Letters to Aunt MabelThe following are a collection of letters from Bill Allen to his Aunt Mabel Allen.
January 30, 1944
I think that I have about time to cover this page before lights go out and I turn in for a good night’s rest to begin a new week.
This has been by far the most peaceful day that I have had in Georgia. The 70 degree sunshine has lured enough of the men away from the barracks so that those of us who wanted to could lie around and read and write the whole day long. I finally got into “Good Night, Sweet Prince” and John Barrymore took me out of this atmosphere for two exciting hours. Then tonight I attended the first really good movie that I have seen in many weeks.
I read Dorothy Thompson’s article on “Lifeboat” today in the Atlanta paper before seeing the show tonight. The picture may have been rather uncomplimentary to the Americans in the boat, but I somehow feel as if that’s the way the situation stands much as we hate to admit it. The picture certainly doesn’t answer the question as to what we are going to do with the Germans, but then who can? Anyway, it’s a thrilling production from the directors standpoint, and I was certainly engrossed in it for two pleasant hours.
I laid “G.N.S.P.” down to write, and a moment ago one of the men came over and asked if he could borrow my book. I consented, and just noticed that it’s being used as a support for some letter writing activity.
You needn’t be worried about my maintaining my perspective in this life. I think that I can also keep my aesthetic distance from much that goes on around. And don’t get the impression that I’m being snobbish. I find it much easier to get along with the group and maintain certain standards than I had planned on. However, it is as you suggested – the leveling off process is a downward movement, and the most intelligent men have to make the most adjustment in order to keep peace in the family.
I find that it’s becoming much easier to keep my mouth shut and say “Yes, sir”. Of course, from the first I did keep still, but there was always the inward turmoil that affected my digestion.
Now it’s much easier to laugh at these twenty year old non-coms who delight in inflicting physical and mental punishment over men twice their age who have been used to making their own decisions for many years.
I think that I’m being objective when I say that the leadership in this particular company is definitely mediocre. Of our fifty officer-instructors I would say that ten percent are very superior, fifty percent are adequate, and the rest are intellectual orphans. Too many of them are former college athletes who are so impressed with the way that they look in their uniform. They also delight in reaming men out for not saluting them “in the proper manner”.
We’ve started to work in earnest with our machine guns, and I find it the most interesting thing that I have done even though the damn things do break my back.
Seven of our ten weeks of basic here are gone. A lot has happened and we’ll be glad to see the other ten go; although we don’t expect it to move into anything any easier.
We’re certainly not training with broomsticks. We’ve pulled the trigger on practically every type of weapon but a water pistol and we’re using live ammunition. I’ll never forget the sensation of machine gun bullets whizzing by my ears as I crawled through the barbed wire of the infiltration course.
The order came through recently that all our big marches were to be taken at night in as much as most troop movements are done at night. So we lose much sleep as we go on our “night problems” under simulated battle conditions.
I fear that it will take more than an operation to keep me off the boat and, oddly enough, I wouldn’t take a way out if I could find one. From this point on out it’s a fighting man’s war.
I’m still looking for the South of the famous friend chicken, beautiful women, and mint juleps. I haven’t seen any of either as yet. Can it be that all my education has misled me?
P.S. The extra words in this letter are due to that interruption caused by men crawling into beds all around and wanting to know, “Has anybody got anything to eat?”
% Postmaster, N.Y.
Just a very few lines to let you know that I’m still around.
All I know these days is what the censor tells me, and we’ve been officially informed that we’ve moved from one spot on the East coast to another spot on the East coast and may expect to move again in the not-to-distant future.
The officers of our unit are working about thirty hours a day these days, but all the lowly private (and that’s me!) has to do is say, “Here, sir”, or “yes, sir!” at the proper time. It’s true that we just got into a comfortable position when the sergeant decides that we must go and stand in a line someplace, but I can put up with that for awhile.
We wait in line one day to get some clothing or equipment and then fall out the next morning to turn it back again; but it keeps us occupied and very, very confused which seem to be the two objectives at this point. And then, too, our medics are always with us. So far, we’ve had just about everything but a pregnancy test. They are so careful of our welfare that they give us an exam for venereal disease before boarding a train and then again as soon as we got off of it.
