10th Armored Division, Ex-Prisoner of War
Kenilworth, N.J., Oct. 31, 1997
(This narrative is taken from a manuscript Jim Koerner wrote shortly after the end of the war, with excerpts from our interview woven in. Unlike other narratives in this book, its tone is more that of written history than spoken history.)
It was a beautiful summer day, this May 9, 1941. I was due for the draft sometime in the near future prior to my volunteering.
I was given the honor of being assistant group leader to Fort Dix.
Thirteen men left from our draft board from Roselle, N.J. We were piled into a chartered bus amid tears and farewells.
I was 21 years old; wouldnt be 22 until May 26, 1941.
Before long, we were hearing the oft spoken, "Youll be sorry," "Watch your back," etc.
Into tent city and the strange new life that was to be home for the next four years, five months and 15 days.
That first night, and long into the morning, the low and muffled sound of sniffles could be heard throughout our five-man tent.
To me it was new, but Id done a lot of camping and lived the so-called outdoor life and it seemed natural, but to some it was the shaking of the apron strings.
When the first reveille sounded and we were dressed and out for breakfast it seemed as though we all were hungry but untalkative.
After five days at Dix, we were shipped by train to sunny Florida. Camp Blanding, Fla., to be exact.
This was the sandy and red bug center of the world.
We got a cadre of regular army soldiers from a pack artillery outfit in Panama. They were really tough but this outfit left a vivid memory in later Army life.
We had 155 millimeter rifles, World War I vintage, with hard rubber tires, tractor-drawn.
We had good basic training, and in September of 1941 we made the North Carolina maneuvers. All our equipment, or most of the modern parts, was on paper. We had signs for .30-caliber machine guns and .50-caliber machine guns.
Back to Camp Blanding amid rumors of the 28-year-olds going home for good. Then they started being sent home. All got stripes to take home. Some were single and wanted to see Miami, so the married boys got an earlier start.
I went into Stark, Fla., in civvies to see the movie "All This and Heaven Too" on Dec. 7, 1941. I came out to hear the lobby buzzing with the sinking of the Arizona, and wondered what movie they had seen that in. I hit the street and heard the loud MP public address telling all soldiers to get out of civvies and back to camp as all leaves and passes were void.
The next few months were nightmares with our alerts. Clear camp, pack everything in trucks and ride 10 miles, then back to start all over again in a few days.
Five non-commissioned officers I was a corporal, another corporal and three sergeants decided wed never make it overseas with our present outfit, so we volunteered for the paratroops.
Here the toughest training anyone ever had began.
Five weeks in Fort Benning paratroop school is equal to 25 weeks training elsewhere. Ive seen men spit in the sawdust judo pit and have to eat it on command of our training sergeant. Ive seen men fall out of five-mile speed marches and vomit and get back in and run. Ive seen in judo a man get his shoulder broken and finish his period in pain, but silent pain.
I broke my ankle on a training jump and each day Id get it strapped so I could get a boot on to jump.
I went into the final stage pulling my bad ankle up and sitting hard on my rump. I wanted to graduate with my class, which was forming the 101st Airborne Division.
I had made it up with a buddy that if I or he couldnt make the grade we would get out together. He had a fear of heights. And at that time you got six months in the stockade for freezing (a natural fear of not getting out of the plane; it happens to longtime jumpers).
After three jumps we joined a casual company where we again volunteered for a so-called colonels hand-picked mission, which ended up as cadre for the 55th Armored Engineer Battalion, 10th Armored Division, in the Sand Hill area of Fort Benning, Ga.
There we had a colonel who was so tough he used to beat the officers up. I only went through the second year of high school because when I was 14 my father killed himself and I had to work to help keep my family together. And when Id go out on reconnaissance I had to figure out the capacity of the bridges. One day the colonel said to me, "Youre supposed to be pretty good at this. Im gonna ask you, how good are you?"
I said, "When I say the bridge will take it, itll take it."
He said, "Well, Ill prove it. The first tank that goes over that bridge, youre gonna be underneath the bridge."
He used to have us run in the morning, at 5 oclock, get up and doubletime down the street yelling "Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Im Sergeant Koerner and Im the toughest man here!" And the guys would open the barracks up and say, "Shut up ya son of a B, let us sleep!"
