by Wesley Reading
September 25, 1943 was an unforgettable day. It was the day I received my notice to appear at the county court house in Hyattsville, Maryland for my induction into the army. And from there the other inductees and I were taken by bus to Fort Meade, Maryland where we were given uniforms and clothing.
Next we were sent by troop train to Camp Barkley. Texas for our basic training. We spent 21 weeks there in training for overseas service. It was a cold, bleak camp. The barracks were made of plywood and the winter wind and snow penetrated the cracks and filtered into the barracks. We were then shipped to Camp Reynolds, Pennsylvania, just north of Greensburg, in the western part of the state.
My job at Camp Reynolds was a rough one. While all the other men were sleeping, I spent the night keeping the pot belly stoves going in the various barracks. It was VERY cold. I had to go to the coal bins located outside the barracks, and with a shove and bucket, would carry in the coal and keep the fires going all night. The snow got to be quite deep. There was no path except the one I had shoveled out. From there we were shipped to Camp Shanks, New York.
I was assigned to the 103rd Medical Battalion of the 112 Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company C of the 28th Infantry Division, serial number 33736406. The 28th Division Insignia which we wore on our uniforms was red and dubbed the "Bloody Bucket."
After a couple of weeks in holding, we were shipped to England on May 3, 1944, crossing the Atlantic in a 99 ship convoy. One could look in all directions and no matter where you looked, you could see our various ships stretching out to the horizon. It was quite a thrill seeing so many ships.
It took us twelve long days to cross. Our convoy couldn't go any faster than the slowest ship which, in our case, was a heavily laden fuel tanker. Also we had to zigzag back and forth to confuse the enemy U-boats. Our troop ship, the H.M.S. Majestic (of British registry), was the largest ship in the convoy.
About halfway across the Atlantic, we got the horn signal to man battle stations, put on life jackets and to report on deck immediately. We quickly saw the reason. Off the starboard side about 500 yards away, a submarine chaser was streaming rapidly toward our ship. It then made two full circles, dropping depth charges as it circled. I believe it dropped at least six of them! Huge geysers erupted for the sea as the depth charges exploded beneath the surface. What a sight!
Later we learned that a German sub had been lying under the surface waiting for the convoy to cross above it. When the sub started it's engines to ascend to periscope level, the vibration of the motors was detected on the ship's sonar. The convoy moved on, but the sub chaser remained shadowing the sub. Later that night it radioed the message that they had sunk the sub.
Our ship docked at Liverpool, England without further incident. From Liverpool, we were trucked to Bath, England, an ancient Roman city, where we were given more training. Then on to a camp near Street, England, which was in the southern part near Southampton, from where we would embark for France a short time later.
We arrived at Omaha Beach near the town of Isigny, on or about July 20. We had to climb down rope ladders of the ship to get into L.C.I.'s (Landing Craft Infantry) which are smaller boats used for landing on beaches. We had no unusual problems until we were about a mile in from the beach. German fighter planes bombed and strafed us. We lost a few men then, but kept pushing on toward hill 210, near St. Lo.
Near St. Lo we were given orders to take Hill 210 at all costs. We lost a number of men on that hill. But the worst thing that happened to me there was when one of the soldiers advancing up the hill near me was hit by a German 88 shell. It never exploded, but it severed his head which then rolled down the hill. It almost made me vomit. We finally conquered the hill and received a presidential citation for it. That hill was crucial to the movement of our troops in having the high ground for observation.
From there our regiment, the 112th, was scheduled to go to the front in the battle of St. Lo, but our company cook had served some tainted meat the night before. Most of our men got very sick so another outfit was sent to the front instead. American bombers flew over to bomb St. Lo and the German troops, but due to some error, they short bombed. Instead of bombing the Germans, they bombed our own men. I observed a convoy of army trucks bringing back the dead stacked in the trucks like logs. I am so thankful that the cook served that tainted meat as we would most likely have been the dead on those trucks.
When we first landed on the French coast, in the battle of Normandy, the natives were not too friendly to us. The Germans had been kind to the French farmers by buying their eggs and milk and selling it on the black market. We learned all this the hard way when we saw a French farmer come out and move his cows from one filed to another because the German command had notified him they were going to shell the area. Some of the farmers even used their attics for observation posts to notify the Germans where we were.
I also observed on quite a few occasions other kinds of incidents. French girls who had collaborated with the Germans during the occupation and lived with some of the officers, were tied up with rope by their own people, their heads were shaved down to the scalp, they were stripped down to their undies and were then marched through the streets of the town. The people would spit on them and call them all kinds of names.
After the St. Lo experience, we pushed on through St. Sever, Calvados and on to Vire and Argentan. We were on the south flank when units of the 5th German army readily surrendered. The reason for their surrendering so readily was that a number of their officers had been killed and the enlisted men didn't know what to do. They had not been trained to think for themselves.