But the food is the best army chow that I’ve found yet and I’m seeing some entertaining movies. Maybe the atmosphere has changed my tastes, but I really got a bang out of “Up in Mable’s Room”. Practically every obvious gag was used and it was fun to anticipate what was coming next.
I called Henry and Tippy the other night. It was good to hear familiar voices again. They are anxiously awaiting your summer vacation.
Hallelujah! A sudden surprise pass carried me to New York last night. I arrived somewhat late and headed for the first electric sign which I saw. It was “Winged Victory”. I tried not to be influenced by the traditional infantry feeling about the air corps, but I still believe that as far as war drama is concerned Mr. Hart missed the boat. (Or should I say “plane”?) What I’ve seen of it hasn’t convinced me that everyone in the service is a keen witted heroic type and that all officers aren’t the kindly father of the bewildered youth in their command. However, I was thrilled clear to my lower rib by the staging which was something which I certainly haven’t seen before.
Was disappointed to discover that the “Stage Door Canteen” was closed for the month, but we took in a few of the other night spots. And prospects look good for my returning again. Georgia was never like this!
My major disappoint has been the discovery that my old unit has been completely scattered and I have an entire new group into which I have to fit.
Write when you can.
May 30, 1944
Your letter just arrived and for want of a better way to spend Memorial Eve I’ll jot you an answer against that time when life does not contain so many leisure hours. When I say “leisure”, however, I mean time that is not G.I.’d because there certainly haven’t been many idle hours these past two weeks. I’m fast using up that reserve supply of sleep that I acquired sometime ago. A day’s schedule might consist of an all day’s march and then the night in New York.
I could almost give you a complete eye witness report of the season on B’way. I’m being very extravagant and am seeing all the traditional “sights” as a traveler first class. Most of my evenings start out as near first row balcony as I can come. Theater tickets are difficult to get, but I haven’t done so bad with: Othello, Winged Victory, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, The Searching Wind, Ramshackle Inn, The Voice of the Turtle, and Carmen Jones.
If someone were to say that “Othello” was the greatest play and the greatest cast on any stage, I wouldn’t be the one to contradict the statement. I went with a young kid who was seeing his first stage play and he was just as excited as I. Ferrer gets my vote and Uta Hagen is a perfect Desdemona, Robson is terrific (If I must use all the stock adjectives). Never have I seen so many goose pimples as the audience broke out with during the murder scene. Jones’ lighting doesn’t do any harm to the atmosphere either.
Next comes “Carman Jones”. Such costumes! Such sets! Such singing! Carmen is a worker in a Southern parachute factory and her lovers are an M.P. Corporal and a prizefighter as you know. It’s the most expensive thing that I’ve ever seen on the stage and the money was well spent. The first scene (even unto the sky and military uniforms) is done in yellows and browns, the second in purple and blue, the third purple and green, the fourth in reds and black. Resplendent in word and the lyrics and plot sound as if the music, which is intact, was written for them.
The V. of the T. is all one is led to believe that it is. There’s a laugh in every line and gesture. The actors have as much fun as the audience and it’s a joy to watch them work. I can’t imagine anyone else in the parts even though the military uniform does sit rather awkwardly on Nugent’s round shoulders. And if one isn’t interested in the plot (But who couldn’t be!) there is the cleverest set I have ever seen. Steward Cheney has put a three room apartment on the stage – complete with running water and all the modern conveniences.
The Searching Wind is definitely not Lillian Hellman at her best. I think that she is trying to show what effect the confused twenties and thirties had upon the tangled private lives of those who were trying to formulate opinions. It all boils down to a meeting of the Court of Human Relations on the stage. I wasn’t impressed with Skinner. Dudley Digges is fine as a retired newspaperman, but as far as I’m concerned the play belongs to a boy by the name of Montgomery Clift who is the most sincere, natural, and freshest thing that I’ve seen in many moons.
“J and the Colonel” would not last very long with a poorer cast. But as is, it is funny. My lack of understanding of the whole thing may be due to my going to sleep during the second act. T’was a long march though and not the production which brought on the sleep. The one weak character is Annabella who covers up her talents with too many clothes.
Joan Pitts has her very funny moments in a play that amateurs will have lots of fun with.
This critical account rambled on more than I intended. But you may be interested. I’m not expecting much entertainment in the future so am storing up a little extra.
