To Ruth, from Red

In 1944 Ruth Racke left Claryville,Kentucky. She went north to Covington, a city on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, and lived there with her sister and her sister’s two kids while her brother- in- law was off at war. Ruth was eighteen, a sensible and responsible brunette with brown eyes, who just had finished high school. Her father ran the general store and gas station in Claryville, her mother raised chickens with five boys and five girls on the family farm. Ruth might have stayed with her family in Claryville, if not for the war. The war had split her family apart, with four of her five brothers and a sister overseas with the Army and Navy.

Ruth Racke (second from left) and Norma Combs (second from right) at Grote Manufacturing 1944. (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Ruth Racke (second from left) and Norma Combs (second from right) at Grote Manufacturing in 1944. (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

In Covington, Ruth worked at Grote Manufacturing, painting the tail fins of bombs. At Grote, Ruth met other girls, girls who had come from different cities and towns across the state and America. She met Norma Combs, a girl who grew up poor in the countryside of Carollton, Kentucky. They complimented each other, each being what the other was not. Ruth was thoughtful and practical, Norma was impulsive with a wild streak. Norma’s mother had died when Norma was young. Her father was abusive and had worked off and on for the railroad until his kids were old enough to work for him and he could stay home. Norma had a brother too, his name was Hubert but she called him “Red” because everyone else did. Red left school after the eighth grade to work in construction, earning money to support the family because his father wouldn’t. He was drafted a month after Pearl Harbor and had been overseas since 1942 when he was sent to Australia. Now he was somewhere in the China-Burma-India Theater. She had a picture of him, he was handsome in his uniform with a look of quiet, amused confidence.  He didn’t have a girl to send him mail other than his sister, and Norma wondered if Ruth would write him.

Ruth and Red began a correspondence, friendly notes between people who never met and did not know much about each other. Ruth wrote him things about her life and Red’s sister, mundane things about work and her thoughts and feelings. Ordinary things that brought the touch of home and femininity that mean so much to a man. Red wrote Ruth of his life in India, of his travels from Assam to Bengal to New Delhi. He wrote about the bugs that crawled into the dough and got baked in the bread and the wild monkeys that sat on his shoulders in the cafes. He saw the Ganges river, where people bathed and drank the water as dead bodies floated by. Red saw the kindness of the Indian people and learned of Ghandi, a man he came to admire.

Hubert "Red" Combs in uniform (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Hubert “Red” Combs in uniform (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

He wrote other things to Ruth. He told her how much her letters meant to him. How much he enjoyed hearing from her and of his plans for the future. If Ruth had known Red when he left Kentucky, she would have seen a man from a poor and broken home with little education; a man beat down physically and emotionally by his father; a man who saw no way to pull himself up.

But in India, Red saw people from poverty worse than his. It gave him perspective on his situation and helped him realize the opportunities that were awaiting him in the U.S.A. By 1944 Red was a confident man. He had been commended by his commanding officer out of hundreds of others for his military appearance and bearing. He was a radio operator, trusted with valuable machinery, and charged with important communication duties. For the first time in his life, Red felt valued and gained a sense of self worth.

He began to send Ruth things: handkerchiefs, aprons, hosiery bags and a gold laced purse with the map of India on it. Small things he could imagine her being beautiful with. As Red’s time overseas came to a close he wrote her “I can’t give you the world, but I’ll work hard and do the best I can to make a good life for you.”

Red came back to the U.S.A. in January 1945. Ruth met him as he stopped in Kentucky before being sent to an Infantry Training Battalion in Arkansas. Their life returned to what it was, separated but connected by letters. But things had changed since they met and there was future that was waiting for them. World War II ended on September 2nd 1945 and there was no more need for painting bombs or training soldiers. On September 24th 1945 Ruth Racke and Red Combs married in Little Rock, Arkansas. A month later Red was discharged from the U.S. Army and went home to Kentucky with his wife.

