Some Remembrances of World War II
John A. Howard
John A. Howard passed away this August at the age of ninety-three. John Howard was a long-time supporter of and a greatly appreciated author for The St. Croix Review. He was the former President of Rockford College and a veteran of W.W. II.
On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor, our huge navy base in Hawaii, and tore up the shipyards, and sank many of our warships, it was a thunderbolt that exploded in every living room in America. You can’t imagine the terrible shock. The battles and bombings in Europe that we had been reading about for two years were suddenly no longer just tragic news stories, but a real and terrible thing. We, too, were in a war.
At that time and in the months that followed many Americans volunteered for military service and millions were drafted by the U.S. Government for military duty, soldiering in whatever armed service to which they were assigned. In those days, the American people loved their country. And they were very proud of it.
The people in our battalion were farmers, factory workers, accountants, dishwashers, grocers, truck drivers, athletes, couch potatoes, college graduates, and high-school drop-outs — a whole united nation of people whose families had come from many different countries.
It was the army’s task to transform this variety of talents and experiences and attitudes into a physically fit, alert fighting force skilled in the use of various weapons, vehicles, and many other areas of critically important knowledge. Just think about the requirement of training millions of Americans to be able to perform in work they knew nothing about. And yet the American military forces carried it out. A modern miracle!
I entered the U.S. Army in August of 1942 and was sent with a couple of hundred men all from Illinois to Camp Grant here in Rockford. Until they decided where we were going, they put us through a tough program of physical fitness training, with exercises, long marches, and obstacle courses. They also taught us how to take apart, clean, care for, and shoot the basic army rifle.
In October, we boarded trains to Camp Bowie in a desert area of central Texas to become a tank battalion. We learned how to load and fire and maintain the tank’s big cannon and the large machine gun on top of the turret and the small machine gun in the front of the tank. We learned how to drive it and store the ammunition inside. After ten months of training we were sent to New York to board the Queen Elizabeth, one of the earliest very large ocean liners. Fifteen thousand of us! Forty-five soldiers were assigned to every bedroom. There were five banks of three beds, one above another around the walls. We had eight hours for sleeping and then had to get out for the next group and its eight-hour sleep time. And then the next group also assigned to our bedroom, so the beds were in constant use. When we left the bedroom, we went to the dining rooms, where meals were served continually. We ate twice more before returning to the bedroom, and the rest of the time we were on the decks or in the lounges.
As the ship left the New York harbor we looked for the navy ships that would be our escort across the Atlantic to keep us safe from the German navy. There was no escort. Gulp! Then we learned the Queen Elizabeth traveled faster than German submarines and other war ships. After five days of good weather, we arrived in Scotland. We were welcomed with cheers and applause and bagpipe music and by hundreds of women serving us tea and cakes and tearful thanks to us for joining in the war against Hitler.
From Scotland we took a long train ride to a camp near Swindon in south central England. It was a night trip and the blackout curtains were closed but we could see around the edges bombs bursting on the horizon as the German air force continued their nighttime destruction of targets in England they had been attacking for almost two years. Already we were experiencing war.
In England, from our arrival at the end of August until the Normandy invasion ten months later, we had various kinds of special training.
One of the skills we had to learn was map reading. Just how important that was I suddenly learned when I was assigned to be the lead vehicle in taking the entire battalion from south-central England all the way to Land’s End at the Western tip of the country. When you are leading a column of thirty-six tanks and probably seventy other vehicles, you don’t want to take a wrong turn. That would be the worst nightmare.
Well, hour after hour, things went along pretty well and then, suddenly, we came to an impasse. We were going through a small town and the road, which was very narrow, took a sharp right turn. There was no way we could get the tanks around that corner. With the whole column stopped, I radioed headquarters and asked, “What are we to do now?” The colonel said the reconnaissance people who had planned our route said we probably couldn’t get through. There was no alternate route. Just beyond the town was the only bridge over a river that could stand the weight of a tank. We had to get to Land’s End to take special training in recognizing enemy aircraft. I would simply have to use my tank to take out the corner of the house. Our tanks weighed thirty-two tons, sixty-four thousand pounds, so it could go through the walls of a house. When the Colonel told me that, I exclaimed “You’ve got to be kidding!” “I am not!” said the Colonel. “Go do it.”
