Let me introduce you to William “Bill” Kerr, who was born on May 9, 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Yankton, South Dakota. Bill has written extensively about his adventures and much of what follows is found in his writings.
His parents were Lorimer Mansfield Kerr and Edna Knapper. A “knapper” is a person who makes harnesses for horses. Lorimer was a buyer of meat, poultry, eggs, etc. for the Community Chest, which is similar to United Way. This was a free service offered to all hospitals. He has one Brother (Dick) and one Sister (Elaine). Bill is the oldest and he was born on Mother’s Day. They lived in Cleveland until he was about five years old, and thereafter he lived in the suburbs, such as Parma (1st-4th grade), Lakewood (4-10), and Parma Heights (11-12). After the FHA was formed, which only required a 10% down payment, they moved to Parma Heights.
He played a lot of baseball. A diamond had been created by local residents. They played in the street when he lived in Lakewood. He was a Cleveland Indians fan. “Rapid Robert” Feller was a “big hero,” and they often attended the games. These were “big events as kids.” His family had a radio. Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos and Andy, the Lone Ranger, and Orphan Annie were shows that he recalls. They subscribed to the local paper. He played basketball his senior year when they found large enough shoes. At 16, he was 6’7” in height He was the center on the B team. He was a discus thrower in track and in the choir and theater. He fondly recalls, with a broken voice, that his favorite play is “Love Letters.”
His favorite uncle was also in WW2. There is a handsome picture of him in the prone position firing a BAR. He volunteered right after Pearl Harbor and remained Stateside. He is 98 and currently lives in Amarillo, Texas.
Although quite young, he witnessed the effects of the Great Depression. People would come to the backdoor of their home (perhaps in 1936) and asked if there was any work that they could perform in exchange for a meal or a sandwich. His Mother always found them something to eat. His Mother would take the kids to downtown Cleveland prior to Christmas where he saw people begging on the streets. The law prohibited begging, but it wasn’t enforced. He saw WPA workers. They built a school that he later attended, built streets, etc. The man living in a home across from them in Lakewood was a foreman on a WPA crew.
He started school in August of 1932; President Roosevelt was elected that November. He watched him throughout his school years. Bill refers to them as “the golden years.” His family talked politics at the dinner table. His Parents discussed the new Roosevelt agencies and they were “right on” the money, to their mind. Workers needed “reasonable protections” against “Robber Barons.” His family was loyal to Roosevelt. He recalls Hitler’s rise to power, especially seeing it during the newsreels at the movies. It was “probable” that the United States would enter the War and, if so, then “of course” he would join. By 1941, the United States had initiated the creation of defense plants and provided munitions to the British.
Their home had modern conveniences, such as heat, running water and electricity. He doesn’t recall any cooling. It wasn’t that hot anyway. His Father purchased a new Ford sedan in 1936. Each week his Mother baked two baking tins of iced cinnamon rolls, two kuchens and four loaves of bread. Both he and his Brother were big eaters! They drank a quart of milk during each meal. When he was a skinny twelve-year-old the doctor put him on five meals per day. It didn’t help, and his Father accused him of eating them out of house and home. Later, at basic training, he always ran for chow to be early, which would permit him to eat three times!
On December 7, 1941, he was on the way to his favorite Aunt’s home (Mother’s side) for a family dinner. They had a radio in the car, but they informed them when they arrived. That was the first time that he had heard of Pearl Harbor. His thought it was “a dastardly deed.” “We needed to give them a hard time.” He wanted to finish high school prior to enlisting.
Bill graduated from Parma Schaaf High School, located in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944. The very same day he and a buddy volunteered for the Army. He had already been turned down by the Navy, Marines and Air Corp. Each man received a physical examination. In order to be in the Army a person could be no taller than six foot six inches. Unfortunately, Bill knew that he exceeded that by one inch. His plan was to scrunch an inch. It didn’t work that way. Just as they were measuring his height he was stuck with a pin in his rear, which gave away his true height. He was rejected and told to return “to the boss.” (His buddy Steve Atsell was rejected because he had problems associated with asthma.) Bill thought of things to say to convince “the boss” to let him stay in the Army. He was in good physical shape – he had played basketball and had been on the track team – and he wanted to go. After all, what was “one lousy inch?” He relented and Bill was sent to the reception center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The captain at the reception center was apparently advised of his height, along with another guy. The captain told both men, who were standing before him in his office, that they were too tall and that they could leave. The other man was married and had a child, so he took the offer. “I said ‘I want to stay and go on to basic training.’ He asked me ‘are was sure?’ and I said ‘yes.’ He said ‘okay.’ I have never regretted it.”
