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A Soldier’s Vivid, Candid Diary of What It Was Like to Fight in World War II

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Tub bath in Holland

After four months of combat I had my first tub bath and I shall never forget it. We entered a little Dutch town and saw a sign over the entrance to a large factory, “American Army men who desire showers are welcome.” Our first reconnaissance party for the shower detail approached the plant cautiously, fearful that the whole thing might be a big booby trap, but investigation proved that the facts were even better than the sign promised. There were showers, but there were also jumbo-sized bathtubs with steaming hot water, each tub in a semi-private compartment with a locker, a radiator, white tiled walls and a heated cork floor in approximately the style of any Downtown Athletic Club.

All this was ours, it turned out, because the foreman of the plant was the local leader of the resistance movement. He thought it was something he could do for the Americans; I’m sure he will never realize how much it was.

We turned on the faucets to full heat. We soaked, splashed and sang, shouting to each other over the partitions, thoroughly confusing the Dutch attendant who must have thought the Americans, although possibly effective fighters, slightly nuts.

I am sure his impression was indelibly confirmed when the man in the compartment next to mine, who had finished his bath and was two-thirds dressed, said, “Oh, the hell with it!” and proceeded to run another tub and start all over.

No Disasters

Keeping the telephone lines intact and the radios working is not the hardest part of Communications. The greatest difficulty is saying the right thing.

Two or three days after the landing the Division Commander ordered that there would be no reports of disasters or extraordinary successes. An illustrative example accompanied the edict; in case the enemy should throw some of its weight against us, the news would be transmitted not as a “counter-attack,” but as “enemy enthusiasm.” By the same token, if one of our regiments should succeed in breaking through the German defenses and advance four or five miles, the achievement would be termed something like “good progress.” Nothing extreme, no matter what.

The idea behind this order was to improve transmission of information within the unit, not, as it may sound, to censor the news reports to higher headquarters or to the press. The assumption was that disasters and triumphs practically never occur, and when they do it doesn’t help to use rich adjectives in reporting things. And further, that there is a natural inclination to color up bad news. A scout on a forward observation post sees one self-propelled 88-millimeter gun, he thinks. By the time his report gets all the way up to the G-2 in Division Headquarters—unless there is an order to prevent it—the gun is likely to have become 200 Tiger tanks headed our way.

It is one thing to issue an order; seeing that it is obeyed is something else. In this case the order had to compete against human nature plus the high tension everybody felt during those first days. It was hard to believe, too, that the order was meant literally. “Suppose,” went the natural reaction, “the battalion really is surrounded by tanks? What do we say then?”

The answer was, of course, that there was no rule against reporting tanks (not to be confused with self-propelled guns) in such and such number (not to be given in round figures, but exactly) observed at blank coordinates moving in the direction X to Y at ZZZZ hours. The rule only forbade words like “surrounded,” “cut off,” “hundreds of huge tanks,” and “overrun.” Furthermore, by some odd good fortune none of the battalions ever was cut off by tanks, not even little ones.

In spite of the order, groundless reports of grave misfortune continued to filter back to Division. The corrective action was simple and effective. The Commanding General upon receiving the rumor would order it traced back to the origin. “Have the man who saw the 200 tanks report to me,” he would say. And soon, after an epic amount of calling and checking, someone would have to report in person to the General that nobody had exactly seen the tanks, but there had been considerable rumbling off in the distance.

Reporting in person to the Commanding General is embarrassing. In short order, anyone who ever had occasion to speak over a field telephone or fill out a message blank was convinced that it didn’t pay to make any statements that he wouldn’t swear to or sign.

Night Raid

Don’t let anyone tell you that soldiers don’t get frightened. They do.

It took me several weeks to find out what fear is like. The initial landing had scared me (although I spent all of D-day sitting a few hundred yards offshore waiting my turn to disembark), but that had been an intellectual fright composed of imagining what might presently happen. The sight of the wreckage on the beach jolted me into a kind of fear. So did the sound of incoming artillery when I first heard it (and every time thereafter). I hadn’t been ashore long before a sniper took a wild potshot at me, and that markedly increased my pulse rate. But my reactions to these various stimuli, I learned, were of a mild variety compared to the terror of the first serious bombing of the Command Post area.

