It’s December 28, 2002, and this is an interview for the Veterans History Project. I’m talking to Mr Alvin K. Dickson. Mr Dickson was born in Canton, Ohio, on March 18, 1918 and served in the US Army, 11th Armored Division. He was a first lieutenant (Aug 1942 to Sep 1945).
1/Lt Alvin K. Dickson
11th US Armored Division
The 11th Armored Division landed in Normandy on December 16 1944 and was assigned to contain the enemy in the Lorient Pocket. The German counter offensive along the Belgian border resulted in a forced march to the Department of the Meuse (France) and the defense of a 30-mile sector from Givet to Sedan on December 23 1944. Launching an attack from Neufchâteau (Belgium), December 30, the 11-AD defended the highway to Bastogne against fierce assault. The division acted as spearhead of a wedge into the enemy line, and its junction with the 1st Army at Houffalize on January 16 1945, created a huge trap. After the liquidation of the Bulge, the Siegfried Line was pierced, Lützkampen falling on February 7, Großkampenberg on February 17, and Roscheid on February 20 1945. After a brief rest, the division crossed the Prüm and the Kyll River, taking Gerolstein and Nieder Bettingen against violent opposition. Andernach and Bröhl fell Mar 9, in the sweep to the Rhine River. In the swing southward to clear the Saar-Moselle-Rhine pocket, the Moselle River was crossed at Bullay and the Worms Airport captured, Mar 21. After rest and maintenance, the division drove across the Rhine at Oppenheim, took Hanau and Fulda, and headed for the Thuringian Forest, reaching Oberhof, Apr 3. The offensive raced through Bavaria, Coburg falling on Mar 10, Bayreuth Mar 14. In the final drive, the division crossed the Regen River, Apr 24, overran Grafenau and Freyung, and plunged toward the Danube River, seizing Rohrbach, Neufelden, and Zwettl. The enemy put up its last fanatical resistance along the approaches to Linz, Austria, but the 11-AD entered the city on May 5. Pushing onward, elements contacted Soviet forces, May 8 and became the first unit of the 3A, to meet the Russian armies. The war in Europe officially ended on May 8 1945, and the 11-AD was placed on occupational duty until inactivation on Aug 31 1945.
Alvin : I was born in Canton, Ohio. Lived there for 19 years. Graduated from Canton McKinley High School. The Canton McKinley High School Bulldogs. Which, incidentally, later on became important in the Battle of the Bulge. I’ll give you that right now. When Germans, soldiers, dressed as Americans, they spoke perfect English, and they could be caught. When they say they : where’d you grow up ? Where’d you come from ? They said Canton, Ohio. Where’d you graduate from? The high school there. What was the name of the nickname of the team ? They never knew. That’s how we captured them. From there I went to Ohio State. And I was in Ohio State, actually, a total of five years; I took a reduced course. And in my last year the country was at war. At that time all men of draft-able age had to sign up for the draft. I had a fairly low number, so I knew I would be called. I gave my home address as Canton, Ohio, and that draft board had very few college students in it so, when I was called for the draft, I asked them if I could have a deferment to graduate. I was in pre-law. They said forget about pre-law. We might — we’ll give you a six months’ deferment. Come back and see us, and we’ll see if we can give you another one if we don’t need you. And they did.
So they did allow me to graduate. Interesting enough, after I graduated I went back to my draft board and I said, Thank you for letting me graduate. I’m here ready to serve. And they said : Look, young man, we’ll tell you when you’re ready to serve. They didn’t – it didn’t take them too long, though. Shortly thereafter, I graduated in June of 42; I was called into the service in August of 42. I went to Columbus for rerouting, and then I was finally sent to Camp Lee, Virginia, where I took my basic training with the Quartermaster Corps. I applied for officers’ training, and as I recall – my numbers may not be correct – but I think 14 out of our regiment of 4000 were taken into officers’ training, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the 14. The rest of the soldiers, the rookies, moved on, and I stayed at Camp Lee and went through a 90-day course and became an officer. It was a rough course. It was very, very difficult. After I became an officer, I was granted a furlough. Then I was at that time I had gotten married. I was sent to Omaha to go to an ordnance school to learn motors. Here I had graduated in March. I was assigned as a second lieutenant to the 659th Quartermaster Truck Company which was in Camp McCain, Mississippi.
So I went to Mississippi, and there we served under a colonel who was supposed to get us ready for overseas duty. The company was eventually to be sent overseas and eventually would go into – in the D-Day landing on Jun 6 1944. For some reason that I didn’t quite understand, I was transferred out of the company, down to Louisiana Maneuvers. The rest of the company moved on, and they did actually go in on D-Day. And I didn’t. I didn’t get to England – by the way, I was in a company with a captain and four other officers. And we were a quartermaster truck company to be engaged in hauling all sorts of supplies. It ended up that we eventually hauled ammunition and gasoline, and Gen George S. Patton said food last. Ammunition and gasoline mostly for the 11th Armored Division.