After that we continued walking and fighting as we took town after town onthe way to Paris. At about six a.m. we'd shell the town ahead of us to weaken the defenses, then we'd attack. But we found only a few German rear guards left there to slow our advance as the main army had retreated. We'd battle until about noon or later until we captured the town, then dig fox holes in case of a counter attack. The new morning we would shell the next town, have another battle with the German rear guards, subdue the enemy, go to the next town, dig fox holes to sleep in overnight, etc. We advanced across France that way, walking from the beach all the way through to the German border! I spent more time treating blisters and foot problems than in dressing battle wounds!
Living in foxholes was not too pleasant! One had to dig them deep enough so that when crouching down, your head should be at least eight inches or more below the surface of the ground. this extra space would be needed if a heavy tank should pass overhead for its weight would cause it to sink into the earth and crush the one who didn't dig deep enough. then when it rained, the foxhole would begin filling with water. During the night I'd climb out and use my steel helmet to bale out the water.
Early one morning I had a scary experience. I had to relieve myself, so Iwent over under a tree and dug a little hole. Just as I got my trousers off, a rifle fell besides me! A German sniper had climbed into the tree during the night, wrapped himself with a camouflaged blanked and tied himself to a branch. He had hoped to pick off stray infantry men in the morning, but fell asleep and dropped his rifle. I grabbed his rifle and ordered him to come down with his hands in the air while hollering "Comrade". I turned him over to the MP's, my first personal prisoner of war.
At each town we took, the civilians came running out hollering "Vive Les Americans!" and offering us bottles of wine. One Frenchman to whom I spoke in French was so excited that I spoke the language, he had me wait while he went to the house to bring me something "special". He gave me a bottle of champagne and insisted that I take a swig right then. Not wanting to offend him. I did. It didn't have nay more kick to it then a "7-up", so I ended up drinking more of it as it was so good. The next morning I woke up in a haystack wondering how I got there and also worrying if my outfit was still around. It was!
As we were taking yet another town between Vire and Versailles, we saw a German tank on fire in the town. A French girl came running out of nowhere hollering "Vive Les American". As she approached the burning tank, all I could think of was, the tank will explode when the fire reaches the ammunition or the fuel in the tank. I tried to call to her to go back, but she didn't hear me. Suddenly the tank exploded! The girl clutched her stomach and then ran away.
About ten minutes later a woman came running toward me yelling, "Monsieur doctor, ma fille, elle est blesse, venez vite!" (Doctor, my daughter is wounded, come quickly). Another soldier decided to come with me in case it was a trap. We followed the woman to her house and it was her 17 year old daughter who had been wounded by the tank. She had a piece of shrapnel deeply embedded in her groin area. I removed the piece, put some sulfa powder on it, dressed it up, gave her some sulfa pills and left.
The mother invited me back for breakfast if our outfit was still around. Since we were, I went back the next morning, redressed the wound and had a wonderful breakfast of eggs and fried potatoes. They also had ham, but not for me! They thanked me profusely and I was happy to been able to help them.
We pushed on to Versailles, France, just outside of Paris. We dug foxholes right on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. The next day a couple of French girls came up with a camera and wanted to take our pictures. After getting clearance from the officer in charge, we posed for the pictures. I gave them my APO address as they said they would send me the pictures. A couple of months passed by and sure enough, I received the two pictures in the mail. I still have them today.
We left Versailles for Paris and the victory parade of August 29. 1944. We slept in the parks and it rained all night. Our ponchos were somewhat helpful, but we still got quite wet. After our parade passed through and around the Arc De Triumphe, we continued marching 24 abreast down the Champs-Elysees past the reviewing stands where General Omar Bradley, Charles De Gaulle, General Hodges and other dignitaries saluted us. The parade was so long that at the same time the last units of the parade were passing the reviewing stands, our outfit was already fighting the Germans in the eastern suburbs of Paris. We had marched din the parade in our regular company group so that we would be able to form into our fighting team that same afternoon.
From Paris we pushed on to Compiegne, where the armistice was signed in World War I. There we had quite a fight to capture the town. I remember well the German sniper in the church tower shooting at the American soldiers by the town square. One of our men got shot, so I crawled out between the firing of the sniper and the American soldiers to take care of one of the wounded. The bullets were zinging past my body even though I kept as flat as possible. the one of the bullets hit my wristwatch, shattering it to pieces. It caused a small wound, leaving a small scar, but the watchband kept the bullet from penetrating my wrist. I just bound it up and kept on going.
