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2014, Aaron Elson



Arnold Brown

90th Infantry Division

Page 2

(c) 2014, Aaron Elson

    Aaron Elson: When you joined the regiment, was it on Hill 122?

    Arnold Brown: Yes, but I wasn’t on Hill 122. I joined just a little after that. I heard them talking about it. That must have been where this unit lost all their personnel in combat.

    Aaron Elson: What type of things were they saying?

    Arnold Brown: They were depressed, demoralized. And I can understand that. I can’t express myself, but it was certainly a demoralizing and a sad state of affairs at that time.

    After the reorganization, when we were moving up to the front, we were under long range artillery fire. An artillery shell exploded nearby and a piece of shrapnel from this artillery shell struck a boy in the head. He couldn’t have been, well, he was somewhere between 18 and 21 years of age, and I can hear him today, his cry out and the way his voice trailed off as he dropped dead. He said, "Mooommm." It gave me the chills. That was my first casualty. He was one of the 405,399 to be killed in World War II. He became a statistic. He was a statistic to everyone except his mother and his other loved ones. And I’ve often wondered, how is the selection made? He hadn’t seen an enemy. He hadn’t fired a weapon.

    I want to go into my first major battle, and that was the battle of the Island of Seves.

    The regiment made two attacks on that island and were repulsed with heavy casualties. The regimental chaplain put up a white flag and started walking across toward the enemy lines. A German officer put up a white flag and they met out in no man’s land. They organized a truce. So they decided to pick up their casualties and get medical treatment for them. They came back and took the white flags down and we started making more casualties.

    It was there that I learned my first big lesson.

    After making the first attack and getting ready for the second attack, there was one sergeant, I couldn’t get him out of his foxhole to join us for this attack. He was squatted down in this foxhole below ground level, and he was frozen with fear. So after this attack, which was also a failure, I went back to check on him. There he was, crouched down in that foxhole in the same position I’d last seen him. The only difference was, he had a hole in his steel helmet. For him to get killed like that it took a treeburst artillery shell, and a piece of shrapnel had to go straight down into that foxhole and hit him. So the lesson I learned was, if it’s your time you cannot hide. I decided that I may get it, but I’m gonna be doing my job when I do. If he had joined us in the attack, who knows? Of course, with the condition he was in he wouldn’t have been any help anyhow. Some people just could not take – the public doesn’t realize all the type of killing there is, and the ruthlessness of it – and there are just some men that couldn’t take it mentally, while other men that could take it, who knows why they could take it?

    After all this, the regiment wanted to make another attack – just one rifle company – and they chose me to make it. I wondered if the tactics were correct. Because here’s a strongpoint three miles long. I was always taught that you attack the weak points, not the strongpoints. If you surround them, they’d fall without any casualties. But here they’re going to order one rifle company to take an objective that the regiment had failed and one battalion surrendered half of their men on that island? They promised me a smokescreen and an artillery preparation so that they could blind the enemy and make him keep his head down while we crossed this open field and that river we had to wade to get to this strongpoint.

    I keep waiting for the smoke and the artillery and I never see it. The battalion commander orders me to go anyhow. I questioned him on that. And these are his words; he said: "If we don’t get some men on that island, I’ll be relieved, the regimental commander will be relieved, you’ll be relieved."

    I said, "Colonel, I think my responsibility goes a little deeper than that. I’m responsible for 150 men."

    I don’t remember saying this but in my mind I knew that was what I felt.

    He ordered us to go anyhow, so what am I gonna do? Take a chance of being court-martialed for disobeying an order to go on a hazardous duty? I couldn’t do that. I remembered the old infantry credo – it ended up I said, "Follow me!" I thought it would be sure death, but I had no choice.

    I got out about 50 yards, and the Germans opened up on us with machine guns, even some tank firing. I look back, and there are three men following me. So I hit the ground. Now what the heck are me and three men gonna do? So I lay in a prone position, and one machine gun was cutting grass over my legs and I believe if he had searched up any higher he’d have cut the cheeks of my butt off. But he searched back and killed one of the men that were following me.

