DIARY ENTRY #15
By Don R. Marsh
22 April 1945. The city of Wolfenbuttel, Germany had not been noticeably damaged and most if not all of the city housing remained untouched. Even the municipality services were operating. When ordered to find suitable quarters, we located a small cottage about two blocks away from CC"A" Headquarters. I said let's check it out and walked in without knocking at the door. An elderly German lady dressed in the customary black clothing of a widow met us as we entered. Standing at her side were her three daughters. All four showed fear in their faces when as the spokesman I told them simply, "Five minutes, raust!" The widow, I learned her name later, Frau Decker, began clasping her hands and begging in German not to be thrown out of her home, to no avail. To the victors belong the spoils. No amount of pleading and begging served to change our minds and they then began gathering what they could of any personal possessions and left weeping. Nearby neighbors seeing their plight took them in.
Frau Decker would come by daily and ask permission to clean her home. She would attempt to persuade us to leave, but that fell on deaf ears. The three daughters - the oldest in her early twenties was named Waltraut, the next about 20 was named Ilsa and the younger daughter about 15 named Hilda. The latter was fluent in English, but we never learned that until much later. Once we assured Frau Decker that her daughters were in no danger of being molested, she permitted them to accompany her to clean the house daily. After the tension had broken, Frau Decker explained that her only son had been taken prisoner in North Africa where he had been serving with Rommel's Panzers and captured. His whereabouts were unknown at this time. Presumably he was in the USA with the others captured in North Africa.
May 7th arrived and there were not any celebrations for V-E Day as there were back in the States. The day the Army pulled us off the line - 20 April 1945 -- and said the war is over for our division was our day - even then there were no celebrations. With the peace came new orders - absolutely no fraternizing with the German civilians (meaning women); that also fell on deaf ears, if you were discreet. Women everywhere were willing to wash our clothes and some willing to provide other "services" - for a single package of American cigarettes. Hunger was also a problem for the civilians and soon a black market spread all over Germany in order for the people to survive. Money was of no value in a barter market. Amazing what people will do to survive and feed themselves.
While we were forbidden to speak to the Germans in public that didn't stop the small kids from coming up smiling and asking, "Soldat, haben sie chocolat?" We gave them candy from our rations and they soon began asking for chewing gum. Their older sisters asked for cigarettes as soon as the sun went down. Our officers turned a blind eye as long as you didn't flaunt it in public. Our Headquarters CO, Captain Louis Bifano, would warn us at the Company Roll Call formation that if caught, you were liable to a court-martial and punishment in the form of a fine. That also fell on deaf ears.
Things then happened fast. First we were issued the new style OD uniforms with the "Ike" jacket, and then issued shoe polish! The three of us Privates First Class in the wire team all were promoted to T/5 (Technician Fifth Grade), while Veno remained a buck Sergeant. We took note of the fact that only three of us - Veno, Hull and I who left England to make the Invasion were still here. Of course Donahue who joined us early in France was also on board, but all the others were now gone.
On May 24th the Belgian government bestowed on the whole 2nd Armored Division the Belgian Fourragere for two noteworthy causes; being the first Allied Division to enter and liberate their country on September 2, 1944 officially at 0930 hours and for our participation in the Battle of the Bulge in stopping the deepest penetration made by the German forces at Celles. We proudly wore their honored "red cord of war" on our right shoulder.
The Army announced a point system under which men with the most points earned would be the first to return to the States, which seemed like a fair system - we received five points for each for the five campaign stars earned in the war. Five per each personal medal awarded. We received one point for each month served in the USA prior to shipping overseas and two points per month for each month served overseas - fair enough, so far. But then men with dependent children were given 12 points for each child, which we thought totally unfair. I got five points for each battle and somebody with a kid got 12 points? Two points more for a kid than any two of the bloody campaigns we endured? The cut-off established was 85 points. I had 81 points. The Army was very generous in granting anyone recommended for the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service - we called it the "Atta-boy" medal. If only Lt. Moll had made the recommendation for all four of us, who survived that eleven months of war under his direct command, as many other Division Signal Wire Officers had done, that would have given me the magic number -- but for whatever reason he failed to do so. C'est la vie.
S/Sgt Charlie Tichacek was a hustler first class, he told me to get the wire jeep and we took off for Braunschweig (Brunswick). Through the grape vine Charlie learned of a German brewery where we could trade gasoline for a pony barrel of beer with the tap included. We couldn't scrounge any ice, but we brought the keg back to Decker's house and even shared it with some of Decker's elderly neighbors. When that keg was drained we went back and got another.
But now the old-timers were starting to leave for home as we said goodbye to both Charlie and Bill Veno. The Decker family had mellowed out and no longer saw us a permanent "guests" as May came to a close. Shortly after we packed up to move. Our next stop was to a former gasthaus along the route the Military Government had commandeered for the Berlin bound road march. Just the three of us, Hull, Donahue and myself were all that remained on the wire team as the Division assembled in the Bernburg area on June 19th. Within a few days the Company sent us two new replacements to join the team. Other changes were happening rapidly. General White left for the States and BG Collier became the Division CO. We were now reassigned from the Ninth Army to the Army of Occupation Seventh Army.
