The Oral History Store

Kindle eBooks










Aaron's Blog


smallfolliescover.jpg (20704 bytes)

Follies of a Navy Chaplain

tftm2 cover

Tanks for the Memories

young kids cover

They were all young kids

smalllovecompanycover.jpg (14674 bytes)

Love Company

A Mile in Their Shoes

A Mile in Their Shoes

nine lives

Nine Lives

Related web sites:

©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

Vern Schmidt

Page 2

    After crossing the Rhine, the first large town we attacked was Mainz. We approached it by the suburbs, and slowly came into town. We were in an apple orchard, and coming off of a farm. The ground was sandy, which made it nice that we didn’t have to dig. But we were coming in this apple orchard and we could see that we were approaching a village because there were houses here and there. And we barely got in this orchard – of course artillery shells were going over back and forth, both ours and theirs – and all of a sudden we got opened up on with machine gun and small arms fire, and we all hit the dirt. I never was so happy to find a furrow that you could actually lay in. Then we stood again because we knew we had to take that perimeter of homes. And before we got up into a marching fire, an SS trooper came out of one of the houses and he came running toward us, and one of our guys fired on him. I don’t know whether he was hit but he lost his balance and fell, and he lost his machine pistol. And one of the guys to my right – it could have been my sergeant – said, "Shoot the bastard!"

    There were four or five guys who were closer to him than I was, and the sergeant kept yelling, "Shoot that guy! Shoot that guy!" And that SS guy stood up and cursed us, "Amerikanisch swine!" And to just prove how difficult it is to shoot someone in cold blood when you see their eyes – it takes a lot of guts. I told you about shooting at this guy in the woods, I didn’t see him other than his body. But this guy we were close enough you could see his eyes. And finally one guy just went and took him prisoner, and he cursed us again. I couldn’t believe a guy could be so close to death and still be defiant and curse you like that. But there were several SS, and they were keeping the fire coming to us from the regular German GIs on the edge of town. My sergeant was to the left of me in this furrow, and he took a sniper shot – he was laying prone in this furrow and the bullet entered in his left cheek and went right straight through it.

    We went into a series of little buildings; they looked like chicken coops, and the roar of the artillery barrage was getting so loud – ours you could hear whistling over, and theirs were arcing and landing behind us – and we kept moving forward hoping we’d get out of their fire. In this building which I called the chicken coop 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."

    We got out of there and we went into marching fire, just leveling our M-1 about hip-height and firing to more or less harass them to keep them down. We got into the first row of houses, and my B.A.R. guy – a big, tall guy – was right alongside me and we started flushing out this house. We didn’t see anything on the first floor, so we went upstairs. And as we came up to the second floor and went to the first window and looked out, right across – probably no more than 20 feet away – was another house, and in the second-story window right across from us were two big Germans looking right at us. The first thing we saw them do was duck, and I figured they probably thought, "These guys don’t know we’re here." So they went downstairs apparently and came around and came out through a cellar and were going to crawl into the cellar of our house. And this B.A.R. guy and I, we leaned out the window, and he said, "Watch me, Smitty." And he laid that B.A.R. right out the window there and he got both of them. They never made it to our building, but I swear, had he not gotten them they’d have come in there and gotten us. You hate to say you were out killing anybody but one thing we were taught at our Infantry Replacement Training Center was you either kill or you be killed.

    The guys that trained us, at Camp Roberts, Illinois, were Rangers and guys that had come home from Normandy. They said, "Do you want to come home in a box? If you do, then don’t pay any attention to what we’re telling you." This B.A.R. man knew exactly what to do. These guys came out of there and he just pointed that B.A.R. down, and twenty rounds come out of there in about three seconds.

    It took us all day to take that city of Mainz, and by dusk – there were three of us – we were going down one street and we flushed out 54 Germans. They became our POWs. They were all just plain GIs; there were no SS. We talked to them. They said, "The SS kept us up here until they knew they could get out, and then they left."