We went to England and, as I remember, we got there in the middle of 1943. We loaded at Fort Dix, New Jersey, onto the Queen Elizabeth. And the Queen Elizabeth, I understand and understood later, made solo trips back and forth across the ocean without any escort because they were (the ship) was a little too fast for any destroyers to follow. And they’d wonder how they were never hit by torpedoes. The Queen Elizabeth changed courses every five minutes. They had it figured out that the German U-Boat, if it fired a torpedo, would take seven minutes to hit the ship. It couldn’t get any closer. And at that time it was my understanding that the British had just discovered sonar. And so the Queen Elizabeth had sonar and could tell where the U-Boats were.
As far as I was concerned, I was a little weary – leery I should say. Because one ship all alone, 11000 soldiers on the ship, but it made 27 crossings of the Atlantic and was never hit. And so, evidently, their theory was correct. So we went across on the Queen Elizabeth, which was a huge ship. The officers shared staterooms; there were four officers to a stateroom. The enlisted men didn’t have it quite so lucky. The – one thing of interest is that Glenn Miller’s orchestra was on board ship and every afternoon, wherever we were, they would give a concert. Glenn Miller was not with us.
We landed in Scotland and immediately were loaded onto trains that took us down to Darby, England. I believe it was in Jun of 1943. We landed there and we took up billets in Darby, and that — from there we were taking supplies between that point and South Hampton until we were told that we were moving to France. It was then in September. I went ahead with an advanced party to London to make arrangements for the move, and when I reached London, I remember very distinctly crawling under the bed at night when the buzz bombs (German V-1) came over. You were all right as long as you could hear the engine. When the motor cut off, get under the bed. That’s when it was coming in. I was there before the V-2s. They had the V-1, which was slower. And you heard the engine till it cut off and then duck. The V-2, I don’t think you heard them. They were much faster.
We moved our company down to South Hampton and early September — first, one reason I had to go to London was because we had to load Gen Eisenhower’s equipment on all of our trucks to take it to Paris. So we did. We loaded our trucks in London, we went down to South Hampton, and then we waited until we were told to board an LCT, and those were manned by the British. So we loaded on Monday, and we crossed the channel. D-Day had taken place June the 6th. We were in — three months later. But when we landed at Omaha Beach, the evidence of the fighting was all over the beach. There were ships that were partially sunk and partially sticking out of the water. From there we ran along the Red Ball Highway into Paris. And we arrived in Paris one week after our forward units had liberated Paris. Previous to that, Gen Patton, whose army we joined in December, had broken through St Lo and had run his tanks through Le Man and all the way — turned east, went all the way to Paris.
– May I ask you at this point if, when you went through the St Lo area and the Falaise Gap, was there evidence of the carnage ?
– That huge battle ?
Yeah ! Yeah ! there was. Yeah, there certainly was. St Lo was almost demolished when we went through it. And, of course, when an army moves through, they leave all sorts of equipment. And the equipment that’s hit, mostly German tanks, and our tanks that were hit were left standing. The bodies had mostly been cleared. But the tanks were still there and trucks and all types of ammunition, cases and so forth. And so you could see that.
– Did you see a lot of horses ? I’ve seen pictures of horses littering the highway ?
Not so much in Normandy. Toward the end of the war the Germans were out of gas. I know they had very little gasoline. So that when — after we had passed through the Battle of the Bulge and were moving into Germany, our fighter planes were strafing German columns, and there were dead horses all over. And you can imagine what the smell was like too. But not at that point. At that point you saw very few — the dead horses that were in the field belonged to the farmers. And the French farmers were not very, very — not friendly with us because they blamed us for bombing their towns unnecessarily, but they didn’t realize that it had to be done if we were going to establish a breakthrough for Patton’s 3rd Army to go through to reach Paris. So, we took our trucks on the Red Ball Highway. It became called the Red Ball Highway because it was probably the primary road that was used for supplies.
– And it ran from where to where ?
It ran from the beach, primarily Cherbourg, to the front line. And we went — we followed that along and we did reach Paris. And as I remember, we reached Paris in early September. And we did find the SHAEF headquarters, which was Eisenhower’s headquarters, deposited our load of desks and supplies and so forth. Paris had not been completely cleared of snipers. And I remember many occasions when we had to crawl on the ground right next to the building to keep from being shot. The officers all took their bars off because the sun reflected on them and the — and then so our soldiers knew us anyhow — knew who we were. And the German snipers were looking for officers. We stayed in Paris a very short time and then moved to our headquarters in Le Man. It was an old French barracks. We stayed there while we ran supplies up and down the Red Ball Highway. The thing that I remember most about the Red Ball Highway was we’d start our convoys out early in the morning and run up to Cherbourg. Cherbourg at that time of the year was cold and damp, and you’d just do nothing but shiver. We sat in our Jeeps — or I sat — actually, I didn’t sit in my Jeep, it was wide open. So I sat in the truck while the equipment was being loaded on our trucks, and then we’d take them back to the front and go back to our headquarters in Le Man. I can’t tell you too much more about the Red Ball Highway, but we went up and down it a number of times. Except that the French countryside was primarily, and normally was primarily filled with hedgerows and you could see why it was such difficult fighting because the soldiers, enemy soldiers anyhow, would hide behind the hedgerows.
