The original title of this archive is ‘From Forced Workers Camp to Yankee Division’, War Memories of Boleslaw Piatkowski. This archive, presented as a small booklet, was written down by Jacek Okon (Poland). The iconography is made of private photos from the author, Boleslaw Piatkowski, Internet images, photos archives from the European Center of Military History as well as photos from the James ‘Jimbo’ Haahr archives, a veteran of the Yankee Division (101st Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division). It is with great pride that I bring attention to the Polish citizens who, liberated of the German Forced Labor Workers Camps, became part of the 26th Infantry Division and thus, helped the US Army to terminate the definitive liberation of Europa during the last months of war in 1945.
My name is Boleslaw Piatkowski. I am a polish citizen. I was born in October 13 1927 in a small district town of Brody, Tarnopol Province, in the eastern part of Poland, a part of my country which belongs today to Ukraine. My Mother’s family name was Glogowska (i.e a daughter of Glogowski), my Father Jan (John) Piatkowski was a Polish pre-war policeman. He died in 1985. I had two brothers, the older one was Kazimierz (Kazik), the younger Mieczyslaw (Mietek). I also had one sister, Maria. We all, including my parents, where from Polish origin. We lived in this small town in a four families house on the Cicha Street 3, having the neighborhood consisting of two Polish families and one Jewish. The population in Brody, about 1100 peoples, was mainly composed of Jewish families, then Ukrainians families and, finally, Polish families (10%) totaling about 1096 inhabitants. The town was also garrisoned by the Nowogródzka Cavalry Brigade under the command of Gen Wladyslaw Anders which, in 1944, was in charge of the Polish Corps which raided the Abey in Monte Cassino in Italy. I knew his son who was was of my age and we were together in the school.
Brody, Poland, during the wartime period.
When my father retired (February 1939, the very day Pope Pius XI passed), our family moved westward to the small town of Ostrowek, along the Vistula River, in the vicinity of the town of Mielec. My father hoped to find a job by the National Aircraft Factory in Mielec, but he failed in it. First, the entire family lived in a single rented room. In 1941, we took possession by inheritance of a village house covered with the thatched roof and having a pugging floor. This house was still in the family possession and used by my sister Maria, as long as in 1997 when it collapsed.
The town of Ostrowek had something like a natural fortress because it was located in the center of a triangle made of the Vistula, the Wiskola and the Bern rivers. The west part of the town was protected by the large Vistulas River, the northern part of the town all along up to the east, by the Wiskola River and, finally, the southern part of the village by the Bern River. Considering often rivers’ overflows, there were ground dames heaped up from four sides between the village and the rivers. Visitors usually said that these dams were like ramparts, and I do even believe that the literal translation of Ostrawek gives out Little Island, which can say much more about location of this human habitation.
But war is war and even the best hidden village cannot avoid to be included in a battlefield. We lived in a constant threat, not knowing the day and the hour. Although in November 1942, when the war in the shape of the German Feldgendarme (Field Police) had violently knocked at our house’s doors, no one of our family was a forest boy, still the consciousness of the danger was with us long before. Under our thatched roof, on our pugging-floor, in our great room, there were partisans coming together, considering that it was the safest house of all the villager’s cottages. Father was bringing secret news-sheets along, and was considered by partisans as one of them. It didn’t take a long time for my father to becomes staunched, and our house became the main contact point in Ostrowek. This partisan unit was named Jedrusie and was united with the AK (Home Army) which was led by Polish Emigrated Government in London. Later, as well, my older brother Kazimierz, left home and went in this unit as a soldier. But it was later, when I was in a lager in Germany.
