The first time my father traveled to Europe was in the hold of a boat built to haul bananas. He was a nineteen-year old Iowa farm boy sailing on the USS Marine Devil with approximately 1,700 other young men recently inducted into the army. He was assigned one canvas shelf to sleep on in a stack of eight shelves set eighteen inches apart in a frame of pipes. The convoy zigzagged slowly for eleven days while the men on the ship endured seasickness, bad food, and cold seawater showers.
The convoy also carried bombers, gasoline, tanks, weapons and ammunition. All these were thrown into World War II against the veteran forces of Nazi Germany.
My father’s division, the 99th of the 395th Infantry, suffered an 84% casualty rate over the next six months. The war ended for him when he was wounded severely enough that he had to be evacuated to a hospital for treatment.
Forty-five years later he returned to Europe by traveling for ten hours in commercial jets that offered warm meals, drinks, and cozy reclining seats. He traveled with his wife, his two sons and their wives.
Like many men of his generation, my father walled off his war experiences. I remember as a child being fascinated by and frightened of that part of my father I saw in rare glimpses that raged and cried within him. My father never let the monster out and, although it became less ferocious over the years, it never went away entirely. He let me play with his sergeant chevrons and other patches from his uniform. My father could occasionally be persuaded to talk about being in the army. He explained that he still has shell fragments in his lung and showed me where he was wounded in his finger. He told funny stories about training and mentioned one or two minor things that happened while he was in Europe. When I asked my father if he was a hero, he invariably answered, “No. The heroes did not come home.” Even as a child, I had a sense that there were many things he refused to talk about.
However, over the years he had gradually become more active in attending reunions of his battalion. He toured Europe with my mother and visited places he saw as a young soldier. When he asked my brother and me to accompany him to Europe on a second visit, we saw the invitation as a chance to learn something about a chapter of my father’s life that he rarely opened. Maybe his sense of mortality gave him the impetus to show us something of this part of his life while he still could.
Although father was not ready to speak about the battles he was in, to help us prepare for the trip, he gave us books about his battalion written by fellow soldiers who my father profoundly respected (Infantry Soldier by George W. Neill, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000, and Butler’s Battlin’ Blue Bastards by Thor Ronnigen, Brunswick Publishing, 1993) plus a book by the commanding general, Battle Babies by Walter Lauer, The Battery Press, 1985).
We read about the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last desperate attempt to break through the allied forces in Europe and drive toward the sea in hopes of splitting the allied armies and forcing truce talks that might leave him in power. The Germans successfully hid the movement of their forces in preparation for the attack. On December 16, 1944, they threw approximately one quarter of a million soldiers in twenty four divisions against five American infantry divisions (the 99th, 2nd, 106th, 4th and 28th) defending sixty miles of ground known as the Ardennes front.
Outnumbered and outgunned at least three to one, the 3rd battalion of the 99th division held its ground on the north shoulder of the bulge against three veteran battalions. Small groups of men in isolated foxholes and buildings survived by killing the enemy with unfaltering efficiency. American artillery was sighted directly on the battalion positions. Men had been told to dig their shelters deep into the frozen ground to avoid being hit by shrapnel from their own guns. When the battle began the untested Americans held their fire until the Germans were so close that in two cases dead German soldiers fell into American foxholes. In the bitter cold, usually knowing nothing about the scope of the battle beyond what they could see with their own eyes, the soldiers held on through December and to the end of January. There were no celebrations when the front line finally straightened out again. The allied forces were ordered to continue their advance.
When we visited the area forty-five years later it had changed from an icy hell to a hilly, forested tourist destination close to the medieval city of Monshau, Germany. Despite construction of a bridge and a highway in the area, my father walked directly to depressions in the ground that he was certain were what remained of foxholes he had stayed in during the battle decades before.
My father said that during the part of the battle that took place at the city of Bastongne, Belgium, American forces were surrounded, seriously outnumbered and short of food and ammunition. In a famous incident they were offered the chance to surrender so they would not be completely annihilated. The American commander, Major General Anthony McAuliffe, answered, “Nuts.” My father said years after the battle he asked his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel McClernand Butler, if the Germans had offered to accept the surrender of the 99.th He said Butler told him, “Hell, no. They were too busy attacking us to ask for our surrender.”
We read about crossing the Rhine River on the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Germany. With allied forces advancing following the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans ordered every bridge across the Rhine River to be rigged with explosives and blown up before the allies could cross. The orders also stated that the bridges should remain intact as long as possible to allow retreating German troops back into the interior of Germany. The river would then present a serious natural barrier protecting Germany. There were 22 road bridges and 25 railroad bridges that spanned the Rhine. All but the Ludendorff at Remagen were destroyed before they could be captured.
The Ludendorff bridge was completed in 1918 just before the end of World War I. It was constructed of steel, 1,069 feet long, and wide enough for two sets of train tracks and a pedestrian walkway. It was 96 feet tall at the highest point and 48.5 feet above the average water level of the Rhine. Twin towers three stories high were constructed with gun embrasures built into the walls to serve as defensive structures at each end of the bridge. Construction included features to help the defenders destroy the bridge.
