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A Mile in Their Shoes

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©2014, Aaron Elson

   

The Provost Marshal

Clifford Merrill, 712th Tank Battalion

    Clifford Merrill was a company commander in the 712th Tank Battalion. He was wounded in Normandy, and did not return to Europe after VE Day. He was a member of the tribunal at the Dachau war crimes trials and later was a provost marshal at the prison compound there. He also served in Korea, and was wounded in Vietnam.

©2014, Aaron Elson

Bradenton, Fla., Feb. 1, 1992

    Aaron Elson: You had told me a story about a prank you pulled in training.

    Cliff Merrill: Did it have to do with chiggers [ticks]?

    Aaron Elson: Yes, thatís what it was.

    Cliff Merrill: We had a guy named Chandler. He was from Maine, and I had come from Maine. There were three of us there from Maine, a guy by the name of Chandler, Webster and myself. What Webster couldnít think up I could. Chandler complained about chiggers around the scrotum. So I talked to Web, I said, "I think we ought to get him some iodine." So we got a whole bottle of iodine, and told him that iodine will kill those chiggers. Just pour it on over there. So he did. It killed the chiggers, and it took all the skin off.

    Chandler was an individual who always was getting in a little bit of trouble, there was some little thing bugging him and heíd come to us about it. The next incident, he had hemorrhoids, and he wanted to know, what can I do?

    We told him, "You get a jar of Vicks Vapo-Rub, and just get a lot on your finger and rub it all around." He did. Well, we heard him holler. He said, "It feels like the north wind."

    That was on the Louisiana maneuvers.

    Aaron Elson: You were from Maine?

    Clifford Merrill: Yes. Springfield, Maine, just a little town 70 miles northeast from Bangor, itís 24 miles from the Canadian border on the eastern side of Maine. I grew up there and went to school there. High school, thatís as far as I went. I finished off my schooling in the Army at night, a rough deal.

    Aaron Elson: After the war, or before?

    Clifford Merrill: Well, it was after World War II.

    Aaron Elson: Did you enlist?

    Clifford Merrill: I enlisted in í36. And retired in í69. I had 32 years in all. Seven months. And a few days.

    Aaron Elson: When were you assigned to the 712th?

    Clifford Merrill: In 1943, in the spring, as I recall it was in the latter part of May in 1943. Prior to that I had been at Fort Knox, Kentucky, instructing. I had a vehicle section there and I was teaching newly arrived trainees how to drive tanks and trucks. It was quite an operation. They rotated companies through, 800 men at a time. I think it was four weeks to get that part of their training.

    Then I was assigned to the 10th Armored Division at Fort Benning, and ended up with what then was G Company in the 3rd Battalion, and when they reorganized, G Company became A Company and I was a platoon leader at that time.

    Then we went on the Tennessee maneuvers. While I was there I had an appendicitis attack and had to go to the hospital, and they took my appendix out. When I came back, why, I was assigned as a company commander. The company commander had transferred out.

    Following that, we moved first to Camp Gordon and did more training, preparing for combat. Then we moved to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, which was more or less a staging area, final preparation. That had to be the late part of í43, because in February we moved to Jackson and we did our final firing and what they call Army ground tests. We had moving tank firing and firing with cannons, everything else. They had a good range there, you could do that. Unlimited distance. After that, we moved to Camp Myles Standish outside of Boston. That was a final prep prior to getting on board ship. We went across the Atlantic and landed at Gouroch, Scotland. My company was detached from the rest of the battalion. At that time we were at a place called Stow on the Wold. We had other names for it, I forget now. When we were in England, there were all kinds of names like that, like Maughton in the Marsh, that we called Maughton in the Muck. There we had more training firing tank guns. Then we drew our tanks.

    Aaron Elson: Were there any casualties in the training?

    Clifford Merrill: No, just weeding out. We were over strength. The only casualties were those I didnít want. We weeded them out. For example, at Fort Jackson I had ten officers and I was only authorized four. So I weeded out a few of them, got rid of six of them.

    We took our final shooting tests in England. We had moved from Stow on the Wold down to Chiseldon barracks in Swindon and joined the rest of the battalion. Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of the night, they said, "Pack up and go." The Army is noted for that. No advance notice, they didnít want anything leaking out. We were ready anyway. But there was still a lot of confusion.

    Aaron Elson: How did you cross the channel?