Basic training, which was 18 weeks long, was at Camp Robinson near Little Rock, Arkansas. He went via train, which was his first train trip. (The family card game was pinochle, but he learned euchre on that train.) He liked boot camp. There was “hard work” and “conditioning,” but it was fun meeting people from all over the United States. One guy brought a small radio. They agreed to the programming. A few guys wanted to listen to the Longines Symphony at about 10:00 P.M. (The intro to the show was the final movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.) They could listen to the show even after “light’s out.” He saw Little Rock, which was near the home (Mountain View, AR) of his favorite actor, Dick Powell. He will forever be remembered as Phillip Marlowe, the famous character created by Raymond Chandler. His received general training of military weapons. Of special significance later on, he trained with a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), which was a WW1 light machine gun. It is a “tremendous weapon,” with a 30-inch barrel. It is very accurate. He received a furlough home after training (where he celebrated early Christmas) and then reported to New Jersey, where he was assigned to a port of embarkation.
Kerr’s ship, which was a converted passenger liner, taking him from the States to Europe, left Boston in early January of 1945. They went in a convoy, and the trip was at least a week. Aboard were “casual companies,” a reference to unrelated replacements who would be shoved into different units. As usual in the military, they had no idea where they were heading. He didn’t know anyone aboard the ship. Initially, the ship was smooth; he was on the promenade deck where the wave movement was less severe. The lieutenant hustled the men onto the deck for calisthenics. They slept on narrow Navy-like bunks stacked five high between the floor and the ceiling. On the way, his ship ran into a winter, Atlantic storm. Most got seasick. The waves were deep enough that the bow of the ship dipped slightly under the water on the downside of each swell. Calisthenics were over. The call for volunteers to clean the head (the bathrooms) came down. Bill volunteered. On the way, he saw the sick call line. The men looked like puppets dropped from a monster funnel along the corridors just splayed out in whatever form they had fallen. As Bill noted, the groaning of the men was covered over by the moaning of the boat and the storm. It was a horrible experience for many.
About eight guys were detailed to clean the latrine in the bow. They arrived and saw the mess. Just at that moment the deck dropped out from underneath them. The waters were rough, and half of them headed for the sick call line. Bill compares the ship’s drop to the feeling you might experience in an elevator controlled by a cable that suddenly drops a short distance. There is shock and then fear. The “country boys” in the unit had no experience with elevators. He and the remaining men cleaned the sloshing water, vomit, etc. from fore to aft as the ships climbed and fell over the waves. While aboard the ship, Bill had been given an acting corporal designation (with no additional pay!), but that was gone upon his arrival.
Le Havre. The men were finally advised of their port – Le Havre, France. Their ship was the first to arrive at that port after it was partly cleared of sunken ships. The Allies bombed the City during the War, the worst of which was on September 5/6, 1944 when the British bombs killed 5,000 people. The fleeing Germans destroyed the port infrastructure and sank ships before leaving. The Corp of Engineers had installed a large floating dock. The men disembarked at night and marched a mile in formation to the blacked out city and on to the street outside the railroad station. As they waited for their train to arrive, Bill decided to try out his French. He hailed a young couple (a brother and sister returning from work) and he apparently shocked them with his conversation. They spoke for nearly an hour. “It was delightful.”
Kerr was completely amazed at the unique band of merry-men and characters that accompanied him in Europe. The diversity, simply based upon different languages spoken by the men, was very broad. Bill spoke fluent French, and charms people with his flourishes to this day. The assistant squad leader spoke fluent German. One of the scouts (“Mex”) spoke, you guessed it, fluent Spanish. Of course, “Russky” spoke fluent Russian and Polish. No matter where their travels were about to take them the language barriers were small.
Train Ride. The men boarded totally empty “40 and 8 boxcars,” which were made famous during WW1. The 40 and 8 refers to the fact that either forty men or eight horses could ride in the car. The narrow gauge, French railroads could carry half of what could be carried in America. After WW1, the American Legion formed a fraternity and took their name from their ride – La Societe des Quarante Hommes et Huit Chevaux. There was no heat, and rumor has it that some men at other times started fires in the boxcars to keep warm. In fact, it was January and it was really cold, the coldest winter in twenty years. They each had two blankets and a pup-tent half in their packs. Bill and two others put up their half tents and they laid on their combined six blankets to keep warm. They couldn’t turn without waking the other guys.
The men were getting hungry for a warm meal. The colonel convinced the train crew to stop. They argued, but they stopped. They did not speak the same language. Just as soon as they were ready to serve the train took off without them! A high-speed train came by and nearly caused a collision. Evidently, the crew could not communicate the fact that another train was coming. As Bill suggests, “He was probably one of those Americans who believed that if you speak English loudly and slowly enough foreigners will understand it!”
Just as soon as the train left them an enemy fighter plane banked to take a shot at them. They were in the wide open. There was a mighty scramble to get on the sheltered side of the ground under the track. The plane flew off and the men had to walk to the next station, several miles away, carrying all of their kitchen equipment. This time, after they boarded, there was a call for, “anyone speak French?” Bill to the rescue! He got along famously with the train crew. They asked who the idiot was that wanted to stop the train? Bill assured him that he was okay; he just did not understand the culture, etc. It’s now under control. “He won’t say anymore dumb things.”