On March 7, 1945 the 9th armored division of the 1st American Army commanded by Brigadier-General William Hoge appeared on the horizon above Remagen. They drove into the town toward the bridge. The Germans used explosives to create a trench, preventing tanks from getting to the bridge. The defenders attempted to blow up supports from one side of the structure so it would slide into the river below. The ignition system failed. A squad of volunteers lit the fuses of the secondary charges by hand. When those charges went off. The bridge was lifted into the air, but it settled back in place, damaged but intact.
The American commander immediately sent his men running across the span, dodging obstacles while under fire. The Germans shelled the bridge with every gun available because it was the only way to get more than a few men at a time across the river.
In the next days they fired V-2 rockets at the span. Bombers tried to destroy the bridge. Seven frogmen went into the river in a futile attempt to blow up the supports. Hitler was so upset that within a week four officers were executed for their failure to destroy the bridge. As soon as they could the Americans sent amphibious vehicles to carry troops across the river while a pontoon bridge was being built next to the Ludendorff. Building the pontoon bridge and repairing damage to the Ludendorff continued twenty-four hours a day despite constant shelling so that tanks and other vehicles could cross. When vehicles trying to cross the span were hit and disabled, they were pushed off the bridge and fell into the river below through holes that shells had blasted in the railroad bed.
By March 11, the 99th division was the first complete division across the bridge. Stepping over dead bodies and avoiding holes from the bombardment, the men worried that the Germans were waiting to blow up the bridge until it was full of GIs. Men were hurried across without regard for organization. McClernand Butler directed them to their units on the east side of the bridge. MPs stood on the bridge directing traffic and urging men along. Some were killed by the shells that landed on the bridge on average once every two minutes. My father said that the combat veterans thought that it was about time someone else had the experience of being under fire.
On March 17 the bridge finally collapsed from the sustained damage. Twenty eight engineers died, and ninety three more were injured in the collapse, but by that time roughly 25, 000 soldiers had passed over it. Crossing continued on the pontoon bridge and engineers pushed other bridges across the Rhine.
The Ludendorff bridge over the river is gone now, but fragments remain on each side. The remnants are of various widths and roughly five feet thick like puzzle pieces discarded by a giant. Massive black towers still reach high into the sky. Inside one of the towers a peace museum has been set up that tells the history of the bridge. When we visited my father wanted to see it but he did not want to buy a ticket.
He allowed me to pay saying, “I already paid.”
From time to time, I caught a glimpse of the nineteen-year-old farmer’s son who my father had been. The army drafted him and sent him to an intensive college program to develop needed engineering skills. When the need for combat infantrymen outweighed the need for engineers, the army terminated that program and sent him with many others to the front line.
As we drove through a lush green valley, his infantry skills came back to him. “This is a bad place for tanks – too narrow to maneuver. We’d knock the steeple off that church to keep it from being used by observers and send in infantry with just a few tanks. We’d have to watch for mine fields and for dragon’s teeth set to funnel us into the pre-sighted killing zones.”
At the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, he separated from us to mourn over three graves of friends, men from his platoon. In his words, “They never came home and never got any older. I wonder why I survived and they didn’t.” My mother told me that after visiting the graves my father had nightmares like the ones he had just after the war.
Without a current address and not speaking German or French, we stumbled upon the house where my father and his squad sheltered with a family in Belgium for a few days forty-five years earlier. My father said, “It was the first time in months that I was dry, warm and safe.” Guy, who had been five when my father saw him last, still lived in the house. When Guy figured out who he was talking with, tears came into his eyes. He brought out a photo album with pictures from that time. My mother brought out photos she carried to compare to Guy’s. Two identical photos showed the family with Guy in shorts. Only Guy and his older sister, Josie, were still alive.
Another two images showed my father’s eight-man squad. In the photos my father knelt front and center, a young, handsome man with black hair. My father pointed to the young men in the picture and recounted their fates. “He died a day or two later. This one died a week after that. These three men and I were wounded seriously enough that they evacuated us back to the states. That one disappeared on a night patrol and I never learned what happen to him. This man survived the war without a scratch.”
Guy called his niece who spoke English. She took us to meet with Josie. Josie had a picture of her daughter in clothing that my parents sent shortly after the end of the war. My father asked how many men from the several groups of soldiers who sheltered in their home had made their way back.
She told him, “Only one, you.”
We walked across the Wied River on a pedestrian bridge in a recreation area. My father said he remembered wading through waist-deep freezing cold water in the middle of the night while machine guns fired from the other side of the river. We saw someone parasailing through the bright blue sky.
Not far beyond the Wied, my father had been wounded seriously so he was transported to England and back to the United States. Not long after we crossed the Wied, our vacation ended and we returned to our daily lives. Ever since then, I have thought about that trip frequently and about the teenager who became my father. I don’t think I will ever understand what he went through or how it changed him. I do know that I treasure the memories of moments when I saw an Iowa farm boy in the face of my father.