What was going on in the European Theater of Operations during the first part of October, 1944? Sometimes it’s interesting to look at what was happening in different places at the same time. In early October the European front stretched from the Netherlands/Belgian/German border in the north to the French/German border near Metz further south.
On October 2 the 30th Infantry Division launched a full-scale attack on the Siegfried Line east of Maastricht, The Netherlands. The Germans had retreated from France, Belgium and the southern part of the Netherlands to make a stand at the long string of reinforced pillboxes and tank traps along their western border. Edward Arn, in his book “Arn’s War,” describes the grisly death of his commander, Captain Melvin Riesch, that day during the attack on Rimburg Castle which caused Arn’s elevation to commander of Fox Company, 119th Infantry Regiment. Fox Company, along with the rest of the 30th Infantry division would go on to attack the German City of Aachen from the north flanked by the 29th Division and the 2nd Armored Division. The 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions attacked Aachen from the south. The city surrendered on October 16 , 1944 and was the first major German city to fall to the Allies.
On October 3rd, Lieutenant Charles McDonald crossed the German border and joined his new command, Company I of the 23rd Infantry Division in the Schnee-Eifel forest east of St. Vith, Belgium. McDonald wrote of his baptism by fire during the next few weeks in his classic memoir “Company Commander.” His account of the desperate fighting along that portion of the Siegfried line and his shockingly rapid introduction to life in combat as a Company Commander provides such a vivid picture that you feel you are there with him.
From September 10 through October 15, 1944, the 276th Armored Field Artillery, which included my father-in-law, was supporting the 2nd “Free” French Armored Division. They took positions near the Foret du Parroy, east of Nancy, France, on September 23 and remained in that position until October 15 providing supporting fire for the French Division as well as the nearby 79th Infantry Division. The 4th Armored Division was also in this area near Nancy. All were part of General George Patton’s command.
Back behind the lines, PFC Mollie Weinstein, had settled into her quarters in a hotel in newly-liberated Paris. The WAC provided clerical support for the Army and in her free time explored the famous city. Her memoir, “Mollie’s War,” includes letters she wrote home describing her experiences including meeting GI’s who’d landed on D-Day at a USO provided entertainment event and the plight of civilians in liberated Paris. Although news reports predicted the war would be over by Christmas, Mollie joked that she wouldn’t be home until 1946. The WAC’s instincts were right. It was November, 1945, before Mollie was shipped back to the states.
In early October,1944, the news from Europe sounded good to the folks back home. Paris and most of France had been liberated. The Siegfried Line had been breached and the city of Aachen taken. Although the port of Antwerp had fallen to the Allies in September, fortifications along the estuary leading to the sea blocked the port until November. Supplies were still being unloaded on the Normandy beaches and trucked across France by the Red Ball Express. Shortages slowed the Allies advance as the Germans fought to defend their borders. The war in Europe would go on for another seven months.
The setting in a novel can provide a unique location for events to unfold. Some authors use real places and real historic landmarks in their books. I recently read “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen and she used Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness as her setting. Other authors create completely fictional locations to suit their needs. And some create fictitious locations based on actual places. This is what I did in my novel, Kitty’s War.
While doing research for Kitty’s War, I needed a fictional location for the 8th Air Force Second Combat Bombardment Wing Headquarters where the main characters got together. I knew that during WWII the English took over large country houses and estates for use by the military and some of these were assigned to the growing American forces. These estates were ideal for the Air Force because they provided enough space for construction of air fields and temporary buildings for housing and other needs. The large homes were perfect for headquarters.
My image of an English country house was something like Highclere Castle used for the setting of Downton Abbey. I couldn’t use that one so I went in search of houses that were actually used by the military. That’s how I found Elveden Hall. It had a fascinating history including that it had been owned by Maharaja Duleep Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire, during his exile in England. While living there he completely redesigned the interiors of the house to resemble the Moghal palaces in India.
During WWII Elveden Hall served as headquarters for the 3rd Bomb Division, also known as the 3rd Air Division. That made it perfect for my purpose. I made changes so that it is more a fictional location that a real one, such as adding a hospital and air field which were not actually on the grounds and changing the name to Ellingham Castle . For more information about the US Air Force in England during WWII, including a picture of a Women’s Army Corps corporal working at Elveden Hall, follow this link.
