- Historic Sites
“The So-called Charge Was Murder”
A young GI making the journey from war to peace, and from enmity to friendship, finds amid the most tremendous change smoldering embers of an old tyranny
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
Our work, if you could call it that, involved riding around in a large truck whose rear compartment was lined with radio gear, a corporal commanding our team of five. We would be directed to some isolated spot where we would set up an antenna, hook it into the gear powered by a gasoline generator, and then do nothing, save for adding gas. Sometimes this went on for four or five days. Through our radios flowed a portion of the communications of our infantry regiment, which was usually four or five miles in front of us. We never listened in. We didn’t give a damn about observations exchanged between the upfront and rear-area commanders. In fact, we didn’t give a damn about our mission in Germany. The only time I can ever recall the matter coming under consideration was when a jeep driven by a corporal happened upon our remote outpost. We invited him into the back of the truck to warm up and learned he was attached to 7th Army headquarters, had delivered a colonel somewhere, and was on his way back. That he dealt with demigods put him in a different category from anyone we knew. He talked of how if the Russians in their millions moved against our 250,000 or so troops, it was hoped we could maintain a fighting retreat for perhaps 10 days before being completely annihilated. This happy depiction of our fate, while entirely logical, did not recommend itself for later discussion. None of us thought the Russians were really coming anyway, despite our spending 10 or 12 days a month in the field preparing for just that possibility. It was not the next war but the last one that dominated our thinking. That, weekend passes, keeping as far as possible from our horrible sergeant, and gossip about the section. We lived a very sequestered, incestuous existence, un“cquainted with anyone who wasn’t in our platoon, never knowing any of the other members of our company. For the regiment we cared not a whit, and the division commander I saw once in my life, when we marched past him in a big review.
I pointed to the word Nazi in the text and asked what that meant. Max said he didn’t know. “Come on, come on,” I said.
The Germans all around us we generally looked on with good-humored contempt. What kind of people was it, soldiers asked, who began a war and lost it; who produced children appearing to have no other aim in life but to scream, “ Kaugummi, bitte! "—chewing gum, please!—as our truck rumbled through a town; whose women were purchasable for a couple of beers and a couple of packs of cigarettes and maybe five marks, $1.25 at the then rate of exchange; and whose men were uniformly so pathetic, so obsequious? The dvi!i?n employees who performed KP and groundskeeping operations at the post sometimes actually bowed when a soldier passed.
Yet this was Germany, which had dominated the world’s thinking for years, mythic and monstrous. I began to read. Never a good student at college, a nonstudent, really, my four years showing not a single “A,” I devoured the modern history section of the post library. In my previous life I had almost never read anything but fiction; now I never opened a novel (?.nd in fact never much would again) but went through book after book on Nazism, the First and Second World Wars, and biographies and autobiographies of the leading players.
I suppose a compulsive ingestion of the memoirs of Franz von Papen or the history of the Weimar Republic might have struck my fellow soldiers as odd when it went on night after night in the Day Room, as they played pool and Ping-Pong, and in our truck all day long when we were in the field. I came in handy, however, I think they thought, when there were linguistically involved negotiations to be carried out relative to the trading of C rations or cigarettes for wurst and cheese or the ordering of gasthaus meals. And I could more or less translate when kids came around to our truck, as they always did. I remember one boy, Max, very sweet and always smiling, who attached himself to us during one exercise, faithfully showing up afternoons after school to perform his self-appointed duties of sweeping up and emptying ashtrays and carefully washing mess gear and the shovels we used for digging holes in the woods when nature called. We loaded him down with gum and chocolate and gave him cigarettes for his father, and he in turn brought almost black beer from the brewery whose delivery vehicle, he explained, his father drove, the bottles with ceramic caps and rubber stoppers secured by a metal snap. Once I was reading a biography of Hermann Goering when he looked over my shoulder. “Who’s that, Max?” I asked, showing a picture of the Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe chief. He said he didn’t know.
“ Nein ?” I asked. “ Wirklich ?” No? Really? I pointed to the word Nazi in the text and asked what that meant. Max said he didn’t know. “Come on, come on,” I said. He repeated that he didn’t know. I insisted that he did, and my voice must have turned rough, for I became aware that the other soldiers were regarding me strangely. Max’s perpetual smile had faded away. I told him to forget about it. I remember thinking, Hell, he’s only a kid. But he’s a German also. Some- one grabbed Max and held him upside down by the ankles, and then, screaming with laughter, he was slung back and forth from soldier to soldier around the truck. I did not join in.