    We had one guy, back in the Siegfried Line, he didn’t believe in prisoners. He wore a tanker’s cap. We called him Red because he had a very pronounced red mustache, and he was always chewing tobacco; you’d see it drip out the side of his mouth. He was an unkempt looking guy, especially when that beard would grow; he had a red beard and when that tobacco juice went down he had two long brown lines. They’d get a prisoner and he’d say, "Give him to me." And he’d march him off. You’d hear him yell at the prisoner. Then you’d hear a couple of rounds go off and he’d come back and say, "I got rid of him." That was contrary to the Geneva Convention, but a few of those guys had brothers or maybe an uncle or a close relative that had been killed either in the time of the Bulge or in Normandy, in a brutal way. The 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion that was with us, one of the tank commanders had lost a brother in Italy, and he’d lost a sister in the nurse corps, and he didn’t have any time for the Germans. He said, "You shoot first and ask your questions later." If we were ever attacked coming into a town, he’d just bring one of those tank destroyers up there, and he’d sit right up on the turret with that .50 and blast away and just take a house at a time and put a shell in it. And he said, "I’m getting revenge for my brother and my sister." That might not have been right, but he might have saved a lot of lives, too. You know, war is hell, and who’s to say? My brother was a POW of the Germans. He came out 98 pounds, a big 6-foot-1 guy like myself; he didn’t get skinny eating steak every day. And he helped bury a lot of guys in his POW camp.

    He was captured in Hatten, which is a little town near Strasbourg. He was with the 42nd Rainbow Division. There’s a French lady in the town of Hatten, she was just a young girl, she has written a book about this fight, and it is outstanding. My brother has met her. They brought her to the States and she spoke at one of their reunions. Of course the 45th has written several articles on that winter, there’s an author named Bucher. He tells more of the capture of Dachau. The 42nd and the 45th and the 442nd Japanese, that regimental combat team, all three of those outfits apparently participated in the liberation of Dachau. However, the 45th claims that they were the first ones. In ’93 we were there; there’s a bronze plaque on the wall mentioning the 42nd.

    Dachau was large enough, I’m sure, that it had several gates, and was probably approached from several angles. This guy that writes the story about the 45th Thunderbird Division tells it from his point of view and pretty well says that he was under orders from Eisenhower to specifically take Dachau. Now the 442nd, which was a Japanese regimental combat team – the ones in "Go for Broke," I went to one of their original meetings in Fresno where they’re so predominant, that’s where many of them live today – they say they shot the lock off the gate. So all three are actually claiming in various books that they liberated Dachau. And it’s conceivable that all three of them could be right. This guy that writes the one about the 45th says the people were ordered to allow no one inside except their people. And my brother remembers the commanding general from the 42nd, his name was General Linden, he came up in his jeep, and this corporal of the 45th said, "Sir, you can’t go in."

    And he said, "What do you mean?"

    He says, "I have orders to allow no one to go inside other than who’s inside now."

    General Linden reached to his holster and said, "By God, you’re gonna let me in."

    And this corporal lifted his M-1 and said, "You ain’t going in or you’re going in dead."

    And General Linden I guess asked his name; he said, "I’ll have you court-martialed."

    Anyway, they were politicians, but I think they got together later and kind of squared the thing away. But it’s pretty vivid reading in that 45th book telling about this incident. So I passed it on to my brother. I said, "I thought you guys went in there and he says you didn’t." But yet there’s a plaque there stating that they participated in the initial deal.

    We liberated Flossenburg, the leading elements of my division. A reconnaissance unit actually liberated my brother on Easter Sunday of 1945; he was in Bad Orb. I had known he was a POW for about two weeks; I had been under the impression he was missing in action because that’s all the information that was fed to me, so I didn’t really know he was even in that particular POW cage until he got home and wrote back to me and we talked about dates and places that we were involved in.

    He was captured in January of 1945. So in roughly four months he went down to 98 pounds.

    He tells a story; there was a water trough outside and of course the winter being so cold it was frozen, and he said that they’d chip ice there and get a chunk of ice and then put it in their helmet and heat it inside for shaving or washing. He said, "We’d even melt it and drink it." And he said, "One day, we noticed that the water was thawing. When it thawed, there was a Russian soldier who had frozen to death laying in that trough."

    He said, "I guess that’s why that water tasted kind of bad." But you know, we had those halizone tablets, and we’d drink water out of the streams all the time and then put halizone tablets in. You’d walk upstream a ways and here were several horses that were used in pulling artillery pieces laying there with their legs stiff, probably shot for several days, or weeks, who knows, from aircraft probably. Bloated. It was just survival; if you didn’t know it was there you didn’t worry about it. Hell, we fished with hand grenades. You’d see a stream with fish in there, you’d just toss a hand grenade in and that sucker would go off underwater, and the fish would come right to the top.

