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©2014, Aaron Elson



9 Lives: An Oral History

The online edition

© 2014, Aaron Elson

cov-9lives.jpg (4837 bytes) "... an absolutely wonderful collection of WW2 Vets' stories! Aaron Elson has collected some of the most exciting and informative stories I have yet to read on the European Theater. This book is basically a group of mini-memoirs that range in scope from paratroops to tank personnel to frontline infantry. Each one tells his or her (yes women did serve!) own story in his or her own way but all of them are fascinating and will give you a different glimpse of how average americans saw the war. You will enjoy this one!"

--Amazon.com reviewer

Order "9 Lives: An Oral History" from Amazon.com..

Chapter 8

    "In this building … I met a forward observer from the artillery or the Air Corps – I don’t know which – but he had a radio on and a whip antenna and he was directing artillery fire, or he was talking to aircraft because they were strafing with P-47s in the next block over. I was standing right next to him. He had to be from New York; he had a heavy accent, and he had big dark Coke-bottle glasses on. He hadn’t shaved, the stubble was just black on his face, and whoever was calling to him on the radio was asking, ‘Whose fire is that? Is that enemy or is that friendly?’ And he said, 'Sir, I believe it's half and half.' "

Vern Schmidt

Company G, 358th Regiment, 90th Infantry Division

San Antonio, Texas, Sept. 2, 1995

    I was in a rifle squad. We had a B.A.R. man, we had a bazooka man, and then an assistant who carried three rounds for the bazooka. I did that for a time. But other than that, there were just the 12 of us. We had our own little war going on. You didn’t know what was happening except you just followed orders, and we followed our sergeant.

    I can’t even remember my sergeant’s name anymore. The first one I reported to became a second lieutenant; he received a battlefield commission. That was Sergeant Mueller. I met him in the pillbox at Habscheid, and for several days I never met anyone of higher rank than he was. They were very under strength at the time. I came in as a replacement after the Battle of the Bulge.

    We crossed the Moselle River in March. We had very little resistance crossing. We got to the other side in the area of Hatzenport. The hills rise almost immediately pretty high, and we went up into the woods. It was late afternoon, we were beginning to dig in, and we were fired upon sporadically. Then, as we got ready to dig in for the evening, it got pretty ferocious. We learned later that these Germans were part of the 6th SS Mountain Division, and they were a tough bunch.

    I recall the night because it was miserable. The company jeep that carried our blanket roll never showed up. The bedroll consisted of a blanket for each of us, and we normally buddied up so that we would share two blankets between two guys.

    We began digging holes. The digging was tough. There were rocks and roots from the trees. I got a hole probably 16 or 18 inches deep and I could see water already trying to find its place in the hole, to find the lowest spot. I’d dig that out and it would start filling up, so I built kind of a bench in there so I could sit on dry ground and then have my feet down in this hole, and as I kept digging a little deeper, the water seemed to come a little faster. I took my helmet off and every so often I just bailed this water out of there, to keep my feet halfway dry. It was miserable that night. It got cold, and my foxhole was getting soaked.

    It got real quiet, and we had to form a night-time perimeter. We used a code for identifying one another. We’d use a movie star’s name. We’d use the word "Gable," and the other one reported "Clark."

    I finally crawled out of that hole and crawled under a big bush, probably five feet tall. I thought I’ll crawl under there and at least I won’t get soaked. I didn’t have a blanket but I did have a raincoat and I pulled it up and made like a little tent in that bush. I lay under there most of the night, and what time it was I don’t know – time went awful slow at night – the Germans came and began walking through our lines. I was barely 19 years old, pretty naive, really; I didn’t know what to do. We knew they didn’t answer to our code, but they walked in and amongst us during part of the night, and I think they probably were just as scared as we were. They didn’t know how large a group we had. But we made it through the night. It was cold; we didn’t have anything to eat. Nobody caught up with us with rations.

    The next day we spread out into the forest, and I spotted a German soldier in the woods. I hollered at him and he started running. I challenged him to halt and he kept on running. I fired a number of times with my M-1. I don’t know if I hit him or not.

    A couple of days after that we were near Bingen, which is mentioned in many of the history books of the 90th Division. We were still in the woods. It seemed like we just fought in the woods all the time, which is real tough. There were deer there that would come crashing through, and you’d swing your M-1 around and get ready to fire; you didn’t know what it was. One day we were in kind of a sitting, relaxed position. I had my M-1 pointed upwards, I had my hand holding the wooden stock, and this deer came leaping through and he knocked the M-1 right out of my hand; his hoof hit the stock and broke part of the wooden stock.

    Just before we reached the Rhine, we were held up for an hour or two in the woods overlooking the Rhine. Then we moved out, and we went down into the town of Treftinghausen, which is near Bingen, right on the water. We had a guide there. He assured us that there were no Germans in town. But as we got downtown, there was a railroad track there and we could see across the Rhine. There was another railroad track on the east bank, and we could see Germans over there, and they could see us.