Bill also had a little extra knowledge about trains. Just prior to entering the service, he was employed as a railroad switchman that served a steel mill. The next morning he asked for a helmet full of hot water from the overflow pipe on the engine. (Now, who would know that?) The crew enjoyed the cigarettes that were swapped for the water. On the way back, the colonel made it known that he wanted a helmet full of hot water too. He advised the colonel that they were not eager to give him the water, but they did so in exchange for cigarettes, one for the fireman and the other for the engineer. Cigarettes were the universal medium of exchange at that time over any country’s currency. Bill gave the two cigarettes to the train crew, kept the balance of the other two packs of cigarettes, and returned with the colonel’s hot water.
After they arrived at the first replacement depot (where they were told they would be for a couple of days) they fell out for inspection by a visiting general. This was during the time of the Battle of the Bulge. It was freezing outside. And the wind was considerable. They stood outside for an hour at parade rest before the general arrived. The next day he was taken to the hospital for frozen feet! “My first purple heart and I hadn’t even fired a shot!” Another 15,000 men had frozen feet during the Battle of the Bulge. (They stripped every dead soldier of his felt-lined boots, but there were none his size!) His treatment was alternating his feet between cold and warm water. A few days later he was sent to his unit. When he arrived, again, he knew no one. The unit was at the front so they had him work with the kitchen crew and supply sergeant. He ate well and slept in a sleeping bag on the wood floor of a small empty railroad station. He woke in the middle of the night and had to run to a slit trench. Evidently, he was ill from too much warm rich food after cold rations for days.
As it turned out, he joined his unit (I Company, 3rd Battalion, 119th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division, 9th Army) in February at Kerkrade, Netherlands, a rest center that was located to the north of Aachen, Germany. A rest center is a location where troops recently returning from the front lines can relax; after rest, the troops move up to support the unit on the front line, and then again move to the front line. When he arrived mid-afternoon all of the other men had taken showers and were wearing new clothes. But not Bill. He was so tall that no extra clothing was available. The supply sergeant later got him an extra set. It was at this time that he got his nickname – “Stretch.” At that location, the conditions were not bad. They had an ice cream machine, plenty of candy bars, cigarettes, cigars, etc.
As he got to know the others, they began to talk about things. He was told that there are some unwritten rules that came from their General. First and foremost, don’t ever surrender. The past Christmas a dozen men in his company were trapped and captured while on patrol. The entire company formed a combat patrol, and, under cover of darkness and under a rolling barrage of artillery, crept into the town where the men were being held and rescued them. That is simply amazing. Another time the company was overrun by German tanks and fought back to back in their foxholes allowing no infantry to pass until the tanks had to return to their own lines for lack of infantry “eyes.” Tanks are vulnerable and cannot operate without infantry. These stories impressed Bill. No surrender.
A second rule concerns guard duty. If you are on guard duty, and you tell someone to halt, you count 1001 and 1002. “If they haven’t halted, then pull the trigger.” “We don’t mess around.” Another rule is that “we don’t sleep in tents. We sleep in buildings.” That, and their sleeping bags, kept them pretty warm.
He was ready to go. On the evening they left the rest center the platoon lined up next to the trucks. The lieutenant stated that he would like to meet the new man. Where is he? “That’s me sir!” said Bill. And then he promptly vomited right on the lieutenant’s boots. Evidently, he had eaten too much ice cream and candy with the other rich food. They jumped into trucks to move toward the line.
Along the way they stopped for a couple of days (and slept in a barn) to practice some new tactics for working with medium-sized tanks. These were probably M4 Sherman tanks with the 76mm cannons. The infantry had been trained to go toward an objective as fast as possible and have the tanks hold back until they could catch up with the men, about 300 yards from the objective. This was done to prevent the tanks from being overexposed because they moved at the troops slower pace all of the way into town. While the tanks were barreling into the town the artillery would drop smoke shells in front of the infantry. The tanks and infantry would then go into the town together through the smoke. The new tactic was to ride on the tanks to about 300 yards from the objective. The infantry would then dismount with the cover of smoke and move in together. While they were practicing this new technique, their BAR man slipped and fell. A tank ran over his ankles. Fortunately, the ground was muddy and it merely pushed his ankles into the mud, but he had terrible sprains (and a ticket home). The new BAR man? Yep. Bill was the largest man in the squad so he was the logical choice.
The BAR is typically fired from the hip. It is an automatic weapon and had a big kick when fired. He often fired it sideways so the bullets would go from left to right instead of rising upward. The next day they found a quarry for him to practice before he entered combat. At basic training he had only fired the BAR in a prone position as a defensive situation. Amazingly, the men watched a movie – Gregory Peck and Vincent Price in “The Keys of The Kingdom – that night while in a barn sitting atop hay bales. While they watched the movie he could hear Bedcheck Charlie (the German recon plane that flew over them on a nightly basis) flying by.