Taken Away From the Family Home
This happened during the month of November 1942. I cannot remember the exact date in the month, but it was November 1942 and I was a 15 years old boy. The German Feldgendarmes didn’t, of course, foretell their visit. Somebody had warned my father and, in no time, the whole family, (father, mother, brothers, sister and two little cousin’s) had left the house to find a shelter over the dams. In the hurry, they had simply forgotten about me and, unaware of the threat, I was lying in bed with a bad cold and didn’t want to get up and escape. A little while later, when the Feldgendarmes were in the area checking all the houses, it was to late for me to escape. It appeared that they were searching for my elder brother Kazik, who was 17, as he had been designated by the Germans to be a forced worker for the III Reich. So they found me and there was nothing I could do or say. I knew that Kazik was hiding with the family over the dams and I wasn’t ready to tell the Germans that my name was Boleslaw (Bolec) and not Kazik. They were searching for a 17 years old young boy called Piatkowski, I was one a Piatkowski, I was 15 years old but looked like 17 and I didn’t sure want to disabuse them. A couple minutes later I was dragged out, identified as Kazik Piatkowski, and loaded in a truck heading soon for the town of Mielec. There were several men inside the truck. Sitting silently on wooden crates because we weren’t allowed to talk to each other. Beside this, there wasn’t a lot to say in such a situation. I was feeling like Simon, the Cyrenian, when he was forced to bear the cross after Jesus couldn’t not more do it – but this was indeed the very best doing of his entire life. I am even certain about this. For us, in this truck, the only thing to do was to use the first opportunity to jump out and run away
When my parents retumed home, they could not find me, and the neighbors explained them what had happened to me. From our village, 5 persons were taken and loaded into the truck : Czeslawa (Czesia) Tworkowa, Myjak (I don’t remember his first name), brothers Ciejka (Edward – Edek) and Stanislaw (Staszek), and myself. My brother Kazik survived in such an happy way that before soon he joined the partisan unit Jedrusie and spent the left years of World War Two as a soldier, in the woods and in battles.
The truck we were in didn’t stop until being parked before the Low Court building in the center of Mielec. The Feldgendarmes screamed at us Raus, Schnell .. Schnell and we were taken to an office upstairs. We didn’t know where we were conducted, but one of us, Edek Ciejka, wasn’t interested to know. With a fast movement he he passed me the grub (prog), which he has had from his mother for the way (I thought that I must have taken it only for a while, that perhaps he would lace up his shoes). But in this same moment I’ve heard his whisper : I run away boys! I had no time to ask him, how and when he would have do it, and I became the witness of his escape. It was at this moment switched around, in a few leaps jumped downstairs, and left the building by the main entrance. It was also the last time I saw him in my life. Of course, the Feldgendarmes ran out on the double after him, but they didn’t catch him. He had executed a very brave and successfully escape and was free again. I learned later, after the war, that Edek, unable to get back to the village, headed for the forest area and joined the Partisans with whom he was killed during a battle in 1944. Anyway, we were really happy because standing upstairs, the only thing important to us was the fact that Edek escaped from the Germans and ran away while we were still trying to find out a way to escape, more occupied to analyze our situation and drawing some plans in our minds.
Czesia Tworkorwa was led in a women’s cell, Myjak, Staszek Ciejka and myself in a room upstairs. Doors were closed behind and we stayed there for three days. On the third day we were loaded into one cattle truck at the railway station and taken to the prison in Debica were we stayed for a week. The next stage of this travel to the unknown (because we didn’t know where we would be sent) was the famous city of Krakow. From Debica to Krakow, we were poured inside a third-class railroad carriage. A short moment later, Czesia opened the window of the compartment, climbed on the seat, leaned out of the small window holding on the metallic frame. Then she jumped. She turned somersaults a little, stand up and started running up to the woods. We all had seen it. The three of us who didn’t have enough time to follow her as well as the German guard who failed to hold her back. Anyway, Czesia was free and the train wasn’t stopped for this reason.
In Krakow, we spent the an entire week in prison’s cell, still unconscious of our future. Even today, I still did not find out in what street we where nor in what building we had been imprisoned. I had never been in this city before and I couldn’t find that location. Even after the war, I was several times in Krakow but the city is so large that I had to give out my researches.
Myjak was liberated in Krakow because he was the only one to work in his family and was, moreover, a shoemaker. He also had an illness (he had referred to in vain in Mielec and Debica). In Krakow, somebody must have had some pity for him, and, Thanks the Lord, Myjak was sent back home. Now, there were only two left of our group : Staszek Ciejka and myself, both kids and both 15 years old. A couple days later, another third-class railroad car in which we had been poured in with hundreds of other forced workers left Krakow. In this huge group, we were the youngest one but our childhood was definitely left behind us in Ostrowek.
Forced Workers Camp in Kahl am Main
The page from the ‘Lagerbuch’ in Kahl am Main : N°103 Ciejka Stanislaw; N°106 Franciszek Peksa; N°108 Boleslaw Piatkowski; N°109 Bronislaw Pedrak
After a long train ride our next location was the Transition Camp in Chemnitz. The Camp staff was composed of Ukrainians. A young Ukrainian woman who during the basic medical check was writing down our personal data, raised her eyes, having heard the name ‘Piatkowski’. She was looking at me for a while in a strange way and asked using her Ukrainian language Are you the brother of Maria Piatkowski from Brody ?. I answered truthfully yes ! She didn’t say anymore but I’ve noticed that from this moment to the end of our short stay in Chemnitz she’s avoided me as if she was afraid of something. I really don’t know from where she knew my sister. From the Camp in Chemnitz we were taken to another Camp in Aschaffenburg were the selection was done and we were assigned a work camp or a work place. Staszek Ciejka was assigned with me the Workers Camp in Kahl am Main. This was the first and only consolation for us, we would stay together.
