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“I Learn a Lot from the Veterans”

June 2024
16min read

Reminiscences of World War II’s European Theater add up to considerably more than a bunch of good war stories

Editor's Note: Last fall the author published his book Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945. It quickly bounced onto bestseller lists across the country, and the reason this happened is suggested in the rich and moving correspondence it had the power to generate among its readers. Stephen Ambrose fashioned these letters into the essay that follows, which runs as an afterword in Touchstone’s new paperbound edition of Citizen Soldiers.

ONE OF THE NICEST THINGS ABOUT HAVING A BESTSELLER IS THE INCOMING MAIL. ON THIS BOOK it has been staggering and rewarding. One of my favorites came from Wallace Berger, who was “a scared, lonely 19-year-old replacement brought to the lines during the winter of 1944 with the 26th Division. … I felt again the cold, the fear of tree-bursts, the closeness with my fox-hole buddy Pat Healy (we slept in each other’s arms for warmth) and at times the sense that we would never get out of there alive.

“So thank you for writing a book about my war. I think that in a way it gave me a feeling of a certain kind of peacefulness, as if something has been put to rest by the telling.”

In a handwritten letter, a former private, James Howley, recalled, “I am one of the soldiers you wrote about.” He was drafted in 1943, trained in Texas, shipped over to Scotland in the spring of 1944, across the English Channel on D-day plus ten and assigned to the 9th Infantry Division. “I was trained as a wire man and sent over as a rifleman with no infantry training, then put on an antitank gun that I never had seen until then. My job became digging holes. We crossed the Rhine at night before the bridge collapsed and got a half track full of Schnapps—about eight or ten cases. For a few days we didn’t care whether it rained or snowed. One of the guys we called ‘mole’ because he could always find a hole to jump into at the slightest sound. After we got that Schnapps he went out on a .50 caliber MG when a Jerry plane came over and fired up at it. The plane turned on him and in its strafing run killed him and a radio man.”

The letters contain a fair amount of complaints, a principal one being that I left out this or that division, which is fair enough, but I can’t do anything about it now, and anyway the book was not intended to be a comprehensive history. One veteran’s criticism was that I made only a single mention of the National Guard. Guilty. My only excuse is that I just figured everyone knows that the 29th Division (242 days in combat, 204 percent turnover), which plays a major role in my account, was a National Guard division (the “Blue and Gray,” from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware) and one of the best outfits in the Army.

“In many, if not all, cases, enlisted men knew better what to do in actual combat than their officers,” one wrote.

On a more positive note, a good number of veterans have written that the book caused them to reflect on what they had learned in the Army, especially responsibility. Private Berger concluded his letter, “I have known for a long time that my life was changed by that experience, and maybe I understand it a little better now.”

Many veterans have written of how the Army made it possible for them to know far more about their fellow citizens. Cpl. William Schaufele described his experience. He turned eighteen on December 7, 1941. He was a student at Yale and managed to finish the year, then went into the 10th Armored Division and was in Bastogne for the Battle of the Bulge. He wrote: “One impression I took away from combat was that, in many, if not all, cases enlisted men knew better what to do in actual combat than their officers. Heterogeneity didn’t seem to play a role. I served with people who had no high school education, worked at menial jobs, came from small rural villages or working-class neighborhoods, and many were better soldiers than I. Some were promoted to sergeant and busted two or three times in training, but, by the time we entered combat, they were back as tank commanders—and rightly so.”

I get a lot of specific stories or anecdotes that are frustrating, because if I had known them, they would certainly have been in the book. Sometimes they confirm another guy’s story. For example, a tale about a forward observer who saw a moving haystack and called in artillery fire on it prompted one of the gunners on the 105s that did the shooting to write. He said the gun crew thought it was all a joke, and for the remainder of the war and at postwar reunions they would get a laugh from remembering the time they shot at a moving haystack. Only to discover, fifty-three years later, there really was a target and they had knocked out a German tank.