Hambach Castle. Bill’s first combat mission was on February 23, 1945. His squad crossed into Germany (east of Aachen, which was the first German city attacked by Allied infantry) and crossed the Rur River (Roer in French and Dutch). Along the way they passed through the Siegfried Line, which were the Dragon’s Teeth designed to keep enemy troops out of Germany. The Rur originates in Belgium and flows into Germany. It passes through Julich and to the south it passes Selgersdorf. The Battalion crossed in boats about 3:00 A.M. The 2nd Battalion pushed through the 1st, which had taken Selgersdorf, and marched onward to Daubernrath to the east. Bill’s Battalion, the 3rd, crossed the Rur on a pontoon bridge put together by the engineers that morning, in daylight, and passed through the others. Their plan was to attack Hombach, further to the east. I Company (Bill’s company) was to take a castle about ½ mile outside of the town while K & L companies attacked the town. (The Hambach Castle, which is in Bavaria is quite unique. It is the symbol of the German democracy movement which began in 1832. Bavarian expression rights were acknowledged by the ruling French revolutionaries in the late 1700s, but they were later suppressed by the superseding Bavarian authorities.) During the entire time that the men advanced they were exposed to the sounds of exploding enemy artillery rounds at various distances from them. They also could hear their own artillery firing from behind them. Bill said it was “quite deafening.”
They advanced up a narrow unpaved road that was undefended. Several hundred yards ahead was the castle. It looked like a red brick schoolhouse with large cylindrical towers on each corner of the enclosed rectangle. They must have been twenty-five feet in diameter. Two stories of windows were visible. Rifle fire came from those windows, apparently aimed at K & L Companies attacking the town. I Company had not been seen, which was to their advantage. There was a dry moat around the castle which was separated between the road by a 2 ½ foot high, brick wall. To maintain surprise, the men crawled single file through the shade (the explosions and fire gave off light in the night) across the road to the entrance. From there they were to dash across the bridge. He was the third to the last man of the last squad to enter. Once inside the building, it was a tight fit for the 100 or so men; they had to raise their rifles vertically to fit into the room!
The sergeant and his scout left to climb the outside stone staircase. They had heard firing come from upstairs. They kicked in the door and fired. Eight dead German soldiers lay on the ground. Bill asked himself, “Is that the kind of stuff I’m expected to do?” Yes. They searched the castle and found no more defenders. They immediately went into rotating guard duties. Groups of men were to be on one hour and then off one hour. Half rested while the other one half prepared for any counterattack.
Bill was on first guard at a hole in the wall of a barn area blown by an artillery shell. In the distance, he could see a hedged formal garden centered by a large tree. After some time he heard and then saw a German machine gun squad creeping toward him from behind the centered tree. He watched them setting up the gun next to the tree while he raised his BAR into position. He heard some small clatter of noises. He was just about to fire when a hand touched his shoulder. It was his relief man. “I whispered to him what I had seen. He took a good look and told me that there was nothing there!” He looked again and he was right! Bill had hallucinated the entire thing, including the sounds. “Don’t be concerned. This is very typical the first night of combat.” And he had not even yet fired his BAR in combat!
Bill then went to sleep on a concrete chicken coup on a layer of straw. He didn’t wake until dawn. The rotating guard had been cancelled because recon had identified that the Germans were retreating as fast as they could. Their next duty was to form a roadblock where a road from town passed through the Hombach Forest. He and another guy had to dig a foxhole. It was grand, about seven feet deep with a firing step. Compared to the dirt in Arkansas, this was easy by comparison. He had a little time to read while keeping lookout in the foxhole. The wrapper on the D-bar indicated that it was a full day’s ration. He had been eating about 15-18 per day as a snack before and after meals! No wonder he was getting sick.
Later that afternoon the Germans sent in 120mm shells – known as “Screaming Mimi” because of their sound. The Germans attached whistles to their shells on them for psychological reasons. They also left a long streak of smoke thereby identifying from where they were fired. Typically, they would be fired and then the Germans would immediately move it. When it was over Bill could reach out of the foxhole and touch the bottom of three craters! It was at that time he noticed that his ears were ringing and they did not return to normal thereafter. His unit called in for a strafing mission. P-17s’ made several passes up and down the inside edge of the forest then moved in and found the mortars. They had left, but his unit then moved into that area and slept in the German dug bunker. They took guard duty again, this time protecting their tanks (which had their engines running all night) that would support their attack on Rodingen (to the north of Hambach) the next day. He actually stood guard on the tank and then slept on top of the tank, which gave off engine heat.
Rodingen. On February 25, 1945, they rose early and ate cold rations. The plan called for I and K companies to attack the town of Rodingen, Germany at the same time from different sides. When they got within a couple hundred of yards of the town the tanks would catch up and everyone would advance together. The men advanced through fallow farm ground. As they walked they sunk into lose ground about 3-4 inches. There was also approximately 6 inches of snow on the ground. As they advanced, German machine guns started fired and artillery shells began to fly. Those in front – Bill was one of them due to his long strides – started hip firing to keep their heads down. Half way across the field the men came to a deep drainage ditch with a small culvert bridge over it. The only other cover was a large pile of beets and a hole next to them. There were no tanks with them.