When we don’t get to go to town there are such things as Gertrude Nilsson, Bert Wheeler, and the Russian Ballet to entertain us here, for free. The Ballet played to standees and was received as well as any camp entertainment that I have attended. Of course, the majority of the audience was brass, but maybe that speaks well of the officers.
We’re staying here much longer than any of us expected and we’ve almost stopped guessing as to when the move will come.
I received a letter from Elizabeth, the other day. She seems to think that Robert may move on any minute. Orders have gone in for his promotion but she says that he hasn’t bought the leaves yet.
I hope that the folks have heard from Lee by this time. Mother sounded quite anxious in her last letter.
P.S. I still think that “Winged Victory” is ham covered up with much expensive dressing.
November 12, 1944
Somewhere in France
Mail service isn’t everything it could be these days, and by some queer quirk of fate your letter which I received tonight was the first news that I’ve had that Lee is home. My curiosity is being tormented until I get the particulars which no doubt will come in a few days. However, although I’m jealous no end, I’m really hoping that he won’t have to go back.
I paused in the day’s occupation yesterday afternoon long enough to note that twas just a year ago that I raised my hand in front of an American flag to say, “I do”. I’ve lived a lot since then. And there’s still a long ways to go! You’d be surprised at the disgust with which all the optimistic newspaper talk is greeted here. We’re all praying that something may turn up to suddenly end it all, but better judgment warns that the infantry may have to crawl all the way to Berlin. From all indications which I’ve seen, the Germans still feel that they have a cause for which to fight and absolutely nothing to gain by quitting at this point.
I could also express a personal opinion about the glamorized general which you mention in connection with the glamorized marines and who both live up so admirably to the American standards of heroics. But this is the army and an E.M. dare not criticize his “superiors”. Suffice it to say that I still believe that the war will be won by a last ditch yard by yard gain in which an army is defeated and not by a spectacular dash across a country.
You get the picture in terms of total gains and total casualties. My emotions are too colored by having seen those whom I know “give their all” at some insignificant point which never makes the headlines – for my opinion to be worth very much.
We’ve really had a beak these past few weeks even though my fingers are now crossed for what fate might have in store. Our division was a major factor in helping to bring about the Normandy breakthrough and participated in one of the major battles on Brittany. After that we saw a good deal of France and then enjoyed Luxemburg hospitality after helping to liberate that country.
I manned a machine gun for awhile and then was promoted to a goldbricking job as a company messenger. The latter kept me up in front where I didn’t have to miss any of the excitement and was on hand to point my rifle at beaucoup les prisoners which our unit captured and to go on reconnaissance with a much admired lieutenant into newly captured towns for wine, champagne, and cognac which the retreating master racers had possibly left behind. After seeing what has happened to commissioned rifle officers, I still feel that I’m alive today because of the decisions which I made regarding my service career. Besides that, I’ve been free of responsibility and didn’t have to make decisions affecting the lives of other men. I’m satisfied, but, God!, how glad I’ll be when it’s all over!!
At present writing my fanny is safely and warmly ensconced behind a table in an abandoned French café where I’ve temporarily attached to battalion headquarters writing award citations. “The hero maker” they’re calling me.
It’s very unexciting work, but, as I’ve said, it’s warm and dry and safe and that is all life has to offer these days. However, when the time comes I’ll be perfectly willing to go back where I can make a somewhat more positive contribution to the victory.
Thanks for the pictures. I always like to get your letters, for you usually enclose several and I guess that, in spite of it all, I’m just a sentimentalist at heart.
We all do a lot of planning for the future and I’ve done a lot of thinking along that line myself. I fear that I’ll never be able to go back to the classroom and earn my living there again. I might even like to pick up my law career where it left me, if too much time does not elapse before I can put on a red necktie and go bareheaded again.
I wish that I could have seen your “Janie”. I’ve read all about Clare Foley in the two month old magazines which sometimes find their way up front and I’m hoping that possibly I may enter a barn some afternoon to see a movie and find her in it. We’ve seen several movies recently, thanks to generous Hollywood and a regimental projector which sometimes works. They’re of the Abbott and Costello variety and are marvelous escape mechanisms.
Tonight’s “Stars and Stripes” which we get all the way from a week to three days late, brought news of the election. I agree with one private quoted in the paper who remarked, “the G.I.s are pretty well satisfied with the way America voted. We see no reason to replace a General with a private at a critical stage of the battle.”