    The day after the war in Europe ended – we were in Czechoslovakia – a couple of us went and found a swimming hole, and we just peeled all our clothes off – we didn’t have any inhibitions – we all jumped in this water, and a couple of gals came walking down there. Well, we thought, we’ll just go out a little bit farther out where they can’t see us. But you know, they crawled in too; it didn’t matter to them.

    The next day we found an irrigation ditch; let’s just go to the kitchen and get us a bar of soap, and we’ll really scrub down. We took our underwear, we stripped down naked, went in this irrigation ditch, lathered up with soap – man, it felt so good just to watch soap ooze through your fingers, and to wash your hair again; your hair was just stiff and matted, and it just felt good to take a bar of soap and wash your head.

    We’re sitting there, three of us guys on the bank here stark naked, and we had meanwhile taken our underwear and we’d gone in the ditch. We’d scrub the soap on to hopefully kill the lice, so we had laid our underwear along the bank, and while we were halfway through washing, I thought, "I’ll look and see if there are any more lice." I turned the seam of my flannel underwear inside out – man, there were six or seven of them. So we sat there and we cracked them with our fingernails. We sat there for hours just killing lice.

    We didn’t get rid of them all until we could actually get into a routine where we could bathe on a halfway normal basis, maybe once or twice a week. And then finally they brought us new clothes – we used to get clothes I’m sure that came off of dead guys or people who went back home who were wounded. A truck would stop by our headquarters just loaded with clothes. We’d crawl up on the pile and look through it until we found our size.

    I grew up in and around Fresno. Worked on a farm during my off time from school. My father was a farmer by trade, and he was also a farm labor contractor.

    My wife came to California and could relive the story of "The Grapes of Wrath." Her parents had been farmers in Texas and Oklahoma during the dust storms. They were cattle farmers, and the sand – I can’t believe this but she tells me and I believe her – the sand that drifted back and forth got into the lungs of the cows to where they couldn’t even breathe, and they’d just either die a slow death, or they killed them, and they just abandoned their farm. At that time they had five children, it was 1935, and they had a two-wheel trailer and a ’29 Chevrolet car. They loaded everything up including two dogs, and the trailer was loaded with all their earthly possessions. They had two big trunks – they didn’t have a mattress on top like you saw in the picture – and it took them nine days to get to California. She just laid her mother to rest last week, and we of course told this story at the funeral, how they came to California. They left on my wife’s birthday, which was August the 1st, and got there on her mother’s birthday, which was August the 9th. Her father had a dollar and 37 cents in his pocket when he got there. Kind of like some of the people we meet here from overseas; they say, "I came to America because I was sponsored here" – well, they weren’t exactly sponsored to California but somebody knew them out there. And they drove to their place and said, "Here we are," and they said, "Well, you go inside, we have the table already set," and here this family of five kids, and mother and dad, seven of them, sat them all around the table, and they said grace, had their meal, and my father-in-law said, "We’ll sleep someplace here on the floor and tomorrow we’ll go out and find a job." And he did. And he knew it was going to take something to find a house, so he went to a distant relative and said, "I’d like to borrow fifteen dollars so I can get in a house. I’ll pay you back." And he put most of the kids to work – my wife was nine years old at the time, and they went on up to 14, her oldest brother – they all went to work in the fields picking grapes and making a few bucks. He comes back to this guy and says, "Here’s your fifteen bucks," paid him back in full. And he never lacked a day for aggressively looking for work. There was no welfare system. The people had a will to work and enough moxie to say, "I know how to work. I have to earn money for my family." And they did it. But theirs was just one of thousands and thousands of families that came. We lived on the edge of town. My dad, as I said, was a farm labor contractor. We had people pull in there that would work for my dad and they said, "Can we move our little house trailer in on your yard until we can find a permanent place?" And he’d say, "Yeah, park it over there, and connect the garden hose up there," so they’d have water. They’d run an electric cord over to the house, lay a bare wire across the back yard for their electricity. But these people, they wanted to work, and some today became wealthy by their hands and education. Our town was built around those kinds of people.

    I graduated from high school in 1943 when I was barely 17 years old. We had an air base in Fresno called Hammer Field, and I was all set to enlist in the service. My brother enlisted in the Air Corps and I figured I could too, so I went to the enlistment board and said I want to become a pilot.