    Also, someone was firing at me with a burp gun; what we called a burp gun, it’s like our Thompson machine guns. It wasn’t high-powered and it was firing at its maximum range. So they’re on line with me but they’re falling about three feet short. The bullets were bouncing. I could see them. I was holding my carbine, and I felt something roll across my hand, and I caught three of those bullets. Now who’s going to believe that you caught three bullets in combat? But I explained that they’d lost their strength.

    After a while they stopped shooting. Either they thought we were dead or they could see that we were no threat to taking that island. I told these two men to run back for cover. So they dashed back. I should have got up and went with them – I can see the picture now – but I lay there until they reached cover. Then I got up, and these Germans were ready for me. I had three machine guns firing at me, like you see in a movie. They ripped up the dirt on the right side, the left side, the bullets I could hear like hornets all around me. And I didn’t zigzag, I just took off as fast as I could dash. It was fifty yards, and I didn’t get a scratch. So I figure the guardian angel was working for me.

    They had an investigation after that. They had me make out a report on the battalion commander’s action, and he got relieved of his command and so did the regimental commander.

    Aaron Elson: And who was that commander?

    Arnold Brown: I believe that was [Christian] Clark.

    Aaron Elson: Did they ever find out why you didn’t get the smoke and artillery?

    Arnold Brown: I have no idea. Now pardon my General Patton language, but I said in the report that they were so damn screwed up that none of them knew what the hell they were doing. That’s the way I expressed it.

    Aaron Elson: How did your company respond? Did they respect you, or were they upset that you hadn’t defied the order?

    Arnold Brown: When I issued the attack order and they refused to go, actually my sympathy was with them. They were correct. No question about it. Suppose I order you to walk out in front of automobiles. Are you gonna do it?

    Aaron Elson: No.

    Arnold Brown: To cross the highway with high speed automobiles, the principle is the same. You don’t have to obey an illegal order, and I wondered what my chances would have been if I had disobeyed that order. I’ll tell you this: If I’d had a reputation – see, I didn’t know anybody, they didn’t know me. I had to prove myself.

    Shortly after that was the Normandy breakout, and the armored forces were pursuing the Germans twenty to thirty miles a day, some days more than that. We in the infantry were trying to keep up. So we were marching down the road, single file, on each side of the road, and here comes a jeep. My first sergeant said, "Do you know who that is?"

    I said, "No."

    He said, "That’s General Patton."

    Well, I’d heard a lot about General Patton but I’d never met him. I didn’t realize I was getting ready to get acquainted with him. But he got right even with G Company, and he said, "Driver, stop here."

    I thought, "I don’t see how anything could be wrong." My biggest responsibility at that time was keeping the stragglers moving along. In our battalion march order, I was the rearmost company, so some of the stragglers were from other companies.

    General Patton got out of the jeep and said, "Who’s the blankety blank commanding officer of this blankety blank outfit?" You can fill in the blanks.

    At that time I was hoping the Germans would start shelling us so I could jump in a hole. And then I was thinking, well, if he relieves me of my command, with the experiences I’ve had in the past, he’d be doing me a favor. I stepped out and reported to him and said, "I am, Sir."

    He looked me over a little bit and made a few comments. Then he got back in the jeep and drove on. It was just his way of letting everybody know that he’s in charge of things and he’s up there. So I’m one of those who could brag about being chewed out by General Patton.

    Prior to the closing of the Falaise Gap, in August, we had moved into a bivouac area, and they decided they would have a little break and pay the troops. The troops hadn’t been paid for a month or two. So they told me to go back to the division rear and pick up the payroll.

    By the time I got back up to my company area, it was late afternoon. So I started paying off the troops. Most of them would take a few dollars, and they had a system where you could put it back and send it back to your family.

    I got through about one platoon, and we got an emergency order. We’ve got to move right away. I had to stop paying off the troops and move into this other area, and by the time we got there and got situated it was dark, and I could hear the Germans out in front of me. I could hear the vehicles and tanks running around. This was during the closing of the Falaise Gap. The Germans had broken through in one spot, and they wanted to plug the hole with us.