After leaving Paris, we pushed on toward Luxembourg. We finally were given a week off to rest near the town of Stenay, France. I went into the town and there met the Cagneaux family. They invited me to dinner that evening. They were a wonderful family and were quite musical. Mr. Cagneaux played the violin, his wife was a good singer and their daughter played the piano and also the organ in the local Catholic church. Their daughter and I would both be at the piano with dad on the violin and mamma singing. We had a nice time together.
They invited me to come over each night as long as our outfit stayed in the area, so I did. The daughter, who was learning English, would write a paragraph in English and I would correct it. She would do the same for me when I wrote in French. Mr. Cagneaux gave me an old French/English dictionary printed in Scotland by a steam press. I still have it. The day we said good-bye, he gave me a picture of himself with his dog. We hated to part.
Still capturing town after town in our advance toward the German border, we entered Luxembourg in September where we really had a tough fight. The plan was to penetrate Germany as far as we could as a feinting movement to draw the German troops from the northern sections where the "real" push would be. We crossed the Our River into Germany and penetrated the country over five miles. It was the first time since World War I that American infantry was able to cross into Germany in Battalion force and the 28th did it!
After crossing the river, we met with ferocious resistance from the Germans who were firing from the pillboxes of the Seigfried Line. The pillboxes were of concrete and steel 14 feet thick and nestled into the sides of the hill. We removed the enemy from the pillboxes and pushed on past them. Soon we realized we were being shot at from the rear.
We found that the pillboxes were all connected by underground tunnels so that the enemy was able to return to the boxes we had just secured and were firing at us from behind. We then had to blow up the pillboxes one by one, using 500 pounds of explosives and, in some cases, 1400 pounds. It took several days of our engineers blowing up the boxes before we conquered them.
We then got the surprise of our lives when the German Panzer Divisions, knowing that we were already in Germany, came down from the north, cutting us off at the river. We had to get out as fast as we could, but only about half of us made it. The rest were killed or captured and the trucks, tanks, and artillery remained on German soil. The town of Wallendorf was completely destroyed from the fighting and burned to the ground. I wrote a poem about it after we were on Luxembourg soil. Anyway, we lost many men trying to escape across the pontoon bridge which had been set up by our engineers had set up because the Germans kept blowing it up. We somehow managed to get back, but with so many lives lost.
The chaplain wanted to have a service for those who did not make it, and a service of thanksgiving for those who did. He and I went to the priest of the cathedral at Luxembourg to see if we could use the cathedral for services. I did the translating. The priest said that I could use the organ if I wanted to. It was the thrill of my life to play it as the cathedral was so beautiful.
From Luxembourg we were transported by truck (for the first time in France) to Belgium, to the sector from which we had enticed the German Panzer Divisions. It was the Hurtgen Forest, just southeast of Aachen, Germany. The battle there was so intense that a four hour truce was called so the medics could take care of the wounded and removed the dead soldiers.
I had just finished taking care of my last wounded soldier when a German medic called to me for help. He held a German soldier's rifle by a soldier's leg and made motions that he wanted me to hold it there while he used it as a splint on the soldier's leg. I went to him and held the rifle alongside his leg while he wrapped I to the leg. The medic thanked me and shook my hand. Moments later the truce time was up and shooting began again.
We broke out of the Hurtgen Forest and approached the town of Vossenack. We had orders to take the town and hold it at all costs. The German army had the same directive. We entered the town and then all hell broke loose. The Germans had over 100 tanks and self-propelled guns in the hills to the north, east and south of the town, plus German planes which dropped anti-personnel bombs and strafed us several times. By the way, in the battle just before that, we lost 248 officers and 5.452 enlisted men to the German guns. In our second battalion, we had received 8.515 replacements in order to continue the battle as the enemy fire was so concentrated.
We were still a very good fighting outfit. The German army recognized that too. In captured German documents one read, "Troops are to know the insignia of American Divisions, especially the red insignia of the 28th Infantry Division is of much importance." The red keystone patch was known to the German army as the "Bloody Bucket Division."
We were in the town of Vossenack with the enemy pounding us unmercifully when they came in a pincer movement and cut us off from our main forces. Being a medic, I had 14 wounded men in the basement of a house, one block from the town square where there was a church. I was trying to keep them alive, but I ran out of blood plasma, bandages, sulpfur drugs and just about everything. I asked the sergeant what I should do. He suggested that as soon as it became dark, I was to sneak back through the German lines to our lines, get as many supplies as I could carry on my back, and then return before daybreak. He promised to send an infantry man along with me.
Well, that evening we wrapped our boots with burlap bags to muffle any sound we step on sticks or whatever, blackened our faces with charcoal and left after dark. The infantry man with me could speak German in case we needed it. We walked, we crawled and sometimes we were so close to the German troops in their foxholes, we could hear them talking.
We finally made it through to our lines. I strapped as many supplies on my back as I could carry. The soldier with me die the same with as much ammunition as he could handle, and we started back. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached Vossenack again where I continued to treat the wounded.