    Clifford Merrill: In an LST, Landing Ship Tank they call it. We went across the channel, as I recall the first tank off went off the ramp and into the water; only a little of the turret was sticking out.

    Aaron Elson: Did it get onto the beach?

    Clifford Merrill: We hooked onto it and dragged it on.

    Aaron Elson: Was this after D-Day, how many days?

    Clifford Merrill: Oh, I donít know.

    Aaron Elson: But it was some time after?

    Clifford Merrill: Yes, but there was a lot of stuff going on.

    Aaron Elson: Was the beach secure, or was it still under fire?

    Clifford Merrill: Well, once in a while youíd get something coming in. Of course, at night everything was blacked out. You couldnít do much at night. My company was assigned to the 82nd Airborne, and I advanced through, connected up with the 82nd Airborne Division. The rest of the battalion went to the 90th Division, and I worked with the 82nd until the 8th day of July, this is í44. The 8th day of July the 82nd was replaced by the 8th Infantry Division, and boy, we had to break those people in, it was tough. Theyíd shoot you as quick as they would the Germans. They were scared. I was, too, what the heck. They didnít advance very much. In fact they lost ground. I had one platoon leader that was extremely good, a chap named Ed Forrest. I talked to Ed and the artillery commander of the 8th Division, and we decided weíd stir things up a bit. So I had Edís platoon advance, but in the meantime we swapped radios, so a spotter plane could speak to Ed in his tank, he had a small receiving set. He made an advance I guess of about two and a half miles. Knocked out a couple tanks. One place they came around, the story was told to me now, at that point I wasnít there, they came around this turn in the road with one of their tanks, and hereís a bunch of Krauts, they had a hogshead of cider. They hit the hogshead of cider, and the Krauts.

    Aaron Elson: When you say a hogshead of cider, what is that?

    Clifford Merrill: Thatís about 20 barrels of cider in one huge casket. I donít know what else they call it beside hogshead, thatís what I learned in Maine. Hundreds of gallons of cider. Too bad to spill all that cider. But Normandy had lots of cider. And Calvados.

    Ed made a good advance then. Other places theyíd get tied down. Of course I was back and forth across that front all the time. Hell, I never got any sleep. Iíd go to sleep standing up.

    Aaron Elson: Did you travel in a jeep or in a tank?

    Clifford Merrill: A jeep, mostly. Iíd have a tank following me, but I wouldnít ride in a tank, because I couldnít see. If I rode in a jeep I could see well enough. And then the final day when I got hit, I went up to one of the leading battalions that was supposed to have been engaged. Theyíd lost an assistant division commander, he got killed the night before, trying to lead a platoon. Imagine, a brigadier general leading a platoon. He went out where he shouldnít have been, he got hit, heck, the Germans laid down such fire the other members of that platoon, nobody could bring him out, he bled to death. So the next day I went up in that area, and one of the first people I came across was this battalion commander digging a hole. I said, "What the hell are you doing?" Iím standing up.

    He said, "Weíre being fired on."

    I said, "Theyíre not hitting me." You could hear bullets, but that was everywhere youíd hear them. If they hit a tree 30 feet over your head youíd hear the snap. I didnít pay any attention to those. So I said, "I donít see any Krauts around. Letís see whatís going on." So I left him and I went along the front line hedgerow, and everybodyís hiding down behind the hedgerow and I said, "What goes?"

    Well, the Germans are right over there in front of the next hedgerow. There was a captain there, and he said, "Thereís a machine gun on this side." I asked him, and he explained where the machine gun was. I said, "Well, Iím going to look at it."

    I had a tank there that had a 105 gun on it. So I went [on foot] up this little trail. I was armed with a tommy gun, I carried this tommy gun all the time. I had gone up there, and I couldnít see anything. I got down, kind of crawled along, and I looked up, and here this damn Kraut was looking right at me. To this day I donít think he saw me, he had no look of surprise or nothing, he didnít do anything, but instinctively I brought that tommy gun up, of course I ripped him up. Then I heard the machine gun, and I could see where the muzzle blast was moving the bushes, and then I said, well, I found the machine gun, I guess Iíll get the hell out of here. I started back, and they dropped either mortar or grenades, Iím not sure, and the first one caught me right in the back. Knocked me down. As I was laying down another one went off and got my right leg. I had a broken back and two inches knocked out of the small bone in this right leg. And after a while somebody came up and put a patch on me. I made believe I was out. It was a German medic. They put a patch on me. I lay there, and waited, and they left. My tommy gun was laying in the leaves, they hadnít seen it. I had a pistol inside my shirt in a shoulder holster, they didnít find that, but they put a patch on my back, they figured I wasnít going to go anywhere, and then they jabbered awhile and they left, and I picked up my tommy gun. Hell, I could walk, I hobbled, I didnít walk very good, but I didnít realize I had broken leg. And my back didnít hurt, but I knew it was sticky, it felt wet. But I walked back, a couple hundred yards, back to the front line, then the medics took over. But I saw the tank commander of the tank that followed me up there and I told him what to do. I heard him shooting after that, I donít know what happened. I gave him my tommy gun, too, I said, "Take it into Berlin."