I have not been the only one who thought Elveden Hall would make an interesting setting. Several movies have been shot there including “Eyes Wide Shut” where director Stanley Kubrick used the interiors to create a unique atmosphere. This YouTube video of one scene shot there will give you an idea of the interior of this unique house.
Women’s History Month could not pass without honoring Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady and so much more. There is little I can add to the volumes that have been written about her life, her contributions to the career of her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, and her later contributions to the United Nations. Instead I will tell you about some of what I admire about her.
Although her family was wealthy, she was a shy child from an unhappy home. Her mother died when she was young and her father was an alcoholic so Eleanor was raised by her grandmother. As she grew to adulthood she overcame her shyness and ventured out into society. When she married her handsome, distant cousin, Franklin, she would have been content to be a wife and mother, but her husband’s political ambitions threw her into the public arena. This public role would not have been her choice but she rose to the challenge. Even as First Lady she went beyond the expected role of managing social events and became her husband’s eyes, ears and legs. She traveled the country making speeches, listening to people in all walks of life and reporting back to the White House. It took a lot of inner strength to overcome her early life and become a force in Washington.
The quiet little girl became a savvy political figure who promoted women’s causes whenever she could. She encouraged her husband to appoint women to various positions in his administration. In a time when women reporters were not allowed in the White House news conferences, Eleanor began holding her own news conferences for women only. After Franklin’s death, President Truman appointed Eleanor as delegate to the newly formed United Nations. There she led the fight for resettlement of refugees and she is considered largely responsible for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is still protecting human rights around the globe.
Another thing that garners my admiration is that Eleanor was a writer. Beginning during her tenure in the White House, she wrote a daily newspaper column “My Day” that was syndicated in newspapers across the country. This would have been the equivalent of writing a daily blog today. She also wrote regular columns for several magazines and had a weekly radio broadcast. After leaving Washington Eleanor wrote four autobiographies and several other books. These books are still available. I treasure my copy of the combined autobiographies.
The money she earned from this column and from her books she donated to charity. That brings me to another thing I admire about Eleanor Roosevelt. Her charity and compassion for the people. She gave her money and she gave of herself to better the lives of others.
Something that many people don’t know about Eleanor is that at the beginning of World War II when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Eleanor spoke to the American people about the attack before her husband’s famous speech to Congress. It was Sunday, December 7, 1941, and her weekly radio broadcast was scheduled to go on the air that evening. While Franklin consulted with the country’s leaders, Eleanor went on the air and talked to the people in her kind and compassionate style. She could relate to the feelings of fear families had because she too was a mother who had four sons of the age for military service. Two of her sons were already in the military. She knew what was coming and she knew the people needed to hear a message of hope and courage so that is what she gave them. Listen to her words in the attached You Tube recording. How could you not admire a woman like that.
When Hitler declared war on the United States, U-boat captains delighted in the opportunity to hunt along the east coast of America. They had roamed the coast of Europe, stalked the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic and guarded the entrance to the Mediterranean. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan and Germany declared war on the U.S. Before these momentous events there had been tension and confrontations between German U-boats and American ships as they assisted the English and Canadians in escorting ships transporting goods across the North Atlantic. When war was declared, the U-boats headed for the east coast of the U.S. where they found easy pickings in unarmed and unescorted American merchant ships. The Germans called it “Operation Drumbeat.”
Shipping along the east coast from Maine to Florida, as well as along the Gulf coast, became targets. Along the eastern seaboard One hundred and twenty-one (121) merchant ships were either sunk or damaged during 1942 alone. Why were they such easy targets?
The merchant marine vessels had no protection. They were unarmed and they had no military escorts. Although the war in Europe had been raging since 1939 and the German U-boats had been attacking ships in the Atlantic headed for England, the United States was woefully unprepared to protect vital shipping along her coast line. Also early in the war the United States did not have strict black-out rules. It took a while for many areas to realize that light from the shore endangered ships at sea. German U-boats could target ships at night by tracking the vessel’s silhouette against the light from the shore.