In early December we were told that we were to move to a different spot in Normandy. And then we were told that we were to become part of the 11th Armored Division, which was one of Patton’s divisions. At that time, and it was about the middle of December, the Germans with a huge move had burst a big bulge in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. And they had practically destroyed two of our armored divisions and several infantry divisions that were in the path. At that particular point I think that the American Army was very, very thin. When we eventually got to Bastogne, the — I think it was the Ninth — I’m doing this all by recall — I think it was the Ninth Armored Division, was pulled out of the line, and they had been hit very hard. And it took 20 minutes for the entire armored division to go by, to pass us by. This was an armored division that had had 15,000 soldiers, tanks, trucks, armored infantry, and so forth, and it was all that was left of them.
– I think we should note that Bastogne was the center of fighting for the Bulge.
Right. And I am going to come to that. I understand that Eisenhower held an emergency meeting, and one of the generals that he had there was Patton. And, I’ve read that Eisenhower said I need three armored divisions at Bastogne in three days. Of course, Patton volunteered. The three armored divisions — I can’t remember the third one, but one was the Fourth Armored, which I believe was Patton’s best division — fought all the way through Africa with him. And our division, the 11th Armored. And I don’t recall the other one. We made 500 miles in three days. Now, for an armored division to travel 500 miles in three days is quite a feat. That’s going pretty fast.
– You mean the tanks are on the road, like normal ?
Oh, yeah, yeah. We traveled day and night.
– You didn’t use railroad to get there ?
Oh, no. Oh, no. No. No. We traveled day and night and we made it to a little town called Sibret on the third day. The tanks were ahead of us. We were maybe two, three miles behind. The tanks, our division along with the 4th Armored Division, went into Bastogne and relieved the 101st Airborne Division that was trapped in there. Then we went in the following day with long, flatbed trucks to pull the 101st out and put another infantry division in there. The interesting thing is that the members of the 101st, at least where I was, were cussing and swearing at us because, where were you ? You know. Don’t you know we were trapped here ? I can only laugh because we had gotten there as soon as we could, and then, of course, the weather conditions were terrible. This was Christmas time, just after Christmas time, and we had our Christmas dinner on the hoods of our Jeep. I think they gave us chicken for a change. We mostly had K and C rations. But these — most of these 101st Airborne were loaded up into the flatbed trucks which they pulled out, and my understanding is that they were taken down for three-day rest in France.
Our units took their place. The Germans were still in the Ardennes Forest. The Battle of the Bulge probably was the worst fighting that we saw. We advanced a thousand yards a day; they drove us back a thousand yards a day. And we were losing men like you can’t believe. One of my jobs was to go back to France to get replacements. And some companies would lose half of their men. The medical trucks would take them out while some, the dead were for the Graves Registration Unit. They picked them up. We had nothing to do with that. I went back on numerous trips to France to get recruits who had only been in the army for 90 days. These were young men. And the interesting thing about it is that when we’d start up toward the front with these young men, they’d be singing, telling jokes, whistling, whatever, just like young men usually do. As they got a little closer to the front, the first thing they heard was the artillery fire. And then they got quieter. When they got up close enough to hear the machine gun and rifle fire, then they became completely silent.
There was a saying in the service that the veterans live longer. Why, I don’t know. Maybe they had a fifth sense, maybe they could tell an incoming artillery shell, an outgoing, whatever it was. They say that more often you’d lose rookies than you’d lose veterans. And that’s probably what happened. So I wondered how many of these young men would be alive at the end of the week or the end of two weeks. But that’s, of course, what war is.
As I said before, the fighting in the Battle of the Bulge was fierce. We had Germans that were constantly trying to get our supply depots; ammunition, gasoline to blow them up. They’d come dressed in American uniforms. I mentioned before how we happened to catch them. We carried all of our supplies at night. And in complete blackout. But there were guards all along the way. When you take about 10 or 12 trucks of supplies to get them through to the infantry or our tanks, you’d travel at night. All of a sudden out of nowhere you’d have a flashlight in your face. You’d have two things in your face. One is a flashlight and the other was a snub nose of a machine gun. Then you hear someone asking you for the password. And you had to know what the password was. Then you’d ask for the countersign so you’d know they were on the legit too. And they could ask you things such as I mentioned before : Where’d you grow up ? What was the nickname of your team ?
But the Germans were out to try to disrupt our supplies, and they did it in two ways. One was dressing as Americans. And another way was, of course, they sent their planes over early in the morning to strafe our supply companies. The trucks that I was in charge of, many times were strafed early in the morning. If they were hit, you got ’em off the road and away from the rest of them as fast as possible. We were in a little town, last time we had slept in any house. It was in Sibret, just outside of Bastogne. Two Belgian women, one was the burgermeister’s sister, came to our headquarters and said there are two American soldiers having lunch at my house. We said they couldn’t be Americans because Americans never went to any houses to ask for food. And sure enough, we went up and captured them, and they were Germans.
Well, let’s continue along the Battle of the Bulge; I was going to say, it was some nights 20° below zero. Very, very cold. A lot of our soldiers, including me, got trenchfoot. Trenchfoot is when you have your socks on day after day after day and they become soaked and your feet turn blue. And if you don’t catch it in time, you lose your feet. I went to the field hospital. Fortunately, mine were not to that stage yet. What they used to do is they used to take blankets and build little booties to put inside your field boots to keep your feet dry as much as possible. Because you couldn’t, in the cold and in the dampness, you absolutely couldn’t change your socks every day. Later in Germany we captured a bathtub and put it inside a preamble tent and then we took a bath. That was like being in heaven. But eventually, step by step, we began to push them back. And, during the Battle of the Bulge – at least where I was and where the action took place, I received the Bronze Star. Let me see if I can find that.