This same colonel, his name was Spangler, they shipped him over to Africa because he got so many complaints. He got over there, and they were taking up mines in this engineer outfit he commanded, and he said, "Youre not making enough time. Youve got to go like this. " Poom! Four more guys to heaven. He was a West Pointer, too. Everybody was saying it couldnt have happened to a nicer guy.
I had a boxing instructor at Fort Benning by the name of Leopold. He was a race car driver in real life, and he had scars all over his face from the accidents he was in.
Im on tranquilizers. My wife, God bless her, she has to remind me, "You didnt take your tranquilizer today," because if I dont take it, I bite heads. People dont realize that havent been in the service, when you spend four years learning how to kill people, and to try to save the ones that youve got under you, its not easy to return to society. Ive walked away from fights that I could kill somebody.
Before I left to go overseas, I had a pretty good reputation. I used to tell my men, "I want you to do something for me. Do me a favor." And a couple of big guys would say, "Are the stripes talking?"
Id say, "They come right off."
We had a platoon in the engineers, in a different barracks. And we had a wooden goat; they used to take that goat and put it in front of the platoon that was the worst platoon in the battalion. These guys were so tough that were in this platoon, they burned that goat.
Before we went overseas, the colonel called me in and said, "Sergeant Koerner, youre taking over the third platoon."
Well, the third platoon was the platoon that burned that goat. They were so mad at the sergeant that was in charge of them, one time when he was out there was a guy sitting with a loaded tommy gun, he was going to kill him when he came in.
I said, "Sir, no. Im not taking over the third platoon. Ill take private."
He said, "Well, youll take it over as a private. How do you like that?"
I said, "Id like it better as a staff sergeant," because my mother was a widow; I was sending money home.
Most of the men in that platoon were from the hills. In the Appalachians, those people are the proudest people, and theyre the best soldiers. But when theyve got a guy that doesnt appreciate them, and all he did was drink and chase women, theyre going to be trouble.
Before I took over I had a couple of sergeants in the platoon that had more seniority than me. There was one regular Army sergeant and I knew he was looking to take over the platoon. I explained to him, "Look. Ill never give you anything to do that I wont do myself. And Ill prove it to you. If youll help me, Ill help you."
He said, "Okay." That was Sergeant Wiley. I used to say, "The blue grass of Kentucky is in his eyes." He had beautiful blue eyes.
I had two big guys in two different outfits, but in this one outfit, I said to this guy, "I only want three guys lining up over there" to get a haircut. The fourth guy gets up, so I said to him, "Hey, get back on the job."
"Stripes are talking."
I said, "Okay." Off they went, and I turned around and I dropped him.
He went to the colonel. So the colonel called me over. He said, "Sergeant Koerner, did you lay hands on a man?"
"Thats right," I said. "If I asked that man to get out of that line if I tell him to kill somebody do you think hes going to kill him when he goes overseas?"
"Youve got a point, but youve got a weeks special duty."
Another time I was on guard duty, and the carpenter said, "Hey, we dont have a ring here for you to train in. Lets get the lumber while were out here."
I said, "Okay." He built me a ring in the center of the camp. Because we had Chuck Taylor, who fought for the championship when he got out; in the 10th Armored he was the champ, and they wanted me always to fight him. And I said Ill fight him for money. Im not fighting him for nothing.
Somebody reported that lumber was missing, and I got called in by the colonel. He said, "Sergeant Koerner, when you were on duty, did you see anybody take anything?"
I said, "Yes, I did, Sir."
And he said, "You stood there and you watched them?"
I said, "No, Sir. I helped them unload it."
He said, "Well, Ill tell you what. You just got yourself some more extra duty."
After months of training we went on Tennessee Maneuvers and from there we returned to Camp Gordon, Ga., and then finally in August of 44 we headed north to New York for three days. Then off we went to beat the hurricane out of New York.
One night we went into Weymouth, England, where the misty banks of France seemed to haunt our dreams.
Early departure and the announcement we were to land direct in the harbor of Cherbourg, France. The harbor looked very dreary with its submarine pens and battered ship and gun emplacements.