And then it happened. On his way to the culvert, the buckle on Bill’s belt gave way! Should he stop or should he go, that is the question? He stopped, put down his BAR, re-buckled, and then ran onward. This would have been a pretty amazing sight. When he was stopped he felt the jet streams of bullets going by his ears, but he didn’t get hit. Again, he considers himself to be very lucky. He dove behind a two-foot high beet pile, which are those that are not to be immediately eaten or sold. He stopped to catch his breath. The whole company was pinned down by the machine guns. Bill was obviously in their range. The short bursts continued in the anticipation that someone was going to run out from behind the pile of beets. Peering over the beets he could see bullets kicking up dirt on both sides of the beet pile. On impulse and instinct, he got up and ran past the corner of the pile heading for town. Bullets kicked up dust behind him as he ran. Unfortunately, two others in his company running the same route were killed. In fact, it was falsely reported that he was one of the two. A killed in action report was stopped before it could be sent home.
As he arrived in town, he heard someone yell “sniper.” He hit the dirt in the ditch beside a road. He asked, “Where?” “The second dormer to the right of the church steeple.” He crawled up to a tree and looked out and counted to himself, “one, two…” Bang! A bullet hit the edge of the tree just an inch or two from his face splintering bark on the side of his head. Again, he considers himself to be lucky. He played dead for several more seconds, and then rose up and fired an entire magazine (20 shells) into that dormer. “I assumed that was taken care of after that.” They didn’t hear anything more so they rose and joined a couple of others who were going house to house to scatter the enemy. As he and two other guys cleared the houses this relieved the pressure on the balance of the company that had been pinned down outside of town. As he was walking he heard rustling around the corner. He positioned his BAR and moved quickly around the corner to encounter a three-foot high hog running toward him. At that time, even a hog was a major scare! They cleared the remainder of the town. Most of the Germans had evacuated and only a few prisoners were taken.
K Company radioed that two German Tiger tanks were making their way across town. Two of the three tanks that had made it out of the tree grove to join their route into the city had been knocked out. The third tank never left the woods. K Company wanted all of I Company’s anti-tank bazookas and ammunition to target those tanks. While that was ongoing the third American tank was positioned in the I Company sector for a counterattack. Bill helped position it outside of town behind a building. He then went back into the town. As he entered town he saw his lieutenant and his face was pale. “Stretch, are you okay?” Evidently, he saw blood all over Bill’s uniform and was worried. The concussion from all of the weapons had given Bill a bloody nose.
The squad split in two and were on either side of the road waiting for the counterattack. They looked into the basement of the building nearest them – no enemy was inside – which would be their refuge should any artillery shells start dropping. They did arrive and they ran for the basement. When it cleared they went up to the second floor for a view. The guys across the street were okay, but they had the remnants of canned goods all over them. A shell had come through the roof and exploded near them. They had not planned to run for their basement. Evidently, they had decided to eat something before checking for an alternate safe area, which was a mistake. Safety is first. These guys were not smart.
About dusk the counterattack became more intense with the distant sound of two tanks. Having been forced out of the K Company sector, they were making their way back-to-back down a very narrow street. Bill ran upstairs to a window that overlooked the street. He saw tank a commander standing in each hatch directing the tanks. Bill and his men didn’t have any bazookas because they had been given to K Company. However, Bill thought he might be able to drop two grenades and take out both at the same time. (If you personally knock out a tank, then you receive a tank patch to put on your shoulder!) He took out the two grenades, pulled the pins and waited. Just as he was about to drop a grenade into the first tank someone from across the street fired with his rifle at the lead tank commander. It was well into dusk and an extremely difficult shot. He missed. In basic training, you are instructed to not attempt a snipe at dusk or later. Both commanders immediately dropped down and buttoned up, and Bill was left with two live grenades in his hands! He called for help and a buddy helped him put the pins back in. He ran downstairs and slapped the second tank as it drove by, just to say that he had. They didn’t fall into the tank trap they prepared and instead took off into the fields running for home. Bill told that guy who fired that “you just cost us two tanks.”
Rhine River Training; Wesel. On March 6th, his battalion moved to a rest camp located in Sustern, Netherlands, near the Belgium border and to the northwest of Aachen. They began to train for the Rhine River crossing. The Navy was to provide landing craft and pontoons for the bridge. They rehearsed first with speedboats carrying six men and a corp of engineer helmsman. After that first wave came the amphibious tanks (a/k/a alligators) in the second wave. “We were so curious. Sea going tanks?” They practiced with them and they floated. Kerr fondly recalls visiting the nearby Belgian village (to the west) and eating non-ration food. His first taste was a fruit pie – which had no sugar. “An unforgettable taste!” Bakers operated under a sugar shortage and customers would add their own sugar. Kerr and his men also added sugar, that made them much better.
