird previously. It hung in the officer’s area, while I was a hero for a few days.
Another night there, when I was passing through the all-night duty room to go up to the loft, an officer burst through the exterior door, Lieutenant Colonel I think, and asked the officer in charge if someone could take him to the motor pool, where a Frenchman was shot the night beforeÂ while stealing gas from the vehicles.
I volunteered. I knew where it was. He had a side-arm on his belt, and I grabbed my 45 caliber burp gun, that could discharge the whole clip in seconds. It was that kind of night, so still, and black as the ace of spades. The route there was through a very nice formal, landscaped garden, with stone, gravel and rock paths. It was difficult to see, as we had no lights, so I asked him to hold on to my belt in back and I would lead him there. At length, after arriving, we pussy-footed slowly down this dirt road nearing the motor pool. As we approached, I heard â€œwho goes there?â€ from the guard on duty. I expected the Colonel to respond,Â â€œwho goes there?: again. Still no answer. Then I could hear the safety click go off on his gun, and â€œwho goes there?â€ for the third time. â€œConstantinopleâ€ I yelled. IÂ thought the officer knew the password! The trek back was just as awkward. Apparently he was the co of another nearby unit. He thanked me profusely.
When we all heard of the heavy retaliationÂ of the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, our company had orders to shift to the front as infantrymen. Overnight, this 19 year-old Tech Sergeant 4th grade was appointed as a 50 cal. Machine gun platoon leader. I had never seen a 50 cal gun before. I studied the GI manual and learned overnight. However, if we were going to the front, we better know how to shoot it. The next morning, without any orders, we went out to a position at the St. Nazaire pocket, high above a little French village. By the way, we all presumed there were only five or fix thousand Germans holed up beyond the lines, and mostly Navy because of the submarine base. We set up three crews of guns, targeted for the small church, which reconnaissance thought was being used as their meeting place.
At the right time, we all opened up at once. We quickly learned, since we were not on solid bearing, that the gun’s tripod dug in from the recoil. I adjusted the sights, and the tracers helped to improve our shots on target. We quickly expelled the full canister of shells, and started to break down the gun., when we heard a shell explode about 100 yards below us. We didn’t know that the Navy had â€œ88â€ howitzers. The 2nd shell was 50 yards closer and right on time, which the tracers provided. We rushed to our vehicle., a 1 Â½ ton weapons carrier, one man with the tripod, the 2nd with the assembly, and me with the red-hot barrel. Racing to the truck, I dropped the hot barrel, head first, on my right foot. I learned later it fractured my big toe, and that deterred my discharge, since I had to be detained in the surgery ward at the Fort Lee hospital.
Our trek to the tail-end of the Bulge was non-stop thorough the night. The villages were very small and many trucks had their rear-view mirrors knocked off, squeezing through some of the narrow alleys. I recall, when crossing over the Rhine, that one man in my platoon threw-up after viewing all the dead GI and German bodies still floating in the water. There was no time to clean up.
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The German people, at this late stage, were also a deterrent to our advance. When an entire village, usually women and children, rode their bicycles all together on the main road in order to hinder our progress, the Burgermeister ordered all bikes to be confiscated and brought to the village park. It was a huge pile of bikes. They were doused with gas and torched by our c.o.
One day, driving forward, I noticed up ahead, an old grandmother (oma) standing on the curb on a right hand curve, and as I approached, she quickly stepped out in front of us. I swerved left to miss her, off the road, down a 30 foot embankment almost in a river. We were quickly towed out and on our way. ThatÂ could have been oma’s contribution to her country’s war effort. The guys actually complemented me for my driving.
On another occasion I drove (again volunteering) our Captain to Corps headquarters. The trip took twice as long as normal, since it was dark as the ace of spades that night. The cats’ eyes on our jeep didn’tÂ help, since they weren’tÂ meant to help us see. We finally got to our destination in the middle of the night. It was the only masonry structure standing in a blown out town. When the Captain stepped out of the jeep there was a terrifically loud pop! I had parked right over a dead horse and he stepped on its swollen belly. There were many things that weren’t funny, but we said we’d laugh about sometime later. By the way, we picked up orders to pull-out by dawn the next day. One of the things I will never forget, is the worst smell on earth, that of the burning of human flesh, as we neared Dachau.
I don’t recall where I was on VE Day, except I do remember our orders to pack up for transfer. Our entireÂ company were freshly outfitted and with full gear, on the docks at Le Havre,Â waiting to embark on a transport, to our new destination in Japan, presumably to build air strips on some islands. Would you believe that was VJ day! My buddy who was ahead of me alphabetically had already boarded the ship, and I found out later, he got back to the states and transferred to a unit of military police. We all about-faced, and wound up in the Army of occupation. I was transferred out of the Corps of Engineers into Headquarters Co of the 17th port of Bremerhaven. My tenure thereafter may appear in my next chapter of service memoirs.