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A Mile in Their Shoes

The Online Version

2003, 2009 Aaron Elson

Mixed 'Nuts'

Five 101st Airborne Division veterans of the siege of Bastogne

    Bill Druback, Frank Miller, John Miller, Len Goodgal and Mickey Cohen were all members of the 101st Airborne Division. They were interviewed at the 1994 "Nuts" dinner of the General Anthony C. McAuliffe chapter of the 101st Airborne Division Association. This interview is one of a dozen included in "A Mile in Their Shoes."

West Point, N.Y., Dec. 3, 1994

    Frank Miller: In most cases some of the stuff that I've seen happen to us, and tell me if I'm wrong, most people wouldn't believe it.

    Bill Druback: They don't understand.

    Frank Miller: They don't understand how this could ever happen, especially if they've never been in the military or in any kind of a situation where it's life-threatening. So in turn, if I ever told them some of the things that actually happened to us, even by accident, they wouldn't believe it.

    Bill Druback: It's like I was telling somebody the other day, with all this new technology that they have in the service like these high-tech night glasses. Back then there was nothing like it, but yet, we were in a position there one time where we had a company firefight, and it got dark, and I was with this Oscar Dolenz, he and I were on a machine gun team, he's still living, he lives in California. And the firefight stopped, there were some guys hurt and killed, and things got quiet, all of a sudden right across the road, that's how close we were, we could hear this German saying, "Kommen Sie hier. I'm hurt."

    So Oscar, out of the clear blue sky, he says, "Don't you move, you sonofabitch." He says, "I've got night glasses."

    So I looked at Oscar, and I gave him a smirk, and he says, "Keep quiet."

    Sure enough, the morning came, we went across the road and there was this German, he was still living, and he had a couple of grenades by him and ammunition. The reason I'm bringing up this story is, here in true life now they have these things where they can see at night. Maybe Oscar was thinking ahead of himself, or maybe he knew something that we all didn't know.

    John Miller: And you know, too, back then they used to teach marksmanship, right? With the M-1 you had an eight-shot clip, and you put one here, one here, one here, each round. Now with the M-15, it's just like having a machine gun, they go brrrrppp, and they don't have to aim or anything, they just point it and spray. There's a big difference in the way they teach them.

    Frank Miller: I think that happens, but they do teach them how to shoot, and they still shoot marks. But we had the DCM courses, the Director of Civilian Marksmanship courses, when I was a kid I used to go to those. I belonged to the NRA and the Boy Scouts and I learned to shoot in high school. It helped. You may never need it, but if you ever need it it's good to know instead of taking a guy raw, and he's afraid of guns because his mother told him he's not allowed to have them, things like that.

    John Miller: Now they're taking toy guns out of the toy stores, because oh, Jesus, there'll never be another war anyway the way we had it.

    Frank Miller: It's just not the same circumstances, like Bosnia is the closest thing to World War II in a sense, because they're fighting with conventional weapons. And they have, well, they call them firefights, we used to call them skirmishes. That's a hangover from the Civil War, skirmishes.

    Bill Druback: I still say that one of the toughest winters I ever spent was in Bastogne, throughout my 72 years.

    John Miller: That was the worst winter they had in Europe in 100 years.

    Frank Miller: You know, I remember times where they said it was 13 above during the day and at nights it went below zero, and we had on all kinds of clothes. I had a regular tank-type undershirt and a flannel undershirt, and the wool o.d. (olive drab) shirt, and the Army khaki, you know the knitted sweaters that we had. Then I had the field jacket, and on top of the field jacket I had that green combat jacket. Then finally I had an overcoat that was much too big for me which was what I needed to go over all the other stuff. When some guy, unfortunately, got killed I got his overcoat and I cut it down to three-quarter length because when you ran in the snow, it used to melt the snow against the heat of your body and then it freezes, and it would slap you in the legs when you ran. So we cut it down to three-quarter length, just took a knife and sawed it off. And you're just trying to keep warm. But at night, you'd take a canteen if you had one, most of the time you didn't have water, because if you'd keep it inside your coat, the next morning you'd shake it, there was ice in it. So you'd heat snow for water most of the time.

    You know, if you tell people this, they don't believe it. So you don't talk to, I guess in fifty years I never really talked to, what we called civilians in those days, I guess. Because they didn't believe it. Even my own family, sometimes your kid will say, "How come you never told me things like that?" when they see these documentaries, TV has been the biggest informative method for the younger people, like they saw the Battle of the Bulge, not the movie but the excerpts, the documentaries that A&E puts out. Some of those have done more to educate individuals than almost anything because they show the actual conditions.

    They’ve got captured films and everything we never had access to. We had some pictures, a few snapshots here and there, but we didn't run around with a camera in those days like we do today.

    Bill Druback: You carried your ammo, what you had.

    Aaron Elson: How about the extremities, your hands and your feet? How did you keep them warm?

    Frank Miller: A lot of guys didn't. They lost fingers and toes.

