My grandfather, Joe Douglas, fought in World War II as a part of the 1st Infantry Division. They landed at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. (My father tells Pappaw’s landing story on his blog.) The year before he passed away, I was visiting him to attend my grandmother’s funeral. The night she died, he and I were alone in his home, while my parents, aunt Penny and uncle Mike said good-bye to Mammaw. We knew she was dying that night, and Pappaw had visited the hospital that day to see the love of his life one last time before she left him. We sat quietly talking, waiting for the phone call to tell us it was all over.
During that conversation, Pappaw told me about some of his experiences marching through Europe as a part of the 1st Infantry Division.
Landing at D-Day
He said Saving Private Ryan was an incredibly accurate depiction of the beach landing at D-Day. He said the bodies were floating in the surf, and that they would pull them up on to the beach out of the water. There were so many bodies that they could use them as bulwarks to protect themselves from enemy fire.
Marching into Germany
Crossing into Germany was very difficult. The battle of Aachen was the hardest part of their campaign in Europe. He said they encountered resistance in Frankfurt, but once they got past there, they basically “paraded” the rest of the rest of the way to the Elbe River, where they waited for six weeks while the Russians took Berlin. After that, he helped to set up the headquarters for the American occupying force in Berlin. He said one of the biggest mistakes of the war was letting the Russians take Berlin.
A Walk Down the Road
One evening Pappaw was leading his unit down a moonlit road through what he thought was friendly territory. Up ahead, he could see another unit of soldiers approaching them. At first he assumed they were another American unit, but as the two units got closer together, Pappaw realized the unit commander of the other group was wearing a German helmet. They continued approach each other cautiously, and when they were close enough, the German unit commander sharply saluted the “Heil Hitler”, and Pappaw returned with an American salute. As the two units passed, Pappaw made his way to the back of his unit, turning around to watch the other unit as it moved away from them. When he got to the back, he found the German commander had also made his way to the back of his unit to watch their backs. They smartly saluted each other one more time and then the two units continued to make there way down the road in opposite directions, passing in the night.
Once the 1st Infantry Division was in Germany, the soldiers were expressly forbidden from fraternizing with German girls, as they may be spies or otherwise cause harm to the American troops. However, those orders did not stop most of the young men from sneaking into the woods with the German girls living in the area, including Pappaw. One day, at roll call, Pappaw and his buddies were reprimanded by their commanding officer. Wondering how he knew that they had met up with the girls, the next time, they went deeper into the woods. When they came back, they were reprimanded a second time. It turned out that a lieutenant could see them through binoculars from the top of a building. Once they figured this out, the solders moved their rendezvous further into the woods and out of sight of the officers, where they continued to see the German girls with no more reprimands. Many of the GIs wanted to marry their German girlfriends. At first, the U.S. government wouldn’t allow it, but eventually they decided to allow the marriages after the German girls were investigated for any Nazi activities.
In addition to being forbidden from fraternizing with German women, U.S. soldiers had to be careful about their contact with German soldiers. While going through the fields cleaning up the dead and wounded, Pappaw would often encounter German soldiers doing the same. They were only allowed contact enough to help each other find the bodies of their comrades. However, German soldiers were fond of American rations. Frequently, they would end up exchanging rations in the fields after a battle while looking for the wounded and dead.
Getting Caught with His Pants Down – Or the Surrender
One day, toward the end of the war, Pappaw stepped away from his unit in order to go to the bathroom. He set his gun down a couple of feet away, and began to relieve himself. When he looked up, a German officer was standing there with two Lugers on his belt. He had been caught, literally, with his pants down. Pappaw knew he couldn’t get to his gun in time. Speaking in perfect English, the German told Pappaw that he had a few other men over the hill and that they all wanted to surrender. He gave Pappaw both of his Lugers and told him that they would make great souvenirs. Pappaw pulled up his pants, grabbed his gun and took the officer back over to his unit. He got another soldier and together they took the German back to where the “few other men” were waiting to surrender on the other side of a rise. As they cleared the rise, Pappaw could clearly see that there were more than a few othe rmen. There were over 160 German soldiers waiting to surrender to the two American soldiers. Among the soldiers who surrendered where submarine sailors still in their naval uniforms. As the war began to end, more solders were needed and the Germans were pulling sailors out to help fill out the ground troops.
Liberating a Concentration Camp
At the time Pappaw told me these stories, he remembered liberating Buchenwald concentration camp. In researching 1st Division history, it appears that they actually liberated Flossenbürg concentration camp, which was located near the Czech border. Buchenwald was liberated by the U.S. Third Army. Regardless of which camp, Pappaw was horrified at the conditions they found when they arrived at the camp. It brought him a great deal of sadness to see how the Germans had treated their prisoners in the camp, and he took a great deal of pride in having a part in their liberation. Flossenbürg was a camp comprised of two smaller camps, and was mostly home to non-Jewish political prisoners and criminals during the war. In late 1944 and early 1945, the Germans began to send Polish and Hungarian Jews to the camp. Nearly 97,000 prisoners passed through the camp between 1938 and 1945.
The Ducks at the Peabody Hotel
One day, a German POW was trying to talk to Pappaw in broken English and with the use of a handbook. When the German soldier realized Pappaw was from the South, he asked him exactly where he was from. After Pappaw revealed he was from the Memphis area, the POW became excited and told Pappaw about how he had been a cook at the Peabody Hotel and asked him if the ducks still did the parade. (Ducks march to and from the hotel lobby’s fountain at 11am and 5pm everyday.)
The London Bar
Before the landing, Pappaw was stationed in London. He spent a number of months there, and would often visit a bar that many GIs frequented. Pappaw would nurse a beer, play the piano and sing with the entertainment. Forty years after the war, he went back to London with Mammaw and visited the bar. It still showed many signs of the damage from the London bombings during the war. At first the owner didn’t want to let him in, because it was Sunday and against the law to sell alcohol on Sundays. Once Pappaw explained who he was, the owner let him in and they talked for awhile.