    Aaron Elson: That was what date?

    Clifford Merrill: It was the 13th of July. That was all the combat for me. They shipped me back, and I spent a year in the hospital.

    Aaron Elson: Was that on Hill 122?

    Clifford Merrill: No, we were beyond Hill 122. We had Hill 95, then Hill 122 we kind of circled around it a little bit. But at that point I believe we were beyond, weíd already eliminated Hill 122.

    Aaron Elson: How did they designate the numbers?

    Clifford Merrill: Thatís elevation. You figure they werenít very high hills. But in some of those hills they were looking down on you, and some places I think they were throwing the empty shell cases on us. But weíd already gone through La Haye du Puits, we went in there three different times, thatís when Hill 122 came into play, the big effect on us anyway, and they drove us out two times, the third time we made it. Thatís where I liberated some calvados from a liquor store that had been blown up. I had it in the back of the jeep and I thought it would break if somebody hit us, and Iíd get glass in me, so the best thing to do is just hide that, so I did. I put it in a hole and covered it up with some brush and dirt and figured Iíd go back to it. If I go back to that area Iím going to look for it. Some Frenchman has probably found it.

    Aaron Elson: So you were in the hospital for a year. Then what did you do?

    Clifford Merrill: I went back to Fort Knox. I didnít like Fort Knox. They were supposed to be training people, they didnít know what they were doing. And I told them so. And the guy who was in personnel was named Heggy, heíd been in OCS with me. And I went in to see him. I said, "Heggy, I want to leave, I want to get somewhere. I want to go to Germany." Youíd hear all kinds of rumors about what you could get for a carton of cigarettes in Germany, I said, "I guess Iíd better go."

    He said, "Okay. Iíll put you on orders but Iím gonna put myself on orders, too." He and I both went over, in the same shipment.

    Aaron Elson: So then you went to Dachau?

    Clifford Merrill: Then eventually I ended up in Dachau.

    Aaron Elson: What did they do there?

    Clifford Merrill: We had war criminals, and we had about 30,000 prisoners of war there. Then we had hard-core war criminals, about 2,000 of those. They were in more or less a big cell block, it was called a bunker but it was a cellblock. And we had some lesser war criminals, they didnít really pay much attention to them. But the ones we had in the cell block were really hard core, theyíd been guards in charge of things at Dachau and other concentration camps, murdered a lot of people, killed lots of people. The prisoners of war were not too bad, in fact, one thing that happened to those prisoners, we had prisoners of war from Russia and the Baltic countries, Ukraine and places like that, they didnít want to go back. Russia wanted them back.

    Aaron Elson: They were Russian or they were German?

    Clifford Merrill: They were Russian.

    Aaron Elson: But they had fought for the Germans?

    Clifford Merrill: The only Russians were really those from around the Moscow area, what is the Russia of today. Very few of them were from there, but from Ukraine, and Belorussia, places like that.

    Aaron Elson: And they had fought for the Germans?

    Clifford Merrill: No, they didnít fight for them but theyíd worked for them. Russia wanted them back. We found out they didnít want to go. And when we shipped them out, we had them in railroad cars. Not box cars, regular passenger cars. Boy, they killed themselves, with some of the worst means you ever saw. Break a hole in the window and put their head in and cut their throat. Kill each other, simultaneously, with knives. Bloody Sunday.

    Aaron Elson: How many people?

    Clifford Merrill: They had a trainload. The first trainload I think we had around eight, nine hundred.

    Aaron Elson: That killed themselves?

    Clifford Merrill: Yes. It was a mess.

    Aaron Elson: And the ones that went back were sent to Siberia?