    Before daylight, I get orders that we’re going to make a daylight attack. What am I going to do with this payroll? I can picture me galloping across this field with a .45 pistol in one hand and the payroll in the other. I thought about it and thought about it. Finally, I turned this payroll over to my driver, who was a Pfc. He was a pretty reliable guy, and I told him, "You guard this with your life."

    So we launched this attack, and we came under mortar fire. A mortar round exploded nearby, and I felt something jerking my trousers below my knee. I jumped in a hole until the mortar barrage lifted, and when I started to move out, uh-oh, something’s wrong with that leg.

    I look down, and pull the britches leg up. There’s a piece of steel sticking in my leg.

    Aaron Elson: Your left leg?

    Arnold Brown: My left, just below the knee, right inside. It didn’t hit the bone. So I took my first aid packet, and thought through my first aid training. The first thing I did was to sprinkle this sulfa powder around the wounded area.

    Aaron Elson: Did you leave the steel in or did you pull it out?

    Arnold Brown: I left it in. And I put a bandage around it. Then I took my sulfa tablets and drank half a canteen of water, and checked it. Well, this thing’s got to come out of my leg before I can go any further, so I call the executive officer over and put him in charge of the company going into this attack, and I go back to the aid station. On the way back, I run into a Mexican who was in my company. His right hand was shredded, and it looked like there was no meat on his fingers. He said he was throwing a hand grenade and it hit an apple tree and bounced back, and he picked it up to throw it again and it exploded.

    We had to cross an open field to get back to the aid station, and whenever we got into the field a German machine gun opened up on us. So we ducked down in this ditch. We lay there a little while, then we got up to move back again, and the Germans opened up with that machine gun a second time.

    There was no way we could get across this field with that machine gun shooting at us. So we lay down again, and got up a third time, and the same thing. Now this Mexican takes his carbine in his left arm, and he’s up there looking for that machine gun.

    I told him, "Stay down here! There’s no reason to commit suicide." So we lay there a while longer. Of course, my company and the other elements of the battalion were moving forward with the attack, so the Germans must have got out of there or something. Eventually we got up, they didn’t shoot at us, and we got back to the battalion aid station.

    They had quite a few casualties there. The battalion surgeon looked at me. I wasn’t hurting, and I wasn’t losing any blood, so he just put another bandage on top of the one that I had put on. Then he gave me six sulfa tablets and told me to drink half a canteen of water. I said, "I’ve already done that, Captain."

    "We’ve got to get it on the record," he said. So I took it.

    Then they sent me back to the regimental clearing station. Here again they had heavy casualties, and I’m waiting for them to treat everybody. Finally they looked at me, and all they did was give me six more sulfa tablets.

    I said, "I’ve already done this twice." The doctor at the battalion aid station had forgotten to put it on my tag – well, you can understand in combat how they forget all these things. So I had to take the tablets, and by this time I was more concerned about overdosing on sulfa drugs than I was about my wound.

    I went back to the division collecting station. There they had hospital tents set up, like MASH on TV. Here again, they take care of the most seriously wounded first, including the Germans. So I was the last one that they took into surgery. I was wounded at 9:30 in the morning and here it is midnight.

    When they removed the bandages from my leg and pulled that piece of steel out, blood squirted up. That hot steel had cut my artery and sealed it at the same time. You see what would have happened if they’d pulled that out any other place? This is the sort of luck I had all through this war.

    Aaron Elson: Had you thought about pulling it out yourself?

    Arnold Brown: No, because I had enough training to know to not do this. It’s all part of, it takes luck and training and everything combined to get through this.

    Aaron Elson: Do you remember any of the other casualties in the aid station?

    Arnold Brown: The only place that I stayed any length of time was the division collecting station, and there you saw all types of injuries. You saw tankers who had been burned, and they were bandaged up to the top of their head, all you could see was their eyes, just like a mummy. That was something. When it got to midnight a Red Cross girl came around and lit a cigarette.