Actually, what’s happening is as follow : there was an infantry company and they were trapped in a clump of woods. They had to be taken out of there. So I was sent with a Colonel Lowe, who got to just about where fighting stopped — was starting, and then he said he remembered something he had to do at headquarters, and he left. He said “You know what to do.” If I can read this, I don’t think it’s too long.
Jan 14 1945 is a day I’ll never forget. I started out on a routine day by taking out ten trucks on one of our usual details. At 1400 we received an urgent call for ten trucks and they were to be unloaded. Col Lowe took us up to Bastogne then to Longchamps. We were turned over to a major. At Bastogne, a terrific blast of artillery shells rumbled the earth in the area. Dead horses and cattle lay on the fields. As we went on the roads to Longchamps, artillery threw shells over our heads. We passed a Nazi tank with the cannon still pointed at Bastogne. Two dead Germans lay face up beside the tank.
In Longchamps we proceeded well spread out to a spot in the woods where two battalions of airborne infantry were digging in. We lined our trucks up and waited. From this point we could see everything just as though we were an audience at war maneuvers, only this time it was very real. Off in the distance we saw tiny dots, and those were German tanks and armor. Between them and us was no-man’s land. Behind a group of trees in the field in front of us were our tanks, armored cars, half-tracks, antiaircraft too. The 17th Airborne Division arrived, strafing the German lines, and then another wave and the third wave and the fourth wave. A P-47 Thunderbolt going down, and it looked like all eight of their machine guns were firing at the same time. A fifth wave of P-47s went into their strafing drive and, for the first time, a terrific barrage of German Flak went into the air. One of our planes began to smoke and turn toward our lines. The pilot bailed out and luckily landed beside our tanks. He threw up his arms around the tanker in joy. The smell of gun powder was everywhere. You could see the shells from our artillery bursting in the German lines. The Germans on the distant hills had seen my convoy pulling next to the woods. I know that. The infantry loaded in our trucks and we were about ready to go, and then without warning came the zzzip of two mortar shells and their burst in the far end of the field. Another mortar shell zipped over our head and crashed into the woods. An AAA lieutenant yelled, “Let’s hit the dirt, men!” And I dived in a foxhole meant for one with two other infantrymen, and I was an officer so they couldn’t tell me to get out. But it was tight in there. So there we were, huddled against the ground. Each time we heard the zip of a shell we shrank closer to the ground and said silent prayers, at least I did. Every time I heard the zip I thought sure it was coming at me that my last moments were at hand.
Many things passed through my mind as we shrank against the ground. When we thought the barrage was over we loaded the trucks again. An enemy plane came over, probably a reconnaissance plane. And our antiaircraft sent up a lot of stuff and drove him away. When he came back a second later, the same thing happened. The Germans started shelling the crossroad we had to pass. We eased up some as we drove by, by-passing part of the road. We couldn’t get too far off the road because the road had been tested for mines, and the sides of the roads were not.
At the village of Monnaville, we unloaded the soldiers. The tactical situation was this : CCA and CCB, those were two different units of an Armored Division, had come together at Compagne and circling a large group of Germans, needed infantry support. Amid the din of artillery and the close and distant bursting of shells, we turned the trucks around. An MP, who had 15 Germans just captured, asked if we were going back to Bastogne. I said “yes” and told him to put the prisoners in one of my trucks. Then I found out that I had to make another trip for men. Sent the prisoners on the truck on back and went back for a second load of troops. Incidentally, I don’t have it in here, but I heard later that that truck that was carrying the German soldiers was hit by a German shell in Bastogne. I don’t know what happened to those prisoners or my men.
Mortar shells were still falling in the area. Then we unloaded in Monnaville. And after turning around, the convoy of tanks and half-tracks stopped traffic in a narrow street. A lieutenant in a Jeep pleaded with me : I’ve got a badly wounded man and I’ve got to get him through. I told him I’ve nothing I could do. Then I heard the wounded man moan and cry out, “That you, Lieutenant ? I can’t stand this any longer.” I decided at once to make a path and move the trucks off the road. The wounded man got through, but I can’t forget his moaning in pain.
The captain told me to get my trucks out of the village. There was an artillery battery and a tank captain came through. He said to me : Whose trucks are these ? Mine. Get them the hell off the road. Captain, I can’t do that. Either you do it or I’ll run ’em down with my tanks. So I got ’em off the road. These were Americans talking to Americans. Finally we were rolling. Flashes and deafening explosions filled the air on the way back. Upon arriving in Bastogne, we found it had been shelled during the day from the enemy in the vicinity of Wiltz, Luxembourg. And then I have as a footnote : Shortly after the war in Europe ended, I was awarded the Bronze Star medal by Gen Holbrook of the 11th Armored Division, acting for the general of the Third Army, Gen Patton. It was given for action on January 14, 1945, in bringing the AB Infantry back safely. So from there, it began to get a little easier. We were driving ’em back, and I think I stated someplace in here, in January, the Battle of the Bulge was over. We had straightened out our lines, and we were moving across Germany and then we began to move pretty fast.
