November 11, 2007

I share this personal World War II experience in response to an invitation to do so by Ken Burns creator of The War on PBS.

On this 2007 Veterans’ Day I want to salute my two closest comrades in World War II, Bill Irwin and Dwight Holmes. They were my fellow soldiers who did not survive the horror of combat. Both were killed in Germany in 1945.

Bill and Dwight have lived in my nightly prayers for more than six decades. The three of us first met in a special service section of the Army called the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). It was designed to take college students in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) to be trained as engineers, chemical warfare specialists and other skills critical to the progress of the war. We were assigned to basic training at Ft. McClelland in Anniston, Alabama and later sent to Alabama Polytechnic Institute now Auburn University to study combat engineering. As the need for these specialties arose and our training warranted, we were to be commissioned second lieutenants and assigned to special units.

Our wartime leaders were confident in 1944 that the war would soon be over and that ASTP was no longer needed. There was, however, a great shortage of combat infantry replacements. We were sent to the newly created 106th Infantry Division at Camp Atterbury in Franklin, Indiana. (The division was destroyed and decommissioned later in the Battle of the Bulge.) There was an announcement that they would accept volunteers to go overseas to combat and we three accepted.

We were sent to Fort Meade in Maryland near Baltimore. All three of us visited Dwight’s family in Baltimore. It was an occasion to celebrate Dwight’s birthday and his gift was a brand-new wallet. He gave me his old one. I had this wallet through the rest of my military service and carried it in civilian life as my sole war souvenir.

We three had a weekend pass to New York City and I went into St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. In that magnificent, almost empty church I prayed for the three of us. My main prayer was for myself that I would serve with honor. For reasons of military secrecy we were not told our destination. However, while in New York we met three girls. They told us we were going to be sailing to England on the Queen Elizabeth leaving on Thursday. They were right. We did sail for England on Thursday on the Queen Elizabeth the largest ship in the world. (So much for military secrecy!)

Crossing on the Queen Elizabeth is a long story in itself. There were 15,000 soldiers on board. We were escorted by destroyers out of New York Harbor and had destroyers as we approached our destination the harbor of Greenock, Scotland. For the four and a half day voyage over we were not escorted and had a constant pattern of zigzagging to avoid German submarines.

We were sent to training at the infantry replacement center called a “Repo Depo” at Litchfield, England to be assigned to a combat unit. After several weeks each of our names suddenly appeared on three separate postings. Dwight and I were posted to separate units of the “Big Red One” First Infantry. Bill was dispatched to the 28th Infantry Division. We three never again met in this life.

I was, however, with Bill one more time. After the war his mother asked that Bill’s remains be returned to his home in Shelby, Ohio. I attended the ceremony and in one of the most emotional moments in my life had the honor of presenting the American flag to Mrs. Irwin.

Almost all the writing about war is from or by generals and admirals. Until recently there was very little about common soldiers and what we did or thought. We were not allowed to keep diaries or even tell where we were. My experience is that the memory of the brutality of infantry combat is tightly packed deep inside me. Only rarely does it come to my consciousness and never have I written about it. As the only survivor of the three of us I have tried through thought and prayer to share my life with Bill and Dwight. I am happy to publicly salute these two men whom I will always love.

I invite a dialogue pro and con and welcome your ideas.

Bernie Hillenbrand
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November 1, 2007

“War is at best barbarism… it is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood , more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” General William Tecumseh Sherman

As the years have passed since the end of World War II there has been less and less public interest. However recently there have been pleas for soldiers to tell their war stories. In response, this is a very brief summary of my three years in the Army from June 10, 1943-June 24, 1946. So I am starting my blog to illustrate the basis for my hatred of the war in Iraq.