    John Miller: They issued wool gloves, right? And some gloves had leather palms and some didn't, some were just plain wool. And then they issued us a pair of yellow, they were like yellow leather driver's gloves, they were light, with no lining. And we put both of them on. If you could get part of a parachute or anything that was silk, you could put that on, because silk is a very good insulator, and you put silk on first. Then gloves. The same thing with your feet. If you could put anything with silk on your feet, under the socks.

    Frank Miller: I was a Boy Scout, I was almost an Eagle Scout, and I had done a lot of camping. I used to always get extra socks. I usually had eight, ten pairs of socks. Other guys would put cigarettes [in their musette bag], I didn't smoke so I put socks in it, and I changed them whenever I could, but I wore the same damn clothes for 31 days, literally, the underwear and everything, and I changed my socks a couple of times. One time I changed them in a barn in the middle of the night in the dark because you couldn't light lights, but that was the only way you saved your toes.

    I used to wear the gloves and I never put my fingers into the tips, I had my fingers curled up inside the gloves, and you'd be like that trying to keep them warm. And whenever you could you'd stand, you know, you never put your gun down as a rule because if you let it lay in the snow it would get frozen anyway, so you'd hold it in your arm and you'd stick one hand underneath just trying to keep warm. There were those things that you had to do, and there was noplace to go.

    If a building got blown up, you would run over to it and get warm, and stand there about ten minutes, then you'd move, because the Germans would shell it again. They all figured the same way because they were doing the same things we were.

    Bill Druback: I had a pair of socks that I always kept in my helmet liner, it sort of kept them dry from the heat of my head. I think it was something that, I don't know, I guess it was taught somewhere along the line and I retained it.

    That morning when they woke us up to get going, half the guys were on leave, they came and woke us up, they just told us to take whatever equipment you could get your hands on, and you grabbed what was available and that's the way we went on these big semis. Biggest truck I’d seen.

    John Miller: The first couple of days it was warm. A lot of guys left their overcoats behind.

    Aaron Elson: What it was like going into Bastogne, with everybody going the other way? Did you have any idea what you were getting into?

    Frank Miller: No, not actually. Nobody knew what they were getting into.

    John Miller: Because we started out going one place, and then on the way up there they changed it, and sent us into Bastogne. We weren't supposed to go to Bastogne originally, we were supposed to go someplace else.

    Frank Miller: Some other town, yeah. It was always rumored, you know, they told us to take our patches off and everything because we’re being transferred, and we get there and the Germans' radio was saying, "Welcome to the 101st." They knew more than we knew, as members of it.

    John Miller: They were going to annihilate us. They knew who we were, but we weren't supposed to have any patches or anything, no identification, right.

    Frank Miller: So I put them back on.

    Bill Druback: Don't forget, when we were going into Bastogne, when we first got there, we got off the trucks and went into sort of a bivouac area, a field if you remember, that night. They told us to dig in and you couldn't dig into the hard ground, you just dug whatever trench you could make. In the morning we got up and we headed into Bastogne and as were were going out of Bastogne into the field there, you'd see members of the 28th, at the time we didn't even know what divisions were there but we saw these guys, and there was a remark passed, "Where you guys going?" or "What's happening?" you didn't get too much information, until you went up there and found out for yourself.

    Frank Miller: But even before we got to Bastogne, remember, there were troops going the other way...

    Bill Druback: Just the opposite of the way we were going.

    Frank Miller: It was from Lieges, or somewhere, didn't they come from Lieges? But there were others that were going off, and they were going every which way and some of them looked pretty harried, and they'd say, "Where are you guys going? The Germans are that way." And we got weapons even from some of them, because we didn't have enough equipment, you know, they caught us unawares too, and we got some rifles from guys, we said, "Well if you're not gonna use them, we'll take the damn things." I saw guys actually jump off a truck and get a gun from somebody else, because they weren't gonna use them, not if they're running the wrong way. But a lot of them were service and supply companies that were back and got caught, I mean that they weren't combat troops per se.

    Bill Druback: The 28th Division is the one where they broke through.

    Frank Miller: How many guys are actually combat, in a division? They claim out of 10,000, maybe 4,000 are actual fighters, the rest are backup.

    John Miller: But when they put the 28th in there, that was a quiet sector.

    Frank Miller: Oh yeah, it was supposed to be a rest area.

    John Miller: And this was their first combat experience. You know, they put the division up there to bring them into a quiet sector. And then they got overrun, I don't know if they didn't or they couldn't put up a fight, they were just overrun and they took off.

    Frank Miller: I think some of them lost their officers and they just weren't taught to be independent. We were no good bastards, we were always independent.

    Bill Druback: We’d just got back from Holland, it was a little after Thanksgiving, I think half of the outfit got diarrhea from the turkey.

    John Miller: At the end of November we got back out of Holland, and then we were supposed to be on R & R, for recreation and retraining and regrouping and everything, right?

    Frank Miller: I had just gotten out of the hospital from Holland. I got shot up in Holland, it was just the arm, but I got back a day or two before, imagine, just in time, but we had hardly anything set up, you didn't know which way to go, but you were ready to go, that was it.

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