Memories or Madness
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Memories or Madness?

by

John S. Clayton, Sr.

 

 

"History," wrote the authors of 1066 and All That, "is what you can remember."

So it is. Recently I received (via E-mail and zipped files) a copy of my first cousin's diary written when he was with the 103rd Division in "our" war. Complete with pictures, maps, and reunion memorabilia. Mud and Guts by Art Clayton. Pretty good title. And pretty good diary. It brought back a lot of memories.

He was a private and carried a B.A.R. So did I. We fought over much of the same ground. Shelby Stanton in Order of Battle, U.S. Army, World War II (a first rate reference work) says of the 103rd in part, "The Division... outflanked Steige Pass 23-24 Nov 44, and followed in the wake of the 14th Armd Div toward Sčlestat which it helped clear in house-to-house fighting 2-4 Dec 44."

We both saw a lot of war close-up and personal. We killed people. People tried to kill us. Toward the end, Art ended up in a hospital wounded; I ended up in a hospital with pneumonia. Both events probably saved our lives. He was (and remains) six years older than I.

For the most part I have avoided the cult of military togetherness fostered by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars or, I suppose, the 14th Armored Division Association. My father and uncles were in the First World War; my Great Uncles in the Civil War. I had ancestors in the Revolution. I never figured the world owed me a living because I'd been in a war. Hasn't everyone? My ambition was to survive the war and become a civilian. Against the odds, I did. I was one of two in my original squad not to collect a Purple Heart -- the other being Barnhardt, the squad leader, and he was made a paraplegic by a drunk driver shortly after the war, dying after a long struggle. We had well over a hundred percent casualties in our squad, never even learned the names of some replacements who joined us and were gone before we knew who they were, lost all of our officers except the captain, Benoit, who was killed later in an automobile wreck.

So who are my buddies?

Well, what about D'Aurileo who, when Barnhardt turned the job down, accepted a battle field promotion and became our platoon leader? Helluva good man. ‘Course he wasn't exactly a buddy; he was the lieutenant! Visited him and his wife, Rose, in Seneca Falls a few years ago. Liked them a lot. And Buzz Gardner, another B.A.R. man. We'd been through the Infantry School at Fort Benning together. Got hit in Rittershoffen. End of the war for him. He was best man at my wedding back in ‘48. He's lived in Italy for many years. We write, visit.

That's about it.

If you want buddies, join a bowling club.

But what about memories?

Ah, that's a bit different. The guys in the bowling club may live a lot closer, but they sure as hell don't share what we... well... what?

That's part of what the bonding is about. The memories. And you see, I'm not sure a lot of mine are real. Combat soldiers, I mean real combat soldiers, tend to go a bit crazy. We tend to skip over that lightly. John Keegan, perhaps the best author of military books in the English language, sums up, "The fighting of the Second World War, in short, led to an infantryman's breakdown in a little under a year."

Some of us didn't make it that long. Virtually every one in our squad was in mental trouble at one time or another, running around, sobbing, staring into space, huddled in a closet, out of it. For some time I felt a lot of pride that I had escaped; I'd even been asked to take over once in a while when others were -- well, not in very good shape. But as I look back, I think I was kidding myself. I think toward the end I was pretty looney. I think others may have thought so too. We never said much about those things.

Everybody knew you took as much as you could. Nobody blamed anybody.

But I think now, looking back at the last days of the war, I had begun to hallucinate.

Things that happened, things I know happened, I don't think happened. Now.

But I'm not sure.

You see the American Army in general and Armored Divisions in particular had some very tough rules. Keegan writes, "Curiously the American army also [like the Red Army] so ran itself during that war that a man, once assigned to a fighting unit -- which it was American policy to keep continuously in the line for long periods, making up losses by individual replacement -- could look forward to a release from danger only through death or wounds. A sensation of ‘endlessness' and ‘hopelessness' resulted, so depressing and widespread in its effects that it eventually prompted the high command to institute fixed terms of combat duty, of which the controversial ‘Vietnam year' is the best-known consequence." Keegan quotes from the American official report Combat Exhaustion:

"There is no such thing as ‘getting used to combat' ...Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure. ...psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare ...Most men were ineffective after 180 or even 140 days. The general consensus was that a man reached his peak of effectiveness in the first 90 days of combat, that after that his efficiency began to fall off, and that he became steadily less valuable thereafter until he was completely useless."