Front and back of a gold laced purse Red sent Ruth from India in 1944

Front and back of a gold laced purse Red sent Ruth from India in 1944

The two eventually settled down in the city of Independence. They had their only child, Vera in July 1946 and raised her to respect people of all races, religions and backgrounds. Red opened his own construction business and Ruth became a housewife. They were well known in the church and became active in the community. As the years went by the only reminder of the war that brought them together was a book about India Vera flipped through as a child. Even the gifts Red sent Ruth from overseas were put away in boxes. The two didn’t talk much about the war and the part they played in it. They didn’t see the need to dwell on the past. Ruth and Red Combs were more interested in their future, busy living the rest of their lives together as a family, in peace.

Red and Ruth Combs as husband and wife with their daughter Vera (Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

Red and Ruth Combs as husband and wife with their daughter Vera
(Photo courtesy of Vera Hypes)

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Mistakes to be made

Cavalry and Tanks on the move in Louisiana

Cavalry and Tanks on the move in Louisiana

In two years Nazi Germany had occupied Poland, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, France and Belgium, Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Greece. The Axis Powers were pushing into North Africa, White Russia, the Ukraine, and the heart of the Soviet Union. In Europe, Britain stood alone, saved only by a channel of water that Germany’s tanks could not roll over.

In those two years, the United States had lain dormant, save lend lease and troops sent to Iceland, it remained in a state of self imposed hibernation from European affairs. In 1939 America’s Military ranked the seventeenth largest in the world with a standing army of 187,000 men and about 200,000 National Guardsmen . In October 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first peace time draft in United States history raising the number to 1.6 million men in 1941. As the Axis conquered Europe, America trained its soldiers with World War I rifles, broomsticks labeled “machine guns”, and cars with “tank” written on them.

1941 Maneuvers Medal

1941 Maneuvers Medal

In 1941 General George Marshall decided to try the new Army in real combat conditions. Marshall wanted to see how his commanders adapted to modern warfare and how the soldiers performed through hardship. In September 1941, almost 500,000 troops battled on 3,400 square miles of Louisiana. The Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941 were the biggest war games ever seen on American soil. The men were split into two forces, the Blue Army was the invader, with blue armbands and fatigue caps; the Red Army, the defender with Red Armbands and steel helmets. Marshall knew his army would make mistakes. He wanted the mistakes to happen in Louisiana, not in Europe.

Blue and Red Armbands from the Louisiana Maneuvers

Blue and Red Armbands from the Louisiana Maneuvers

Massive battles took place around towns like Shreveport, Nachitoches, and Winnfield. The Maneuvers saw the US Army’s last use of mounted cavalry and its first use of paratroopers. Twenty six men died in the games, most in car accidents or drowning in river crossings. The Blue Army won in both defensive and offensive operations thanks in large part to plans from Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower and the tanks of George S. Patton.

Three months after the maneuvers finished, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on America. The Army of Louisiana took the lessons it learned in the summer of 1941 and prepared to do what it had trained for. Units that had performed well in the games were already in the Philippines or were embarking overseas to prepare to fight in North Africa and New Guinea. When they would enter combat, only gained territory and body counts would tell the score. After Louisiana there would be no more umpires to watch the rules and any mistakes would be fatal.

Side Effects

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In 1942, as war entered American life, a non-profit, government funded group called the Council on Books in Wartime was created and staffed by some of the largest names in the publishing business. The Council’s aim was to maintain the will to fight through information, printing books about how the war was being won and about the enemy. Books, the council felt were the “Weapons in the War of Ideas”.

For men and women serving overseas boredom was a more persistent enemy than the Germans or the Japanese. The Council on Books in Wartime felt reading was the perfect solution and endeavored to get books to soldiers. Believing in  the patriotic and generous American spirit the council organized book donation drives. Americans responded, donating thousands of books. The drive was a great victory but the victor was the American public.