    After the division collecting station I was evacuated to England, and within two weeks I was back at the front line. All this time I was wondering what happened to that payroll. So when I came back through the division rear, I had enough nerve to go in and see the G-1, and I kind of whispered to him, "What happened to that payroll?"

    "Ohhh!" he said, "We had a heck of a mess with that. We counted it up and we finally figured out that $82 was missing. We started wondering whether to charge you or not."

    I was getting ready to say, "You aren’t charging me for nothing! I couldn’t help that."

    Then he said, "We had a little slush fund back here so we put in the $82." But all I could figure out, the Pfc that I turned the bag over to, a Pfc got about $82 a month, he must have took out his $82 and forgot to sign the payroll.

    After I came back, they assigned me to Company C of the 358. And this company had the best non-commissioned officers. They had good morale. In other words, they’re combat-trained now, they know what they’re doing. And believe me, that helped boost my morale, too.

    I had a few skirmishes, but the first major thing of importance was the period of time when they ran out of gas. We were in a bivouac area, and the rumor was that we were going to bed down for the winter and make a spring attack. I realized later that this was just a ploy to fool the enemy, but we were even cutting down logs and building log cabins and hauling straw in so it would be comfortable for the men. All the activity that was going on was just some patrolling by each side. And we thought, well, we’ve got it made until spring.

    While we’re going through all this, we get a message from the regiment: "All officers report to the division rear." So we don’t know what’s up. They had a building back there, some kind of sports arena where they can get all of the officers in the entire division in the building. I thought, "They’re taking quite a chance. What if somebody dropped a bomb?" You can imagine how many officers were in that building. It has a stage up in front, and we’re all waiting to see what’s going to happen.

    The first thing, here comes old General Patton walking across the stage. He walks from one end of the stage to the other – can you picture this? – and he walks back and stops. And he says, "Men, this is it."

    I’m not going to quote all his curse words. He said, "We’re going to cross that damn Moselle River at 2 o’clock in the morning."

    He said, "I want to tell you a little bit about the enemy over there. Now, in these fortress battalions, the Germans don’t have their best troops.

    "Their armored forces, their crack troops, are back in reserve. Some of the fillers in these fortress battalions are old men."

    He said, "Kill the sonofabitches."

    He said, "Some of them have been slightly wounded in combat, or maybe they’ve got a cripples leg or one arm missing," but they can man those machine guns in these forts."

    He said, "Kill the sonofabitches."

    Then he said, "There’s this business about taking prisoners. When you accept an enemy as a prisoner, you’ve searched him and disarmed him and he’s in your possession, you treat him according to the Geneva Convention.

    "Now there’s nothing that says you can’t shoot the sonofabitch before you’ve accepted him as a prisoner. What I mean is, some of those snipers, they’ll take camouflage in a tree, and some of them are going to let you pass and are camouflaged behind you, and they’ll kill a few of your men. Then, when you locate his position, he wants to come out and surrender."

    He said, "Don’t accept that sonofabitch. Kill him."

    Aaron Elson: He said that?

    Arnold Brown: Yes. Oh, let me tell you, you talk about putting blood in your eyes!

- - - -

   Arnold Brown: The Moselle River was flooded at that time, and the ground was wet. We had to carry those assault boats from our covered position, to keep it secret from the Germans that we were going to make this surprise attack. Well, the boats were way back in covered positions. And in my command group, we were carrying loads of wire, radios, other stuff. I helped carry that boat. And the terrain was rough. My shoulder was black and blue for two or three weeks before it cleared up.

    We finally got down to the river, and launched our boat. Now since this was a surprise attack we had radio silence until contact with the enemy was made. They were laying wire all the time so we could plug in our telephone any time and communicate with the battalion if we need to.

    When we got down to the river we had to plug in a large cable that was insulated and waterproof, and it was maybe an inch and a half in diameter. We plugged that into our telephone line, and when we began to row across this river, in the strong current, as we’d roll this cable off from the rear of the boat, the current kept swinging us downstream. And these men weren’t skilled oarsmen to begin with. My company’s crossing up here and here I am going way down below, and I said, "Throw that damn wire overboard!" When we got across we were maybe 100 yards down from where the company was. It’s a good thing there was no enemy there. And it was a complete surprise because we had to wake the Germans up to tell them we were over there. So the strategy worked out, but nobody had thought about how strong the current was.