Pvt. Jack Crawford provided another confirmation when he commented on a story about Ernest Hemingway’s self-indulgent war “reporting.” Crawford went ashore at Utah Beach on D-day plus twelve with the 4th Division. He fought in the hedgerows, at Mortain, and in the Hürtgen Forest, was wounded three times, and was awarded a battlefield commission. He went AWOL from a hospital to rejoin his outfit in the Hürtgen. When he arrived at Bradley’s headquarters, in Spa, he went into a bar “and sitting there was Ernest Hemingway and Colonel Buck Lanham, C.O. of the 22nd Infantry, 4th Division. Lanham asked me to come over and I was very pleased to talk to Hemingway as I had read some of his books. As we drank and talked, I felt he was full of it and this really wasn’t his war. He was telling tales of hiiinks in Paris. I finally got pissed off and said he should come up to my battalion with me in the Hurtgen to see what the war was really like instead of sitting back thirty miles from the front lines. The Colonel jumped on me and said I was out of line, so I stood up, saluted the Colonel, said ‘F—you, Hemingway,’ and walked out.”

I’ve had dozens of letters from front-line veterans who say they never saw a colonel, much less a general, where they were. But I’ve also had a couple of GIs write to say that this colonel or that general made it to the front lines in their sector.

WYATT BARNES SAT DOWN TO WRITE ME A “TWO or three page letter, at most,” but it ended up as a twelve-page single-spaced memoir, one of the best I’ve ever read. Some highlights: Barnes started off as an Army Specialized Training School student at Brooklyn College in mid-1943. Then it was off to Fort Polk, Louisiana, where “we were all miserable. Especially, we detested our new comrades, who were mostly from Appalachia and the deep South, with a few from Idaho and Montana. They were rural and spoke in funny accents; we despised their ignorant ways. In turn, they disparaged our elitism and urban mores. I flaunted my subscription to The New York Times , thus inviting their special loathing. In time we adjusted to them and they to us.”

Barnes shipped over to England in August 1944, then on to France in mid-October and into the line with the 80th Division as a replacement. “Five of us were admitted to the 1st squad, 1st platoon. We five knew each other slightly from our replacement trek, bonding among us came later.”

In mid-December the 80th packed up and headed north, toward the southern shoulder of the Bulge, part of the 3d Army counterattack. “We were in 2½ ton trucks for the trek north. This was a new torment in the bitter cold and interminable night. No rations. There were frequent stops because of the clogged roads, occasions we used for piss-calls. This task was an ordeal. Cramped and frozen, we eased ourselves off the back end into the furious wind and performed the needed function. The weather was utterly appalling.”

On Christmas Day the 80th joined the 4th Armored for the final push to break through to Bastogne. “We formed a skirmish line. Not a word was spoken. Then we began to move, 8 or 10 feet separating the men. Soon the rounds started coming, their tiny sonic booms causing distinct snaps as they passed close by. A tracer round struck the frozen ground in front of me and described an arc over my head. Then, after about 100 yards, I felt the slug strike just below my right collar bone. After the impact, and this still seems incredible, I could actually feel the bullet piercing the tissues and organs within, clipping through each in sequence. Time, almost literally, must have stood still as my whole being concentrated on this devastating physical assault. The bullet exited down, just to the left of my right shoulder blade.

“I fell forward, and the instant I hit the ground I in-toned ‘two months’ to myself. This was the million dollar wound! Two months would give me relief from the line and get me through the worst of winter.” Actually, the wound was worse than Barnes thought; his right lung had been pierced. For him the war was over. Barnes recounted in some detail his evacuation from the snow-covered field back to a jeep, then to an aid station, then the 39th Evacuation Hospital, next Paris by train, and finally a flight to England to the 160th General Hospital near Cheltenham. He concluded, “Your tribute to the medical people in the ETO [European Theater of Operations] was richly deserved.”

American Heritage printed the chapter on medics, nurses, and docs (my own favorite chapter, because lives are being saved, not destroyed) and got a big mail in response, nearly all of the writers telling this or that story about being saved by a medic and how wonderful the medics and nurses and doctors were. It almost breaks your heart to read some of them. We now have the letters in the Archives of the Eisenhower Center, available to scholars and visitors, and I hope someday someone does a book on U.S. Army medicine in World War II.