Kahl am Main proved to be a small town kept clean and tidy in spite of the war. But I didn’t have many occasions to have a look on the town as all my notices were limited to the ones I could see while working. All I saw and remember today are many gardens which were encircled even large buildings with. The camp I was sent to was the branch of the Schölkrippen-Lager (Schölkrippen was the abode of the concern of Hammer, for the benefit of which we formally worked). The camp was seated on the edges of the town nearby of a narrow-gauge railway station from were we went to work by train. The Main Railway Station, much bigger, was located downtown. The camp Kahl am Main contained above hundreds of forced workers, Poles in the greater part, but there were also Ukrainians from the eastern part of the pre-war Poland. We all but a few were young peoples and most of us weren’t yet more that twenty years old. Again, I was the youngest one.
We lived in wooden barracks, twenty men in each of them. Beds of boards for sleeping weren’t like these of present days, they were knocked together out of severe planks – it was our bad after all-day work. With time, when we knew more about the camp, we brought along from the rubbish heap the shavings, which were evicted by workers of the neighboring factory so we could sleep on this shavings, and replacing it, because of fleas, which infested such mattresses. There were also louses and bed-bugs, and after time going forward we all had the itch. As food we had, turnip-rooted cabbages (rutabaga), sugar-beets, carrots, bruised grains and rotten frozen potatoes; on holiday, we had a horse’s head. Such were the components, which the German-cook woman Helena Friedrich could get for us from the camp administration. She was a good kind-hearted woman. We didn’t complain of her because, thank to her, we could eat sometimes sweet cookies, which she was cooking at her home and brought to the camp. Sometimes she gave us her ration cards. When we worked along the tracks, we often could find a piece of bread packed in a paper. The unknown greathearted German threw it down by a lavatory pan, being afraid of doing it publicly. I remember rare events when we were beaten by gaolers, but it wasn’t often. Those gaolers were disabled soldiers from the Poland Campaign in 1939 and from the Low Countries and France Campaign in 1940. They were lesser proficient than we were.
We came to the camp in Kahl am Main during the winter time. They didn’t gave us any winter clothes and all we had was the clothes we had on the day of our capture. Sometimes, a native German had put clothes stealthily, but those impulses of good hearts could not protect all of us against this and the next winter. Usually, our work as slave consisted in digging ditches and laying electric cables in it. At daybreak we took the train and went in the immediate vicinity of Aschaffenburg. The cables had to run underground, so we had first to remove the snow and to dig never-ending ditches, while the frozen ground was hard like a stone. We then laid down a new cable in the ditch and covered it with rubles, mostly stones and earth. We were neither political prisoners nor prisoners of war. We were just forced workers, and because of this, due to wages. Elders than myself were receiving their’s. I didn’t never receive my wage because – as one told me in the administration – I was too young.
Staszek Ciejka and myself stayed together all the time we spent in the lager at Kahl am Main. A third man, Franek Peska, a mountaineer from Zakopane, became a close friend to us. When Franek was sent to our camp he was 22 years old. His mountaineer dialect made him liked, and he was a first-rate comrade for both of us. He knew German and during our lunches he often entered into conversation with Helena Friedrich, the cook-woman. She must have liked him to, because in the beginning he was the only one of us who was getting cookies and ration cards. This woman knew how to improve my wrestling with adversity. Franek has told to Helena that I was not only the youngest one in the camp but also the most hard-working. After this recommendation she went to the foreman and extorted him to allow me, during my free time, to go working into her garden. I was very grateful to Franek for this because this additional work, the work after hours, consisted in weeding, watering, lopping a hedge and other gardener acting.
