Military History, World War II, U.S. Army, ETO

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Since this was our first such attack, it didn’t
even occur to us in Company K that we might
halt if the fire on us got too heavy.

About Riflemen

Someone, talking about memories, aptly said, “When an old person dies, it is like a library burning down.” Today, about 1.200 more “libraries” of World War II veterans “burn down” every day. Stories retained in several of them were rescued and merged to produce this account of a small unit in World War II. This collection of memories was put on paper between 45 and 50 years after the events, by some of the men who were involved.

These memoirs will not interest everyone. We would not feel hurt if we knew that you were asking yourself: “Why should I take the time to read this stuff?” That is a question that each person should answer for himself after learning just what the writers tried to do.

If you are related to one of the men of the Second Platoon, we hope you will read what we have written because you are likely to learn something that is personally significant. If, on the other hand, you are unrelated to any of us, you could be thinking something like this: “Scores of books have been written about World War Two; so why has anyone bothered to write yet another account of events that happened half a century earlier? What is in it that is unlike what I have already read?” For you we offer the following remarks.

This is an authentic, personal account by the surviving members of the Second Platoon; the word “we” appears in almost every paragraph. We have tried in some places, along with the factual account, to describe what the experience was like for us, how it felt to be in that foxhole or cellar or wherever we were. Few books try to do this; even fewer succeed.

The critical reader who wasn’t there may be distracted by the obvious deficiencies in our writing. You must realize that most of us are not especially articulate and all of us are inexperienced in writing history. We hope you are not turned off, but make no apology. We are writing mostly for ourselves, for whom these defects are unimportant, and for our posterity, who we hope can overlook them. Unlike the general reader, we need only a reminder of some episode to bring the scene to our minds’ eyes. Thus we usually neglect to paint a complete word picture of the surroundings. The years 1944–45 were a period in our young lives that left indelible impressions and memories. The mere mention of a familiar event triggers a flood of memories; some bad, some humorous.

We believe that the facts are reasonably accurate. We realize, however, that even eyewitness accounts are imperfect; what a witness sees is colored by his viewpoint and his emotions at the time. Especially with regard to our stories about combat, we witnesses freely admit that at the time we were under great emotional stress and our attention was usually focused on something immediately ahead of us rather than on trying to comprehend everything going on in the panorama around us. As for the effects of time on memories, we can only note that after 50 years the agreement among us as to what happened was better than one might expect. We were at an impressionable age and the nature of some of the events was such that the memories won’t fade, even if we want them to.

The question of what we have written is easier to answer than why we have written it.

All of us hope that our families will want to know more about us. We imagine some young person reading with interest what happened to Granddaddy. We have tried to give that person a fuller and clearer picture than he could possibly get from family traditions passed down by word of mouth or from any history book about the war, written from a more distant perspective.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why we think our experience is worth recording for posterity. Our feelings have something to do with the nature and historical importance of World War Two and more to do with our attitudes toward military service and combat in that most earth-shaking of all conflicts. In war we were brought face to face with some realities about life and death that transcend the concerns that later came to preoccupy our minds: jobs, automobiles, entertainment and the like.

We feel a need to tell someone that for us it was not like the picture of war in some recent movies. As critic Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times, “For several years now, as the movies have focused on the Vietnam War, combat has come to be portrayed as destructive not only of life and limb (which obviously it always is) but also of personal values, morals and the very spirit of comradeship. The battlefield is pictured as a place where conflicts among soldiers on the same side go from bad to worse and the spirit of brotherhood dissolves in the general horror.” We want to say that it was not like that for us in 1944. Quite the contrary; we developed extraordinary loyalties and “a spirit of brotherhood” that for some of us has survived for decades.

Perhaps you will get a message from what we have remembered and written. Perhaps not; if you discover nothing profound, attribute it to our inability to put our feelings into words that convey what we want you to understand. We went through some things that affected us for the rest of our lives, but are hard to pass on to those who were fortunate enough to miss the kind of experiences we had.

For the most part, the personal stories told in Memories of Service in the Second Platoon (the original title of Riflemen)were first committed to writing forty to fifty years after the fact. A dozen or so of the surviving members of the Platoon contributed input during the period 1985–1996. Some contributions were provided to the editors in writing. Other input was oral, in the form of yarns spun at reunions.

Paul Haubenreich and Bill Schaible were drafted at the 1985 reunion of Platoon members at Gatlinburg to receive contributions and to serve as editors to tie the fragments into a coherent story. Jim Harris and Bill Reist supplied them with written accounts of many episodes. Jim Harris, one of the few who missed none of the action, was an invaluable source. He had much to tell and acquired lots of supplemental information, including German publications. Bill Reist, with his remarkable memory, was able to provide a lot of information. Another source of many personal accounts was Joe Wannamaker. Other written input came from Platoon members R.A. (Bob) Smith, Bob Walker, and Sal Curcio.

Input in a class by itself came from Eli Lahti’s account. Lahti died in 1990. The story of his account and our accession of a portion of it follows. During combat, front-line soldiers were not allowed even to mention in letters home where we were located, much less to keep diaries or any other written record of their unit’s history that might fall into enemy hands. At some point, probably while in a hospital in January, 1945, PFC Eli Lahti decided to defy this prohibition and began keeping notes on events as they occurred. Years later Lahti still had his original notes and started expanding them into a narrative. As far as is known, no one else in the Platoon made notes and kept them.

Because Lahti’s narrative was based on notes quite soon after the actions, it would be especially valuable in any case. The narrative expands his notes to some extent, describing each day, not simply logging the main events. However he did not attempt to give a comprehensive picture of the battles; even if he had, he, like other G.I.s, often did not know much beyond the view from his foxhole.

Haubenreich assembled the first draft of the story from Camp Swift to Ederen. (Chapters 1 through 5). Wannamaker contributed much about Camp Swift. Substantial additions and some corrections were made by others, notably Jim Harris and Bill Schaible. Chapter 6, describing the bloodiest battle in Platoon history, is a collection of input from several members (and in the third edition, from Alex Varga, the Combat Medic attached to the First Platoon.) Schaible assembled the first-hand accounts of episodes from Welz to the Roer crossing (Chapter 7 and Section 8.1), incorporating much additional input from Reist, Harris, Smith, Walker, Wannamaker and Welti. Schaible and Haubenreich later pieced together Sections 7.2 through 9.1, the account from the Roer to the Elbe (during which time both were absent, recuperating from wounds), from Lahti’s journal and recollections of Reist, Harris and Wannamaker. The portions from Heinrichsberg to the end of the narrative were drafted by Haubenreich with substantial input from Harris, Reist, Wannamaker and Smith.

The sources of direct quotations are generally identified in the text. Beside the personal input from Platoon members, we used the histories of the Division and the Regiment that were compiled while we were still in Germany and a few excerpts from a couple of German war histories that Harris acquired. These histories were useful in establishing chronology and in relating Platoon experience to the “big picture” of what was going on outside our range of vision at the time. Various members of the Platoon reviewed and commented on almost every portion of the draft.

Copyright © 1997, 2008 by Paul N. Haubenreich, Sr.