“Just One More River To Cross”

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The German army was now in full flight, and the road was congested. Panzers occasionally roared through, forcing everyone out of their way. In a unit of German infantry, obviously in a state of total exhaustion, one very young private asked me how much farther it was to the American lines. When I told him over 50 miles, the look on his face said that he did not think that he was good for that many more miles. I didn’t either.

There was one exception to this total rout. A young woman, wearing a camouflage uniform, riding a bicycle, with a Panzerfaust (a single-shot antitank rocket) slung over her shoulder, was bucking the retreating tide. She was headed toward the advancing Red Army to bag herself a tank. I would have liked to have had her on my side.

We came to a Tiger tank stuck in a traffic jam too dense for it to clear. Several German soldiers were sitting on the back, passing around a canteen. They invited us to join them. The canteen contained schnapps. We all had a sip, thanked our hosts, slid down off the Tiger, and resumed our way on foot.

A young woman on a bicycle, with a Panzerfaust slung over her shoulder, was headed toward the Red Army to bag herself a tank.

We soon came upon an ammunition dump going up: multiple explosions, sheets of flame interspersed with black smoke, projectiles flying through the air like skyrockets. A German officer, who had obviously been ordered to destroy the dump to keep it from falling into Russian hands, stood before the blaze in tears.

Three of us decided that it was increasingly obvious that the Russians were about to overtake us (thanks partially to that ox!) and that it would be safer for this to happen away from any signs of military activity. Accordingly, that night we three Americans stole away (no one would have cared, but at least we could tell our progeny that we had escaped) and went up a little side road about half a mile to where we came to a farm. In the barn we bedded ourselves down comfortably in the hay and waited for the Russians to come.

On awakening in the morning, we discovered that we were the objects of close attention. Two of the slave-labor girls on the farm had come upon us during their morning chores and were all atwitter, since they did not customarily find American soldiers sleeping in their barn. I explained why we were there, and they dashed into the farmhouse to spread the word. The owner was an accountant from Berlin named Herr Schulte. He, along with his Frau and some of their Berlin friends, had sought refuge on his farm to avoid the final battle, which was just beginning. They were delighted to see us because they thought (correctly, as it turned out) that we would provide them with some protection from the rape and rapine for which the Russian Army had become notorious.

The Schultes welcomed us into their house and made us feel quite at home. Herr Schulte stood in the window most of the time, with his field glasses and framed by lace curtains, looking for signs of Russians. After several hours he came from the curtains and explained that he had not seen Russians yet, but that some German refugees were stranded at the crossroads at the same place where we had left the main highway the night before. He told us that we should go rescue them and bring them to his house. Being young and dumb, it never occurred to me to ask why we should do it and not he and his friends. He provided my comrades and me with bicycles, which he explained could be used as wheelbarrows to help haul back the refugees’ luggage. So we took off down the road, happily riding our bicycles.

It was obvious that the Russians were almost on us; the day was loud with small-arms fire. About halfway to the crossroads, we came upon three German soldiers, one digging a foxhole and two writing what I suppose must have been last letters home to wives or mothers. The one digging looked up and asked, “Are you the point of the American attack?”

“No,” I replied, “We are POWs.”

“Why don’t you escape?” he asked.

“We don’t have to,” I replied. “The Russians will be here in about 10 minutes.” He accepted that impeccable logic and went back to his digging as we went on our way on our bicycles to the crossroads.

We reached our objective in a very few minutes. The refugees had indeed panicked at the sound of the gunfire and hadn’t a clue about what to do next. Furthermore, they were totally exhausted, having come all the way from Danzig on foot, with the Russians nipping at their heels every inch of the way. I told them to load their things on the bicycles, and we headed back, hoping to beat the Russians to the Schulte house.

There were four of them: a man and wife who appeared to be in their forties, a young girl of about 16 or 17, and a robust servant named Elisabet, who was in her twenties. The teenager, who was not related to any of them, was so far along in pregnancy that she looked as though she might deliver at any instant. She explained to me, on the way to the Schulte house, that her boyfriend had been on the Russian front and that she had not heard from him in several months. I refrained from telling her that she very probably never would again.