So I knocked on the door of the house. An old man opened it and was terrified at the size and the noise and the number of the tanks. I explained why we had to get through and what we had to do. He said “You can’t do that! This house was built in 1686!” I told him the United States Government would pay him well for the trouble we caused and he had ten minutes to clear the furniture. Guess what? Three weeks later when we returned, he was just finishing the house repairs. That man and his family through the generations will hate America forever.
The last few months we were in England, we became a training center for new recruits fresh from the United States to teach them how to be tankers. We graduated 3,000 students in this program who would be sent as replacements for war casualties. When American officers were killed or wounded, the army sometimes selected able and combat-experienced soldiers and commissioned them as officers. I received one of those battlefield commissions during the war.
Our battalion landed in Normandy on D-Day. It involved more than 4,000 invasion ships, 600 warships, 10,000 airplanes and 176,000 Allied troops. More than 1,000 soldiers were killed on Omaha Beach where our battalion and others landed. God was looking out for me on D-Day. Our platoon had never received the large Sherman tanks equipped with assault guns that we had been promised. We had been operating in light tanks for the nine months we had been in England. We got word that our real tanks had finally arrived, so I took our three drivers down to the railroad station to get them. Shortly after we left, the invasion camp where we had assembled was closed for the D-Day assault and nobody could get in or out. As a result the three drivers and I landed in France with our new tanks three days after D-Day when the fighting on the beaches was over.
After the invasion we were under enemy fire much of the time for the eleven months until the German surrender in May. Each of our companies, mostly with about fifty men, had its own traveling kitchen and cooking staff. When possible they would set up a buffet. When we were scattered as fighters, we had waterproof meals in our vehicles, and drinking water. We were fortunate in that we could sleep under the tanks and other vehicles, as shelters from snow and rain and pretty good protection from incoming German shells. We had waterproof sleeping bags and used our steel helmets as washbasins when we had time for a shave or a sponge bath.
In September the Allied forces had reached the Rhine River, a very large river, almost as wide as the Mississippi. It was the border between Germany and France. The Germans had blown up the Rhine River bridges to stall the Allies’ advance. However, most of the dynamite charges placed under the Remagen Bridge had failed to explode but the ones that did go off had weakened the bridge and the Allied commanders wanted to rush as many troops as possible across while it was still standing.
Our battalion was one of the first to cross but only after I had received our battle instructions at a temporary headquarters in a lovely house on the French side of the Rhine. When I entered the house, I had to wait. There was a very large, elegant piano in the living room and I started to play it. A woman came down the elegant stairway and said, “Madame does not allow the Americans to play her piano.” I said “Oh!” Very soon a majestic lady, very beautifully dressed, came down the stairs and said:
I must apologize for the rudeness of my companion. It is a joy we forget about in wartime that all people share a love of good music. That Chopin waltz you were playing is one of my favorites.
I asked her if she would play it for me. She smiled and sat down and did. It turned out she was Madame Hilda Gummersbach, a retired and famous opera singer.
We crossed the bridge and immediately encountered the Siegfried Line, an imposing military fortification the Germans had built along the Rhine River. It included very large concrete triangular blocks that they called Dragon’s Teeth. They were placed close enough together so that tanks couldn’t get between them. If a tank tried to go over them, it would get hung up on them. During the war Americans invented new ways to deal with new problems. They had welded bulldozer blades on the front of some tanks and bulldozers were available to move the dragon’s teeth. We started up the steep hill along the river and suddenly a swarm of Germans came down the hill in a major attack. I had to make a quick decision. We couldn’t use our big cannons against them even though we had ammunition that would explode in the air covering a large area, because the shells would go over their heads.
