What is it like to have your country taken over by an enemy Army, while it is defeating your own country’s Army? I hope we never find the answer to that question here in the United States.
But that’s the way life was in Germany in 1945 when it was on the verge of defeat after nearly conquering all of Europe. It was to become an occupied country with its population at the mercy of enemy soldiers as we swept through village after village pursuing the German Army.
I was in the conquering Army and Germans told us when we got to talking to them — the them mainly being frauleins, German women — that they were happy their part of Germany was being captured now by Americans rather than Russians.
Rape and rough treatment was the theme of the narrative they picked up from relatives fleeing the Russian-captured portion of Germany, the East.
But what were we Americans like as conquerors?
In the first hours after we rolled into a new town, we were dirty, unshaved young men who came bearing cigarettes and candy. Kids appeared when we stopped in a village. Almost immediately, they learned at least one English word: candy. They would come pleading and we would hand out or toss candy bars from our trucks.
After we had taken over German homes and apartment buildings for a stay of a single night or several days, depending on how the fighting was going, we were ordered not to “fraternize” with enemy civilians. There was even an anti-fraternization rule issued in writing by the generals and sent to all American military units
The rule was never observed.
On the German side, there was a hunger for smokes, good tobacco instead of wartime substitutes, and the American Army had plenty of cigarettes. On the American side, there were sex-starved young soldiers with cigarettes. Wham-bam, goodbye non-fraternization.
But were we good guys, ambassadors for America, spreading our packs of cigarettes and bars of candy? We were by comparison with the stories about the Russians. But we were also looters, taking possessions from the German civilians like conquerors throughout history.
My squad of combat engineers stole radios.
When we moved into German homes, nicely furnished middle-class apartments, we were fascinated by the radios. They had complex dials which covered AM radio frequencies and short wave. I’m guessing here but I think in Europe then people enjoyed tuning in to programs from countries around Europe and that was why their radios had more screens and dials than a typical radio set at home in America.
One day when the Army’s push forward into Germany was temporarily halted, we were hanging around in a comfortable home we had taken over but began to get bored. We weren’t needed at that point for mine-sweeping or building bridges for tanks to cross. One of the guys in the squad came up with the idea – lets take a truck and go collect some of these radios.
We drove enough miles away from the house we had been assigned to that we felt the Germans we took radios from wouldn’t be able to identify us if there was any kind of complaint system set up.
We would knock on the door of a home, enter with our rifles slung over our backs and state “by ‘ordnung’ of the Ninth Army, we were collecting radios”. Then we’d take away the radio set. There were women in the homes who started to scream in protest but usually an older woman shushed the screamer and we were immediately back in the truck and headed for another neighborhood.
We collected perhaps 10 radios that way, brought them back to the apartment we were occupying temporarily and stacked them in a corner. But we soon forgot them and left them in the pile like abandoned Christmas toys.
A few weeks later, I did some looting by myself and almost got killed by one of our own machine guns.
By now, our Combat Engineers battalion had pushed well into Germany with the 35th Division we were assisting. The next big move, though no one told us, was to cross the Rhine River. Our squad took over a farm house in lush country with rolling green fields. And then we sat, waiting.
Again, it was boring. I decided to go out and collect eggs. We were eating eggs from chickens in the barn of our farm house faster than the hens could lay them. I went roaming out through the green fields for a couple of miles and found another farm house, this one not occupied by American troops. It never occurred to me to be afraid. I had my rifle slung over my back and wore my steel helmet, but that was just because we were ordered to be armed and helmeted at all times.
I knew the German word for eggs – eier – and I walked into the hen house where there were several German women and said the word for eggs. I pointed at eggs I saw them examining and took off my helmet and the plastic liner underneath it. I pointed to the helmet and identically-shaped helmet liner and they understood.
They filled both the helmet and liner with eggs and I walked away after saying danke, thanks. It was like walking with two evenly balanced buckets, one in each hand. Both the helmet and the liner had chin straps, which made excellent handles.
Now all I had to do was get back to our own farm house without cracking any of the fresh eggs. Soon, I was confident enough about how well balanced the buckets of eggs were I began to run. I was running in a gently hilly area and I knew that just over a rise – hidden by the upward sloping field – was our farmhouse.
As I looked ahead of me, I saw earth sprays at intervals of several yards apart and the eruptions were headed straight toward me – machine gun bullets.
I threw myself on the ground, simultaneously placing the helmet and helmet liner filled with eggs on either side of me. There was no sound. The machine gun was at least a mile away. I lay still for several minutes, looking around for any more signs of bullets striking the ground but saw none.
Slowly, I stood and picked up my two egg-piled containers and resumed moving up the slope. When I returned and gave the eggs to the German woman who owned the farmhouse and had been cooking for us, I got the story about the silent machine gun volley. Our Combat Engineer squad rode to battlegrounds in a truck. On top of its cab was a 50-calibre machine gun with a long barrel to use if we were attacked by planes.
But we hadn’t been strafed by German planes, which were being saved for more important targets. A sergeant thought we ought to make sure the gun was still in good operating condition and decided to fire it out into the distance toward a nearby low hill. On the other side of the hill, I was racing home with the eggs.
The story ended well. I never complained about the carelessness of the sergeant who fired over a hill without knowing what was on the other side. He never asked how I had come by six dozen eggs.