Christmas Eve, 1944
I should be writing home tonight, but my mood is not conducive to uplifting homefront morale. Maybe you’ll understand; so I’ll spend the evening answering the several letters which I’ve received from you lately.
I’m thinking of all the Christmases of the past and what the day has always meant to our family. Partly because I’m sentimental and it’s such a hard time of the year to be so far away from all those I love and the prospects of ever returning seem so remote and partly because I needed the emotional release after living under so much tension of late; I took advantage of the opportunity a while ago and sneaked off by myself and shed a great many tears. I’m good for another year now and do realize that I’ve been one of God’s favored. To be alive and whole is all one can ask for these days, and that is my blessing.
I’ve received a lot of mail the past few day’s and a number of my packages have been delivered (yours is still on the way.). Among my gifts was a copy of Wolcott’s letters. I’ll probably have to leave it behind next time we move up, but I certainly have enjoyed snatches from it today. I was particularly impressed with a letter from Captain Thornton Wilder and a statement to the effect that nothing makes a soldier so happy as a letter from home or so depresses him as reading it. That sums it all up very well, but I don’t believe that a great many of us would be able to endure these days if it weren’t for the regular visits of the mailman.
I have been so afraid that we night have to spend The Day fighting (yes, I’m a front line soldier again), but all indications now are that we’ll be one of the favored outfits to observe tomorrow in comparative quiet and safety.
I came back to the Company C.P. yesterday with my lieutenant and am helping him to maintain contact between here and our gun positions. I make trips out to the men during the day with supplies, mail, information, etc. but have some time to myself. I’m sleeping in the bomb-proof cellar of what was once a German beer garden – a fine place before the shelling and as comfortable a haven as we have found in Germany. Yesterday we brought in a fine Christmas tree and decorated it by looting decorations from the various houses around. Fixing it up was a lot of fun but now it is only serving to increase the gloomy atmosphere. I don’t believe that any of us ever hated the Germans quite so much as we do tonight.
However, some holiday spirit has been added with the help of several bottles of fine wine and liquor which some of the boys unearthed. The owner had them hidden well enough so that the German soldiers who recently occupied this place couldn’t find them, but not so for the Americans. We have some boys in our outfit who can smell wine if there is any within a radius of five miles.
The fact that the place was hastily evacuated is further evidenced by the amount of food left behind in the house. Our dinner today was some fine cured ham found in the basement. Yesterday we decreased the flock of chickens in the backyard. And the really convenient thing about keeping house over here is that one never has to wash any dishes. We just dirty them all in one house and then move our C.P. over into another house.
There were also three cows and some little pigs in the barn which opens off the kitchen in European fashion. One of our medics, a farmer from Iowa, has taken upon himself the duty of feeding the pigs and milking the cows. They’ll probably be turned out to run wild when we leave but he’s getting a great deal of satisfaction out of caring for them these few days. Tags in the cows ears indicate that they have been T.B. tested and we’re breaking stringent army rules by drinking the milk. It’s the first fresh milk any of us have had since we left the states and the drinking of it is certainly the least of the risks we’re taking these days.
Don’t think however, that this situation is typical of army life. It is only the favored few who sleep under cover and this is one of the few times that I’ve had a roof over my head since I came through the dragons teeth which announced that I had arrived at the back door of the “Fatherland”. You may be interested in a few frank facts about life as the Infantry is living it and leaving it these days. Without any complaints or regrets, here is a little concerning “My Days”.
For two weeks after we started our offensive, I lived in trenches and foxholes. During that time few of us were ever completely dry or warm. The fact that I came through it in such good shape gives me a great deal of satisfaction concerning my ability to “take it” and much confidence in my physical stamina to endure the months ahead.
Living such a life teaches one new means of self preservation: Socks can be dried by wearing them around the waist, gloves by sleeping with them next to your body (If one can sleep); steel helmets must be worn twenty-four hours a day; one is relatively safe as long as he stays below the ground. It then takes a direct hit to get him. In that case that particular shell had your number on it and there was nothing you could do about it anyway. Sometimes it is wise to urinate in your helmet or a “K” ration box and throw it over the edge rather than getting out of your hole. If a dead “G.I.” has a pair of overshoes and you have none, those overshoes had best be used to continue winning the war. And it’s true that at all times “The dead must wait on the living”.