Emblem of the Council on Books in Wartime

Emblem of the Council on Books in Wartime

Although the Council netted large numbers of books, the majority of tomes would put a strain on a soldier’s attention span. The Council book drives had given the public a chance to pass on volumes no one would want to read while feeling patriotic about doing it. In May of 1943 the Council decided “American soldiers were going to have books, even if the Army had to buy them itself”. A plan was drafted to purchase an initial 50,000 books for the armed forces. But this plan was not a solution.

Even with reading material available, soldiers weighed down with army equipment did not have room to carry a hardbound novel, even paperback books were not pocket sized. The Council decided the best answer to the problem would be to print the books themselves. Using magazine rotary presses thousands of books could be made to give to bored soldiers. From a business standpoint, it gave publishing houses a cheap, easy way to expose a captive new market to reading. The solution seemed obvious but there was one problem—money.

The problem wasn’t finding the cash to print the books or distributing them. The problem was if popular books were given away, who would buy them after the war? Publishing houses would be flooding the market with free books that could be taken home and sold second hand when the boys came home. Companies would be giving away millions of dollars worth of a reusable products, cheating authors and booksellers out of business by a good but unsound patriotic deed. The problem was solved in two ways: one, books for the armed forces would only be available overseas, not competing with the US market. And two, they would be printed on cheap paper that would fall apart with multiple readings.

Actually printing the books proved challenging. The rotary printing presses available were designed to print magazines not books. To navigate around this problem, two separate books were printed as one, magazine size, one on top of the other, then cut in half. Short paged books were printed in Reader’s Digest size and long volumes in pulp magazine size resulting in books measuring 5 1/2 by 3 7/8 inches or 6 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches respectively. The books were sold to the military at cost of about six cents per volume plus ten percent overhead, with authors and publishers receiving a half cent each per book.

Soldier on a troopship reading an Armed Service Edition book.

Soldier on a troopship reading an Armed Service Edition book.

Inside cover of an Armed Service Edition book

Inside cover of an Armed Service Edition book

Armed Service Edition books

Armed Service Edition books

Titles were decided upon by a committee that tried to cater to “all levels of tastes within reasonable limits” and had to be acceptable to both the Army and the Navy. Minor disagreements arose between the committee which wanted to print serious literary works, and the Army that wanted popular best sellers, westerns and mysteries, while the Navy held opinions somewhere in between the other two. Works deemed anti-democratic, offensive to an ally or religious or racial group were excluded.

Starting in September 1943, Armed Service Edition books found their way to the front line in the Pacific as men traveled from island to island before entering the combat zone. In England in June 1944, each soldier boarding an invasion ship for Normandy was given an Armed Service Edition book. Newspapers reported at the time that, although many things were found discarded from soldiers packs before going into D-Day, not a single book was left behind.

From 1943 to 1947 nearly 123 million copies of 1,322 different titles on all subjects were printed and became the only type of book reliably  available to service personnel overseas. Authors received hundreds of letters from people who before the war had never finished reading a single book. Some would meet ex-servicemen years later telling them how they had read their book in a foxhole in France, in some Pacific jungle, or in a frigid Alaskan or Icelandic outpost. The most reprinted book was Webster’s New Handy Dictionary, a book that depression kids with little education wanted to help them understand the new written world given them.

The men and women of World War Two came home with something other than memories of war, they came back with educations in history, the arts, poetry, science and popular fiction, all from little books named Armed Service Editions, a side effect of a war.

Casualties of War

Blue and Gray symbol of the 29th Infantry Division

Blue and Gray symbol of the 29th Infantry Division

When John Gallaher McConnell was old enough to go to war his father told him two things: one, he would be going to England for the drive on France, and two, be careful of Scots, they anger quickly.

John’s father, Alfred, was a coal miner who had experience with Scots. He had married one. Together the elder McConnells raised John and his three older brothers in Moundsville, West Virginia. The town was tight knit, and diverse. Native West Virginians lived with and intermarried people from Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary.