After hard manual labor such relations with the nature was like a true rest beside that each time, I was returning to the camp with a bag fulfilled with food and cigarettes (this was the beginning of my smoking for 25 years) and clothes. Fair division was taking place in our barrack. I owed such abundance of goods Helena’s daughter, Florentina. Florentina planed to become a hairdresser after the war and she exercised dressing on my hair. So by the occasion, my hair was done and I was scented with Eau de Cologne. (Since the end of the war I am exchanging letters with Florentina. She keeps inviting me to Kahl am Main but unfortunately I wasn’t able to visit her. She came once to Poland to visit me and this was a very moving moment). Helena didn’t last long to advertise my abilities in garden works to Hilma, one of her relatives, and so I had work in two gardens fellowed soon by a third one owned by the widow of a Wehrmacht soldier who had been killed somewhere in the eastern front. Wardrobes in her house were full of the clothes left by her husband. So, she ordered me to try on it, and if something suited me she gave it to me while saying let it stay not squandered …
Wartime slave work consisted usually in digging ditches and putting down electric cables in Kahl am Main and in the immediate surroundings. In 1943, we became witnesses of the Allied bombardments. I think that they were quite new events for the inhabitants of the little town. Bombardments became more intense from month to month and it was the reason why our works changed from cables laying to rubbles clearing. We soon became intended for clearing the devastations, especially for returning snapped tracks to it’s place. We cut bent rails into pieces with blowpipes, without any gloves and goggles of course.
Usually, we were brought to work by train and we stayed there until the job has been finished even, when in sometime, it lasted a few days. When this happened we were told to sleep inside the railroad carriages. With the intensification of the bombardment, especially when bombings became a daily duty for the Allies, we were shifted from place to place. Accordingly, we were sent to Frankurt, Hanau, Aschaffenburg, Offenbach, Fulda and Darmstadt. Bombs were causing tremendous damages. American bombers during the daytime and English during the night. Railroad tracks which were repaired after an American bombardment were often demolished by the British bombers a few hours later. Usually, Bomber Groups consisted of 60 bombers which dropped their bombs at the same time on a target. We were really impressed by phosphorus and incendiary bombs. Sometime you could think that the sky and the ground were burning together.
When an air raid caught us at work or asleep, we were hiding under the under the trains standing on the side-tracks because the Germans did not allow us to use the air-raid shelters. Under the trains was the only way for us to find some protection. Sometime, on their way back from a bombing mission, the British bombers were dropping false German rations-cards. Before the Germans could leave their air-raid shelters, we had sufficient time to pick up some of the paper-bombs. Later, being in other towns, we went with these cards to the shop. I think that the work of these British falsifiers was excellent because no shopkeepers discovered the falsification.
Air raids gave us a fright many times. But this fear was strictly connected with joy that the end of the war was at hand. And the sight, when the Germans were taking flight, engendered in us a great satisfaction. There was no humility in the Germans. It even seemed to me that there hatred of Allies even increased.
Once upon a time, the German Flak shot down an already wounded British bomber which was flying to low. The plane crashed a few meters away from us and we saw that the body of the dead pilot had been thrown out of the wreck. German civilians came to see what happened and started immediately bullying the dead body with horrific obstinacy. They were spitting at him, throwing stones at him, Kicking, striking him with sticks, abusing. As if they still believed that after that the victory could be with them.
With the end of the winter, in 1945, we heard rifles shooting near-by, ticking with every hour. This time, it was not thud of artillery from the distant front line, but quite close noise of combat. We were in our barracks at Kahl am Main. Since a few days we were not anymore taken to our daily work, and no one of us knew that the Camp was about to be evacuated. After a short skirmish in our near area, American units of the Third Army entered the town. When the jeep of the outpost had stopped in the front of the Camp’s gates, our guard-cripples came out to them with a white flag, holding hands up. Seeing the Germans guards with a white flag in the hand and walking to the gates of the Camp was an annoying sight. So, Staszek Ciejka, me, and Franek Peksa came out of our block and walked to the entrance of the Camp. There, we were looking at the first American soldiers with a great admiration. For me, in this moment, they were so much magnificent as were our Polish Uhlans (Cavalrymen) I saw in the barrack in my native town of Brody. Of course during my entire childhood I was dreaming to become an Uhlan. The American soldiers gave us cans full of meat, cigarettes with filter and chewing-gums which for us was quite exotic. They told us that we were now liberated and that we were free. The gates were now wide open.
In the Yankee Division
Because there was no German guards anymore we could leave the Camp without any obstacles. So, after having had a meal from the American cans, we bade our comrades prisoners farewell and we went out into the town. There were still three of us, but our trio had varied : Staszek Ciejka having disappeared somewhere was substituted by Bronislaw (Bronek) Pedrak, Franek Peska and myself. In Kahl am Main, there was a crowd of peoples like in a fair. German Peoples were hidden behind closed shutters, after hoisting white flags from the windows, but streets were full of Americans in green uniforms, and jeeps were riding to and from, tooting. We looked after any Polish speaking soldier. We believed that Americans of Polish origin registered in the Army of their own free will, because we were always the valiant nation and always remembered it, so there should be a lot of ours in the green crowd. Our deal was now to find one of them.