However, the shells for our assault gun cannons had two parts, the explosive part on the front and a removable back chamber containing five powder bags to propel the explosive missile toward the target. The more bags you used the farther the missile went. We had instructions not to use less than two bags. I thought we were goners anyway, so I radioed the three tank commanders to start firing with just one powder bag. That decision worked. The shells exploded where the enemy was and ended the attack. I received an award for that success, but my gamble could have been a disaster if the shells had exploded while still in the cannons.
In December Hitler’s troops mounted a large and very powerful attack in an effort to try to break through the Allied front and capture the ammunition dumps and supply depots of the harbor cities north of us from which came all our food, gasoline, replacement vehicles, and ammunition to carry on the war. That attack became known as the Battle of the Bulge. If it had been successful, Hitler might have won the war. A heavy fog for some days had prevented any American airplane support. The Americans had no idea of the very large build-up in preparation for this breakthrough. The Germans spearheaded their attack with two divisions of the huge, heavily armored Tiger tanks and Panther tanks with bigger and more powerful cannons than ours and they overwhelmed the Americans on the front line. During the five weeks of that fiercely fought struggle, there were 77,000 American casualties, killed, wounded, or captured.
On Christmas day, our outfit was in position on the north flank of the German advance. Up in the turret of our tank, the gunner and I were standing trying to see through the fog when the gunner jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow and said, “Look at that.” I whirled around. A girl, nine or ten years old was walking toward our tank. She told us that when the fighting came back toward her town all the people left. But her grandfather was an invalid and couldn’t travel. She had stayed behind to take care of him. She said they had no food left and wondered if we had any to spare. We immediately gave her all the rations we had in the tank. She made sort of a basket out of her apron to put them in. She looked up at us, as she turned to leave, and said, “Oh! It’s a wonderful, wonderful Christmas after all!” The marvelous thing is that all of us in the tank agreed with her. It had become a wonderful Christmas for us too. Providing help to that girl was a happy thing for us.
When Germany surrendered, there was no wild rejoicing — just a stunned shock. I said I was going over to a nearby barn to offer a prayer of thanks to God and invited anyone who wished to, to join me. The whole platoon did. This is that prayer:
Dear God, we pause to offer up our simple thanks that this day for which the world has waited is at hand. God help our leaders and statesmen to build a world of harmony and brotherhood that these last years of cruelty and agony may not be repeated. God help our leaders, and God, help us too, to be worthy of the fact that we were chosen to survive the war. Let us not forget our friends who gave their lives that we might see this day. In their memory may we be better men, may we have the courage to stand for what we know to be right, and, if necessary, may we have the courage to carry out whatever tasks are assigned to us if we are sent to the Japanese war. God, keep our loved ones safe until we return to them. Amen.
After the war ended, a whole German army surrendered to our First Infantry Division. Our platoon happened to be at the crossroads where they came by for three days and nights being directed to temporary prison camps, an unending parade of military and civilian vehicles, horse-drawn carts, and, of course, hundreds and hundreds on foot. A large number of the soldiers were old men and boys who had been casualty replacements.
All the officers in our battalion were assigned to take the Germans back to their hometowns. I led a group of trucks taking men back to Nuremberg, a beautiful old city that had been the center of the German Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century. I went to the trucks and asked for someone who spoke English. I took the volunteer to the lead jeep with me. I asked him if he knew where the city hall was, the place where I was to bring the convoy of trucks. He said, “Of course.”
As we approached the city, there were more and more buildings that had been demolished by airplane bombs. In the midst of this rubble, with tears streaming down his cheeks he said, “This was the city hall.”
After the war, the United States undertook the Marshall Plan, a massive program to help European nations rebuild their buildings and economies and address the needs of their societies. It is a fitting conclusion to this report on the death and destruction of World War II to remind ourselves that our nation is in a class by itself as the kindest and most generous and helpful country the world has ever seen. *