John's letter to his mother January 2nd 1944: Dear Mom, If you do not get this letter let me know and I will mail it. I cannot tell you where I am because I am not there. I can't tell you where I am going because I haven't gone yet. I am not back yet because I haven't gone yet. I don't know what I am going to do because I haven't done it yet. Well all joking aside, I am in New York City on a pass. I am stationed at Camp Shanks N.Y. and don't know where I am going nor when. I hope I go where Paul is but I am not that lucky

John’s letter to his mother January 2nd 1944:
Dear Mom,
If you do not get this letter let me know and I will mail it.
I cannot tell you where I am because I am not there. I can’t tell you where I am going because I haven’t gone yet. I am not back yet because I haven’t gone yet. I don’t know what I am going to do because I haven’t done it yet.
Well all joking aside, I am in New York City on a pass. I am stationed at Camp Shanks N.Y. and don’t know where I am going nor when. I hope I go where Paul is but I am not that lucky

When John joined the army he was sent to the Infantry. He spent New Year’s 1944 in New York City. By February he was sailing overseas. John’s father’s guess was correct. John went to England. John wrote his family. He saw his brother in London and experienced the wartime blackout. He sent his money home and invested in war bonds. He wanted the money to start his own small business when he was back in West Virginia. He wrote his father asking him join him in business. He didn’t want either of them to worry about someone else telling them what and how to do things anymore. The nineteen year old had  plans for his future. He just had to survive until he could make them happen.

Private McConnell was assigned to Company C, 175th Infantry Regiment of the  29th Infantry Division. They wore a blue and gray yin-yang symbol on their shoulders and helmets. The blue and gray represented the Union and Confederate background of the states from which the men came. The 29th Division had been in England since 1942. The 29th impressed the generals in training enough to be picked for the first wave of the D-Day assault. The generals weren’t worried about the beaches anyway. The navy and air force would destroy any defenses before the men got there. The tough battles would be inland.

John McConnell landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus one, June 7th. The 175th was the reserve regiment. They had waited offshore as other two regiments of the 29th landed on June 6th. The day after D-Day Omaha Beach was still not secured. Machine gun and sniper fire came in on the men and landing craft exploded when they hit underwater mines. The shore was covered with metal remnants from the invasion. Bodies floated in on the tide and littered the shore. The dead were 29th Division men. Men who had trained two years to fight and died within minutes. They lay in contorted forms in their own blood. The only thing the men of the 175th could do for their comrades was try not to step on them.

The helmet John McConnell wore through the war

The helmet John McConnell wore through the war

In Normandy, the nineteen year old from Moundsville was thrown into small towns like Gruchy and Isigny.  He fought his way across the Aure River. As the army advanced from the shore towns to the hedgerow country, the terrain changed to sunken lanes and massive walls of brush that blocked out the light. Dead cattle lay bloated in the sun alongside bodies of soldiers. The Germans waited in the hedgerows until the Americans were at point blank range before opening fire. The 29th took heavy losses; some companies losing almost every man within weeks of the invasion.

29th Division men rest during the battle for Brest, France

29th Division men rest during the battle for Brest, France

John learned how to act in combat. He learned the hard way: making assaults on towns and flanking farmhouses through open fields under machine gun fire. He learned to kill or be killed. He survived. By July he was promoted to Private First Class and took part in the attack on St. Lo. He fought in the French port of Brest in September. By October he was a Staff Sergeant, one of few original men left. The kid whose brothers used to tease him about being a brat was a squad leader. The “brat” now commanded men in battle.