Americans spoke obstinately in English. But it didn’t last long that we were found. Perhaps our Polish conversations attracted some attention, or perhaps the large white ‘P’ with which we were as Poles labeled by the Germans (in their estimation this was like a bad brand, in our estimation it was like a distinction). Anyway, the captain who came near us asked in Polish language.
– To wy Polacy ? (So you’re Poles ?)
– A niby kto ? (An who else could be ?) I answered.
When we had explained him that we were willing to join the American Army, he said :
– Ja tu nie decyduje. Z tym trzeba do pulkownika. Ale najpierw posle po Sagale, zeby thumaczyl, bo mnie za ciezko (I don’t decide in those matters. You should go with it to the Colonel. But firstly, I will call Corporal Sagala. He will be your translator because I can’t speak Polish as good as he)
He took us on a courtyard of the house in which the regimental headquarters was installed, kept us waiting, and went away for a long while trying to find Sagala.
The Corporal Steve Sagala was speaking Polish as good as we were doing it and only his « r » was rather else than our Polish ‘r’. He was in the reconnoitering company. So we were taken by Cpl Sagala and the Captain from the courtyard into the house, in the Colonel’s office. In this office, the Captain passed him our matter.
– So you want to become American soldier, don’t you ? Asked the Colonel.
Steve Sagala stood behind him, stooping a little, and repeated his words in Polish language and then our words in English. (We neither spoke English nor understood it). It all lasted very long because we were interrogated scrupulously, with visible suspicion. In the end of it the Colonel waved it aside and told something to Sagala. Sagala knocked with his heels and shouted : Yes Sir !
– You two are accepted, pointing his finger at Pedrak and Peksa. For now on you are American soldiers. Then pointing at me, you, you are too young for us. At this particularly moment, I thought I had misheard.
– What does this mean : too young ? I am 17 years old ! I exclaimed with despair. I was sufficient to hack and a spade, so I should be sufficient to a rifle as well !
My words were translated to the Colonel. The Colonel waved it aside once more, told something to Sagala which saluted shouting : Yes Sir ! and we were taken by him outside. The Captain who was a silent witness of the scene, had shook his head to us, encouragingly. This was the last time we saw this man.
– You are accepted as well, said Sagala to me. And he added, quoting surely the Colonel’s last words : When somebody want so hastily to meet the death, if he please, we don’t forbid, and he conducted the three of us into the weapons section.
I got equipment and a rifle. The uniform I was given was incomplete because they didn’t find a fitting helmet for me. All the ones they had were too large. At last, the impatient storekeeper told me : we have no suitable helmet for you but don’t worry, you will find the proper one on the front line ! He then gave me underneath and a soft skin helmet (in Poland named ‘pilotka’ Pilot Cap), with a lining made from sheep hair. This cap had a bad odor. I didn’t get any ID Tags (Dog Tags) to carry my Army Serial Number, Names etc. This lack made me later have lot of complications when, after the war (1969-1970), in America, I tried to get the veteran rights.
The rifle they gave me was the same as the other soldiers, the 8 shots semi-automatic M-1 Rifle caliber 30.06. This rifle wasn’t new. I think that I had it after another soldier (perhaps killed in action) who use it before, because a name ‘Rosalie’ was carved in to butt-end. Anyway, I had now a rifle and this was the first time in my life I had one into my hands. After having received all our combat equipment, Corporal Sagala told us to follow him and led us to the area of King Company, 3rd Battalion, 101st Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division – Yankee Division, and introduced us to the comrades as new soldiers. (My Polish name is properly pronounced as ‘Pyontkoffsky’ because of the tongue-let under Polish letter ‘a’, so I used this form. But they called me usually ‘Pollack’ (the Pole). This same day, or rather by this night, because it lasted the whole night until daybreak, we’ve gone through the course of using a weapon. Instructions were led by Steve Sagala personally, as our first teacher. But the practice came not before than at the front line. This one man was also our translator during the war and combat. For me, this was the way I switched from a forced worker in a German Camp to an American soldier in K-101/26-ID (Third Army).