Kerr’s company crossed the Rhine River on March 24, 1945. Two companies of the 1st Battalion started across the Rhine at 2:00 A.M. under cover of a heavy artillery barrage which had been going on since midnight. The duty of those two companies was to secure a beachhead for those who followed. Just before 4:00 A.M., Bill and the 3rd Battalion started across in the Alligators. Due to the Rhine flooding, it was approximately one mile across. The German artillery had cranked up to high gear and a lot of shells hit nearby. Bill was carrying the squad kerosene lantern attached to the back of his ammunition harness. When they reached shore he jumped over the side of the amphib tank and in the process the lantern spilled. Most of the kerosene went down his backside. (Incidentally, the gator was later designed with doors in the back to avoid going over the side in view of the enemy.) The 1st Battalion had done a good job with the beachhead. There were no small arms fire to deal with, only artillery.
The goal that morning was to advance away from the Rhine and to secure a town. They advanced up a road double-file, albeit slowly to avoid Allied artillery that was giving his group a rolling barrage to move behind. It was difficult to see due to the early morning mist and the smoke and dust from explosions. The sun was just peaking out from the southeast causing some mist to disappear when they found themselves in a small square on the edge of town. Bill does not remember the name of the town. (Could it be Wesel?) There were homes, unsecured, all around them. They quickly fanned out to start clearing the houses. Bill ran up to a door and slammed the butt of his BAR hard against it. It bounced back. It was a two-inch, solid oak door. The jolt of the door caused the bolt to fly back and his gun fired over his shoulder into the air. Everyone was now on alert! “Where is the sniper?” “That was me. My rifle went off!” He reversed his BAR and fired bursts into the hinges and lock and then kicked in the door. He cleared the ground floor and went upstairs. There was nothing there either, but on the way down he nearly fell through to the first floor as artillery had blown a hole in the floor.
The home also had a cellar, and that’s where he headed next. When he got a few steps down he saw booted feet. He quickly moved downward with gun ready. To his astonishment he found a German SS soldier with his hands in the air and he was holding a schmeiser machine gun pistol! It was jammed. That gun is a “wicked weapon. It recycles almost twice as fast as my BAR.” For this reason (among others), Bill again calls himself “a lucky guy.” SS Soldiers refers to the Schutzstaffel, or defense corps, which was a paramilitary organization under Hitler and the Nazi Party. Himmler was the leader of the SS. They were well-trained and loyal to the Fuhrer. He was not a young soldier. Kerr grabbed the soldier and turned him over to another GI who had a group of prisoners. It turned out that town was mostly empty. Bill candidly states, “Of course, I was scared to death.” “But I had to go on. That was the game!”
Military souvenirs are common during warfare. Bill recalled seeing an officer’s sheathed dress sword behind a buffet in the house he had just searched. He returned and looked it over from a distance. He didn’t see a tripwire, but he wanted to be extra careful. He tied a string to its base and then took the long end to another room. He pulled it and nothing happened so he picked it up and took it. The supply sergeant had a trunk that he monitored into which such items were kept. Bill tagged it, but then thought otherwise. It was so large that it may not be properly cared for. He carried it with the hilt above his belt.
They sat down for a rest and some food. Before leaving on any mission the supply sergeant would set out ammo and dry and canned food for the men. They could take whatever they could carry. As Bill said, “It was always a tough decision between food and ammunition when you have to carry everything you may need!” He usually carried three meals of K-rations and all of the D-bars (nutrition packed chocolate bars) that he could get into his pockets.
Captured Soldiers/Shrapnel. They moved onward as a scouting unit and arrived near a railroad dyke (a raised bed with a culvert underneath for auto traffic) running adjacent to the Rhine. As they waited for men on their flank to arrive, they spotted and then captured some German soldiers who were on a foraging mission. The Germans were not fed as well as the Americans. They had to live off the land, so to speak. Their hunt for food often conflicted with civilian interests. At any rate, the Germans in the culvert were surprised to see them.
He recalls that a German artillery unit opened up on them shortly thereafter. They called for American artillery to knock them out. They dug foxholes and covered them with railroad ties to protect themselves. The artillery arrived and the Germans were silenced. Bill believes that they Germans pulled out during the barrage. Bill also tested the accuracy of his BAR. He saw a German soldier about one-half mile away. “I aimed at his chest and it kicked up dirt at his feet.” He jumped.
A “triple anomaly then happened.” After you have been exposed to shellfire a few times you can begin to tell where incoming shells will hit simply by listening to the sound. As they walked from the area they heard harassing rounds, which were fired at random to hit any unsuspecting persons. But then they heard a round come closer. Bill thought it might hit about fifty yards to his left. He glanced over to check his accuracy and sure enough it hit just about where he thought it would hit. But as he turned his head back he felt something hit his right wrist like a hammer. His whole arm went numb. He stopped, but was afraid to look. He used his right arm to check on his left. Shoulder. Upper arm. Lower arm. Hand. He was surprised when he reached his fingers that nothing was wet or missing. In his wrist he found a red area where the bone protrudes a bit. On the ground was a 3 ½ inch, ragged piece of shrapnel. It was really a fluke that it was that large because the shells are designed to break up into smaller pieces than that. Normally, the shrapnel from an exploding shell comes out at a 45-degree angle. It must have hit his wrist flat-side hard enough to mash the bone a little and his a nerve. Had it come edgewise at his hand, it may have cut his hand off at the wrist. Again, Bill considers himself to be a lucky guy. He concedes that all infantry veterans who survive are lucky. No one in his company was hit.