Imagine standing on the shore and watching a ship burning after it had been hit by torpedoes. That’s what happened along the shores of Florida in early 1942. Read an interesting interview with German U-boat Captain Hardegan where he tells of sinking a tanker off the coast of Jacksonville in April 1942. He saw the ship against the lights from the beach and after it was hit he said he could see the people on shore watching it burn.
We don’t often think about the number of ships and the number of lives lost by the Merchant Marines. Their task was vital and their losses were higher than other military branches. But they weren’t technically military despite their critical role in transporting all kinds of materials.
Something had to be done to stop the loss of life and vital cargoes. Initially the focus had been on protecting the west coast, but it didn’t take long to recognize the threat of the German U-boats along the eastern seaboard. The Navy and the Coast Guard increased patrols searching for the U-boats by sea. The Army Air Corps flew patrols along the coast and the Civil Air Patrol was established to fly additional patrols searching for the enemy.
Meanwhile, shippers had to find a way to safely transport vital cargo including shipments of oil. They turned to transport through the intracoastal waterway. This protected route utilized existing rivers, waterways and canals to ship a variety of cargo in barges. Improvements to depth and width of this waterway enabled larger vessels to pass through this route.
The Navy organized escorted convoys of merchant ships traveling along the east coast. That, combined with increased Air Corp bomber activity, reduced the number of ships sunk. By 1943 fewer merchant vessels went down and numerous U-boats were sunk off the eastern coast of the United States.
The remains of sunken merchant ships and German U-boats can be found all along the east coast. See this article and photographs about ship wrecks off the coast of North Carolina.
In my novel, Kitty’s War, the hero floats toward shore in a raft after his merchant ship was sunk off the east coast. Stories of this little known part of the war inspired the opening of my novel where the hero and heroine meet for the first time. You can purchase Kitty’s War on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, iTunes, Kobo and The Wild Rose Press.
When I see contrails crisscrossing the sky, I wonder what the skies over Europe looked like during World War II. So many military aircraft were flying back then, heavy bombers, medium bombers and fighters. Without today’s on-board radar, clear skies provided ideal flying weather for the bombers and a clear, blue sky is a perfect backdrop for snowy-white contrails.
The U.S. Eighth Air Force flew daytime missions over Europe beginning in 1942. While the British flew at night, the Americans tackled the more dangerous daylight hours. Even during the Luftwaffe’s infamous blitz in 1940, the Germans dropped their bombs at night. They knew their bombers were much more vulnerable in the daytime. But the Americans believed that their heavily armed B-17 “Flying Fortress” and the comparably armed Consolidated B-24 could withstand German fighter attacks without the protection of their own fighters. It would be late in 1943 before long-range fighters would accompany the bombers all the way to the target and back. The Americans also believed that by flying in the daytime their bombardiers could be more accurate. The top-secret Norden bomb sight enabled the bombardier to hit the selected target with less damage to nearby non-military structures. At least that was what they believed at the time. Later they found that although the U.S. bombings had less collateral damage than the British “carpet” bombing, their accuracy left much to be desired. Also, the American losses due to anti-aircraft fire or “flack” were horrendous.
But let’s get back to those contrails that marked the path of bombers across the sky. Contrails are a phenomenon of atmospheric conditions. When the heat from airplane engines interacts with the moist atmosphere at high altitudes and when the temperature and humidity are within certain ranges, a contrail (essentially a cloud) is formed. Engine emissions facilitate the cloud or contrail formation by providing tiny particles for the moisture to gather around. Depending on conditions at altitude the clouds or contrails may quickly disappear, may hang in the sky as long thin lines or may spread out into what eventually appear to be natural bands of billowy clouds. Today’s contrails are produced by jet engines, but during World War II airplanes were powered by internal combustion engines. These engines produced enough heat to create the contrail phenomena.
When squadrons of bombers stacked into box-like formations sped across the sky, their contrails must have been a sight to see. Instead of one solitary streak across the sky, groups of pencil-thin clouds would have marked the squadron’s progress. When the humidity and temperature were right, these bombers could not hide from the enemy. Germans on the ground could easily track their direction and note when the group changed course. It was no wonder that the anti-aircraft fire was so deadly accurate.