The latest issue of the “Stars and Stripes” carried a story headlined “America Sobered by War News”. Methinks it’s about time. I have felt for a long time that the final victory was not as near as the folks at home were led to believe. In fact, when I received my latest Newsweek, three months old, and read the comments therein concerning reconversion, plans for the boys returning, prophesies concerning victory by Christmas, etc. I would have stuck my head out of my hole and puked had I had anything but another “D” ration chocolate bar to replenish my stomach. Many of us who have faced him at close range have a great deal of respect for the German as a soldier and know that he still believes that he has a cause for which to fight the same as we. We’re a long ways from Berlin as the infantry digs and crawls. However, there’s not a doubt in anyone’s mind but that eventually the infantry will get there. The big prayer with each of us is, “Will I be with them when they arrive?”
I have been fortunate in being associated with a group of men whom, for the most part, I enjoy. I admire our platoon lieutenant not only for his intelligence and courage as a soldier but also for the gentleman which he always is. Army life in the field comes much nearer the democratic ideal than it does in garrison. That’s probably due to the fact that the best officers get here. An officer only has to prove himself in one engagement and he never has to worry about maintaining the respect of his men.
I am now technically a machine gun squad leader, but I do a little bit of everything in our platoon. I shall never forget the night I spent leading our boys from their front line guard positions a few at a time back through a barrage area to a cellar where there was a stove and they could spend an hour drying their clothes and I almost got lost. We’re now thankful that the shortest day of the year has passed. Fifteen hours of darkness make for a lot of guard duty and too much lonely thinking.
The candles around our Christmas tree are burning low. A few minutes ago someone began to plan Christmas carols on his harmonica. We started to sing those but it was pretty hard on the hearts so he switched to “Beer Barrel Polka” and “You Are My Sunshine”. Then we were shushed because “The enemy is listening”.
This bit of philosophy I just heard expressed over in the corner, “Boy, you just be thankful fer what you got and quit bitchin off about what your gonna git!” I’m also thankful for what I’ve had.
10 January 1945
This has been one of those days which will forever haunt my nightmares, and now that it is over it all seems like some mad fantasy concocted by some Hollywood senerioist. I’d like to record it. I’m not sure I want my Mother to think about these things; so you’re the goat. If you’ll bear with the dramatic privileges which I take with the situation, I may be able to give you a little picture of the infantry’s existence these days and to prove to you that those in America haven’t the slightest conception of the sacrifice required for modern warfare.
War is hell for the soldiers who fight it, but I can find no descriptive term which applies to the civilians who are directly caught in its path. In Normandy where the going was so slow and bloody much of the fighting was done along the hedgerows and the civilians had the opportunity to escape. During the wild dash across France, the close fighting was sporadic and, although the physical destruction to property was terrific, I think that most of the civil population was able to escape in the wake of the onslaught. And, anyway, it isn’t so bad to have to sleep in the ditches and woods in the summertime. During my recent sojourn in Germany, I witnessed the total destruction of all German property, but none of the local residents were “at home” to suffer from it. They had long since been evacuated.
The past few days I have seen evidences of real civilian suffering from war. The battlelines are not definitely established. Information as to what is actually happening doesn’t seem to have been dissemenated to the civilians; they don’t act as if they know whether the Americans or Germans are coming; they have no place to go – and it’s bitter winter. So they just stay and take it – apparently aware that they are completely cut off from civilization. The Americans shell their towns to drive the Germans out, and then the Germans in turn shell them in an effort to drive the Doughboys back. There is nothing for the bewildered natives to do but huddle in a cellar and pray that a shell doesn’t land in their spot and that there will be a little chow left in our mess kits. But, God, we can’t feed everybody!
We also fight these days what we tritely refer to as “The Battle of the Billets”. It’s no weather for foxhole life, and a roof over one’s head is at a premium. Many’s the night I’ve been grateful to a congenial cow for sharing her stall with me! There are many more troops than shelters, and there’s always a great contest in a newly captured town for the remaining roofs. As a result, there may be several families sharing one room and several squads of men next door in another. I must add that the hospitality is congenial, and the natives certainly do everything within their meager powers to make us feel welcome.