    Clifford Merrill: They didnít even reach there. Going back, at a certain point, why, the Russians took over. And even then, they took them off the cars and they stayed in the rain overnight, cold, miserable. You know theyíre not going to survive like that. They were just as brutal with their people as some of the concentration camp guards were to their prisoners.

    Aaron Elson: This was about what month?

    Clifford Merrill: Oh, letís see...

    Aaron Elson: Bloody Sunday, do you know the date of that?

    Clifford Merrill: Pretty close, that should have been, November ... December ... probably the first part of January í46. I may be off on the date.

    Aaron Elson: How did the Dachau trials differ from the Nuremburg trials?

    Clifford Merrill: It was the same idea. Same philosophy. We had six members of the court, and theyíd have defense counsel, as many as we could get for them. They were well-defended. But they were accused of different crimes, all kinds of witnesses would testify against them for murdering pilots and things like that. With the concentration camp trials, the Dachau trials, why, there were guards and those in charge who had killed prisoners. A lot of hanging went on afterwards.

    Aaron Elson: What was your position during this? You were on the tribunal?

    Clifford Merrill: I was a member of the court.

    Aaron Elson: How many other members were there?

    Clifford Merrill: I think we had six court members. It varied. Sometimes we had five, sometimes seven.

    Aaron Elson: Were there any individuals that stand out in your memory as being especially dramatic? Did any stand out as especially sad, or did it just become repetitious?

    Clifford Merrill: Most of it was repetitious, and most of it theyíd cry and say they had to do it because they were ordered to do it, do things. In one case, we had a young ex-soldier, German soldier. He looked like he was about a halfwit. He had been accused of kicking this pilot. But you got all kinds of things like that. We were skeptical when weíd view these things. In this case I was glad we were. He couldnít kill, he was just showing off. He went along and pushed the guy with his foot. We found other witnesses. He didnít kick him, he had pushed him. So we had a little discussion. We donít want to continue this, let him go. He was grateful. He didnít want his neck stretched. But other cases, it was pitiful in a way, they had kids, their wives would come there, carry on. But Lord, theyíd done these things. Theyíd actually killed people, a lot of them had.

    And then we tried this guy Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny was the German paratrooper, a good soldier, who had planned and carried out the order to rescue Mussolini.

    Aaron Elson: How did he do that?

    Clifford Merrill: He went in by glider. They snatched old Mussolini out of there. The nationalists I guess they called themselves had got Mussolini, and he got Mussolini out of there and rescued him. Or he would have had an earlier death than he did.

    Then another case was Colonel Peiper, a German officer, and another officer, I forget his name, but the two of them were chief members of the group that executed a bunch of American soldiers, I think they were engineers, at Malmedy, in Belgium. Thatís near St. Vith. It was termed the Malmedy massacre. Trucks came in suddenly, curtains pulled back off the rear of the trucks, and hereís machine guns and they started shooting at this group of GI prisoners. Some of course feigned death and lay there, and eventually got back to tell the story. The Germans didnít hang around, they figured theyíd killed all of them, apparently anyway. So when we had that trial, one of the guys was turned loose and the other was sentenced to hang.

    Aaron Elson: There were two people on trial for that?

    Clifford Merrill: Two major people. I think there were some lesser people who came in on the trial, too. Hell, the trigger men were not that important, the people that directed it are what we wanted.

    Aaron Elson: And what were their ranks?

    Clifford Merrill: Of these two? Both were full colonels, I think. I donít think they were generals.

    Aaron Elson: What did they say in their defense?

    Clifford Merrill: Oh, I donít remember that now. In that case, I really donít because we were so danged, we were tickled to have them and glad we convicted them. Really. Nothing mattered but that we get the rope around their neck, as far as I was concerned.

    Aaron Elson: Do you remember the circumstances of the convictions?

    Clifford Merrill: I donít remember the circumstances, no. But I do know, I congratulated old Skorzeny myself on getting out of that, because our sympathies were with him. He wasnít in on that stuff. Sure, his troops went in, some of his troops were trained, English speaking and all that, in the Battle of the Bulge or prior to the Battle of the Bulge, to infiltrate. What the heck is wrong with that? They were fighting just like we were. We were doing the same thing.

    Aaron Elson: We were?

    Clifford Merrill: Why, sure. All we could. I didnít see anything that would give you a cause to treat him as a war criminal. And as it came it out in the trial it was proven, he was nothing but a good soldier.

Contents                       Clifford Merrill, Page 2

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