Pvt. Eldon McDermeit was an ATSP student who went to the front line with the 70th Infantry Division: “On our third night on the line, two of our guys were bayoneted in their foxholes. They had obviously been asleep. The next day all of the 70th Division infantry had to exchange our sleeping bags for two blankets. It was much harder to stay warm with blankets so we stayed awake. We seldom got hot meals on the front line. We ate K rations almost exclusively. Our first hot meal was after six weeks on the line.”

I LEARN A LOT FROM THE VETERANS. LT. SIDNEY Lowery was a field artillery liaison pilot. He said he and his friends flew the Piper Cubs without wearing parachutes, which would have been useless at the altitudes they flew anyway, and besides, “it was safer to stay in the Piper Cub when hit because of its aeronautical characteristics, which often enabled the pilot to make an emergency landing.” Lowery added that “our greatest danger was friendly fire. Each of us was flying missions to direct fire by our own division artillery, but at the same time, and further back, Corps artillery were conducting their own missions, with larger caliber weapons, totally unaware of what we were doing. So as we were directing our own unit’s fire while flying over the front line, we frequently felt a sort of ‘whoosh’ and a bump, as the Corps artillery shell passed by. I had more than one chum who was shot down by our own artillery.”

The trenchfoot mail has been heavy. The theme is summed up by one letter: “For five decades I’ve carried around a sense of shame at being evacuated for trenchfoot. The Army (but not the nurses and doctors) made me feel I had let down the side. Your account has helped me get over those bad feelings.”

Pvt. Norman Redlich of the 100th Division remembered that “in late November, 1944, after spending another night in a cold wet foxhole, and after following as best I could the instructions to remove our boots at night and dry our socks, I awoke and found that I could no longer fit into my boots because my feet had swollen like balloons. Barely able to walk, I was removed to a field hospital and told that I would be back on the line in a matter of days. But the pain intensified, and my feet started to turn white, and then purple. The pain became so excruciating that I was given a shot of morphine. It was so bad that I could not place a sheet over my toes and had to sleep with the blankets and sheets turned back.”

Redlich was shipped back to the States on the Queen Elizabeth , which had been converted into a hospital ship. He recalled that “virtually the entire contingent of passengers had trenchfoot, many of them with toes and legs amputated. I felt both lucky and guilty. In many respects, I still do.”

Redlich’s blunt honesty is typical of the GIs I’ve interviewed or corresponded with over the years. Shakespeare wrote that old men remember, with advantages, the deeds they did as warriors. With a few exceptions, I’ve always found the opposite. Many times in group interviews I’ve heard something like this exchange: “I’m no hero. He’s the hero.”

“No, not me. You want to hear about a real hero, let me tell you about so-and-so.”

THE AMERICAN HERITACE ARTICLE PRODUCED ANOTHER story that has to be told. It comes from A. Bruce Campbell of the 11th Regiment, 5th Division, who wrote it up at the time and who described it as “probably the most remarkable piece of battlefield surgery in World War II.”

November 10, 1944, the 5th Division was attacking at Metz. Pvt. Henry Roon of Company B, 2d Regiment, caught a mortar-shell fragment in his throat. He fell prostrate in the mud with “a perforating wound of the neck, with the wound exit over the tracheal area and a fracture of the trachea.” Pvt. Duane N. Kinman, a nineteen-year-old medic with two years of high school education, finished binding up a chest wound and rushed over to help. “He saw Roon turning blue in the face, gasping and suffocating to death. Kinman whipped out his jackknife. Roon made protesting motions which Kinman overruled, saying, ‘I don’t like to do this, but it’s the only way you’re going to live.’

Many times I have heard something like: “I’m no hero. He’s the hero.” “No, not me. You want to hear about…”

“Then, without wasting any more time in deliberation and with perfect presence of mind and recollection of two lectures given him a year previous in basic training, Kinman prepared to perform an operation which is delicate in the best of surgical conditions. He knew he had to open up the windpipe and he knew he had to have a tube or edge to insert to keep it open. He saw a fountain pen in Roon’s pocket and seized that.