One morning a soldier was hit by shrapnel and when he called, "Medic!" I crawled out to him amidst all the shooting. When I saw him, I broke down. He was one of my buddies who had been with me all through France. The upper part of his face had been blown away and there was nothing I could do except to put sulfanilamide powder on his face and give him sulfathiazole pills to slow the infection. I couldn't give him morphine for any morphine given to a wound above the heart would kill him.
I was so shocked and so very tired as I hadn't slept in three days. I was in such a daze that, as I started back to the home where I had the other wounded, I don't even remember diving for cover when the next barrage of 120 millimeter mortars began falling around me. One of them exploded right in front of me, knocking me out. A piece of shrapnel from it cut into my leg above my knee. When I awoke, I was in a hospital tent being cared for by a doctor. There was no doctor in Vossenack, so evidently, our forces had broken through that morning and rescued us.
Before the rescue, I had attended one lieutenant in the basement of the house who had both of his legs practically shot off. I couldn't detect any breathing or pulse, but I gave him blood plasma, stopped the bleeding and let him rest. Later, I struck a match in front of his nose to see if he was still breathing. The match flickered showing he was still alive. At that point, I gave him another pint of plasma. After the third pint, he asked me what happened to his legs as he couldn't move them. I didn't want to shock him with the truth, so just told him that his legs were still there. When I awoke in the tent hospital, I was so pleased to see him there and have him say to me. "Thanks, Medic".
From there we were taken by ambulance to a hospital in Paris. Once I was stabilized, they flew me to a hospital in Birmingham, England. While in the hospital, an officer came around a warded me the Purple Heart for wounds received in a action and the Bronze Star medal for bravery under fire. These were awarded for the battle around Vossneack, dated November 4, 1944. the awards were presented to me on December 11, 1944. I often wonder if it was the same lieutenant who recommended me for the Bronze Star medal for bravery. I will never know. Later I was also awarded the Combat Medical badge, the Good Conduct medal and the European Theatre of Operation's ribbon with two stars on it for the two main decisive battles in which I participated.
When first at the hospital, I was unable to talk or eat. They gave me shock treatments over a period of months to relieve the pressure on my brain from the results of the mortar blast. While in the hospital, I studied French some more. Finally it came time when they decided I was well enough to be discharged. The Major called me in for an interview. He said that I was to be sent back to France but never in combat again. He asked me if I had any preference as to what I wanted to do. I said that I would like to be a French interpreter. He was shocked to hear that and said, "Well, we will test you as we have a Frenchman working in the hospital". He called in the Frenchman, introduced me and we began conversing in French. After about five minutes, the Major asked the Frenchman if he thought I spoke it well enough to interpret. The Frenchman said, "Yes, I can understand every word he says to me and he understands me as he answers my questions."
I was sent to a little town about 20 miles from Paris called "Vert La Petite" which means "Little Green". It was an old warehouse complex that the army wanted made into barracks. My job was to interpret French and keep the time cards of the seven Frenchmen and the thirteen French girls who worked there. I would tell the men what to do (they were carpenters, electricians and plumbers who were remodeling the ware houses into barracks). I would then go into the mess halls and translate the orders of the mess sergeant to the girls working there.
When Germany surrendered in May, we were permitted to go to Paris for the celebration of the end of the war. There the French had set up bands in the streets. the civilians were dancing all over the streets and the American soldiers who were there were hugged and kissed right and left for having liberated their country.
On July 30, 1945 we were sent to Le Havre, France to board the ship to the U.S. It was a freighter and wasn't very large. On the way across, we ran into a fierce North Atlantic storm. the ship was under water almost as much as it was on top. The storm lasted two days and many of the soldiers were terribly seasick. We were all scared fearing that the ship wasn't going to make it. the bow would rise clear out of the water and then would crash back down again. As it did, the stern would rise out of the water with the props spinning against thin air. The ship rolled and tossed unmercifully, but we finally made it!
We arrived at the Boston harbor with fireboats spouting water and other ships and tugboats blowing their whistles! It was a sight to remember! I wrote a poem in memory it (see last page). I was transported to Fort Meade, Maryland where I was given 30 days leave. Upon reporting back, I was shipped to Camp Clairborne, Louisiana where we began training for the Pacific Theatre of Operations. By the way, Camp Clairborne could only be reached by a causeway built through the swamp. It was very hot and humid and the mosquitoes were as big as dive bombers and so plentiful too! I was there until the war with Japan ended.
On October 15, 1945 I was discharged, given $100.00 and sent home. In order to be discharged, one had to have 85 points. They gave so many points for the amount of time spent overseas, so many points for a Purple Heart medal, so many for the Bronze Star medal, etc. I had more than enough!
Submitted by Christine Reading Gray (daughter)