So over the side to the LCIs [landing craft-infantry] and the grating of the sandy beach under our keel.
While standing on the beach I watched a slow flotilla of LSTs [landing ship-tanks] come into view. I thought, "Boy, wouldnt it be something to see my brothers boat? Hes been away over 18 months."
All at once into view came the 345. What a thrill! We were going out only 12 miles to bivouac in the beach area where we were to get our doctrine of actual mine removal, so my first sergeant said.
Bright and early the next morning found me standing in our hastily erected orderly room.
Captain Garwood listened and was very much the good Joe. Lt. Hanel, my platoon leader, and myself headed for Cherbourg.
We got there about 10 a.m. and with a little persuasion by Lt. Hanel we got a Coast Guard boat to take me out to the 345, at anchor in the harbor.
The port side as we neared was quite a mess with shell marks.
I saluted the deck officer and asked to see Chief Machinists Mate Ted Koerner. He looked perplexed and said, "Whens the last time you heard from Ted?"
I half-muttered, "Why?"
"Well, Teds on his way back to the States on rotation by now. Hes been in England waiting for the past two weeks."
I was introduced to Teds replacement, Jim Brown, and given a nice look-see all over the LST.
About that time we had an alert emergency engine start, as our boat was dragging anchor right at a sister ship.
I thought the boat seemed rough, but I heard they were always rough riding so I didnt know a good storm was on us.
The Coast Guard blinker contacted the 345 that my lieutenant, who was waiting for me, was going to leave and for me to stay till I could get ashore.
I spent the night sleeping in my brothers old bunk. Even the blankets had his name on them. I felt near to all my family here.
After a very good breakfast, deluxe to any soldiers idea of food, the captain had a boat put over and back to French soil I returned.
After a hitchhike and some walking I located our bivouac area.
Much to my surprise, all that remained was our garbage dump sign and latrine marker. So I stood bewildered in the middle of nowhere, with no idea of where they had gone.
By the convoy tracks I saw they had headed west. And west I started.
Id gone about three miles when a jeep screeched to a halt and there was my driver, T/5 Prejean. I sure was glad to see him.
We had gone about 40 miles to a small seashore resort where we were to get our baptism of mine removal.
All along the block were grim reminders of what lay ahead inland.
There were jeeps blown to pieces. There were remains of clothing and bodies.
The Jerries had 16-inch naval shells for mines on the beach near the water. There were schu mines and further inland there were jumping Jennies, or bouncing Betties as they were better known. And also teller mines, pressure release and pressure type.
Every farmer in the peninsula seemed to have a pasture or farm yard to check and clear of mines.
We could have started a junkyard with the pieces of steel we picked up and treated as mines till they were seen.
We even picked up some remote control tanks for observation.
The third platoon needed an extra trailer for our own use. So all of us put our heads together and decided to do something.
We tried supply, but to no avail. One day while on a reconnoitering mission, I noticed set back in a heavily wooded area a group of jeeps and three-quarter ton trailers setting near this house. We stopped and took a run up through the alley and peered into the back of each trailer. They were all new and also empty.
That night Sgt. Marks, a Connecticut cop, and myself asked the motor sergeant, Grimes, an Ohio boy, for a jeep.
Meanwhile we borrowed a can of white stencil paint and a can of green O.D. [olive drab] paint and a "Co. C" stencil from the supply sergeant.
We were all set to move out when Sgt. Grimes, who knew our intent, decided he had a new jeep here and he was going to do the driving.
We headed out to the scene of the crime.
It was a fairly dark night with an occasional moon. We were near our location about 11:30 and the lights were seen dimly through the drawn shades. We waited nearby till 12:15 and then turned on the key and pulled slowly up to the area of the trailers. Sgt. Marks and myself hopped out and Sgt. Grimes backed up to the trailer hitch.
When a burst of moonlight shone through the clouds I looked at the sign hung before the big house. It read, "Normandy Beach MP Headquarters." That sure sped our mission.
We both almost broke our backs lifting the supposedly empty trailer.
We hooked it up and I shoved Sgt. Grimes over and yelled to let me drive. He protested but gave ground.
I put it in first and felt a heavy lurch as we took off with no lights.