“With machine guns clattering all around, with mortar shells still landing, with a muddy field for an operating table, a gray sky for light, and his jack-knife for a scalpel and without benefit of any anesthetic or drug, Kinman cut into Roon’s throat, carefully avoiding the jugular, made a longitudinal one and a half inch incision in Roon’s windpipe, cleanly and safely. Then he slipped the rounded end of Roon’s fountain pen into the incision to keep the cut open and told Roon, ‘Now keep that pen in your windpipe and you’ll be okay.’”

Kinman helped Roon get to the rear and walk to an aid station. The battalion surgeon found nothing to improve upon. Two other tracheotomies performed by surgeons there the same day were unsuccessful.

Lt. Bryce Stevens, a combat engineer with the 87th Division, said the book “brought back memories of events, sights and even smells of that time and place that I hadn’t thought of in a long time.” One of those memories was of his first shower after three months of continuous combat: “The procedure was to strip off, put your dirty clothes (except for boots) in a pile, run buck-naked across duckboards to the next tent where the showers were. There they turned on the water long enough to get wet, then turned it off while you soaped up. The water then came on again to rinse off. Back to the dressing tent where clean clothes were issued. All this in freezing weather. I don’t remember how we managed to get clothes that fit.”

Richard Meier wrote that his uncle Gordon Meier was in the Losheimergraben railroad-station fight and Pvt. Herbert Meier, a German soldier quoted in the book who was also in that fight, was a cousin of his uncle. “It makes the Bulge almost like Gettysburg—cousins across the lines from each other.”

Gordon Meier wrote: “I remember that railroad station very well. We came under artillery shelling. We got under the freight tracks (4 inches of concrete). The Germans came marching right down the railroad tracks. You could hear their steel-heeled boots. We killed lots of them. The shelling started again and we pulled back 500 yards. I remember the Germans had long overcoats and they would tuck them up around the waist so they could run easier. We got one young German officer for interrogation but he was dying. He had two pieces of bread with jelly on them.”

The spirit of those GIs—we can do it—was the great gift of the New World to the Old World in the twentieth century.

Robert Kettler’s father was in the 80th Division, wounded and captured near Nancy on September 22, 1944. He died in Stalag 4G on October 1. Kettler was four years old when the telegram came: “I still remember the emotional storm that swirled through our house that day. Standing by a blue chair where Mother sat weeping while family and friends gathered to console her in a ritual that was by then all too familiar, even in our small Indiana town, I knew that something monumental had happened to us.” In 1995 Kettler and his daughter and his mother paid their first visit to his father’s grave, in the American Cemetery and memorial near Liège, Belgium.

At the graveside, Kettler wrote, “I touched Mother’s arm. ‘It’s a beautiful place,’ I said.”

“Yes, it is,” she replied. “And I’m so grateful I could be here with you. But it’s a long way from Shelbyville, Indiana.”

As they drove away from the cemetery, Kettler continued, “we talked quietly in the car, our voices filled with relief and release. We had stood at my father’s grave. Now we could go home.”

I’M LEARNING ALL THE TIME. HERE’S ONE THAT I DIDN’T know. In January 1945 Pvt. Richard Lockhart of the ill-fated 106th Division was a POW in Stalag IXB, Bad Orb, Germany. It was a smallish, primitive camp, housing several thousand Russian, Serbian, and French soldiers—all privates. There were no medical facilities, no sanitary services, no heat, and not much grass soup. When Lockhart and his fellow American POWs arrived, the guards held a roll call. They ordered all Jews to step forward. A dozen did. The guards separated them and sent them off to a slave-labor camp, over the vehement protests of Lockhart and others. Many of the Jewish POWs died. What prompted them to step forward? Lockhart wondered. He conjectured that it may have been an affirmation of their culture and religion, or it could have been out of naïveté, a sense that the U.S. Army uniform they were wearing would protect them.

I know one Jewish soldier who rightly feared capture, so when it was imminent, he switched dog tags with a dead buddy. It worked for him, but not for his folks, who got a telegram from the War Department telling them he had been killed in action.

My mentor, Dr. Harry T. Williams, taught me to let my characters speak for themselves. “They always say it better than you ever could,” he insisted. The paragraph that follows proves his point. It was written by Lt. Charles Jordan, 9th Division.