On November 19th, 1944, the 29th Infantry Division was fighting through West Germany. The 175th was attacking the town of Schleiden. John’s Company C gave fire support to other 175th men who moved forward with chemical mortars and tanks. The enemy was not eager to surrender. It had taken two days of killing before Schleiden was in U.S. hands. The town was no different than the dozens of small towns the 29th had gone through in six months of fighting. It cost the lives of friends and exterminated those of the enemy. The shattered streets and smashed houses held mangled bodies or death from a hidden enemy. Schleiden was no different from the towns before and the towns after. They all smelled of death.  For Staff Sergeant McConnell, Schleiden was the last fight. After six months at the front he was labeled a non-battle casualty and was sent to a hospital off the line.

GI's advancing in towns walk by dead comrades

GI’s advancing in towns walk by dead comrades

When the war was won, John went back to Moundsville, West Virginia. He got married and took a job at Columbia Southern Alkali. America was entering a new age of prosperity but John McConnell had a hard time settling down. Maybe he had trouble at home or perhaps he could not forget what he had seen and did as a nineteen year old in Normandy, Brest, Northern France and the Rhineland. In 1952, at age twenty seven, John McConnell hanged himself.

A picture of John's captioned "My Squad"

A picture of John’s captioned “My Squad”

God’s Country

100th Infantry Battalion colors

100th Infantry Battalion colors

When the Myna birds began to talk as the morning sun cast glimmers on Mauna Kahalawa, that is when Masatsugu Riyu awoke. He was a truck driver, delivering pineapples on the dirt roads of Maui, Hawaii. Masatsugu was twenty eight and a Nisei (Japanese meaning second generation), the first son of Takejiro and Taki Riyu. His parents had a farm in Waikapu near the city of Wailuku, nestled in the green Ioa Valley. They raised five children in their adopted paradise: three sons: Masatsugu, Kikuo (Melvyn) and Nobuo, and two daughters: Teruko (Carol) and Kiyoko (Eloise). The children were citizens because they had been born in the territorial islands. Takejiro and Taki were not citizens. They were denied the chance for American citizenship when President Coolidge signed the Asian Exclusion acts of 1924.

Masatsugu had been to school. He went until the tenth grade before he began to fulfill his obligation. As the first born, he would head the household one day. It was up to him to sacrifice for the family. He worked so his brothers and sisters could go to school.

By 1941 his siblings, except for Nobuo who was sixteen, were High School graduates. Melvyn was a janitor for the local paper, Eloise a clerk, and Carol, who had married, worked in her in-law’s jewelry store. Their lives were quiet and working class, as much as they could hope for in plantation dominated Hawaii. Someday the Islands would change, when the Hawaiian born Japanese, who made up nearly forty percent of the population, would take a more decisive role in the islands. It had been almost sixty years since the Japanese first came to Hawaii, but they were still the farmers and laborers, unable to rise above their working class status.

In December Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Martial Law was declared and the Writ of Habeas Corpus was suspended. Takejiro and Taki, like many Japanese Immigrants who had been denied citizenship were now classified as enemy aliens. Draft age men of Japanese descent with territorial citizenship were also classified as “enemies”. Arrests of people of Japanese descent went on all over the islands. In the next few months, their West Coast counterparts on the mainland were rounded up and interned.

Nisei soldiers in training

Nisei soldiers in training

The Territorial Guardsmen of Japanese Ancestry petitioned for a chance to serve their country. Masatsugu and more than 1,400 others were formed into the “Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion”. They were men like Masatsugu, who had given up school to bring money in for the family. They were older than most recruits, many in their late twenties and early thirties; a battalion of first born sons and big brothers entering the army so their younger brothers could stay home. In June 1942, they shipped out of Honolulu to Oakland, California, on to Wisconsin in trains with the shades drawn to hide their faces. Some were sent to Japanese Language schools where they would become translators in the Military Intelligence Service, others were sent on a failed training experiment to teach war dogs to locate and find “Japs” by their scent.