Bill walked back to the aid station. The doctor actually told Bill to take off his pants because he was limping due the sword in his belt. The nerve issue concerned him so Bill was taken by ambulance to a railroad head where he boarded a train. His destination was Etamps, France, which was located by train about an hour south of Paris. In the ambulatory hospital after the morning rounds those soldiers who had manageable pain (which he did) could get a pass to visit Paris for the rest of the day (which he did several times), but they had to be back by chow time if they wanted a pass for the next day. On his first trip, he and another guy took a Grey Line tour of Paris. While there, a leather worker made a pad for his write support and he hired a German prisoner to make a wooden case in which to place the sword to send home.
Madgeburg. About one week later, the numbness was gone. He was taken to a replacement depo and to his unit, which was then at Madgeburg, Germany. Approximately at this time President Roosevelt died. That was a “mental blow” because his leadership had done so much for the country. He “leveled the playing field.” He arrived at Madgeburg in mid-April, 1945. Madgeburg is located to the west of Berlin near the Elbe River, which was the point at which Gen. Eisenhower instructed the Army to stop at. The men were loose and jocular by that time. At the edge of the town was a small concentration camp where slave labor (people from occupied countries) were kept. They filled in for German farmers who were conscripted into the military. The man who oversaw the camp was captured and Bill personally escorted him to the Madgeburg prison. Until the military police arrived, soldiers would perform their duties. After the MPs arrived the administrator was taken to Landsberg.
His unit was in Madgeburg when the War ended. One of them reminded Bill of there three-day rest when he joined the company. Bill had predicted that the War would be over by May 9th. “How the hell did you figure that out, Bill?” Lo and behold, that was Bill’s birthday. And they all “thought you were so very smart!” As he turned 19 years old combat was done. Their unit received notice that a small group of them would cross the Elbe and meet up with the Russians. He wasn’t chosen. “They came back and said it was a good time.” They didn’t communicate well, but it was a “joyous event.”
Occupation Duty. Bill’s occupation duty continued at Plauen, Germany. In this town, the Hitler Youth began. The original Nazi youth group had been declared illegal after Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch. However, one group prevailed, and that was the one in Plauen that was led by Kurt Gruber. Their unit arrived late in the day and headed to bed, which was in private homes. The next morning they woke to “reveille” by bugle. They looked outside and there was an entire company in pup-tents. Evidently, they had been overseeing the occupation and they were now leaving. Bill’s Company took over from there. Two things came into play: training and curfew.
Curfew was set at 9:00 P.M. The residents were brought outside at 8:30 P.M. and told of the policy. They were then instructed to go back inside. To prove the seriousness of the curfew they received orders to open fire around the residents to shoo them indoors. They were serious. That night a young man tried to steal a can of gasoline. He was told to halt. He didn’t, and he was killed by the guard. After that there was little trouble with obedience. The next morning their executive officer got up on the balcony of the town hall to recite the rules and gave the best imitation of Mussolini in phony Italian that Bill had ever seen. “We all broke up and the German civilians who heard it didn’t know what to make of it.”
Bill loved his commanding officer, General Leland Hobbs, because he looked after the men. For example, the men were given training schedules to follow with an inspection every Saturday. It was kind of a pain. He told the men how to avoid the inspections. Tell the person that this was a day for sports and playing ball. The commanding officer had the discretion to alter the days of training and recreation, such as baseball. They played ball every day and skipped the training!
A couple of days later five or six guys decided to get a shave from the barber. The barber was young; he looked about 16 years old. Bill went first. The cut went just fine. When the barber started to strop his razor for the shave all of his buddies cocked their weapons. “I suddenly realized what a risk I was taking! He was probably a member of the Hitler Youth and might have done me dirt!”
There was some tension. He went to the miller’s bakery outlet to get a loaf of homemade bread. Bill told him in halting German that he took a handful of each sack of grain he ground for others for a reserve and he wanted a little of that “reserve.” He then put a pack of cigarettes on the counter and asked, “has du brod for mich?” He looked at it and said, “nein.” Bill added another pack of cigarettes. Same answer. Bill grabbed the cigarettes and put them in his pocket. He then pulled out his BAR, pointed it at him, and repeated the question. He answered, “ja, ja.” “I thought it was small enough return for all the trouble we had gone to in releasing these folks from the tyranny of Adolf Hitler.” General Hobbs had asked for a change of assignment three months prior to the War ending. As a result, their occupation duty was short.
