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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