By April 1943 the “Hawaiian Provisional Infantry Battalion” was in Louisiana. It had been re-designated the 100th Infantry Battalion. The men called it the “One-Puka-Puka”; “puka” being Hawaiian for “hole”. Masatsugu was a private in Company C. In training, the 100th had been praised by all levels of the army. The 100th knew their country was watching and judging them.They
also knew their performance was being applied to all Americans of their heritage.

The 100th had traveled across the United States: from Hawaii to California, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Louisiana. Masatsugu wrote a letter to his sister Carol, with the units number boldly printed on the envelope. The 100th needed a motto for their battalion colors before they went to war. The men of Hawaii were ready to prove themselves and their loyalty. The training and positive evaluations couldn’t change their faces. The generals didn’t trust the 100th to fight Japan in fear they would switch allegiance or get shot by friendly fire. General Eisenhower didn’t want soldiers with Japanese faces for his upcoming war in Northern Europe either. The only person to give them a chance was General Mark Clark in Italy. The 100th Battalion knew the eyes of America were on them, they knew it would be their chance to show their loyalty to their country. On their flag they added the motto reminding them why their journey began and reminding others of where they stood. They chose: “Remember Pearl Harbor”.

In August, 1943, the 100th Battalion shipped out from New York to North Africa. In Oran, they were attached to the 133rd Infantry Regiment of the 34th Infantry Division, and reached Italy on September 22nd, 1943.

100th Battalion envelope sent from Masatsugu to his sister

100th Battalion envelope sent from Masatsugu to his sister

As summer ended, the 100th Battalion broke out of Salerno moving north towards the Volturno River. Masatsugu had seen action on the Salerno Plains, and in the towns of Montemarano and Benevento. The Battalion had already won its first two Distinguished Service Crosses, a medal for bravery second only to the Medal of Honor, and earned its first Purple Hearts for men killed and wounded. They were proud of what they were doing for their country. When the men had quiet time to think they thought of home, of their parents and siblings gathered around the radio to listen to the war news, hoping to hear something about their sons in the 100th.

In late October, the 100th Battalion along with the 133rd Infantry Regiment, moved into the Volturno Valley toward to the Matese Mountains. By day, the German 29th Panzer Grenadier Division had an unrestricted view of the valley. From the olive orchards of Sant’ Angelo D’ Alife they zeroed in on every lane and field with artillery fire and placed their men so one machine gun could hold back an entire battalion.  The Americans moved on the night of October 20th, following an artillery barrage towards the town of St. Angelo D’ Alife. As the barrage lifted, the men from Hawaii progressed through the valley. Machine guns opened up on the advanced scouts of the 100th killing ten and wounding twenty more, pinning down men with interlocking fire. By daybreak, the 100th and the 133rd Infantry Regiment were spread out over the Volturno River Valley. Tanks attacked their flank and they were trapped by heavy weapons fire. By nightfall of the 21st, the 100th had reached the lower slopes of the Matese Mountains.

100th Battalion men with German prisoners in Italy

100th Battalion men with German prisoners in Italy

The next morning the 100th Battalion made their push around the side of Sant’ Angelo D’ Alife. The Germans threw artillery and mortar fire at them, pinning them down. Tanks again drove toward them. The men pushed through minefields and booby traps to the top of a hill numbered 529 overlooking San’t Angelo D’Alife. It took another full day before the town was in American hands.

America hadn’t trusted the soldiers with Japanese faces. Now they nicknamed them the “Little Men of Iron”. General Clark called them “magnificent” and asked for more troops like them. Already in the US, a new regiment of Nisei’s, the 442nd, was being trained to join the 100th in Italy.

The 100th’s next major battle was Monte Cassino, a fight that would cost the Allies 55,000 casualties. The One-Puka-Puka earned another nickname there, the “Purple Heart Battalion.” When it was over the 1,300 men of the battalion would be reduced to 521. Masatsugu’s Company C went from 170 men to 23. After Monte Cassino the 100th was absorbed into the 442nd. Units of the 100/442nd fought through Italy, Southern France and Germany, becoming the most decorated unit for its size in United States military history.