All at once we heard a loud "Halt!" to our rear.
I gave it another burst and shoved it into second.
I dont know if we were shot at because of the noise of our motor and the dragging behind of the big one-ton trailer.
Sgt. Grimes kept yelling, "Take it easy! Youll burn my new jeep up!" I still poured it on.
We must have gone a half-mile before Sgt. Marks, who was looking out the side, yelled, "Here they come on the fly!" I put more coal on and flipped off our blackout lights.
By now we were wide open, going nearly 50 mph. And every turn or bump Id have my head on the side to see better.
We must have gone ten miles before the offering of a side road into the woods gave us the break to lose them.
We took and painted the trailer olive drab and gave it a half-hour to dry, and then we stenciled our "C Company" name and number on.
Back to camp we went. When we looked into the trailer we noticed it was filled with a large walled tent, and also big tarpaulins. They sure came in handy.
The third platoon made a nice meeting room out of the trailer.
We had it all of two days when our battalion supply officer very nicely told us the battalion was taking it for their use, as they were short a trailer.
This same captain got the Bronze Star at a later date for the wonderful way he supplied the battalion. We had men lose eyes and legs and their action didnt warrant a reward. Thats war I guess.
Finally we got the big news that we were to head into battle indoctrination at the fortress city of Metz.
We relieved the 95th Division on a front near Metz (Ive come to find out a very good Pennsy Buddy, Dave Hughes, was killed near here and I didnt even know he was overseas).
We (our platoon, 44 men) covered a front of roughly a half-mile. We had booby traps put out by the 95th in our front with no outline of places or types.
We had two patrols hit by Jerry charges (nails wired to a charge). One lieutenant had 40 or better holes in him from the first patrol.
We lost, that is, the division lost quite a few men by mortar fire, also by small arms fire and booby traps.
It rained and rained here; for three days and nights I stood in water and didnt sleep as I had a medic in my foxhole who had a bad case of nerves. He was on first night watch when a boobytrap blew up near us. He panicked and blocked my exit to crawl out of the cave we had in the rear of the hole. He finally saw the light with the help of a size 9 boot.
Just as I put my head up someone threw a grenade that tore my helmet off and gave me a hissing in my left ear that still remains with me. Eight lives to go.
After three days I had a nice case of trench foot.
The doc said if I couldnt clear it up Id have to be evacuated.
I finally had to shed my shoes (my toes were too swollen to put them on), so I had a heavy pair of socks and galoshes that fit very good.
The news came late one night that we were being relieved and sure enough we were the next day. Bright and early we started out. Well spaced and double time was passed down. Sure found out why as we headed up the open road. The Jerries had taken all the high ground and wanted to use us for target practice for their 88s.
It sure felt good to get back to our farmhouse headquarters. We had a big job of cleaning up a weeks growth of dirt and mud.
It wasnt a week before we headed for the big front up northeast. We were to be used by Pattons Third Army as a spearhead in first the Moselle River crossing, then the Maginot Line and the Saar River fake crossing, too.
On the Moselle River crossing we lost our platoons first man, T/5 Glass. A real good man. We had to furnish a man from each platoon as an assault boat driver. Glass was our man from the third squad, Sgt. Wickets.
From later reports we found out they had to ferry infantry boys over the Moselle under some small arms, mortar and artillery fire. When last seen, Glass boat had been hit and he was riding it down the river upside down. He never was heard from again.
Here also one of our boys, a sergeant, shot his first collaborator.
While crossing the river he noticed a shade go up on the riverfront. Soon all hell broke loose near his boat and other boats.
On his next trip back he stayed while one boat headed out. Again the shade on the third floor went up to reveal a small lamp. Again, heavy fire.
So into the building went the sergeant and two men. On the third floor they shot up a door and located a sad-eyed individual who claimed France for a home. He had no home on this earth five minutes later.
We got a Bailey bridge job to do the next day, as the engineer outfit that started it had twenty or thirty percent casualties. We were a lot luckier. We had two B Company men hit and quite a few near hits.
We also had a break when the Jerries moved out and did a poor demolition job on a building that spanned a canal.
