World War II

Crossing the Rhine

 ... Memories with mixed emotions

by Irving Smolens

Every time the month of March is upon us most people in New England begin to contemplate the onset of spring. Those of us who remain in New England throughout the winter months, particularly enjoy the exhilaration of the change in the season.

For me there is another exhilaration. It recalls the March 58 years ago when, as a member of the US Fourth Infantry Division, I crossed the Rhine River preparing to advance deep into Bavaria. That meant that I would probably survive what turned out to be eleven months of combat against the Nazi German hordes. In the back of my mind I realized that there was still another war against the Japanese going on and that I might very well be called upon to invade the Japanese home islands. But by that time I, like most of the survivors of my gun battery, had become fatalists. We would face that situation as we had faced the landing in Normandy on D-day, June 6, 1944. What was uppermost in our minds was that we would go home and get to see our families, confronting whatever was coming when the time to do that was upon us.

When we landed on Utah Beach we were part of the First Army. During the Battle of the Bulge we were in Luxembourg and were cut off from the First Army; so we became part of the Third Army and helped to clear the Germans from the West bank of the Rhine River in the area east of Luxembourg.

When the US Seventh Army which had landed in Southern France launched an attack into the Saar Basin, we were transferred to the Seventh Army to bolster that attack. With our success there we were then in position to cross the Rhine River and we did at Worms.

The river crossing at that point had been made earlier. The engineers had built a pontoon bridge across the river which was not very wide at that point. And we just drove across in a convoy. By that time except for occasional rear guard actions the Germans were in no condition to contest our advance. It was a repeat of our race across France once we had broken out of the hedgerows in Normandy near St. Lo.

Until I saw Worms I had never seen a city so completely devastated and destroyed. We had inflicted much damage on Cherbourg but nothing to compare with Worms. It was a good size city whereas places like St. Lo were really relatively small farm towns.

There was one other incident that occurred in these days. I am not sure of the name of the town but it might have been Crailsheim. We had asked the Burgomaster to surrender the town so that we would not have to destroy it. He was willing but there was an SS training school in the town and the commandant would not allow the surrender. So we unleashed our artillery fire on the buildings and the civilians. When the commandant realized that it was only a matter of time before we would take the town, he changed into civilian clothes and escaped. The white sheets then appeared and the town surrendered.

Places such as Crailsheim were the exception. We then continued an almost uncontested motor march down one of the autobahns toward the Danube River and the Bavarian Alps. As a final act of desperate futility the retreating Germans had blown up the many overpasses on the autobahn. Using bulldozers our engineers filled the spaces underneath the overpasses and even though crossing the filled spaces was somewhat bumpy it did not slow us up appreciably.

Our convoy traveled with antiaircraft protection. A mounted Bofors 40 mm gun in front and a four barreled 50 caliber machine gun mounted on a half track in back. We had been trailed for miles by a lone German jet fighter. The first any of us had ever seen. He did not attempt to attack our own fighters which were flying in the vicinity in formations of four planes. They could not attack the jet because he could simply fly away from them. When we stopped for the night the sergeant in charge of the antiaircraft gun decided that if the jet kept buzzing us he was going to try to do what anti aircraft gunners are trained to do; shoot down enemy planes and he did. We could see the jet badly trailing smoke and losing altitude as he headed for the other side of the Danube where he probably crashed. We never saw him again.

By May 7, we were in the foothills of the Bavarian and Austrian Alps six miles from the Austrian border. The Germans had already agreed to surrender but the actual surrender document was not going to be signed until the next day; VE Day, May 8. That night a lone German bomber with a three man crew of fanatics was dropping bombs in our vicinity. This plane, a twin engine bomber, was also shot down and crashed in the woods about 200 yards behind our gun position. The next morning when we went over to examine the wreckage there were three young Germans lying dead. I looked at them and said to myself what a waste. The futility of war was brought home to me once again by their fanatic last acts of trying to kill more Americans despite the fact that for them the war had no chance of ending in victory

March 7, 2003

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