On July 3rd a light rain began falling as the lead elements moved out and crossed the river at Torgau. We were entering the Russian Zone. At a Russian road block checkpoint the front of the column was stopped and refused permission to pass by the sentinel on duty. When General Collier back in the column inquired why the delay, he was told of the Russian refusal to let the column pass. With that he called for one of our new Pershing tanks to get up to the head of the column and run over anybody in their way. So much for Soviet diplomacy. We moved on without further hindrance.
CC"A" entered the outer ring of Berlin near dusk on July 4th, led by our guides. We learned that both the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions had sought to be the first American division to be chosen as honor guards for the Berlin Potsdam Conference and meeting of the Big Three occupational powers. However, General Eisenhower made the decision to go with an armored division as a show of force. The 2nd Armored Division had undeniably earned this honor. As our endless column of tanks and armored vehicles entered the city proper, the main streets were lined with solemn looking elderly men and women who stared at us in silence. Apparently, their Teutonic mentality told them that we were the lesser of the two evils they had to contend with in the years to come. They had already felt the Russian fist in the early months of brutal occupation and wanton abuse by the rampaging Russian Army.
While mile after mile of Berlin was decimated with an estimated ten square miles of buildings demolished, the section of Berlin assigned to us was in far better condition in contrast to the bulk of the city we traveled through to reach our assigned housing area. We were quartered in what once had been very expensive homes owned by the elite bankers and professionals on a tree-lined street. Remarkably, not so much as a windowpane of glass was broken in any of these homes we occupied. Miraculously they had escaped the years of bombing by the Allied Forces.
The Army had trucked in folding canvas cots for our sleeping arrangement in the huge homes. I selected the oak paneled library for Hull and I. Donahue having been assigned to head up the CC"B" wire team. Lt. Col. James Power became the new Executive Officer at CC"A" and briefed us on his policy. The Officer of the Day would make a bed check every night and any man found absent would be court-martialed. However, realizing how ineffectual the non-fraternizing regulations were being enforced, being the gentleman that he was, he advised us if we intended to spend the night "elsewhere visiting friends," to fold our cots and put them out of sight. No empty bed no one missing. Any wonder that Colonel Power as well liked by the men!
Our residential neighborhood was too quiet so Hull and I got the jeep and headed for all the "action" in the Russian Zone. Crossing Check Point Charlie on the Unter den Linden was no problem as we looked for Friederich Strasse, in the Russian Zone of the city, on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate. The cafes had live music and dancing with plenty of German women - plus Russian female soldiers in uniform. The liquor they were selling represented as vodka tasted liked it had been cut with gasoline! A few drinks of that and we were afraid to light up cigarettes! Getting acquainted with the German frauleins was easy as they all wanted to meet the Americans - by mutual arrangement. Lake Wansee was a great spot for "German-American" friendships.
In addition to meeting the ladies of Berlin, sightseeing was on everyone's mind. Hull and I had full use of our wire jeep and spent every day checking out the different sections of the city. We found the Tiergarten by chance and learned it was Germany's biggest outdoor black-market center. While walking through the park, who called out my name but none other than Sergeant Herman Moeller, my old nemesis from the 143rd Signal. Moeller was now a Tech Sergeant assigned to the Military Affairs Section and proudly wearing a Purple Heart ribbon. We exchanged handshakes and greetings and I noted he had the Purple Heart ribbon so I gave him the needle by saying, "I see they nearly got you, Moeller. Too bad he wasn't a better shot." He laughed and said that he noticed that I hadn't lost my rare sense of humor.
Everything imaginable was on sale! A pack of American cigarettes, any brand, went for $10 -- $100 a carton. The MPs were out in force so you had to use caution. We would use condoms to blouse our pants legs on our combat boots then put ten packs in each pants leg. When you made the sale you accepted the currency and then dumped the smokes as you opened the condom for the goods to drop to the ground. The embryonic ATM machine.
Speaking of currency, all military services were paid in German Occupation marks. Each of the three powers printed an identical universal-type script using twelve digits. The only difference in the printed occupational money was the first numerical digit. The numeral "1" being American, the British a "2" while the Russians used the hyphen instead of the first numerical digit. The problem was then transferring the money sent home in American dollars. The GI Company mail clerks who controlled the purchase of US Postal Money Orders, sold in one hundred dollar denominations, became wealthy - they charged us $150 for every $100 dollar Money Order bought. Pocketing the other $50 bucks. There was no other way out except to pay the price.