100th Infantry Battalion on review

100th Infantry Battalion on review

When the men of the 100th Battalion left Hawaii, they were plantation boys, with little education and little chance for a future. When the men came back, they went to school on the GI Bill and left the plantations for positions in professional and executive jobs. By the 1950’s the 100th and 442nd veterans had become involved in island politics and became a powerful political force, continuing their fight for a better life. In 1952, the US government relaxed its immigration laws and finally allowed Takeji and Taki Riyu and others born in Japan a chance to become citizens of the country for which their sons had fought.

Masatsugu Riyu didn’t return to Hawaii until September 1st, 1948.He came back with seventy eight other men, the last of the battalion to return home. It had been six years since he had been on the soil of Maui, where the Myna birds called under the shade of Mauna Kahalawa. His family came from their farm in Waikapu to meet him again. As the war went on, closing with VE and VJ day, and the men from Hawaii came home to start new lives, Masatsugu had lain in Italy where he was killed in action on October 23rd 1943 fighting to take Sant’ Angelo D’Alife. Now his family drove him to Maui Veterans Cemetery where they buried him. Masatugu Riyu was finally back in Hawaii, in the green Ioa Valley of Maui, resting in God’s Country.

Christmas wishes from the Second to None

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

2nd Infantry Division Insignia

It seemed like the fighting in Europe was almost finished. The American Army was in Germany. In the east, the Red Army was in Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, and the Canadians had entered Holland.

Now a group of men sat in a German basement less than 450 miles from Berlin. They had landed with the 2nd Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day+1. The men were proud of their division, which they called “Indian Head” after their shoulder patch. They were proud to be in a unit where their dad’s fought at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry. They were proud of their motto “Second to None”. In four months they had travelled more than 400 miles from the hedgerows of Normandy, to St. Lo and the port city of Brest. By September 29th, 1944 they had passed through Belgium and took positions at St. Vith. Four days later, they had entered Germany.

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

Soldier of the 2nd Infantry Division writing Christmas cards

The air was thick with moisture and laced with the smell of mildew and wood, wet leather and sweat. The floor was cold, with ammo and empty ration tins littered about. There was a wooden ammo crate that the men sat around. On this makeshift table were Christmas cards, printed by the division, and they took turns writing theirs, getting ready to mail them so they could reach home in time for the holidays.  Their fathers had written their parents from Europe on Christmas in 1917, in a different war with the same enemy. Now their sons did the same for them.

In 1939, Hitler gave a speech saying “No foreign soldier shall ever set foot on German soil.” The 2nd Infantry Division remembered that speech. They put it on their holiday cards and added their kicker: “Nevertheless, from somewhere in Germany, we wish you a Merry Xmas.”

By Christmas, the men of the Indian Head were no longer in Germany; they were in Belgium, near an area called Elsenborn Ridge, in a battle where 19,000 Americans would die. There, the Indian Head performed what General Eisenhower would later call “One of the finest divisional actions of the war” holding back the German 6th Panzer Army in the Battle of the Bulge.

In November and December, till the end of the war in 1945, the US Army would suffer more than 450,000 casualties, including more than 133, 000 killed in action, almost as many as the Army had lost in 1941,1942,1943, and until October 1944 combined.

A GI in that basement had written his family, before the German offensive, when the war seemed almost finished and another holiday away from home was ahead. He wrote them with pride and loneliness: “I guess Adolph had never heard of the Second to None. Have a big ‘Xmas and drink some for me, Love J.P.”

2nd germ with mark2nd with mark

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to Echoes of a War. I have had a keen interest in the Second World War since I was a child. In my blog I hope to share history, personal stories and artifacts that will be of interest to the historian, collector and anyone who likes to learn about and share history.

I am new at this so I hope to learn more about blogging as I go along and connect with some interesting people.

Thanks for reading.