We stayed in King Co through the rest of the war and even some time after the war, located in Pernek, Czechoslovakia. With our rifles, we were in combat as all the other normal soldiers. In many times, I did a good use of my rifle named Rosalie.
King Company consisted of about hundred soldiers and was divided into platoons which were made of squads. If I correctly remember me, I was in the 3rd Platoon. After co-opting us we were each assigned to a Squad of fifteen men. In this Squad, a group of five was Polish peoples, although only three of us had their home in Poland. Steve Sagala and Joseph Galla were in fact Americans of Polish origin, as it is usually named in Poland. Yet Franek Peksa, Bronek Pedrak and myself, we were true born Poles. But in compliance with an advice, which didn’t please us, we haven’t flaunted it. Here is the composition of our Squad in the 3rd Platoon :
Franek Peksa : Polish man;
Bronislaw Pedrak : Polish man and Citizen;
Gregorio Reyna : Mexican origin;
Steve Sagala : American of Polish origin;
Joseph Cragnelli : American of Italian origin;
Donald Egan : Original Yankee, perhaps Scottish origin;
Norman Ribiero : American with a Russian mother;
Dallas Miller : Original Yankee;
Charles Salomon Freedman : American Jew; he was a very good dancer; I remember him to dance on a quarter when the pathefon played the song titled ‘Ramona’;
Richard Engelman : Original Yankee;
Joseph Galla : American of Polish origin;
Donald Ely : Original Yankee, perhaps Scottish origin;
Joseph B. Wise
Jack E. McGalley (or Galvey) : attached to King Co later;
Stephen Fuller : attached to King Co later;
Bolycki : American of Polish origin, formerly in the Military Police, attached to King Co after the war in Pernek, Czechoslovakia;
Boleslaw Piatkowski (me) : A Pole and Polish citizen;
And the Sergeant (I don’t remember his name)
I remember very well the Commanding Officer of King Co, Capt Antonio (Anthony) Caruso which was, of course, an American of Italian origin. I could easily pronounce this name, and it was also easy to remember. The same name had a famous Italian tenor (Enrico Caruso), about whom I’ve heard earlier from my older brother, who would be a tenor as well (this desire became reality after the war, in a famous Polish choir, but even in the partisan unit my brother had the pseudonym ‘Spiewak’ (Singer). So during my entire war route, Capt Caruso associated in my mind with singing and with my brother. There was also another officer in King Co ; Mondel (such is the Polish pronunciation for this name). I also remember very well a guy named Clinton Lindberg, a soldier from another platoon, a man I am still exchanging letters in these days (2005). Because I was a Polish man (and citizen) and didn’t know English language, my conversations were usually in Polish language. In my Squad there were, as I said, five of us (Polish), so I had them to talk with. We had also another Polish speaking man : Joseph Michalewicz, an American of Polish origin who was the chief-cook in field-kitchen. I’ve known him very well. (Photo : Joseph Michalewicz front & center).
A shot while after this Staszek Ciejka reappeared. As he told us, when he had lost sight of us in Kahl am Main and could not find us again in the dense crowd of American soldiers, he joined the also the US Army on his own. He was sent as replacement in the crew of a Sherman Tank, in Combat Command A of a Third Army’s Armored Division. Of course, our earlier daily contact has become now sporadic and limited to occasional meetings on greater halts. And it became a rule till the end of war.
During my service as Recon trooper in King Co, we marched out to the front as the spearhead of the Yankee Division. It was, as I thought, a rule. We were usually advancing along a road, going in single file, keeping a space of a few meters between one another, fifty men on one side of the road and fifty on the other. During the march the conversations were forbidden. In the forefront we could see Capt Caruso and his Radio man. We were going as far as the end of the no man’s land, i.e. to standing out German positions. Sometimes we saw Germans from the distance, not being visible to them, and sometimes we had to engage them when they attacked us unexpectedly. Our main objective was to discover the number of enemies. When the Germans thought that we were the main American forces, there were a lot of concentrated fire. Capt Caruso was then radioing to the regimental headquarters and after that he usually ordered to hold of the place until tanks would arrive, or to retreat if the Germans defenses were to strong. If we had to hold, we immediately dug foxholes in the ground to avoid being hit by mortars or artillery shells. These holes weren’t like trenches : ordinary holes, as deep as three-quarter of a man. Sometimes I have spent the whole night in this hole and German voices were audible somewhere very, very near by.