Which brings me to the story of “My Day”.
I set out this morning with a quartering detail to attempt to secure billets in an advance town for our company. The first town we come to was so crowded that there would not even have been room for our mascot dog. As we approached the next town, the sounds in the air told us that it was “hot” and we didn’t get into it very far before we learned that it had not been entirely captured. This wasn’t our day for fighting, so we got out of there as fast as our little jeep could carry us.
The third town we struck was a little more promising, even though it was still under enemy shellfire. I set out with a boy from our platoon who speaks good French to see what we could locate. I first inspected the church in order to discover if it had a basement. An open grave in the church yard was the scene of a local war funeral. A half dozen American soldiers came hurrying down the street carrying a coffin. Two black-veiled women tagged behind in a effort to keep up.
The cemetery was marred by shell holes. I thought of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Even the dead cannot rest in peace”. There was no cellar, but I stepped inside the church. The roof had been blown off. My eye caught the Nativity figures depicting the Christmas scene. I noted that the Christ Child had fallen out of the manger onto the floor. The pews were covered with snow. I approached the alter in pious meditation and my footsteps were halted by a suspicious looking mound of snow. I scraped off the top layer with my foot and discovered that it was a soldier’s body. He was a German, a boy about seventeen years of age and someone had crossed his frozen hands over his breast and closed his eyes.
As I turned to go, I was terrified by a familiar whistle and had one-tenth of a second to take the prone position along the wall. It was another direct hit on the church and my back was covered with plaster. Thank God, no shell fragments had found me! I knew from experience that more shells would momentarily hit the same area. I can think of no better place to meet my Maker than in a church, but I was practical. I dived for a door across the street which looked like the entrance to a cellarway. One doesn’t crawl or climb into a hole. He dives in, head first like an animal.
My aim was good, but my guess was wrong. It wasn’t a cellarway; it was only the entrance to a barn. Imagine my feelings when I soon discovered that my bed wasn’t one of straw, but that I had landed right in the midst of a large pile of frozen German bodies and parts of bodies. Someone had evidently collected the corpses around town and thrown them in this doorway.
The shelling stopped. I located my friend who had ducked in another doorway, and we continued on our mission. We had one-hundred fifty-six men for whom to find cover. Every building was crowded. We finally located one man who thought that he could help us. He had one of the few remaining whole houses in town, and there were already four families living with him. He could give us two rooms for a C.P. He would turn his horse and cows out and clean out the stable. He was going to have to dispose of his animals anyway because a shell had set fire to his haystack and he had no more feed. A wrecked house next door had two good rooms and a basement which could be used after the debris was cleared out. Would we please save any extra food we had for his family?
On down the street further we struck our heads through a paneless window where a very dirty wooden shoed woman was looking over a dirty boiling pot on an equally dirty range. Did she know of any place where American soldiers could sleep? She beckoned us in the door and led us into what had once been a family bedroom. A shell had blown out the wall, but the hole had been stuffed with straw. Yes, we could put at least ten men there. A basement under the house would take care of at least twenty more; but would we please be careful of the pile of potatoes in one corner? We were also welcome to the hayloft, but there was no longer a roof over it. The woman also had two little girls who would be thankful for any leftover food we had.
The man of the house entered from the adjoining stable. He welcomed us with magnanimous gestures and inquired if we had a doctor with us. There was none in our organization, but we had seen an aid station on our way into town. A neighbor was very sick; so we took the man to the aid station where a doctor was willing to come and look at the ailing neighbor.
We found fourteen people living in a cellar. The sick man had pneumonia and must be moved out of the dampness immediately. Where to? A woman in the group was expecting her baby any day. Could she be evacuated? Where to?
So the day went. In such a manner we finally found quarters. Then the big anticlimax – an order from battalion not to move today.
Tonight I’m warm and dry and safe. Tomorrow we move “up”. Where to? What next?
Those of us who are here and have to face the enemy at close range have no allusions about a sudden, easy conclusion to this conflict. Oh, for just one more view of a land that is whole!
