by Philip C. Ellsworth
When I was a boy I learned of a g-
In World War II in the American Army in Europe, combat infantry units stayed on the line continuously. Individual soldiers were there until killed, captured, wounded, disabled, or as in my
In an infantry
In bare December
To look through distant trees to see
If we will live or we will die.
No hero’s choice has put me here
Caught between two kinds of fear,
One of safety bought with scorn,
And one of duty bought most dear.
At a hushed
Or, more, their blind man’s cane that probes
Until it meets with some surprise.
And now I fearful move ahead
Toward the forest-hidden dread.
True to them and true to me.
There’s little more that can be said.
Through the autumn we fought in the woods and in the destroyed villages of Lorraine and neighboring Alsace where the villagers switched between French and German flags in hope of surviving. A memory is of being on the march on roads through the snow-covered evergreen forests, which at other times would have been beautiful but were now full of fear and uncertainty, the smell of explosives in the air. To avoid shrapnel from shells that exploded above us we at first cut trees to cover our foxholes. We soon found that the sound of the axes located us for 88’s and mortars, so we huddled in our holes, often only a few inches deep because we seemed to be digging in bedrock. There we would chip frozen beef stew or corned-beef hash from a c-ration can.
On one occasion we made a march of thirty miles and captured a town. At night, German soldiers, thinking our column was a retreating German column, fell in with us and were captured when we heard them speak.
At the time of the Battle of the
Around New Year’s
If he knew fear I did not see.
He was a brother’s arm to me.
And when he fell, fell part of me.
The action in which our company was overrun was part of a German offensive known by them as Northwind, though we didn’t know it. It was designed to slow down the American pursuit at the Bulge. In this action, which continued through January 1945, American battle casualties were about 12,000 and German losses about 23,000.
When I returned to my unit I found that as a result of the decimation of our company, the squads were being filled with replacements. We had a new squad leader, whom I didn’t know. I became
During February and early
Even though we were in a defensive position from mid-January to mid-March, there were casualties. In “All Quiet of the Western Front,” the book ends when the soldier having served throughout the war is at last killed “on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.” On such a day Richard Polhemus, a good soldier in our company, was singled out by a mortar shell as he sat defiantly on the edge of his foxhole.
In mid-March we went on the offensive, recapturing the ground lost during the German offensive in January. This included the Maginot fortress town of Bitche, leading as you would suspect to the formation of an organization known as the Sons of Bitche. At
On April 4th we reached the factory and railroad town of Heilbronn, on the Neckar River about 45 miles from
I remember the river,
The small boats, and the far shore
And, beyond, the broken wall,
The buildings, torn by war,
And fallen comrades.
I remember the catwalk and the factory,
The voices down below,
The grenade that fell among us, silent,
As if warning us to go.
I remember midnight,
And vivid in my mind,
Retreat, the burning catwalk, safety,
But a comrade left behind
Somewhere in the dark.
And I remember morning
And Roske coming back unharmed.
The next day I don’t know how I happened to be alone, but an event occurred which I have recorded in a poem called “The Meeting.” I came to the corner of a building at the same time a German soldier came from around the corner. We were both armed, but both reacted in the same way.
Once, in a contested place,
I met a soldier face to face.
We stopped and turned and walked away,
Both to live another day.
I often wonder who he was
And where he is and whom he loves,
And if he ever sees, like me,
A soldier in his memory.
Or if before the end he fell,
Leaving only me to tell
Of our meeting face to face
Once, in a contested place.
Overlooking the town was a high hill on which there was a tower. Sometime during the eight
The war wound down after Heilbronn, though casualties continued, Jimmie Rembert among them. I stayed in Germany for about a year after the war. What I have described here are those things that have hardly dimmed with the years. In between these events, the days, villages, skirmishes, marches, the artillery and mortars, have blurred into a dream.
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, I wrote the following lines:
The war in Europe ended fifty years ago. A letter home dated May 8. 1945, says we were “on the march” when we got the news. Strangely, I can’t remember the exact moment, but I do know my reaction. First, that I had survived and what that meant to my family; second, that it came too late for many comrades and their families; and third, that we would have a short breathing space before going to the Pacific. How improbable, to have survived and to be here in this place. It is as if I have lived two totally different lives. I wonder how many veterans feel the same?
I will close with a World War I poem by Louise Bogan. It is “To My Brother Killed: Haumont Wood:
O you so long dead,
You masked and obscure,
I can tell you, all things endure:
The wine and the bread;
The marble quarried for the arch;
The iron become steel;
The spokes broken from the wheel;
The sweat of the long march;
The hay-stacks cut through like loaves
And the hundred flowers from the seed;
All things indeed
Though struck by the hooves
Of disaster, of time due,
Of fell loss and gain,
All things remain,
I can tell you, this is true.
Though burned down to stone
Though lost from the eye,
I can tell you, and not lie, —
Save of peace alone.
(1) When Samuel Downing died in 1867 he was the last Revolutionary veteran on the rolls. However, two additional soldiers came forward after his death so finally he was the third from the last survivor.
(2) Elements of the 398th Regiment had crossed the river downstream from Heilbronn about 12 hours previously. Our crossing was directly opposite the factory district, and my platoon was the first in the 397th to cross.
(3) The Story of the Century (History of the 100th Infantry Division (Century Division)), Century Association, 1946, p143
(4) This hill had been the scene of an earlier action in which an element of the 398th Regiment had reached the top but was cut off and captured.