The first two days we have tough going. The Germans still have plenty of artillery and tanks between the Saar and the Rhine, but the artillery is mostly horse-drawn and horses cannot outrun M-4s and p-47s. When our fighter planes have killed so many horses and knocked out so many trucks, Jerry can no longer move his guns fast enough, his stiff defense crumples; our armor begins to roll.
We slam through St. Wendel, hit one of Hitler's Autobahns and the rat-race to the Rhine begins. The Autobahn runs straight and level across country; it is as well engineered as any four-lane highway here. And Jerry-pounded ceaselessly by our fighter planes-has no time to plant mines or blow bridges. Jerry is trying to save what is left of some fifteen divisions in the Saar basin and get them back across the Rhine. He moves east as fast as tired horses and a critical gasoline shortage will let him. A broad trail of dad horses, burning trucks and tanks, abandoned guns and ammunition dumps mark his passing. Often we find a tank in the ditch, with a whole train of tanks and trucks-their gasoline gone-hooked on behind. Columns of German prisoners and mobs of liberated Russians, Poles, Italians and Frenchmen clog the roads. There are so many German prisoners that we can no longer spare men to escort them; we wave them west down the highway, remind them to keep their hands up and keep going. The German civilians are sullen, shocked and unbelieving; this sort of thing is not supposed to happen to a German army.
At Kaiserlautern real disaster catches up with Jerry. Another one of Patton's armored divisions lunging south across the Moselle from Coblenz, makes contact with us. The northern half of the Saar pocket is sealed off and the frantic German retreat turns southeast, toward Ludwigshafen. From Kaiserlautern to Bad Durkheim the road runs through narrow mountain valleys-valleys so narrow that there's not even room to wheel a battery into position off the road. The German column is stretched out nicely on the 18 kilometers between Frankenstein and Harbenberg, two hours before dusk, when the P-47s find them. Five hundred pound bombs blast Hardenberg into a pile of debris blocking the road and the narrow valley. The German column halts, bunches up and the P-47s come down low and rake the length of the column with Cal-50 tracer and incendiary. Terrified German soldiers jump from their vehicles and head for the woods. A few get to the hills and safety; but not many. A company of medium tanks has caught the tail of the column and plows through it with 76s and machine guns blazing. Armored infantry half-tracks follow them and their machine guns cut down the gray-clad soldiers racing for the woods.
Destruction All Around
It is dark when my battery rolls down that road. It takes us six hours to make 18 kilometers. For the highway is a solid mass of burning trucks, tanks, and wagons; dead horses and wrecked field guns lie tangled in the ditches; wounded horses stand patiently in their traces, waiting for a merciful bullet. German dead sprawl half-out of track cabs, across the tubes of field guns, on the road and in the ditches. Smoke from burning flesh blinds and sickens us. It takes us six bad hours to clear a passage through the wreckage.
Near Bad Durkheim we get strafed by Messerschmidt 109s. Ack-ack 50s down two of them. As we near the Rhine German resistance stiffens; there are many Germans pinned against the river, the bridges are gone and there are not enough boats for them to get across. Some surrender without argument; others-notably the SS-fight like cornered rats and have to be killed. We get some artillery fire from German batteries across the Rhine and the Luftwaffe strafes us religiously every morning. Finally we drive into Landau and stop there. Units of the 3rd and 7th armies have become intermingled and reorganization is necessary before we can cross the Rhine. We rest in Landau three days, perform badly needed maintenance on our vehicles and wait for an infantry division to clean up the one small pocket of Germans left on our side of the river.
I walk across the bridge to Battalion HQ one morning and give the Intelligence Officer two pieces of copy I have written for The Parkersburg News. He reads it and promises me that it will go through proper censorship channels and get back to the paper. I walk slowly back to my billet, wondering how long this war is going to last. The 1st Sergeant yells at me from his window: "Hey, you lucky bum, whereabouts in West Virginia do you want to go on your 45-day furlough?"
"You drunk again?" I asked pleasantly. "Better let that schnapps alone, or it'll addle your brain."
But the top-kick isn't drunk and he isn't kidding. He shows me the order. I'm to report to Division rear echelon in four days: I'm to get 45 days plus travel time. It finally sinks in. I'm going back to the States.
My memory of the next two days is hazy, because my mind is not on soldiering. We roll north and east, through the completely flattened city of Worms and cross the Rhine on a pontoon bridge. We bivouac for a night in a field near the river. Next day we roll south into Mannheim; wait a few hours while a battery of 8-inch howitzers hammers something down the river and move toward Heidelberg. The battery goes into firing position within sight of the spires of the city.
"You still around here, Sergeant?" the battery commander asks me, smiling. "Better pack your gear, grab a peep and get back to Service Battery. We're apt to take off and move a hundred miles or so without stopping and you might not be able to make it back to rear echelon in time. You can catch the ration truck or a mail truck at Service Battery." He sticks out his hand. "Good luck, Sergeant. See you in China." I shake hands all around, throw my barracks bag and typewriter on a peep and go back to Service Battery in Mannheim.
Next morning I cross the Rhine again, headed west.
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* Much thanks to Rob Floerke, son of Vernon Floerke for contributing this series by Paul Gawthrop, discovered in his dad's Wartime scrapbooks.