– I’ve always understood that the weather was such, in the beginning, that as the Germans were creating this bulge that the weather was so bad that the American airplanes couldn’t get in to support you.
True. That’s very true. That’s why they couldn’t drop supplies or anything on Bastogne.
– So, although the AAF had space superiority ?
– They were unable to move.
That’s exactly right.
– I see. Then the — but you were talking about P-47s coming in there, so then the — then the skies had cleared by the —
Skies had cleared. And they were able to fly again; that’s right. And we were happy to see it, too, believe me.
– The other story I’ve heard is that the Germans were attempting to get to Antwerp and close off that port so that you didn’t have any access for supplies from near the German border ?
Right. Right. I don’t know too much about that. That was the First Army up there, and that was north of us.
– So you didn’t use Antwerp ?
No, no. We were not near Antwerp. We were — the area we were in was Neufchateau, Bastogne. We crossed Germany, crossed the secret line, went into Germany, and our objective was Cologne. So at the fastest possible pace that we could make and still doing the fighting, we did make it to the Rhine River near Cologne. And, as I remember, we reached the Rhine River just south of the bridge at Remagen. Now, the First Army units had captured the bridge at Remagen. And when we reached the Rhine, we stopped for several days at rest. But it wasn’t much rest because, first of all, the Germans were sending planes over to knock the bridge out, and our antiaircraft was pounding the ground all day and night. So even at night we had trouble sleeping. There was so much artillery fire.
From Cologne we dropped south, and I don’t remember whether Cologne was directly across, west of Frankfurt or not. I don’t think it is. But, anyhow, we dropped south to a point facing Frankfurt. Then, as we talked before, Patton had this plan to send three armored divisions across the Rhine River. So, we crossed early one morning. And as I remember — I’m pretty sure I’m correct about this, the 4th Armored crossed, and they formed the armored division on the north. We were the 11th. We were in the center, and I think it was the 6th Armored was south of us. We crossed the river — I never saw the Rhine River because the — the engineers had built a pontoon bridge for the tanks and the trucks to go across. And then when we crossed, it was completely smoked out so that you couldn’t — from the air you couldn’t see what was happening. And so we were to go through Hennow (ph).
The 4th Armored Division was stopped with heavy fighting at Frankfurt. We, with the 11th Armored Division, went through Hanau with very little resistance, and the 3th Armored Division below us was stopped with heavy fighting south of us. We stayed overnight in Hanau. It was the first time we saw the new German jet planes M-262. Two German jet planes came over in the morning. They were so fast that our antiaircraft bursts were hitting a quarter to a half-mile behind them. They didn’t know how to shoot at ’em. And you’d wake up with bullets hitting. We had captured a trailer and the officers were sleeping in a trailer. Bullets would be hitting the trailer and you’d jump up out of your cot and run for your pants. I don’t know why but for me it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re killed with your pants on or not. But, anyhow, that’s the first time we saw jet planes. They would come over in the morning.
Well, we went through Hanau pretty fast, and there was light resistance all the way. And so the 11th Armored Division continued on a northeasterly course, straight up through the center of Germany. We were one division, all alone. Our supporting infantry division were miles behind us. And we ran out of gas. At a point that I was about 103 miles southwest of Berlin. We were told that night that we should triple our guard because there were several Panzer divisions south of us, and if they realized our situation, and they had mobility, they could wipe us out. Tanks are no good unless they can move. And they had better fire power anyhow because we had 75s on our Sherman tanks and they had 88s. So we did. We were sitting on a hill, all alone.
At 0230 Lt Mulligan from Connecticut, was sent back to Frankfurt to get gas. I was sent back an hour later with trucks to get gas at Frankfurt. He got back. He’d loaded his trucks and when I came in, he was about ready to take off again to go back to the division. I loaded up and started back to the division. It was eerie because miles and miles you saw no American soldiers. We were ahead of everything. Because we had reached a point farther east than any, any other division in the American Army. When we came to a point that was, I would estimate 20 miles from where our division was, I could hear rifle and machine gun fire. So I spread out my trucks. I stopped my Jeep and my Jeep driver and I crawled up to the ditches, to where Mulligan was held up by a group of enemy soldiers. Up in the hills. Somehow he was holding them off. So he sent me back to Frankfurt and as I remember, he said the 28th Infantry was back there. Come up with them as fast as you possibly can. Let’s see if we can get us out of here.
First thing he said to me was, “Give me your grease gun.” A grease gun was a little Tommy gun that we carried. So I gave it to him and we headed back; we high-tailed it back, but we really flew back in that Jeep. And we got ’em. They moved; they got up there. When they got up there, we were told later, that they captured a total of 700 German — and I think there were some Hungarian troops in there. And so, after that, put a scare into Patton, and he gave us light tanks to accompany each convoy after that. We had a light tank. It was a 14-ton tank and onto the 37-caliber machine gun, and it can go pretty fast. As I was told, it had twin Cadillac engines in the back, and they can do 60 miles an hour, so they could keep up with our trucks. And after that, it took from that time till the rest of the war we had a light tank with us. And sometimes a half-track antiaircraft vehicle. When we got to that point, and we got gassed up, we were told that we were to turn south. This is something political that we had nothing to do with. It probably had been decided that the Russians were to take Berlin. We were not too far from Berlin. So we turned south. We went down south along the Czechoslovakian border and ended up finally in Linz, Austria.