    They said, "You’ve got to fill out these papers." So I filled out a questionnaire, and took an oral test, asking you about your skills and other kinds of questions. Then I took a physical. Passed all three, and they said, "We’ll notify you."

    At that time all the training was done in cycles; they were called classes, and they’d rotate. And I didn’t hear for a while. Finally I got a letter that said that at the present time they were not scheduling any training because as casualties went up and down in the Air Force, that’s how they chose their cycles. They said, "We suggest that you wait for the draft, or we’ll call you."

    They didn’t call me, so I was drafted, and I didn’t have much choice. I didn’t want to go in the Navy. I hated water. And I didn’t like being on a ship. I wanted to be able to put my feet on solid ground. So the Army was it.

    We went to Presidio Monterrey, which was a permanent base. They wanted some volunteers who knew how to drive. I’d driven a truck for my dad that held fruit and stuff, so I said, "Yeah."

    He said, "Step forward." And he took me down to the old man’s stable; he had his horses down there, and they gave me a wheelbarrow and said, "Here, drive this." So I’m shoveling manure, the old man comes by there, here I’m in fatigues, he comes in the stable and I thought, "Let’s see now, do I put this scoop shovel down and salute him?" If you’re on a work detail there’s supposed to be somebody saluting for you; you’re supposed to keep working. And I didn’t know what to do.

    But I never finished basic. The Ardennes was beginning to take place, and casualties were mounting. I was in my 12th week of basic, and they just came to us in the nighttime and said, "Gather up your stuff; we’re going into the base. You’re all getting tickets tomorrow, bus tickets, train tickets, a delay en route, and you’re on your way to an overseas assignment." So in 30 days I was on the front lines in Germany.

    I went over on the Queen Mary. It took six days to get across. Then down to Southampton. Then we went across the English Channel on a ship to Le Havre. And then three days and two nights riding the 40 and 8s up to Metz. There they issued us rifles and ammunition, put us on a truck, took us up through Luxembourg and on into Belgium, and that’s where I joined the 90th, right in the Siegfried Line.

    We got off the truck and they led us over to a railroad siding and said, "You, you, and you, follow this man." He took us into the town of Habscheid, and we went into a church – the top of the church was all blown off – and he said, "You guys stay here until it gets dark."

    After it got dark a runner came up, and three of us – one of them I had trained with at Camp Roberts, and the other fellow had come from Alaska; he had been in the antiaircraft up there, he wore real heavy glasses, like those Coke bottles, and he complained that he couldn’t see. When it got dark it was just like he was blind. So this runner came down to get us and said, "You’d better stay close to me because it’s dark and we’re going up to a pillbox." And this guy from Alaska, his name was Wigten, he said, "Smitty, I can’t see anything."

    I said, "Just grab on the back of my belt and hang on." So he held onto my belt and this runner took us down into the pillbox, and we walked probably two blocks, and it was dark, I mean dark. We came into this pillbox – all the ventilation had been knocked out; you could just see the water coming down on the cement sides. And he took us over to meet this gentleman. He said, "This is Sergeant Mueller. He’s in charge." And that was the highest ranking guy there; he was a staff sergeant.

    And we were all fresh. We had lots of stuff on, and we were carrying a whole bunch of things. We had everything – blankets, overcoat, raincoat, overshoes. I had a whole carton of Dentine chewing gum, and a writing tablet and a pen and pictures. And he kind of oriented us a little bit. He said, "Fellas, you’re part of the squad here, get acquainted. These are all your buddies."

    Then he said, "Once you know where you are just find a place to sleep. We’ll jump off in the morning."

    Now, I didn’t know what that meant, "jump off." At five or six o’clock, he woke us all up and said, "Get outside here," and we all got out and carried all our stuff. I’d left the gum, the pictures, and my toothbrush inside. I said, "Sergeant, are we coming back here tonight so I can pick up this stuff?"

    He said, "Not unless they’re carrying you back."

    I said, "You mean, we’re not living here?"

    He said, "No, that was last night."

    And I can’t believe how naive I was. I said, "Would you give me just a minute?"

    He said, "Hurry up."

    So I went back in, and I thought, "Let’s see. I want my fountain pen." And I’d just become engaged to my wife and I have her picture, a five by seven, I’ve got to have that. And I grabbed the toothbrush. And that was about it. Stuffed them inside my field jacket, and came back out. And I said, "You’re sure we’re not coming back here tonight?"

