©2014, Aaron Elson
Vern Schmidt, of Fresno, Calif., is a veteran of the 90th Infantry Division.
On March 12, 1945, I had my first shower in six weeks, and I didn't get another one until the third week in April.
That one on March the 12th was just a 10-minute shower in cold water. We were on a hillside and they said we're all gonna get showers and clean clothes, and I said, "Man, that sounds fantastic." When they took our company, my platoon -- just us 12 men -- we entered this tent, it was on the side of a hill, we walked in there 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 loosened up the bowels, anyway, I had a good case of diarrhea for quite some time, and when they said "Take your clothes off," I thought, "Uh-oh, I'm gonna be embarrassed."
I'd found a German folding knife, it had one blade in it, when you opened it up it looked almost like a butcher knife. We took all our clothes off and I started to take my underwear off, and it wouldn't come off. So I had to use that knife and literally cut my underwear off my body.
After the shower, we got clean underwear and that was all. We still had to wear our other stuff. And I got clean socks. That was on the 12th of March. 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 a lot of barns and in foxholes that had straw in in them, so we acquired a lot of body lice. They don't bother you until you get real quiet and warm, and because we wore long woolen underwear that 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 on the left side and go clear across that seam of your underwear, clear across the back and over to the other side, and you'd start scratching, and pretty soon one would start around the bottom part of your underwear and he'd go around your belly or around the back, just enough to get you scratching in the other direction.
A number of us, we were pretty lousy at that time, and we were held up in this town just long enough to get some fresh food, and one of the guys came in and said, "Hey, we're gonna have a delousing deal here, we're gonna bring some tablets and delouse clothes."
Anybody that felt they had lice could come on down. So we went down to a barn. It was night time, they closed the doors and put a candle there and lit it, there was 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. And I watched him, 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, he took all his clothes off and he stuck them in another sack and he put the bomb in there, and I was still waiting, kind of anticipating. The corporal crawled in that same tub of water and he washed off, 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. So 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 of water. By that time it wasn't even hot anymore. I washed off, and I kept thinking, there's two guys been here scrubbing in there and I'm getting that same water. I got in the other tub and rinsed off. That was kind of humiliating, but anyway, 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 back on again, the same socks, but supposedly our clothes were deloused.
I had been given a care package that had a wool scarf, I'd wrap it around my neck at night time to keep warm, or pull it over that little cap we wore, I'd wrap it around my ears, and the guy told me to throw that away and I said, "No, that's kept me warm," and he said, "There's a lot of lice in there," but he said, "I think we got 'em killed now," so I kept the scarf.
It wasn't long before I had lice again.