I shortened it up. We went through towns, like Kern(ph), that had surrendered. And other little — other smaller towns that had surrendered. Most of them had white flags hanging from their — from the windows. At that point the Germans were pretty well beaten. And we ended our part of the war in Linz, Austria.
– Did the German at that time start to surrender ?
Yes. Yes. It got to the point where we — as they went through our — see, we were — we were anxious to keep moving forward. When the German prisoners went through, we never even tried to capture them. We wanted to make sure that their hands were above their heads, they were not armed, and told ’em to keep marching to the rear. And they were picked up by MPs.
– So they marched themselves ?
Yep. At the end of the war, they were just walking through our — through our areas.
– They wanted to ?
They wanted to surrender.
To be captured in the American zone ?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. They — we heard that many times. They did not want to be captured by the Russians. So that’s why they were so anxious to surrender to us.
– When you were in Linz, Austria, you were on the Danube River there; were the Russians there ?
The Russians were in Vienna.
– And Linz is a little — two, three hours from Vienna ?
Not too far.
I would have loved to have gone into Vienna. After the war I did go to Vienna. But we were told the Russians were unreliable, and you didn’t know what they were going to do. Stay away from them, you’re probably better off. So we took over a home there, asked the residents to leave, took it over as our headquarters. People hear that and they say, oh, that’s cruel. That’s war. We didn’t do anything to their home. We didn’t harm their home in any way. And so stayed there, swam on the Danube. And, of course, it was May the 8th, was it, the war came to an end. We heard that.
VD-Day. And we were told that we were to get — three officers could go back to Paris. So we went back by truck part of the way and by train part of the way, and we got to Paris and stayed in Paris, had a furlough in Paris, and then we went back to Linz. Shortly thereafter, they began vacating us from that area and so we made our way to Le Havre where we caught a liberty ship going back to the United States. And, you — you always dream of getting back. You — actually, if you’re in the combat zone for long enough, you think that you never will. The hope and prayer of mine and many soldiers was either let me go back completely whole or dead. You don’t want to go back as a cripple. You don’t have much choice in that matter, unfortunately. But fortunately, I came back whole. And when you’re in the battle zone, you have the attitude, “I was lucky yesterday. I was lucky today. I was lucky the day before. How long am I going to keep on being lucky ?” But I was lucky.
– There’s been some comparisons made of the German soldier who was a — who was a professional, and there were many professional German soldiers, and they were fighting American citizen soldiers ?
– Guys that got drafted and went in and were green. Did you see any — any of that that would lead you to believe there was a difference in the fighting qualities ?
No, I did not. The American soldiers, I would say by and large most of them, were really very well trained. And Americans are allowed to think for themselves. So, they would improvise if they had to. But, in my — from what I saw, the American soldiers were outstanding fighters, good fighters. They’re well trained and well armed. The first Germans that we faced, like the Germans we faced in the Battle of the Bulge, they were professional soldiers. And they were probably as good as we were. But later in the war Hitler had to get men. So he formed what he called “the Volksturm.” That was the people’s army. And this was made up of young boys and old men that had no choice. They had to go into the German Army. And they surrendered as fast as they could, as they possibly could. When they could, they surrendered. Because they were not fighters, and they weren’t even properly trained. By that time, the American soldier was a far better fighting unit than the ones that were coming into the German soldier — the German Army.
– The point you made about the American soldiers thinking for themselves I have heard before. And I understood that — that in a real emergency situation, the American soldier was superior —
Yeah. I would — I would say that’s true. Because the German soldiers were used to taking orders. If they didn’t have orders, they didn’t know what they were going to do. When their officers were killed, then they had trouble. But when their officers were there and they fought as a unit, especially as I say, in the Battle of the Bulge, and previous to that, they were good fighting units. There wasn’t any question about that. We didn’t take them lightly. But, by the — now the first days that the soldiers went into action, just like I told you about our division, our division went into action in the — at Bastogne. And at the first sound of gunfire, you might say, some of the tanks turned and ran. Well, that — our general was replaced by General Dagger, who was a close friend of Patton’s. And he said there won’t be any of that. After that I think we became a better, cohesive, coordinated fighting unit. Now, the Americans did not have quite the firepower that the Germans did. The German 88 was a high velocity cannon that was mounted on Tiger tanks. And it was probably — the tank was a little slower than ours were, and that’s where we had the advantage. Our tanks were faster and we had more of — more tanks.
– I understood that the German tanks suffered from breakdowns and were not easily repaired ?
That’s true. That’s true. Along the road — I even have some pictures of German tanks that were just stuck there. The tracks would come off occasionally, and they didn’t have the parts. We could get parts for our tanks. But, you’re right. The Germans did not have the — they couldn’t repair them like we could. And their tanks were — overall, I’d say overall, their tanks were slower than ours. They were bigger. The Tiger tanks were bigger.
– But the Americans Tanker overwhelmed them with superior numbers ?
Superior numbers and tactical maneuvers. All through the war we heard that there was a — there was another tank coming. I don’t think the General Persian tank was finished until after the war was over. We never got any.
We had our — the Shermans, by the time the war was over, I think was a — was an obsolete tank. It was a good tank, serviceable and so forth. But I think it was an obsolete tank.