Kerr has a particularly funny story about a “train heist” on the way from Germany to France. At a stop, another train pulled beside them. There was a gap of 6-8 feet between them. They recognized the train as one that was carrying American supplies; they could see boxes with ammunition and guns. The boxes did not have words on them, only numbers. But they couldn’t figure out what was in them. Their hope was to find canned peaches in heavy syrup. As soon as the train signaled a pull-out they formed a “bucket brigade” to pass boxes from the car in question to their car and cover them with their blankets until they were safely away. There were MPs with an old fashion tommy guns at either end of the other train. The signal came and the brigade began. Their train was leaving. Bill was up on the side of the supply train car picking up the boxes and passing them down to the next man. They got three boxes. What would they be? The first was fruit cocktail – reasonably desirable. The second was exactly what they wanted – canned peaches! “It was the favorite of all GIs.” The third was spinach. He took a little ribbing about the spinach because he plucked the boxes. Little known to those men, spinach was Kerr’s favorite vegetable and no one else liked it. He ate the whole case in a few days (with a little help from one other soldier).
Le Havre. They were moved out to Camp Twenty Grand. Twenty Grand was a brand of Turkish cigarettes. Each of the debarkation camps was named after cigarettes – Lucky Strike, Camel, etc. The Camp was located near LeHavre, where he waited for his ship home. While there he did get a few passes to visit Paris again. They could stay as long as three days this time. They trucks stopped and arrived at the Place De La Concorde. That location is infamous. It is the largest square in Paris and was the location where the guillotine was erected. King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette met their end there. They were picked up near the Tuileries Garden. Bill has a wonderful picture of “Pop” Benoit (who was 30), Leroy “Amphibious” Dunkel and himself with the Eifel Tower as a backdrop. The food in Paris was “great.” He had a fond memory of a three-way conversation (French, German and English) with a young woman, Yvette, and her female friend while he waited for the truck. In later trips he went to the movies with her. “It was fun watching American movies and reading the French subtitles to see how close they came.” As for movies, they watched those in camp too. Once he wore his winter clothes with a blanket around his shoulders – in July!
Heading Home/War Ends. The trip home was smooth sailing especially since the War ended while they were on their way home! He supported President Truman’s decision to drop the bombs. “They started it.” This time he was aboard a converted cargo ship. The beds were not long enough so he didn’t sleep the best. He used an Army cot and slept on the deck under the gun tub all the way home. His ship was the first troop ship to arrive in Boston after VJ Day. “What a reception we had!” There were fireboats and nozzles spraying, ship horns galore, a band on the pier and fresh milk when they got to the pier! (They had been on powdered milk for months.) They were immediately taken off the ship and delivered to Camp Miles Standish for a good night’s sleep. He didn’t have enough points for discharge. You needed 85 points to get out. You received 1 point for a month of service, and 2 points for a month of service over seas. 5 points if you received any medal. 12 points if you had a dependent child. “So you know who got out first, which was okay!” “At the moment, it didn’t seem fair.” He first returned home for a 45-day furlough and then reported to Columbia, South Carolina, the headquarters of the division, where they would close it down “paper-wise.”
Separation Center Duty. Bill was then assigned to a separation center, where he was a separation counselor. He wasn’t too enthused because it seemed a step down from being an infantry soldier. He received a little training and was sent to Fort Knox, Tennessee. Several of his friends from the 30th Division were there, all of whom had also closed down the division. The center was inspected by the Adjutant General’s Department. As a result of their good work, they were highly rated and given notoriety. What did the Army do? Three weeks later they shut them down. That’s the Army. Perhaps they were an embarrassment to the other reception center workers. They were all sent to reception centers nearest to their own homes, which was Indianapolis, Indiana for Bill. He was promoted to staff sergeant and also chief of the interviewing and counseling section. He was turned down for master sergeant twice, probably because there were three master sergeants under him in the counseling section (which called for only one master sergeant). “I so wanted to be a 19 year-old master sergeant!”
It is not often that men who have experienced combat will be forthcoming about how the War impacted them. Certainly, they often relate what they saw with their eyes. And, often GIs will talk about what they heard (incoming artillery) or even smelled. Bill talks of the horrible sight of dead farm animals bloated with their legs stick up in the air. But it is rare to a GI open up about how they felt. Bill is very open on this point, to his credit. For fifty years after the War he had terrible dreams, the equivalent of night terrors. It was not like reliving anything that had actually happened. Instead, his dreams involved experiences that he deeply feared might happen. His most vivid memory was being in a house fighting off a powerful counterattack when he turned and saw a German soldier in the room coming at him. He would wake up screaming as his bayonet when into his chest. As you recall, he met a SS soldier in a small home and he was pointing a gun at him.
Bill was discharged in August of 1946. By then the colleges were crammed with soldiers who were enrolled in the Fall semester. Bill used the GI Bill after he entered the Spring of 1947 Semester at Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a top engineering school at that time, and it is now known as Case Western Reserve Unive