I saw my first action in the Maritime Alps in November. A few guys (including non coms) went a bit potty even then. The war ended in May of the next year. Six months. I made it, but just. And I'm not too sure that I was hitting on all cylinders. Pretty sure I wasn't.

You see, tough as it was for the regular infantry guys, the armored infantry was... well,  let Steven Zaloga tell you how it was, writing in US Half-Tracks of World War II:

"The ‘armoured [sic] dough' (or ‘blitz dough', as they were sometimes called), was spared of some of the foot-slogging misery of his ‘straight-leg' infantry counterpart, but none of the  sustained stress of combat. Because of their mobility, armoured infantry battalions could more easily be shifted to hot spots on the front, and so were often engaged in more prolonged combat than other units. ...Casualties in armoured infantry battalions were disproportionately high due to their sustained, unrelieved combat duty. In a confidential report to the US Army Surgeon General on the subject of combat exhaustion it was pointed out that: ‘...In hard, continued action, armoured infantry companies may be down to 40 to 50 men [from an original strength of 251 men], with three company commanders being casualties in the process. One unit had 150 to 180 per cent replacements in 200 days; another, a 100 per cent turnover in 60 to 70 days.'"

Yeah, tell me about it. I once counted our platoon to see how many were left. We had 17 guys still in the fight. It tended to make you nervous.

So why don't I trust my memories?

Remember Landshut? For my squad, it was our last fight before the end of the war. I remembered the action vividly and told the story many times. Forget the big picture, I'm talking squad's eye view of the war. We were up high on a hill in a churchyard overlooking Landshut. (Actually, I later learned, we were in Altdorf.) Below us, a level plain or field stretched over to the town of Landshut, a very old and very beautiful German city, quiet and peaceful in the distance. Below us, running almost in a straight line toward Landshut was a canal or ditch or creek, not very wide, depth unknown. A few bullets pitter-pattered through the trees around us. Stray shots. Nothing serious, but it got your attention.

Word came that the heavy thinkers in higher headquarters had two schools of thought.

One school was that Landshut wanted to surrender; the other, that they wanted to fight. To  resolve the question our squad was elected to trot across the field and see if anybody wanted to object. Hell, we already knew the answer to that. Somebody over there didn't like us. We'd already been shot at. Our opinion was not regarded as definitive or even influential. We were sent. An officer -- major, I think -- got in front of us and marched us through the streets to the edge of town where the open field began. He stepped aside and wished us luck. I suppose he thought of it as moral support, a contribution to our fighting spirit . Whatever. We were unimpressed. It looked like a very rough deal, open ground, no cover, and a long way to go. We were experienced combat soldiers. This was not a good script.

Barney and I were in front. I got that lesson from my Uncle Roust. I'd listened to his stories of Trench Warfare in World War I. "When a section of the trench had been blown out," he told me, "and you had to cross a stretch of open ground to get to the next section, I always tried to be the first. For two reasons. One, I figured the first guy might catch the Germans off guard before they had a chance to correct their aim. And two, if the guys in front of me went down, I wasn't so sure I could go."

This made very good sense to me, so Barney and I led off pretty much all the time. Must have worked. We were the only two not to collect a Purple Heart and an awful lot of guys went down behind us.

Barney pointed to the ditch or canal. "We'll run along beside that. If they open up, go in the drink." I nodded and we started off, the rest of the squad at appropriate intervals behind us. We only ran a short distance. Then a jog. Then a walk. You're exhausted; let the bastards shoot us. They will anyway. To hell with ‘em.

The trouble was we knew exactly what was coming. We'd been there. In this kind of attack, the defenders will wait until you're too far out to get back to safety, close enough to be sitting ducks, and not too close to be able to bull your way in to the relative safety of the buildings. Your objective is to get to that shelter. Their objective is to wait just long enough and then nail you.