– You were in Linz —
— and the war was over, and you did not stay in Linz on occupation ?
– You then went back to —
We were taken back to Le Havre, France, where we boarded ships — liberty ships to come back to the United States. And, when we got back to the United States, we were told we were given a 30-day furlough, then they were going to move the Third Army to San Francisco, and we were going to be trans-shipped to prepare for the invasion of Tokyo — of Japan. And during the time that I was on my furlough, we dropped the atomic bomb. That meant we didn’t have to go and that’s — I honestly did not want to go to the Pacific Theater at all.
– There must have been many, many discussions over the years about the sanity of dropping an atomic bomb, but it was said that a million American lives could be lost invading the mainland of Japan. How did you fellows feel about the atomic bomb ?
Well, there were two parts — two ways to answer that. One is the Japanese cruelty, although I know it wasn’t the civilians. But the Japanese army, the cruelty in China, in Singapore, and what they did, how they raped the land and the people, and — and tortured people, we knew about that. And that was a sad thing. Maybe you could feel they got what they deserved. The civilians didn’t. They had no choice — they had no choice in the matter. To answer the other part of your question, without question it would have — it would have lost a lot of American soldiers if we had had to go from island to island and attacked the homeland of Japan. Without question it would have done that.
– You knew about the Bataan death march at that time —
– That it had been done in the war?
Sure we did. Yeah. We certainly did.
– How did you feel about fighting the Germans?
First let me say that I felt that I belonged there. I am a Jew. And I knew what was happening to the Jewish people there. And I felt that I wanted to do whatever I possibly could to bring this war to a conclusion, to see that that was not happening.
– Did you know about the Holocaust?
We did know about it. We didn’t know all the details, but we did know.
– Now, did you get to see any — any camps?
Yes. The 11th Armored Division liberated Mauthausen and Cham. Now, we didn’t — our division — part of our division didn’t do that, but the one that I went by was Cham. And the gates were open because our tanks had just gone by. The people were coming out of the gates. They were — looked like living skeletons. Lot of ’em — most of ’em had teeth missing. We couldn’t feed ’em solid food because they were — they’d have choked on it. They had long sticks with a little bag of clothing on the end there that they were carrying. It was probably all their possessions in the world. Just before I turned the corner onto this concentration camp, we — I had captured a German officer and his orderly. And I had them sitting on the front of my Jeep, and I was going to take them over and turn them over to the MPs. These people came out of the concentration camp. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about, but I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to turn these two Germans over to them. I didn’t do it. First of all, I don’t know what they could’ve done with them. They looked like they could hardly stand. And so I shook my head no. So these prisoners — these former concentration camp people threw stones at ’em and spit on them. And then I moved out and took them to the MP camp. That evening we — we were — we were pursuing a couple of Panzer divisions, so we had to keep moving. But we did have time to go back to the concentration camp. I didn’t go. I’m sorry that I didn’t. To this day I am very, very sorry. The other junior officer with me was Grant Turner who was from Chicago. Grant said, “I’m going back to take a look.” Now remember, at this particular point we had been in the battle zone maybe 150 days, 158 days straight. And we were probably pretty battle hardened, and we had seen a lot. We had seen Americans and Germans hit. And we saw, when the thaw began to come in Luxembourg, and we were just moving out of the Battle of the Bulge, the snow level would go down, and the first thing you would see was a hand sticking out of the snow. And then the rest of the body. And there were a lot of bodies. So we were battle-hardened people. But he went back to the concentration — Turner went back to the concentration camp. And he came back, and he couldn’t eat for the rest of the day. So it must have been pretty horrible. I didn’t go. I’m sorry I didn’t. I probably should have.
– Another question I should have asked you back when we were at the Bulge. Did you know about the massacre at Malmedy ?
Absolutely. Absolutely knew about that. What happened there — and that was just ahead of when we — just before we got there. What happened there was they lined these American soldiers up who were surrendering and turned the machine gun and rifle fire on them and killed ’em. We knew about that.
– Let’s pick up the story now from when you left Europe and got back home. Let’s talk about your post service life.
Okay. They sent us back to Camp Swift, Texas. And at that particular time we were definitely expecting to be trans-shipped to the Pacific Theater because if we were going to invade Japan, we would take all the men and equipment, and I’m sure that they felt that they would need an army such as the Third Army, which was Patton’s Third Army. And well trained and a good army. I went back to my hometown of Canton, and they had a big victory parade. And I believe it was just the day after the the victory parade that we heard that the atomic bomb had been released. And shortly thereafter Japan surrendered, which, of course, I couldn’t have been happier, ’cause I — I just was hoping I wouldn’t have to go to the Pacific Theater. I was married at the time. We started a family. We settled in Cleveland. I got a job. I remember about 65 dollars a week, which was working to get a job then. All my college training was — really had gone for naught because it was just much too long since I had graduated to remember much. So I really practically started from scratch. And maybe it was just as well because for, I’d say, a couple years after I got out of the service, in the early days I was having a lot of nightmares. I don’t think I could have talked to you like this some years — some years ago. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. Because I just wanted to put it out of my mind. It was a — the horror of war was still fresh in my mind. And, so, but I — but I was having nightmares. And eventually I got over that. But then, when I got this job, I was just restless. I had a desk, but I couldn’t stay at my desk. And I kept on walking back and forth, and eventually they fired me. And I don’t blame ’em, to tell you the truth. And I joined a small newspaper in Cleveland as advertising manager, and that didn’t work out. And then I had to do something, I had a family. So I went into the insurance business and eventually became somewhat successful at that. Came to Toledo as a general agent for Equitable and from that time on, why, I did better.