Conversely, the streaks across the sky must have comforted those in occupied countries as the American bombers flew over France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Luxembourg. In the dark years of 1942 and 1943, when the Germans dominated Europe and the Allied forces were far away in North Africa and Sicily, these contrails provided hope to the people of Europe. Their message written across the sky said that Europe had not been forgotten.
Learn more about the Eighth Air Force and their war over Europe by visiting the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum just outside Savannah, Georgia. It is a fascinating place to visit.
And read about the men in those bombers in my novel, Kitty’s War, which will be released on Friday, December 16, 2016, published by The Wild Rose Press and available at Amazon and other online stores.
I always love to hear the stories passed down in families about how their parents or grandparents met, fell in love and started a life together during World War II. These stories reflect the realities of the time. The country was at war. Men, from age 18 to 45, either volunteered to serve in the military or they were drafted. Young men and many young women left home either to go into the military or to go to work at a defense plant or to go into some type training, such as nursing. All across the country single men and women met and dated. Couples were separated and those already married struggled to maintain a marriage through separation. Often the wife followed her husband to wherever he was stationed. It was a time of great turmoil in our country. And I find it fascinating.
A member of the extended family of the 276th Armored Field Artillery Battalion shared one of those stories with me. Morris Irving Grayson served in Battery B of the 276th while my father-in-law served in Battery A. Irving’s daughter, Teresa Williams, agreed to let me share her parents’ story on my website as a way to keep the memories of the war alive and to let younger people know what soldiers and their families went through.
In 1941, Irving Grayson and Doris Smiley graduated from Childress High School in Childress, Texas. Although they went to the same school in the same town, they didn’t get to know each other until the next year when Doris noticed Irving at the local open air skating rink. Irving was a skilled skater and loved to show off. The two started dating.
Irving planned to enter the military in 1942 but he had appendicitis. His illness delayed his enlistment until April 27, 1943, when he signed up in Lubbock, Texas. He went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for basic training. Before completion of the course he volunteered to become a paratrooper and was transferred to Camp Tocca, Georgia. At that time it was more prestigious to be a paratrooper and they were paid more than regular soldiers.
While in paratrooper training in Georgia, Irving complained of the extreme heat, the humidity and the miles of daily marches carrying full packs. One night his sergeant came into the barracks and said, “If you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here, there will be a bus out front tonight. Be on it.” Irving made sure he was on that bus even though he had no idea where the bus would take him.
The bus took Irving to a train station and the train took him to Camp Phillips, Kansas, where he was assigned to the 276th Armored Field Artillery. The 276th was originally a typical field artillery battalion with tow-behind artillery pieces. Irving began training for the field artillery.
While at Camp Phillips, Doris joined Irving bringing along their new baby. Irving and Doris were married in Salina, Kansas, December 2, 1943. Housing was scarce around these new Army training camps. Irving and Doris rented a tiny apartment in what must have been an older apartment building or converted house. Doris later told her family that she found a rat in the baby’s crib one night and after that the baby slept in the bed with her.
At Camp Phillips Irving served as assistant to the supply sergeant. The sergeant left unexpectedly, probably reassigned, so Irving took over his duties. Although doing the sergeant’s job, Irving was not promoted as he thought he should have been. In early 1944 the 276th moved east to Tennessee for extensive maneuvers intended to simulate combat conditions. During these maneuvers, the Army decided to convert the 276th from a field artillery battalion to an “armored” field artillery battalion. They were pulled out of the maneuvers and sent to Camp Campbell, Kentucky, where they trained on the M-7 self-propelled, track-mounted 105 mm howitzer cannon. These track-mounted guns had proved to be more maneuverable in North Africa and the Army believed they would be able to keep up with the tanks after the Allies invaded Europe.
When Irving went to Tennessee, Doris and the baby went back to Childress. The couple began corresponding by letter. Doris sent him pictures of their son with notes about his progress. Irving came home on leave before he went overseas. Later Doris wrote to tell him she was expecting another child. Their second son was born while Irving was in Europe fighting the Germans. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Doris, with one baby and another on the way and her husband overseas in danger of being killed. She probably wrote cheerful letters with pictures of the babies to keep his spirits up.