The bow gunner of the SP (self-propelled gun) opened up first. The technique is he zeroes in and then they pull the lanyard for the 88 to finish the job. The air crackled around me; my clothes literally flapped with the concussion, as -- without missing a stride -- I went over sideways into the unknown depths of the canal. I came up in chest deep water to hug the three foot bank closest to the machine gun fire as an 88 screamed in, hit where I had been, and showered the opposite bank with shell fragments.

I saw Barney's white face in front of me.

"Back!" I yelled, "Before they can work around into position to get us!" We struggled against the resistance of the water with the slow motion of a nightmare, but we made it to safety. Wet, exhausted, trembling, but alive.

Some memory. Vivid. Been with me for years.

I don't think it ever happened.

Oh, Landshut was real enough. And the canal. I've been back there and seen the location just as I remembered it. Not the bullets pitter-pattering through the trees, but those were real too. And the assignment. We went out, all right. And we came back. But nobody ever shot at us. That was all in my head.

I think.

Why?

Well you see back at Camp Campbell during one of the innumerable training exercises, I'd been assigned a bazooka and a loader who carried a flag. An "enemy" Sherman came over the hill right down my throat, his bow gunner blasting away with blanks. He was so close I could feel the concussion of every round. My clothes flapped. But we waved our little flag, and the umpire announced that we'd knocked out the tank.

Un-huh. Sure we had. The umpire said so. But we knew better. And deep down buried in my belly that experience remained. Got the picture?

We're jogging... no, walking across this field, and we know they're going to kill us. Know it! Know where. Know when. Know how.

And it happens. Just as real as real can get. It doesn't occur to me that it might not be real. Why would it? Does it occur to you that what you are doing now isn't real? Why would it? It happened!

So why now, so many, many years later do I doubt it? Best I can say is that I have vague, uneasy feelings that things don't add up. Vague memories that guys at the rear of the squad heard nothing. No machine gun. No 88. Didn't hit the dirt. Didn't leave their feet. Saw Barney and me go into the canal, checked, wondered why, returned when we did. I'm not sure about those memories. But I also have a latent memory of Barney saying that the reason he went into the canal was because I did. You didn't wait around and ask people why they did things like that. Not if you wanted to survive. The guy next to you dropped; you dropped. Ask questions later.

But then again...

From the History of the 14th Armored Division:: "After A and C Companies had reduced Altdorf, a platoon of A Company [my squad?] was sent ahead to test the strength of the enemy defenses at Landshut on the Isar. Landshut was heavily defended by automatic weapons and tank guns; and the platoon withdrew."

After that, according to the History, troops attacking Landshut suffered 21 casualties.

Memories or madness? It was a long time ago.

Notes

1. I was a PFC in the 3rd Platoon, A Company, 68th AIB. Within a few days after VE Day, I was hospitalized for an aggravated back injury -- I'd joined as a volunteer wearing a steel and leather brace which I kept concealed until we were sent overseas and I had to discard it. I'd have the medics tape me up so I could "jump off" on attack, but eventually I had to give up trying to carry the Browning and went to an M-1. Then this became too heavy for me to lift, so I shifted to a carbine. At the end, much of the time I carried a Belgian made .32 cal. automatic pistol I'd picked up somewhere along the way. You have to be very young and a believer to do that stuff. Anyway, when I got out of the hospital, I became a radio program supervisor with the Armed Forces Network (AFN) and was with AFN-Nancy,  AFN-Bayreuth, and AFN-Berlin until going home for discharge.

2. At the end of Chapter X in the History there's a picture of me with my B.A.R. on outpost in Oberhoffen. Shortly after, we were relieved and I was hospitalized, delirious with fever. I had pneumonia. (Click to see Picture) Use Browser Return to come back to this page.

3. In addition to the History, quotations are from:

US Half-Tracks of World War II, Steven J. Zaloga, Osprey Publishing, Ltd. (London, 1983).

Order of Battle, U.S. Army World War II, Shelby L. Stanton, Presidio Press (Novato, California, 1984).

The Face of Battle, John Keegan, The Viking Press, (New York, 1976).

 

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