In our combat activity elements of improvisation predominated because within a few seconds our advantage could be transformed into one disadvantage and vice versa. But before I’ve learned what in our operations was a rule : the baptism of fire. It happened as early as the next day after my liberation from the slave workers camp. After Kahl am Main, the next objective for the Yankee Division was the city of Alzenau, located about 8 kilometers in north-east (this direction was kept as far as Fulda). To move ahead to Alzenau we didn’t go on the main road but went into a wood to hide our presence for as long as possible because we were ordered to take the city without any help or support.
On the other side of the woods, in the immediate vicinity of the town, we were surprised by enemy gunfire and the rifle shots raised for a few minutes. In this combat I did good use of my M-1 rifle for the first time in this war and also in my life. I don’t know if I killed someone that day. I also had two hand grenades : one anti personal and one smoke, and two rifle grenades, but I didn’t use them in this battle. Germans weren’t much more numerous than we were but they had much better positions, earlier prepared for combat.
I was told by Sagala that I shouldn’t be afraid. The German forces were now in such a dispersion that they wouldn’t get any supplies and would never decide to counterattack. Anyway, along the woods and in the front of the town, our tactical location was much worse than the German one and it could end with unnecessary casualties for us. Such was the point of view of Capt Caruso as well as the rest of us. Capt Caruso gave then an order to retreat and, incessantly shooting back, we ran back inside the woods. German bullets whizzed near our heads and cut off branches of trees.
After a few minutes shots calmed down and we changed our march direction and passed around the town of Alzenau, going towards the main road which was leading from Frankfurt am Main to Fulda. On that road the lorries from our Division overtook us and by the night gave us a lift to the place where we could see the first buildings of Fulda’s suburb on the dark background of the sky.
It was then during the night. King Co was given a lift by trucks of the divisional lorries to the place where the first houses of Fulda’s suburb could be seen. During the way car’s headlights were off and the lorries stopped in such a distance from the town that the engine’s noises couldn’t be heard by the Germans, if there were any in the town. The last stretch of the road we surmounted on foot. We slipped by fences, stooping, not seen by anybody. I was surprised at the dead silence : no feelers, not even a sign of any organized defense. Yet, I was told that the Germans were in permanent flight, leaving on the positions and that only Volksturm’s teams were left for covering the retreat and keeping back the American’s march. There was absolute nobody. If I was then an experienced soldier, this silence would have make me sniffing a soon to come ambush. But this very silence has put us on the right track.
Going on forward we suddenly heard loud voices and laughter coming from a large house surrounded by vast garden and farm buildings. The windows were in full black-out, but when we approached there we were quite sure that the voices originated from this place. They were very distinct German voices of happy-go-lucky, as if convivial, human life. We attacked this object, aiming in doors and windows and a short while later, when Capt Caruso stopped the gunfire, a white flag fastened on a long pole was put out of one window. We captured then about fifty German soldiers. They had no inclination to the further soldiering and preferred to spend the last whiles of their freedom on feasting. So they had killed a pig, backed it and they were just eating the roast and drinking French cognac, when we began to shoot. Of course the roast-meat and French cognac were taken by us as well, as the booty.
The prisoners were gathered in one of the rooms upstairs and ordered to sit on the floor, squeezed together like fishes in the can. Capt Caruso has set me to guard them. So I was sitting in a rocking-chair, in the front of the open doors of the room, with my M-1 rifle on my knees. While rocking I was looking at them full in their faces. Perhaps I must have look rather insolently, because they could not stand my eyes and turned their glance aside, as if for fear that I could be provoked by their too resolute or proud glance. But I was simply very taken up with my new part. In the same measure I was afraid that somebody could suddenly start up and run away; and then my debut as a guard would not be successful. So I did not let them out of my sight. It was uninterrupted during an hour.
While the men were feasting downstairs they forgot all about me, but, about an hour later, someone came up and brought me a bottle of French cognac. The guy told to me : ‘You must not stare at them in such a non-stop way. They were waiting for us and they will, for sure, not run away’. Following this good advice, I kept rocking and opened the bottle. It wasn’t a long time before I experienced a feeling which was earlier unfamiliar to me : an odd mix of dizziness, impudence and gaiety. I had only killed half the bottle. A short while later, I felt sleepy and was almost asleep when Capt Caruso came up, saw me in the rocking-chair, saw the bottle and relieved me from guard duty. Because I was not able to walk by myself, a couple of men came up, grabbed me by arms and legs, dragged me out and dropped me in a feather–bed. When I woke up, the sun was high up in the sky. I was told by my comrades that after my indisposition Capt Caruso didn’t designate anyone to the guard duty and that not a single German had run away or tried to do it. Really, they were safe and sound, still sitting in the same room.