Adding to the difficulty for this young mother was an especially disturbing letter she received from Irving. It had been intended for an English girl he met during his brief stay in England but the letter got switched with his letter to Doris. When Doris received the wrong letter, she of course assumed the worst, that he was cheating on her, and she did not write him for some time. Irving insisted the he and the English girl were just friends and eventually the trouble was resolved.
While in England, Irving became a jeep driver responsible for carrying messages between the battalion and headquarters. He also scouted for locations to set up the battery headquarters and drove damaged half-tracks and M7’s to the maintenance platoon for repairs. The 276th fought their way across France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany from September, 1944, until the German surrender on May 8, 1945.
On June 10, 1945, Corporal Irving Grayson was presented the bronze star for heroism by Brig. General John C. Lenz. In one of the ironies of war, Irving thought he received the medal for one action when in fact he received it for something different. He told his family this story —
As he lay in the street of a small German town, a heavy artillery shell went went over his head hitting a building in front of him and skidded along the side of the building but did not explode. Then another shell went over his head hitting the same building and again skidded along the without exploding. Irving realized you could tell where the gun firing on them might be located by the angle the shells were hitting and skidding. He crawled on his stomach a couple of blocks back to Battery B headquarters and told his commander what he had observed. The commander told a sergeant of the heavy artillery to follow Irving back to where he had seen the shells hitting the building. They crawled back and located the German gun. They crawled back to the heavy artillery and the sergeant directed his men where to fire. The German gun was hit and American lives were saved. All his commanders were congratulating Irving on what he had done, so he thought he received the bronze star for this. See the newspaper article for the account from the Bronze Star citation.
The 276th AFA returned to the states in July, 1945, as part of the experienced combat troops who were redeployed for the invasion of Japan. The men received leave to visit their families before reporting for additional training for the invasion. During this leave another child was conceived and that child, Teresa, was born in 1946. The war ended in August, 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
Irving returned to his old job in a packing plant in Childress, Texas, and a fourth child arrived in 1947. He later trained to be a machinist, probably using the GI Bill, and in 1951 the family moved to Dallas. In 1953 the couple’s fifth child made her appearance making three boys and two girls.
Irving and Doris raised their five children and, after twenty-one years of marriage, they divorced. Both remarried and they remained close to their children.
You might say that Irving and Doris didn’t have the “typical” WWII romance. But their experiences were typical for the time. A hasty marriage with the strains of separation, fear and anxiety. Doris didn’t know if Irving would return to her, didn’t know how long he would be gone. And Irving longed for his wife and babies. He missed the birth of his second son and the experience of seeing both sons early life. He could only write censored letters and hope his parents and hers were helping his young wife and children through this difficult time. Their love, loyalty and determination brought them through the war and the years of adjustment afterwards, like so many other couples of that time.
If you want to share a family story about World War II, please send it to me along with any pictures you have. I would love to hear your stories and share them here on my website.
With this post I will finish my series of posts on the exploits of the 30th Infantry Division during World War II. I have been distracted by other events in my life (like selling my first novel). Nevertheless, I need to bring their story to a conclusion and, in doing so, tell of some interesting occurrences during the last days of the war.
After crossing the Rhine River on March 24, 1945, the 30th pushed into the heart of Germany. By the 28th, the 8th Armored Division passed through their lines and the mission of the 30th was to follow behind and mop up. After Dorsten fell on March 29, XIX Corps took command of the 30th. By April 1, Old Hickory was reassigned to following the 2nd Armored Division on a long road march eastward towards Berlin. Before them lay the Teutoberger Wald, the place where the Germanic tribal chief, Hermann, defeated the Roman legions of Varus in 9 AD. The 2nd Armored Division left the Autobahn, which veered north at this point, and crossed the long ridge of the Teutoberger Wald with the assistance of the 30th. A German Officers Training School aided regular troops to resist the Americans in the rough, steep, heavily forested terrain. They tried to take a stand on Monument Hill, the site of the Hermannsdenkmal (the statue commemorating famous battle), but Old Hickory defeated them.