“I have read of fearless people, I even had a runner for a short time who I think was pretty close to fearless (he got killed), but I was not fearless. My worst fear was of screwing up or showing my fear to those around me. A distant second was fear of death. In my earliest days this included the fear of being wounded but this rapidly transformed into a desire. The absolute worst period of fear came as we were organizing for an attack. We never knew what to expect or when to expect it, and the longer the wait the greater the fear. The fear of death came openly when I was lying in a ditch, or a hole, or on the ground and artillery or mortar shells were exploding around me. There was absolutely nothing positive to do about these situations except lay there and pray. Since the days when I lived with fear constantly, I have found that fear for yourself cannot hold a candle to the fear engendered by the serious illness of your wife and children. I’d rather be shot at every day of the week and all day Sunday than face that situation.”

ONE OF THE BEST COMMENTS CAME IN A BEER-DRINKING bull session with some veterans. We were talking about what it all meant. I never caught the name of the man who gave us the following image, but I’ll never forget what he said: “Imagine this. In the spring of 1945, around the world, the sight of a twelve-man squad of teen-age boys, armed and in uniform, brought terror to people’s hearts. Whether it was a Red Army squad in Berlin, Leipzig, or Warsaw, or a German squad in Holland, or a Japanese squad in Manila or Seoul or in China, that squad meant rape, pillage, looting, wanton destruction, senseless killing. But there was an exception: a squad of GIs, a sight that brought the biggest smiles you ever saw to people’s lips, and joy to their hearts.

“Around the world this was true, even in Germany, even—after September 1945—in Japan. This was because GIs meant candy, cigarettes, C-rations, and freedom. America had sent the best of her young men around the world, not to conquer but to liberate, not to terrorize but to help. This was a great moment in our history.”

Another bright image came from a veteran who said that he felt he had done his part in helping change the twentieth century from one of darkness into one of light. I think that was the great achievement of the generation who fought World War II on the Allied side. As of 1945—the year in which more people were killed violently, more buildings destroyed, more homes burned than any other year in history—it was impossible to believe in human progress. World Wars I and II had made a mockery of the nineteenth-century idea of progress, the notion that things were getting better and would continue to do so. In 1945 one had to believe that the final outcome of the scientific and technological revolution that had inspired the idea of progress would be a world destroyed.

But slowly, surely, the spirit of those GIs handing out candy and helping bring democracy to their former enemies spread, and today it is the democracies—not the totalitarian states—that are on the march. Today one can again believe in progress, for things really are getting better. This is thanks to the GIs—along with the millions of others who helped liberate Germany and Japan from their evil rulers, then stood up to Stalin and his successors. That generation has done more to spread freedom—and prosperity—around the globe than any previous generation.

Sgt. Henry Halsted, who won a Bronze Star, participated after the war in an experimental program that brought together college-age German and American veterans in England, and a similar one in France. The idea was to teach through contact and example. In 1997 Halsted got a Christmas card from a German participant living in Munich: “I think often of our meetings and mutual ideals. Indeed, the 1948 program and everything connected with it was the most important, decisive event for me. Influenced my life deeply!”

A French participant wrote: “In 1950 France was in ruins. I saw only a world marked by war, by destruction, by the shadow of war, and by fear. I believed that it was not finished, that there would be a next war. I did not think it would be possible to build a life, to have a family. Then came the group of young Americans, attractive, idealistic, optimistic, protected, believing and acting as though anything was possible. It was a transforming experience for me.”

That spirit—we can do it, we can rebuild Europe and hold back the Red Army and avoid World War III—was the great gift of the New World to the Old World in the twentieth century. America paid for that gift with the lives of some of her best young men. When I read the letters from the veterans, I’m almost always impressed by their brief accounts of what they did with their lives after the war. They had successful careers, they were good citizens and family men, and many of them made great contributions to their society, their country, and the world. Then I think about those who didn’t make it, especially all those junior officers and NCOs who got killed in such appalling numbers.

These men were natural leaders. They died one by one. Of each of them, I wonder, What life was cut off here? A genius? It is impossible to imagine what he might have invented; we do know that his loss was our loss. A budding politician? Where might he have led us? A builder? A teacher? A scholar? A novelist? I sometimes think the biggest price we pay for war is what might have been.

Veterans: Tell Us Your Story


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