Sunday, October 13, 2013

War is Hell

By Bob West
Nov. 7, 2002

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the allies - Great Britain, France and the United States, accepted a peace treaty from Germany ending World War I. The allies set aside this date in each of their countries as a day of remembrance for the men who died in the service of their countries. It became known in the USAas Armistice Day. WWI was labeled as the “The War To End All Wars”. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland igniting WWII, the biggest and worst war the world has ever known. Our country became involved in it a day after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This war was a two front war, the ETO (European Theater of Operation) and the islands in the South Pacific. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. The Japanese surrendered on September 2, the same year. On June 1, 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill designating November 11 as a day honoring the veterans of all the wars that our country participated in. This day is now known as Veterans Day.
Oh what a celebration we troops who had fought in the ETO had when we heard of the surrender of the Germans! We knew the war was only half over, the Japanese still had to be defeated. We all anticipated being sent to the Pacific at a later date, but for now, we were going to enjoy peace. My company landed on Utah Beach on the shores of France on D Day, June 6. We were tired of the sights and sounds of war. I never could understand why fate selected me out of a company of more than 250 men to be a witness to a wartime action after peace had come.
At the time of the surrender our company was in a major city in northern Germany. We had taken over a large building that at one time had been a grand hotel. It had suffered much damage from the Allied bombings but there were enough rooms left in fair condition for our company headquarters and billets for our troops. What furniture we could not find in the hotel we salvaged from other buildings in the area. We were living in the lap of luxury. A nearby park became soon became the most popular spot in the area for our company. I will always remember it as “My Garden of Eden”, an oasis nestled in an area surrounded by acres and acres of rubble caused from the bombings. A battery of anti-aircraft guns, and a bomb crater were the only signs of war in the park. Several days after the end of the war the no-fraternizing regulation was lifted. We could now legally pursue the many young, and not so young, Frauleins that roamed the area. What a girl hunting paradise!
In the center of the park a pond had been dredged. A beautiful stream flowing through the park was its water source. A cobblestone path that meandered through the park crossed over the dam that controlled the water level. I spent a lot of time walking along the stream or standing on top of the dam looking into the water. Quite often I would see large trout swimming near the bottom. In early morning and in the evenings fish could been seen rising to the surface catching insects. Oh how I longed for a fishing pole!
In the spring of 1999 I wrote an article for the Boomerang about Levi, a German Jew, that I befriended. Before the war he had been a professor of foreign languages in a large German university. The Gestapo raided the college and arrested all the Jewish teachers, students, communists and other political enemies of the Nazi party. The Jews were sent to the now infamous concentration camps where an estimated 6 million of them were slain, the rest were sent to slave labor camps, one of them a few miles from the city where we were living. The camp had been deserted by the Germans by the time the American troops arrived, with the prisoners free to leave. I found Levi and several other former prisoners living in a bombed out building about a mile from our quarters. I spent a lot of time with him. He was an outstanding gentleman. I was instrumental in getting him hired by the allies as an interpreter. I have a hunch he was used in this position during the Nuremberg Trials of the high-ranking Nazis officials.
One morning I decided to take a walk through the park before going to work as company clerk. I had hopes of seeing the big fish I had seen several days before. I saw no fish, but what I did see certainly altered my memories of this pond for the rest of my life. Floating, face down were two nude bodies wedged against the gate of the dam. I thought about ignoring them and continuing my walk. I changed my mind and headed for the company headquarters and reported what I had seen to my commanding officer. He ordered me to arm myself with my carbine and return to the site, guard it, and let no one near. It seemed like an eternity before a one-ton truck arrived with a captain and two enlisted men from the MPs. I had to help retrieve the bodies from their watery grave. This was the second time I had to perform this unpleasant job. The first corpse I had ever seen in my twenty years of life was when my company was wading from our landing craft toward Utah Beach. As I passed by one of the smaller landing crafts that had been damaged by artillery fire I glanced down and saw the body of an American soldier. I went into shock for a few moments, becoming violently sick. I recovered, and with the help of one of my buddies we moved the body to the beach. I never did get over the shock of seeing the bodies of victims of this terrible war, be they friend or foe. The first one was by far the worst, but when I saw the condition of the corpses in the pond I almost became sick again. Their throats had been slit, certain parts of their bodies mutilated, and there were signs they had been badly beaten and tortured before they were killed. I had to go to the MP headquarters to make a report. I was told that this was just one of several such actions they had investigated in the last several days. Who were the victims, and why had they been tortured before they were killed? The MP s had no idea. The next time I visited Levi I told him about these killings. He believed he had the answer. In the prison camp there were about a hundred inmates, both men and women, who had made a pact that if any of them survived the camp they would spend the rest of their lives hunting down the guards and personnel who had made their lives a living hell. They wanted revenge. There was no doubt in his mind that these people were responsible for these acts.
We lived in this city for over two months. One morning a messenger from battalion headquarters arrived at my office and told me this story that had just happened to him. He had been stopped by the MPs at a roadblock, given an armband, a carbine and was told he was now an MP and was going to help settle an incident. He and about thirty other “recruited” GIs marched about three blocks to a large church courtyard where fifty or sixty men and women had gathered. They were in a festive mood with lots of singing and dancing. When they saw the armed troops advancing toward them they began cheering and pumped their fists in the air shouting USAUSAUSA! They slowly retreated, then disappeared into the rubble of the bombed out buildings. As the Americans turned to leave they saw two nude bodies hanging by their ankles from either end of the cross bar of a large cross at the exit of the courtyard. While they were cutting the bodies down it was discovered one was a female. They had been killed and tortured in the same manner of the ones I had discovered several weeks before. 
A few years after I was discharged I was reading a book about concentration, prisoner of war and labor camps. One chapter was about the commandant of a large slave labor camp. He and his mistress had contests to see who could come up with the worst torture and the slowest and most painful way to execute prisoners. The end of this chapter described the execution of these two people almost exactly the way the driver told me.
About 2200 hours (10:00 PM) December 24, 1945 I received the best Christmas present of my life. I boarded a converted liberty ship in BremerhavenGermany, the first step in returning home and civilian life. I was discharged at Fort LewisWashington almost three years to the day from when I was sworn in. Army recruiters had set up a desk trying to get all of us to join the army reserves.
I laughed at them. One war in a lifetime is enough.

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