    My mission in the Moselle crossing was to capture this little town of Bessehahn. The battalion was attacking Fort Koenigsmacher, and Bessehahn was where the battalion wanted to move in up everything. So we did this.

    A and B Companies made the attack on Fort Koenigsmacher, and they had so many casualties that they couldn’t go forward. So now they’re going to commit me, and also G Company on the other side. So, should I tell this story? Do you want me to tell everything, good and bad?

    Aaron Elson: Everything.

    Arnold Brown: This is the first time I’ve made this public. Okay. So, prior to us making this crossing, they were doing away with the old cannon company. The regimental cannon company was artillery. Some of its officers were sent to the infantry. And they sent me a lieutenant from cannon company. His name was Lieutenant Gordon.

    The old infantry style is to attack with two platoons forward and one in support. So I put him in charge of my support platoon until he could get his feet on the ground and get acquainted with his men.

    When they were getting ready to make this attack on Fort Koenigsmacher, I took all of the officers on a reconnaissance into the area that A and B Companies had already captured and occupied, to see what the situation was. So when I got back and issued an attack order, Lieutenant Gordon was missing. I reported it to the battalion commander.

    So we captured Fort Koenigsmacher, and right after the capture, we started setting up our defenses, because the Germans have a habit of trying to attack you before you get organized on your objective. Just as we got reorganized, I got a message to call the battalion commander.

    He said, "We located Lieutenant Gordon." He ended up back at cannon company. He claimed he was shellshocked. The battalion commander said, "Do you want me to send him back up there?"

    I said, "If you send the sonofabitch up here I’ll shoot him myself."

    "Then I guess I’d better not send him up there."

    Now, while we were on that reconnaissance there was a few harassment artillery shells, but none of them hit really close to us, so how could he have gotten shellshocked? I’ve seen men shellshocked. If they’re shellshocked, they’re just as likely to go forward as backward, they don’t know what they’re doing, and he knew what he was doing.

    Then they sent me a questionnaire to fill out. You know the military is, they want so many copies of about a two-page questionnaire.

    The last question on that was: "Even though this officer is unqualified for combat, do you think he’s qualified for some rear area job in administration, supplies, communication, etcetera?"

    I said, "No."

    They said, "If your answer is no, state why? "

    I wrote, "In my opinion, the purpose of Army officers is to lead troops in combat. There’s only one test of that ability. If they fail that test, they do not deserve a commission in any capacity, period."

    So what do you think happened? He was some big shot’s son back here in the States, so they assigned him to a rear area job. And me and all of the officers, whenever we’d go back to the rear and had to see him, he’d want to be friends, but we just gave him the cold shoulder.

    Some time later I was reading an article in the Stars & Stripes. It was an article on how to fight the Germans in the city. I said, "This is very good. This is the way I’ve been coaching my troops."

    Who do you think signed it? Lieutenant Gordon! You talk about wanting to go back there and shoot him myself, and all he knew about it was what I briefed the company there when we were going across the river to take Bessehahn. Now today, he’s a veteran, with all privileges, you see? Where’s the justice? There is none.

    Aaron Elson: When you attacked Fort Koenigsmacher, how was it defended?

    Arnold Brown: Well, the problem that the two companies that attacked the fort had was that these Germans were coming out of tunnels and attacking them from behind. So as I would pass one of the entrances to a tunnel, I would blow it. That way, they gonna come back behind me after we move out. And all of a sudden, we started to get a bunch of small fire coming over the top, see, we’re down low. I was deploying my men to start returning this fire, and I thought, what the hell, I said, "Hold it! That’s M-1 fire!" That was G Company on the other side. And I pulled my men back down and let G Company go.

    At about that time the Germans were coming out and surrendering. I went through oneof the tunnels. They even had an aid station in there, with a bunch of Germans racked up. It was kind of like inside a ship, where they have them lined up on each side.

Interviews                       Arnold Brown, Page 3