21 January 1945
The last letter which I wrote you probably sounded pretty gloomy, so I send this one after it to assure you that I’m still around. And, too, I have your box and letter of Jan 2 to acknowledge. The box was almost a month late from Christmas, but arrived at a crucial moment when I could enjoy it. I’ve just about digested the Theatre Arts and have almost reassured myself that there were such things. Although my feet were frozen at the time, I really got the holiday spirit as I untied the packages amidst the holly. The First Sergeant joined me in dressing the Wac and Wave. I hope to capture a few of the more beautiful Belgium winter scenes with the film.
I have been through the most difficult period of my life – yet. I have never been so completely physically and mentally exhausted. I am thankful to be alive.
This has been the closest physical contact which I’ve had with the enemy and if the number of German dead are any indication I guess that we accomplished our mission. These days of almost constant moving without more than an hour’s consecutive sleep, attacking through snow which varied from knee deep to waist deep, stopping only long enough to dig in before the order to “move on” again came all go with getting your army on the road to Berlin again. Somebody, somewhere plays with a map and a pencil and the Infantryman moves forward until he either gets hit or freezes. But that’s the only way to win a war – even in 1945.
Someday maybe I can tell you in detail (with gestures) about my coming close enough to those German tanks that I could reach out and touch them. And the hours I spent in a house while the Germans held the one across the street. When we entered one house we found one German soldier and thirteen civilians in the basement. A baby’s cry prevented them all from being killed by hand grenades. The rest of the night the other Jerrys who had been occupying the house kept coming back. It was so dark that it was difficult to tell whether there were Germans or Americans in the room. During one skirmish, one of our guards ended up with a German rifle in his hand without knowing how it got there. But come the dawn and “Co.D’s” machine gun did much to justify their existence. There are no Germans across the street now.
Another midnight we cleaned out a house and listened to a wounded German cry in the attic. We thought that it might be a trick, but morning revealed a pretty sad specimen of the Master Race as he came rolling down the stairs. There may be plenty who are willing to die for the Fatherland, but I’ve seen a good many who are not heroic in death.
We lived for days in the woods. I was secretly proud of my physical stamina but had almost reached the point where a few of my muscles were beginning to object mighty painfully. We started out before daylight one morning and as I crawled out of my hole in the snow my lieutenant remarked “Well, Allen, if you live through today you’re going to be transferred to Company Headquarters”. He had received the order the night before. You bet, I lived and my new job bears the title of Reconnaissance Sergeant. I do everything from select gun positions to secure billets for our troops. I run around with a map board under my arm, look very official and busy and don’t accomplish much of anything.
One of my first jobs, and a most welcome one, was to select quarters for our men yesterday in an area out of the range of the big guns for a few days rest and a good thawing out. We found some Belgium people whose homes had been left standing and who were willing to take us in. Last night I slept with my shoes off – surely one of life’s greatest luxuries.
Your letter which I received this evening gave me much thought. I wouldn’t have the slightest idea where to begin to build a drama program for the readjustment. I have felt all along that too many people got into this army without realizing that there are other pleasures to life besides those derived from the pocketbook or flesh. However, those who get back are going to feel that in-as-much as they have lost some valuable years out of their life any further education must hasten their establishing of a lifetime profession. There will be little time for recreational drama.
I’m not at all convinced, either, about a great interest in the post war world among returning servicemen. Many of us will want to escape from all reality as far as possible and may feel that the responsibilities of life will have to be borne by those who have stayed at home through it all.
Each attack is harder now. Last summer I really didn’t give a damn. Now that I’ve weathered it so well this far, I keep thinking that I might really get back if some miracle would only end it all. If I do, it’s going to be difficult not to feel that the world owes me a living and that I’ve already made my contribution to civilization. Anyway, as much as I’d like to hide myself I have dreams of finishing my law career. I think that I can muster up enough discipline for those years with the books.
My thinking is more hazy than usual tonight. When it’s all over I’ll sit down with you and help you plan your program and we’ll have long chats about cabbages and kings.
I’m going to read myself to sleep on my garage floor tonight with Ogden Nash. Next to sleeping with one’s shoes off, it’s best to sleep above the ground.
13 March 1945
I have some spare minutes tonight and I’ll spend them thinking to you. If my thoughts run amuck you can blame it on the distillery which we recently captured and some ingenious G.I. cocktails concocted with gin and synthetic lemon juice.