While trying to get out of the fog, I felt really badly : bodily and morally. So I went to Capt Caruso’s PC and told in self-justification that I drank alcohol for the first time in my life and I didn’t know that it would have such an effect on me. Capt Caruso smiled and told me not to worry about that. I was happy because I wasn’t punished.
We stayed there for the whole day, waiting for the main forces. During this day liberated forced farm-hands were coming up to us as if we were the whole American Army yet. Because we had to hold the place and keep the prisoners of war we had captured, these forced farm-hands stayed in the area with us, waiting for next American troops. Later, when the troops came in, we released the area and the prisoners were sent to the rear. The same day, the Yankee Division got new orders and moved ahead to seize Fulda. At night fall, we then left the area on foot, and in the immediate vicinity of Fulda our unit was ordered to bypass this city and as a Recon unit we moved to another objective. So we did not take part in the hard struggles for Fulda but I think that it should not be forgotten that the first unit of the 26th Infantry Division to reach the outskirts of Fulda, to liberate forced farm-hands and take prisoners was our company.
The city of Sonneberg was captured by King Co. When we entered the town, there was a sudden gunfire directed against us, lead by Volkssturm troops in the age of a Hitlerjugend scout (16-17 years old). Quickly, we were in combat and after less than half an hour, the victory belonged to us. I participated in the action as every other American soldiers in the unit. It was not an exceptional event. King Co didn’t suffer a single casualty. I do remember that one of these German boys still alive after the skirmish was armed with an MP-38/40 Schmeisser Machine Pistol and he wasn’t even 10 years old. We decided to threat him like a bad son. He got several slaps on his bottom and was sent, crying, back to mama.
Sixty years later I found in the War Diary of 101st Infantry Regiment, led in the headquarters as current daily work, a note that Sonneberg was taken without even a shot being fired. In fact, when the main forces following us came into the town, it was really without a shot being fired.
While clearing the town of Sonneberg King Co took possession of a weapon factory. All the weapon from the factory had to be placed in the City Hall, together with the weapon captured from Volkssturm. I had an order to superintend this operation. The order was executed by me properly. All the time there was the Director of this factory together with me. He was the man of good will and was thankful to me for good treatment. He presented me from his own unexpected will with a golden lighter. I think today that he was probably willing to protect himself from an imaginary danger from my part. But in that moment I was certain that he was very grateful, My Sarge very pleased this lighter, and I gave him this war souvenir on the same day. During the short rest in Sonneberg, I met my countryman and lager comrade Stanislaw Ciejka (CCA) again. He told me that he had been cited in the morning report because he and his American comrade had stopped a German military train, killing the locomotive driver and forcing his helper to stop the train.
It was a few kilometers after Sonneberg that we made our way towards a wall of a forest in which there was to be a stay as promised by Capt Caruso. Suddenly, when we were still on the open, German shells and shrapnels began to burst above our heads. They were Germans ones, as I was told, because our troops didn’t use such a kind of shells. Eight after we clang to the ground, there were also tremendous explosions of large artillery shells – this time it was our own artillery. We were lying prone not having any shelter nor even any ground depression. I’ve felt a strange warmth ramifying from my back to the rest of my body. I didn’t know what it could be, for I’ve never experienced before such a feeling. Behind me our stretcher-bearer was lying. I’ve heard his voice : ‘You, Pollack, I go to you’. He crawled to me and began to pull out dressings from his medical bag. I didn’t know what it was. ‘You got a shell splinter in you back’ – he explained. I didn’t understand English language but his gesture and gesticulation was such intelligible that I’ve understood him very well. And there really was a blood on my back when I’ve touched it. Capt Caruso called his radioman and got in connection with our headquarters. He screamed that we were under their fire and that they shouldn’t shell us as a target. After few minutes this friendly fire ceased and the only thing that consequently annoyed us was this German shrapnel fire. We retreated without casualties. I could still go without any help. The splinter was taken out of my back by the Medic in the Aid Station and I was properly bandaged. My wound was not the lucky one, as not dangerous, it was declared fit for combat and sent back to King Co. In this same time when I was in the Aid Station, our artillery – aiming precisely – has disposed of the enemy shrapnel fire nests. And we could go forward again.
For all purposes :
European Center of Military History
Gunter ‘Doc Snafu’ Gillot
rue des Thiers 8
Email : gunter [at] eucmh.be
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(NB : Published for Good – March 2019)