Triumph And Tragedy

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It was the second of May, 1945, six days before the end of the war in Europe. We were members of Headquarters Battery, 608th Field Artillery Battalion, 71st Infantry Division—one of the spearheads of Ration’s 3d Army, driving south through a conquered Germany toward Austria, the last unoccupied part of Hitler’s Reich. Bridges over the Inn River, between Bavaria and Austria, had been wrecked by retreating German troops, but a large hydroelectric dam with a roadway on it was still intact, and that was our objective this beautiful spring morning.

There were four of us in the jeep. I was the driver, a twenty-one-year-old private first class. Beside me sat a first lieutenant, not much older than myself, and on the rear seat were a staff sergeant and a corporal, whose job was to operate the .50-caliber machine gun mounted between the seats. This was an unusually large weapon for a jeep at that time; some jeeps had .30-caliber machine guns, but most had none.

This formidable weapon had probably been given to us because, as members of a survey section, we were often by ourselves, away from the rest of the battalion, plotting new positions for the howitzers almost every day of that final, hectic offensive. Whatever the reason, we were glad to have it.

The jeep, not a roomy vehicle under any circumstances, was unbelievably crowded. In addition to four men and a machine gun, there was a large box of .50-caliber ammunition, a bulky radio, a five-gallon gas can, a five-gallon water can, rifles, grenades, maps, and sleeping bags. The sergeant and corporal sometimes had trouble finding a place to sit; for much of our thousand-mile odyssey across Western Europe, the sergeant perched precariously on the right rear wheel cover, clinging to the cylindrical machine-gun mount.

Behind the jeep was the other vehicle of the section, a three-quarter-ton weapons carrier, a homely but rugged vehicle, practical and reliable. It carried the rest of the men in the section and the battalion’s surveying instruments, equipment vital to an artillery unit. We in the jeep presented a more dashing appearance than our companions, partly because of that menacing gun, but they had the distinct advantage of being protected from the elements by a canvas top. We were a rather independent bunch, probably because our job kept us away from the main body of troops much of the time. We liked it that way.

The ten men of the survey section formed a cosmopolitan group. In the jeep alone the four of us were from four different parts of the country and from four different ethnic backgrounds. The lieutenant, from the Midwest, was Italian; the sergeant was a blond Scandinavian from the far West; the corporal was from somewhere in Appalachia; and I was from the Susquehanna Valley of central Pennsylvania, of British and German ancestry.

Among the others were a Southerner, a Californian, and someone from the upper Midwest. One of our members spoke fluent French, and another spoke fluent German, so it was fairly easy for us to deal with civilians, displaced persons, and prisoners of war. Our German-speaking member was Earnie, a Viennese Jew, a refugee from Nazi persecution. He was the driver of the three-quarter-ton, and like many European city dwellers, he was neither a good nor a courteous driver. After a number of minor scrapes and near misses, we began drawing silhouettes in chalk on the side of the truck of everything he had hit or come close to hitting: geese, horses, oxen, people, wagons, trucks, tanks, jeeps, and howitzers. Earnie wasn’t insulted; he liked our joke.

Now, as we approached the border of the homeland he had left almost a decade before, I was aware of his mounting excitement. I knew he hoped we would go all the way to Vienna, at the eastern end of the country, but that seemed highly unlikely; I was almost sure the Russians were already there. Still, the remote possibility that we might somehow reach Vienna caused me to wonder, as we neared the Inn River, what it would be like for Earnie, or for any European Jew who had survived the war, to return to his old home and neighborhood and confront former Gentile friends and acquaintances—people who, while Germany was winning, never expected to see a Jew again.

Years later I would wonder how this fairy-tale land could have produced two of the most evil men in history.

We reached the Inn River dam around midmorning, and, following the directions of a military police (MP) officer, I drove onto its narrow top. Behind us stretched the battalion in convoy, a long line of trucks, 105-mm howitzers, and jeeps. In front of us there was no one. Because of the machine gun, the battalion commander often assigned us the dubious honor of being the lead vehicle. I had the uneasy feeling that we were leading not only the battalion but the whole division. I didn’t realize it at the time, but except for reconnaissance troops and engineers, we were apparently leading the 3d Army into Austria.