Our Major Clapp grabbed the opportunity by having a tank dozer knock the building down and we used this as a crossing for our tanks. We hit the Jerries so hard we were 30 miles into and behind his lines before he could get a force together to stop us.
We took our first decent load of prisoners here. They really struck us as being cocky and in the pink of shape.
We really got to see our share of dead Jerries and quite a few of our boys. I think everyone had their fill here. We were in a small village over the Moselle and our dead salvage crew piled truckload after truckload a few houses down from our kitchen. We had a good time the first couple of days just looking at parts and ways death was achieved.
I managed to add quite a few German weapons and a few of ours to our supply trucks. In fact, the supply corporal told me if we added any more guns hed have to get rid of some of his engineer tools.
I also got a good double sleeping bag from a lieutenant that had no future needs.
I saw the remains of a Catholic church that was looted clean of valuables by the retreating Jerries. Also picked up some more new Jerry weapons.
Our fame had spread as quite a few of the headquarters crew had orders in for souvenirs. The platoon filled them all in short time.
Even the battalion supply officer put in an order for a Garand rifle. Filled this, too.
One time, we went through a minefield, and the minefield was a mile and a half wide. It was built all by slave labor. We got up there at night. And the thing that stands out with me one of the big flashbacks that wakes me up many a night we had to go out to get information. We wanted to know what outfit it was. And they had a horse-drawn gun there.
Theyd throw the artillery a hundred yards ahead of us, so we wouldnt have to run into something we didnt expect.
We went through this minefield. The horses were dead they were hit with artillery the gun was all shot up and I saw a body on the ground. A flare went up and lit up the area. And I reached down to find out if he was alive or not, and I put my hand where the head used to be, and I got a handful of blood.
The Germans would put white marking tape all the way across where the clear spot was so that they could turn around and go back through without running into mines. We started laying artillery down, and two of the guys that were in there turned around and started to go back and they hit their own mines, and one of them fell back and lost a leg. He had a tourniquet on it. And he took out pictures of his wife and his kids, and he died with that. The second one was the same way, but he had hit two of the mines. He just about got his pictures out on the ground, and that was it.
Another time we went through a minefield with tanks, at night. And Sergeant Wiley the one who I said the blue grass of Kentucky was in his eyes was out in front with his squad, and he cleared a path. He came back to tell the first tank to go through. He was looking at the tank, telling it to come forward. It was dark, and the tank was resting on a mine. When it started moving, the mine went off and it blew one of Sergeant Wileys eyes out.
I didnt know it at the time. I was in another section. And there was a wounded German out there who was yelling that he wanted to turn himself in. We had a bugler who spoke German, so I said, "You tell him if hes got anything plotted out there, Im going to kill him." The bugler told him in German. So I went out, and I put him on my back and I brought him back.
It turned out the German had a P-38 in his pocket. Seven lives to go.
That night, I heard Sergeant Wiley got hit. I went running to the rear aid station, and Sergeant Wiley was on the floor. He was all bandaged up and he was bleeding. Meanwhile, Id brought that German back and the doctor was fixing him up; he was shot in a couple of places. I pointed to Sergeant Wiley and said, "Doctor. Take care of that man."
He said, "Ill do what I want. Im almost finished."
I said, "Take care of that man, or Ill take that German outside and Ill kill him."
He said, "You wont do it."
I said, "Watch me."
He said, "I want your name and rank. Youre going to hear about this."
I said, "Youll get my name and rank. If you dont take care of that man, Ill kill him." And I meant it, too.
We pulled out for a new mission, which was to blow up a bridge on the Saar River.
We were really pinned down hard getting to do this job.
We got into town by shooting up everything that moved and headed for the bridge with a halftrack load of TNT. Got pinned down by heavy fire from a machine gun. We returned fire and knocked out same.
A five-man patrol was sent out to reconnoiter the bridge: Lt. Hanel, Lt. Sherry, Sgt. Marks, Cpl. LeWeek and myself. We met Jerries walking down the middle of the road smoking and laughing. They got in the first burst with a burp gun. We hit the ditch just in time as our lead tank opened up with its .30-caliber machine gun. We were pinned for five minutes till I crawled to yell disapproval. The gunner apologized. Good boy. (Six lives to go.)