On April 7th the 117th Regiment cleared Hamelin minus K Company who had been left behind to guard an Allied Prisoner of War camp. During the advance the 30th took over an assortment of installations, including airports, hospitals, training camps and German research facilities. All had to be guarded in addition to the thousands of German prisoners. Feeding the prisoners, freed POWs and slave laborers fell to the military which was unprepared to care for such numbers.
The 30th’s next objective was Brunswick. The German commander, General Veith, called for a truce to negotiate a surrender of the city, but after a meeting with General Hobbs, Commander of the 30th, the Germans refused the terms of “unconditional surrender.” The conference was only a delaying tactic to allow the German Army to escape. Fighting resumed almost immediately with the 117th Regiment attacking and the 120th moving into position to block escape from the city. By April 12 the 3rd Battalion of the 117th remained to mop up Brunswick while the remainder of the 117th along with the 120th pushed eastward toward the Elbe River. (The 119th was attached to the 2nd Armored Division at this time.)
After Brunswick fell, the 743rd Tank Battalion and infantry from the 119th Regiment were proceeding toward Magdeburg when they passed through the town of Farsleben. Lead elements found a long freight train stopped on the track. The Nazi guards attempted to flee from the Americans but were captured. The train had a full head of steam and was awaiting orders when the Americans showed up. It didn’t take long to determine that the old freight cars contained 2,500 Jewish prisoners who were being moved from Bergen-Belsen prison camp to some unknown location in the east. Problem was that the Russians were advancing from the east. The bridge over the Elbe had been destroyed and at one point the Nazis ordered the crew to drive the train into the river which would have killed all aboard. Shocked by their discovery the Americans could scarcely believe the condition of the prisoners. Frank Towers tells the story of the liberation of the train and the following events in a section of the book “The Fighting 30th Division – They Called Them Roosevelt’s SS” by Martin King, David Hilborn and Michael Collins. You can also watch and listen to Frank Tower’s account of the incident in an interview by University of Florida oral history program on YouTube.
Although the 30th Infantry Division had been issued maps through to Berlin, the order came down that they were to take Magdeburg and stop on the banks of the Elbe River. The Russians would proceed from the east and the two allies would meet at the Elbe. Many in the 30th were disappointed at not getting to push on into Berlin.
Magdeburg appeared an easy task. There were hopes of a surrender but when men went in to discuss it with the German commander they found him either unwilling or unable to surrender the city. Before the attack by both the 30th Infantry Division and the 2nd Armored Division, bombers unloaded on the already damaged city. Within twenty-four hours Magdeburg was cleared. It was April 18, 1945.
With orders to hold at the Elbe, Old Hickory’s fighting in Europe came to an end. While they waited for the Red Army and the German surrender, which finally came on May 8, 1945, the 30th occupied the area and took 7,468 prisoners. Some crossed the river to escape being captured by the Russians. All along the line the large numbers of surrendering German soldiers became a burden on the Allies to feed and house. In addition, there were thousands of freed slave laborers and liberated prisoner of war camps to deal with. Contact with the Russians came on May 4th.
Old Hickory moved south from Magdeburg to Thuringia and assumed occupation duty after the surrender. Near the end of June, the 30th learned they had been chosen for redeployment to the Pacific Theater. Their orders would carry them home, to the United States, to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Those individuals with enough points to be discharged were transferred primarily to the 76th Infantry Division with lower point individuals from the 76th moving into the 30th to replenish its ranks. These transfers due to points often explain why a veteran’s discharge papers show him in a different division from the one he fought with.
In July, the 30th moved across Europe to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France. The bulk of the division crossed the channel to England to await shipment to the U.S. That’s where they got the news that Japan had surrendered August 15, 1945. The 119th Regiment had sailed from France on August 12 so they were at sea when word came. All the men of Old Hickory let out a sigh of relief. Their fight was over. On Aug. 16th the division boarded the Queen Mary and sailed for home where the 30th Infantry Division was deactivated on November 25, 1945. The 30th Infantry Division left a glorious record of bravery, hard fighting and sacrifice in which we can all take pride.