My experience in combat war had a dramatic opening when a man was killed at my feet and a dramatic ending when a friend was killed on top of my back. Combat began for me in midsummer 1944 off France’s Omaha Beach at about the time of the Normandy breakout. I had trained with the 106th Infantry Division, the Golden Lion. With two close friends Bill Irwin and Dwight Holmes we left the division when we volunteered to go overseas. We were separated in the Replacement Depot in England and they were both killed later. As an infantry replacement I disembarked from Plymouth, England on a troopship, the former Belgium luxury liner Leopoldville. When it came my turn to climb down a rope ladder from the troopship into a small Landing Craft Infantry (LCI), I recognized the brass shoulder bars of a second lieutenant immediately below me. Just above me a very nervous soldier was impatiently stepping on my fingers. Two sailors were holding the bottom of the rope as an anchor just inside the craft.

With no warning a huge wave raised the LCI high and crashed it against the troopship literally inches from my feet. . There was a thunderous noise as the LCI smashed against the side of the ship. It instantly crushed the lieutenant to death and he fell into the sea between the two vessels. The LCI moved down with the receding wave which had jerked the rope from the hands of the sailors. In an instant I had to decide to hang on to the rope ladder and risk a second LCI crash against the Leopoldville or to a jump into the LCI. I decided to jump just as the LCI hit bottom and started to rise with the next wave. I pushed against the side of the ship with all my strength; hurtled over the top of the stunned sailors and crashed face first into the deck of the LCI. I had many bruises and my boots were covered with the lieutenant’s blood.

I served proudly as a replacement rifleman in the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One) in G Company 18th Regiment. We saw some action in Belgium and a major battle in the assault and capture of the city of Aachen, Germany. We then moved into the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest the longest continuous and bloodiest infantry engagement in US military history. The battle is inscribed on the WWII War Memorial. There were 33,000 American casualties.

It is nearly impossible to describe the horrors of face to face infantry combat particularly when you have spent a lifetime trying to erase these images from your mind. For days and even months on end there is the constant threat of death from artillery, rifles, machine guns, mortars, land mines, booby traps, tanks and air attacks. Your home is a fox hole or the basement of a bombed out building. There is the hell of terrible heat or freezing cold. All around there is the sight and stench of death and destruction. . Terrible fear is a constant. My only painkiller was a fatigue so intense that it dulled my senses. I was sustained by a profound religious belief. My very life depended upon my comrades and I quickly formed a unique and intense bond.

My combat war ended at age 19 on the morning of November 23, 1944 while alone on an antitank outpost in the Hurtgen Forest just outside Eschweiler, Germany. I was knocked unconscious by a mortar shell and when I came to I discovered that I was blasted out of my shallow foxhole. I had several shrapnel wounds the most serious of which tore my left hand which was unrecognizable and useless.

The experience of just escaping death by inches then repeated itself. As I staggered back through the snow to the aid station there was a terrific German artillery barrage. I dove for cover into a slight indentation in a snow bank just as Henry Kolasa our company runner jumped in on top of me. A shell hit in the tree above us and the downward blast killed him instantly.

Aside from these two immediate brushes with death and many others in battle I had two major misses. My troopship the Leopoldville was just off the French Coast on Christmas Eve 1944 when she was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. Nearly 400 American soldiers drowned. On December 17, 1944 my 106th Infantry Division, was destroyed on the Belgium border in the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler hurled more than 250,000 veterans on the inexperienced, thinly spread and newly arrived 106th. In a single day 8,700 of my former comrades were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The division losses were so devastating it was decommissioned. Much later when I returned home as a patient on the hospital ship Margaret Slanger it lost a propeller in a terrible North Atlantic storm requiring that several hundred sick and wounded go to the lifeboat decks. We were saved when the storm subsided and we arrived safely in Brooklyn, N.Y. on a single screw.

My wounds were not life threatening. I did however spend one and half years in seven hospitals in Europe and the U.S. undergoing surgeries and therapy to rebuild my hand. I was discharged on June 24, 1946. I am very proud of my three battle stars and a Purple Heart. It is an honor to wear my Combat Infantry Badge and my Big Red One First Infantry Division shoulder patch.

I often think that I have lived in some manner as surrogate for my honored comrades who gave their lives.

I have also served the U.S. Army as an ordained United Methodist minister at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home.

I invite a dialogue pro and con and welcome your ideas.

Bernie Hillenbrand
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