– The idea of — or rather your statement about the nightmares, I think it was fairly common, wasn’t it ?
Yeah. I would — I would think so. Well, you put yourself back in the foxhole and are being shelled, and you would be sleeping and all of a sudden you’d jump up with a start. I imagine this must affect a lot of the other soldiers too.
– And your — your statement about being restless I’ve heard before in other interviews that although civilian life was certainly safe, you were used to living at an emotional high for so much of your service time.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. And some of the things carry over too. When I was in a house at night, I’d want all the — all the drapes closed because, just like on the battle field, if they can see you and you can’t see them, you’re at a disadvantage. And so you want the drapes closed; you want more lights on. It’s got to affect men that come back. You can’t help it.
– Well then, you said you went back and visited city like Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Was that traumatic for you at all?
No. No, that was not because I had — I was not in those areas. When we went back to those places, they had been pretty well rebuilt. We went back in the nine — eighteen — 1990s. So they had been rebuilt. In — Prague was a beautiful city, like Vienna. I didn’t know whether Vienna liked Americans that well. Budapest was a very beautiful place, but it was very difficult to communicate. The Russians would not let the Hungarians learn English. So, you couldn’t — very — very, very few people spoke English at that time. And, so — but — no, I had no problems back then.
– Do you have lingering animosity about what took place during that war?
No. No, I don’t. No. Are you — I don’t know if you’re referring to the anti-American feeling or anti-Semitic feeling or —
– Anything —
No. I think it’s something that we had to do. And there was just no way we could stay out of the war. You couldn’t isolate yourselves, ’cause the world now is getting smaller and it’s all interconnected. We’re trading with China. We’re trading with Germany. We’re trading with England, with all those countries. And it’s all interconnected. And a lot of — a lot of the thinking has to do with oil, too, today.
– Yes. How did you feel about the fact that so soon after the war that Germany became our ally in the — in our stand against Communism?
Well, I really thought that was a good thing because it’s a lot better than the way it was before, when Germany was our enemy. And I think the Germans — the administration, German administration by and large felt very ashamed and sorry for what had happened, the new administration. Have you ever been to Israel?
If you go to Israel, you’ll find more German cars than any other type of car. Because the Germans gave Israel large amounts of reparations and — in the form of cars. There’s Mercedes there, there’s Volkswagens. Everywhere you go you see German cars. So I think that it — I would like to see the situation where all countries would be friendly with each other. Unfortunately, that can’t be. And today when, in certain parts of the world, in the schoolroom, they preach hatred instead of love, that’s going to cause trouble.
I honestly don’t know if I was getting through or not. But — but one of the things I try to stress to them is that freedom isn’t free. If we want to enjoy the type of living that we have here in the United States — and I think this is the best country club in the world — we have to be prepared to fight for it, sacrifice for it. We have to be prepared to defend it. I’m reading a book now, John Adams. It’s a wonderful book. John Adams is really the father of this country. Washington was the first president, and Jefferson wrote the Constitution when they forced him to do it, to sit down and finally write it. But John Adams was really the father of this country. And to read the struggles that they went through at that time and how he had to keep everybody focused. We are interested in independence. We won independence from Great Britain. It’s a wonderful book. Every page is important.
– You told me earlier that you kept a diary and that your daughters then got that diary and had it printed ?
Yeah, there are the books right there. They’re old, dilapidated. I used to write in those books underneath my blanket with a flashlight at night. But I never put in names or places because I didn’t do that until the end of the war. That would have — if that had been captured that would have been information to the enemy.
– And — and it should be noted also that you are going to copy this to be put with the —
— recordings we have for the Library of Congress.
– And I’d like to ask you one last question.
– You’ve brought out a lot of memories here today. Has it been an emotional trip for you to talk about those days ?
Not so much now, but it would have been if I’d have done it earlier. I — I — years went by and I never — I didn’t want to talk about it.
– So if we had gotten together many years ago, you probably couldn’t have —
— have done this?
Probably wouldn’t have. I would have probably said, “I’m sorry, I’d rather not talk about it now.”
– I think that’s a — that’s a common feeling of the World War II veterans —
– who are now starting to talk, but wouldn’t for many, many years.
Yeah. Because at that time I felt this way : Why was I lucky and why weren’t those — those soldiers lying in a row at the Graves Registration going? Why were they not lucky? There were some mighty good-looking young men.
– A survival syndrome, if you will.
Yeah. Yeah. Why was I so lucky and why were they not lucky ? Someone had to — someone had to sacrifice, and it was them. Although, I could have been the one.
And, as I mentioned to you before, I didn’t want to come back as a cripple. I wanted to either come back whole, as I did, or dead.
Andrew Fisher : Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’ve enjoyed it. I hope you’ve enjoyed bringing it all out today. And I hope that one day a future historian or student will reach up into the archives and find this story of Alvin Dickson.
Alvin Dickson : Thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
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