    And he said, "Not unless them Krauts push us back." So I left a carton of Dentine gum for somebody.

    The first day we went off and attacked, but it was more or less a mopping-up exercise. During the day there was tank movement and I thought, "Boy, if you get behind one of these things, you’ve got good protection!"

    I could feel that warm exhaust coming off, that felt good. I could smell that diesel, it reminded me of home. I said, "Man, that feels good."

    And the sergeant hollered, "Hey, Schmidt! Get away from that tank! That thing draws fire. The Krauts will zero in on it and blow you to pieces."

    It took a couple of days to learn that you didn’t hang around them. But you always liked to have those tankers; they were so good to us, gave us food. They got 10-in-1 rations, they ate pretty good, because they could carry everything with them.

    My first day I was so scared. I had a carbine. I had trained as a cannoneer. At Metz I said, "I’m a cannoneer, so I get a carbine." Everybody else had an M-1. Here we are going down the road and my sergeant said, "Where’d you get that popgun?"

    I said, "I got it in Metz."

    He said, "You’d better trade that off for an M-1, or something that you can depend on."

    And I said, "What’s wrong with this?"

    He said, "That’s a popgun. Get rid of that thing." So I traded with the guy that was carrying the bazooka or one carrying the machine gun. He gave me his M-1 and I gave him my carbine, and from then on I carried the M-1. It was more reliable, and you could get it pretty full of dirt and it would still fire.

    I never got wounded. In Mainz I got shot in the shoe; it merely grazed the heel and lifted me off the ground Another time, I was a second scout in the woods and next to me was my sergeant, he was the third man in line, and there was a sniper up there. We found this out later – he let us two scouts go – he was smart, he knew that we were probably scouts and the next one would probably be a sergeant or someone in charge – and he nailed him there.

    I visited his grave in France. And the two fellows that I walked up to that pillbox with that first night – on the19th of February, right near the same area; we had only covered a few kilometers a day – we were up on a ballfield and took direct 88 treebursts, and both these two guys, the one with the heavy glasses, who couldn’t see, he and Roper, the fellow I trained with at Camp Roberts, both were cut to pieces, almost like a sieve. One was almost decapitated from this treeburst. The sergeant just about a day before had given me the little radio to carry and he said, "You stay with me, wherever I go." He dove in a hole and he said, "Schmidt, get in this hole with me!" I went in this hole and these three other guys, just like that, were killed instantly.

    I made it clear into Czechoslovakia without being wounded. I credit a lot of that to my father; he was a very devout Christian. Being a farmer, he didn’t punch a clock but he worked. He’d spend hours of the day in his work, saying my brother’s name and my name in prayer. He believed in God, and I did, too. I still do. But he had a fervor. He would read the Scripture, the 91st Psalm, a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand on the right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee. He stood on that prophecy.

    On my trip to Germany in 1993, we visited a little home in the Siegfried Line where my squad had stayed for three days while holding a bridge over the Prum River.

    We knocked on the door, and this couple came to the door. I said, "I was in this house in 1945," and the woman said, "You were an American soldier?"

    I said, "Yes." We came on in. They were overwhelmed that someone would come back and visit. And she said, "Can I tell you a brief story that took place, that you may not have put together?"

    She said, "When you came in" – our squad had a big, tall Texan as a captain; I can't remember his name, but it might have been Webster. When we’d go into a building we’d generally throw a grenade in to clear the place out until we knew it was safe.

    Somehow, this big tall Texan walked in, and he saw a cellar. He walked down to the cellar with his M-1, and it was dark. It was a square cellar. He shined his light, and there were 24 civilians sitting on the dirt floor and their eyes were wide, wondering, "What’s this guy going to do?" And then he saw that on the wall opposite him was a crucifix. He said, "Are you Catholic?"

    And the lady who we met when we returned, her father said, "Ja, Ich bin Catolisch." And it was like it was a magic word. The GI dropped his rifle, he reached into his pocket, and he pulled out a rosary, and he said, "I’m Catholic, too." And for three days, the people in this cellar were taken care of. We gave them food, we took care of their wounds, and reminiscing back almost fifty years, this lady put her arms around us and hugged both my wife and myself, and said, "You know, doesn’t this do wonderful things in our life? It brings us together. Once we were enemies, and now we are friends."

- - - -

Contents           Patsy Giacchi

Order "9 Lives" on Amazon.com