Watches were the top item every Russian soldier wanted to buy with the paper money they could not take back to Russia nor send it home as we did. The typical Russian soldier had not been paid since the war began and they all carried a purse slung over their shoulder loaded with the "funny money" when shopping at the Tiergarten. They were sought any watch with a round face dial - plus a bonus paid for one with a sweep second hand. Our HQS CC"A" received two Swiss Omega wristwatches in PX supplies. While the enlisted men drew a lottery ticket to decide the single winner, the officers took the other watch. Sgt. Johnson from Tennessee won the watch. He sold it to me for $100. The next day at the Tiergarten a Russian paid me $1,200 for it! When the word got out that I had made a bundle, our CO, Captain Louis Bifano approached me and asked if I would sell his watch for him (meaning I had to take the risk being caught by the MPs). I offered him $250 for it and he turned me down. I passed on the opportunity.
It wasn't all business for us in our spare time as we took time to check out the Reichchancellery building where Hitler supposedly killed himself in his bunker. The Main Attraction going on was the Potsdam Conference. It was a galaxy of stars - the combined Chiefs of Staff and every big shot general and admiral of note was there to share the limelight as they rode in our half-tracks on parade to review our tanks arranged in parade formation. Generals Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, Hap Arnold, George Patton, Field Marshall Montgomery, Prime Minister Churchill, President Harry Truman, Secretary of War Stimson and a host of other dignitaries including the Russian generals were present. Our 2nd Armored Division CG, BG John H. Collier was all smiles with pride riding in that select group. Along with the others, I could now say, "Ich bin eine Berliner!"
Like thousands of other GI's with human instincts and emotions, I spent some time in "Cherchez la Femme." However, I met my special fraulein quite by accident and maybe fate meant it to be that way. I was over in the Tiergarten area near the Unter den Linden trying to sell an Omega wristwatch to some Russian Ivans, when two young attractive gals caught my eye. They were trying to trade pieces of gold jewelry for American cigarettes, for which they would then barter with the German underground blackmarketeers in return for food. They were not having much luck when I approached them.
The brunette fraulein took one look at me, put her hand to her mouth and gasped an exclamation that caused her girl friend to sharply turn to look at me. After they exchanged whispered bits of conversation between themselves, none of which I could understand. I then tried my best Milwaukee Deutsch sales pitch on them by saying, "Guten tag, Frauleins, wie gehts es Ihen?" Thus began our conversation. Due to my limited German vocabulary, they switched to their high school English and saved the day for me. And so began our "meaningful relationship." The brunette, named Augie, and I hit it off at once.
Sometime later, when I mentioned our initial meeting and asked her why she had appeared uneasy when I first approached her, she shocked me with her frank answer. She came right to the point and told me that the resemblance between me and her dead husband was uncanny. He had been an Unterofficer on a German submarine that never returned from a mission in the North Atlantic early on in the war and was presumed dead. Without a further word, she then produced a couple photos from her purse of the young man in uniform. I had to agree that we could have passed for twins. Was it any wonder that the expression on her face registered with me on the day when we first made eye contact. I realized that it must have been quite a shock to her under the circumstances. For looks, figure and personal grooming, this was not your typical heavy-set German female, but rather an intelligent, shapely, city bred, well educated person trying to survive in the hostile divided city of Berlin. No easy task under the conditions prevailing at that time.
The warm days and nights of July and August were more than welcome. Outside of roll calls and nuisance formations, there weren't too many restrictions or obligations placed on us, so we had plenty of off-duty time.
But all too soon our summer was drawing to a fast close. Our division was alerted that we were being relieved by the famed 82nd Airborne Division. On August 9th the 82nd Air Borne Division received orders to relieve our division of Berlin occupational duty. We began the westward road march on August 17th on the Autobahn headed for Kassel. Thus, on the final morning of our mass departure, our mile-long convoys wound their way on to the Autobahn to head west towards the City of Kassel. We were now enroute to the division's final destination at Bad Orb. After we had cleared the city, the MPs halted the columns at key check points and began a vehicle search for unauthorized occupants. I was amazed at the number of German women dressed in GI uniforms that they extracted from our vehicles. Driving a jeep, I was in no position to hide any passengers, so the thought never entered my mind
Long before our President John F. Kennedy would say to a Berlin audience, "Ich bin ein Berliner," I, too, was able to echo the very same expression fifteen years earlier. Apparently, I was deep in thought as we crossed the final Russian checkpoint and my mind was neither on the route nor the trip that was ahead of me, so I do not have any particular recollection of that journey
We reached the city of Bad Orb, located just west of Frankfurt. Hull and I were relieved from TDY assignment to Combat Command "A" and rejoined the 142nd Armored Signal Company. By this time, Doug Donahue had returned from duty with CC"B" and rejoined Hull and I. As we looked around the Company area, we recognized but very few faces. The majority were new replacements, all the old-timers having left for the states in June and July. Shortly after being at Bad Orb it was only a matter of days when I was told that I had enough points to return to the US via the pipeline, as I was in the next group to depart.
September 4th arrived and I celebrated my 23rd birthday quietly waiting for my orders to start my journey home. Didn't have long to wait for on September 10th I said goodbye to Hull and Donahue, they were all that remained from our team that landed in France back in June of 1944. My number and name was called and I climbed aboard a truck headed for the port at Marseilles, France. Adios, amigos. It was time to call it a day and another experience of life had come to a close.
Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written authorization from the author, Don R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family Trust.