What we’ve been doing lately has probably made your headlines. (See the copy of our division paper which I’ve sent home.), but please don’t think that the war is over. I often wonder about the one sided story of the fighting which the folks at home are fed. When we gain a few miles, I get a flood of letters suggesting that it’s all over and I may be home on the next boat. I realize that it’s mostly “wishful thinking “ on the part of the homefront, but if there’s one thing this infantryman has learned it’s that he must face reality. And that reality is that there are yet a great number of German acres and streets over which must strewn American bodies before the last “Jerry” is killed or captured and barring a miracle or a hospital plane, I won’t be home by next Christmas or even a year from now. All I pray for is that I’ll still be around when the boat pulls out and that it goes via the states on the way to the Pacific.
Army papers have given quite a lot of space recently to Clare Luce’s report of her visit to the front. It’s the first intelligent account of the Doughboy’s attitude toward combat which I’ve seen. She explained that under the present combat policy of the army it’s so easy for the front line soldier to get the feeling that he can’t win. Men become causalities; their places are filled by “reinforcements” and the outfit keeps right on going - forever and ever. The individual feels that eventually his turn must come. It’s only a question of whether he’s killed or wounded. The infantryman has nothing to look forward to, as does the air corps with their assured reassignment after a limited number of combat missions.
I’d give anything in the world if I could in someway record the feelings which I have experienced, without any false sense of emotions or heroics. To live with death – to see others meet it, even the enemy – is one thing; but it will be a great artist who can express the emotion without dragging out all the timeworn symbols or phrases.
As one moves up to the line of departure for an attack, he has a marvelous sense of security as he witnesses the evidences of might in the form of supplies, artillery and air power which surround him. However, when the G.I. “jumps off” he feels completely neglected. All the power of the enemy, he believes, is aimed directly at him and that is when he is possessed by that fear which none can adequately describe or picture. He’s completely alone and there before him is the ground for which he personally is responsible for occupying. For help, he can only pray. His buddies with whom he has lived and joked become only impersonal figures. He sees them fall, but it is not until much later that he misses them and realizes that he has lost friends.
I shall never forget late one afternoon when I discovered dead near his gun position the man whom I respected above all others as a soldier. I calmly reported the fact and got a good night’s sleep. It was not until several days later that his body slouched in his hole began to haunt me and I realized that I had lost my friend. He was every muscle a hero, and he should have died a hero’s death as he stormed an enemy emplacement. He had displayed his ability and guts often enough before. But he was far behind the lines when the artillery shell with his number on it landed in his hole.
That’s another shocking thing about this war – a hero, contrary to fiction and Hollywood, seldom dies a hero’s death. It’s just an unlucky hit which gets him when he doesn’t even have a chance to fight back.
The arrival in Germany (particularly this section) was a shock to some. The German civilian is not the fictional type of enemy who shifty-eyed lurks around the corner for an opportunity to stab us in the back. They’re just like all the German families I’ve known in Dunlap and Princeville. However, I know that these people are my enemies and in no way can they be forgiven for what they have done. They must pay, individually and collectively, for centuries to come to atone for their responsibility in supporting the Nazi machine. But, now that I’m here it’s easy to see why they’ve been so easy to mislead. It’s plainly evident that during the past two decades this country has become progressive, cultured, and prosperous to an extent which surpasses (probably at their expense) any other country I’ve “visited” and which sections of America can envy. For instance, slum districts are noticeably missing from industrial areas. Also, many of the homes I’ve stayed in lately (we just take over any which we want and move out the occupants) show evidences of superior taste in art and music. And just as the French femmes know how to drape clothes on their lovely bodies, the Germans know how to use functionally modern home furnishings which makes much American taste seem ridiculous and gaudy.
Did you ever get the letter which I wrote to you about Jan 10 concerning one of my reconnaissance missions?
Don’t know what the army’s educational program after the victory here will have to offer me. It sounds, good, but like so many of the army’s plans, I don’t have any faith in it. It’ll sound good on paper and the folks at home will think that the boys are getting something wonderful. But if past experience is any indication, most of them will spend the months waiting for the boat by doing close order drill and polishing shoes.
I’m still not entirely clear as to Lee’s activities and to what they are supposed to lead. I got within a couple of miles of the Major recently but my map didn’t point in that direction.
I’ll be anxious to hear what your final plans are for next year. I don’t think that I’m going to have to worry about that problem.