    We flushed out the town; we didn’t find any soldiers. They had all gone across as this guy had told us, and we occupied the town and stayed overnight. I remember sleeping between white sheets with dirty old muddy shoes, but it was kind of a neat thing to lay down in some white sheets. Still, we didn’t dare take our shoes off. If you were attacked and were in a state of undress, you were in bad trouble. From January until March the 12th I never had my shoes off. I never had a shower. Never had a bath.

    In 1964, I went back for the first time to visit. I took my wife along, and we went back into this little town of Treftinghausen. We were walking along, and I was trying to point out that somewhere along here is where we slept overnight. And here was a guy and his wife just leaning out the window. It was a sunny day in July, and they were standing at the window, with the veranda open, and I said in kind of halfway German, "Good day. How are you?"

    And he spoke back in English.

    I said, "Oh, you speak English?"

    "A little bit." Then he said, "Who are you?"

    I said, "We’re Americans. We’re touring here."

    We started talking, and I said, "I was in this town as an American soldier back in 1945."

    He said, "Is that right?"

    And I said, "We came into this town about the 16th or 17th of March."

    "No, you’re wrong," he said. "The Americans didn’t come here until April."

    I said, "No. We were here about the 16th of March."

    And he started arguing with me, kind of in a friendly way. Then he went and got his wife in the back room. He asked her in German, "Frau," he said, "when did the Americans come in this town?"

    She said, "Between the 15th and 17th of March."

    Well, he shut up. He knew he had made a mistake, and those people, they hate to be wrong. But we got acquainted that way, and he said, "Would you like to join me? We’ll go down to the pub and have a drink together." So we went down there and sat around the table.

    The first shower that I got was on March the 12th. And I didn’t get a bath until the third week in April.

    That one on March the 12th was just about a 10-minute shower in cold water. We were on a hillside and they said we’re all going to get showers and clean clothes, and I said, "Man, that sounds fantastic!" They took our platoon, just us 12 men. We entered this tent; it was on the side of a hill. We walked in and they said, "Take your clothes off." Well, from March the 12th back to January I had never had my clothes off, and the food we ate – we had mostly K rations but once in a while you would butcher something along the way that probably loosened up the bowels – I had had a good case of GIs for quite some time. I thought, "Uh-oh, I’m going to be embarrassed here." I’d found a German knife, it had one blade in it; if you opened it up it looked almost like a butcher knife, it was big and long. I opened it up, and I started to take my underwear off, and it wouldn’t come off, due to the GIs. So I had to use that knife and literally cut my underwear off my body.

    Then we got clean underwear, and that was all. We still had our other stuff. And I got clean socks.

    Then, about the middle or latter part of April, we were held up in a town overnight, and I had acquired lice by that time from sleeping in hay. We’d slept in so many places where the Germans had just left – in barns and in foxholes that had straw in them – that we acquired body lice. They don’t bother you until you get real quiet and warm, and because we wore long woolen underwear, it had a lot of thick seams on it. You’d lay there real still and try to be warm and you’d feel one start over here, and it would go clear across that seam of your underwear, clear across the back and over to the other side, and pretty soon one would start around the bottom part of your underwear and he’d go around your belly or around your back.

    A number of us were pretty lousy at that time. So we were held up in this town just long enough to get some fresh food, and one of the guys came and said, "Hey, we’re gonna have a delousing deal here." We went down to a barn, and it was at nighttime. They closed the doors and put a candle there and lit it; no electricity. There were two tubs of water, and there was a sergeant, there was a corporal, and I was a Pfc. So you know who got in the water first. The sergeant got in that water. He washed his body with soap and then he stepped in the next tub and rinsed off, and meanwhile, his clothes went into a big garment bag and they stuck a bomb in there that was supposed to delouse your clothes.

    Then the corporal took all his clothes off and stuck them in another sack and he put the bomb in there, and I was still waiting. The corporal crawled in that same tub of water and he washed off. Then he stepped into the next tub and rinsed off. And I thought – at home, when we were raised, on Saturday night you took a bath in a big tub in the kitchen. We didn’t have running water at that time. I thought, "Holy smokes, they don’t change the water here! My mom used to do that; she’d change the water for you."

    I got up there and the guy says, "Take your clothes off, Schmidt." So I undressed. I hesitated … I was the third guy to crawl in that tub. The water wasn’t even hot anymore. I washed off, and I kept thinking, there’s two guys been here scrubbing themselves in there and I’m getting that same water.

    I got in the other tub and rinsed off. That was kind of humiliating, but when you’re 19 I guess you don’t care too much, or you didn’t have time to think.

    Half an hour later they said, "Your clothes are okay now." We got nothing clean at that time. We put that same underwear right back on, the same socks, but supposedly our clothes were deloused.

    I had been given a care package and it had a wool scarf; we’d wrap it around our neck at night time, or pull it over that little cap that we wore, and we’d wrap the scarf around our ears to kind of keep your ears warm. The guy there told me to throw the scarf away, and I said, "No. That’s kept me warm."

    He said, "There’s a lot of lice in there, but I think we got ’em killed now."

    So I kept the scarf.

    It wasn’t long before I had lice again.

Contents           Vern Schmidt, Page 2

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