It took place about midnight, a lovely June night with a half-moon that lit the flat Normandy orchards too brightly. I was on duty as artillery liaison officer in the Division war tent; not much going on, and the various officers there were talking over the day’s activity. Inside the war tent it was bright, the evening had been quiet and the war seemed remote and unlikely. Higher headquarters had warned that there might be some enemy air activity, but the few planes that had been overhead on previous nights had concentrated their efforts against the beaches: nobody paid much attention to the alert.

We heard one or two planes high above us and the war-tent group agreed that they were German on account of the uneven snarl of their engines. A few seconds later, quite a distance to the east of us, a stick of anti-personnel bombs exploded. The sentry on duty guarding the entrance to the war tent came in and reported that there were flares in the sky, quite far away to the east.

The sentry went back to his post and we, inside the tent, went on about our business. Five or ten minutes later a second stick of bombs fell, close enough to whine as they dropped. We all grabbed our helmets and put them on.

There was no question but that they had hit nearby. The tent shook from the blast, rocking the lights strung from the ridgepole. The senior officer said he thought we ought to clear the tent and get into the slit trenches outside.

The exit to a CP tent is hard to manage. You have to lift a flap, make a sharp left turn and stumble along a canvas passageway for five or six paces. After the brightness inside the tent, the blackout corridor seems pitch dark. We started to file out.

The third string of bombs fell, high explosive: a long whine and then earthquaking thuds, five or six in a fast series, about five hundred yards away. The first man out of the tent says, in surprise, “God damn it! These flares are right overhead!”

I was fourth or fifth in line, and while I waited to get out I got scared. The first three strings had frightened me, but not until the few seconds of delay at the exit did my throat and chest tighten up.

Finally my turn came. Halfway out through the exit I could see light from the flares in the sky. That upset me; we had been trained to freeze in our tracks whenever the enemy drops a flare. It seemed to me that the bombers would see me in my ten-yard dash to the slit trench and yet there was no point in standing by the exit. The man behind me was pushing to get out, so I ran for the trench, feeling as though I were in a huge spotlight and sure that the bombers were watching me, personally. The trench didn’t look deep enough. I hesitated an instant and thought, “Maybe there is a deeper one farther along.”

One of the planes roared by and at the same time there was a long burst of machine gun-fire. I jumped into the slit trench and hit the ground.

Another string of bombs started to whine down. The noise they make is like the whistle of an artillery shell but sharper and at least half again as long. It starts high in pitch and slides down the scale, and halfway down you think it has gone far enough, that it will surely go off. But instead it continues to whistle, the sound originating from nowhere in particular but seeming to point right at you. And the longer it whines, the closer it seems to get, until you are sure that when it does explode it will be at the back of your head.

I lay face down in the slit trench with the brim of my helmet in the soft ground, as close to the earth as I could get, and held my breath. (That is not the way to lie. It is better to lie on your side, chinstrap unfastened, for protection against blast effect.) The long whine ended. There was a pause. Then two or three hundred yards away to my right the cluster of bombs exploded, a heavy rumble of detonation. The sound seemed to blanket an area. I recall thinking that it must have destroyed everything in the field where the bombs landed.

When the bombs went off and I realized that I hadn’t been hit, I found I couldn’t draw a full breath. My chest felt contracted and tight. I was cold and vaguely dissatisfied with my slit-trench. I wished that I had dug it myself, thinking irrationally that somehow I would be protected in a trench of my own digging. Then, since there seemed to be a slight lull in the bombardment, I rolled over and lifted my head above the level of the ground to look for a better hole. The flares were still burning, a long even row of them in the sky, and they seemed to be fixed rather than parachuting down. They were well off to my right. That was a relief, because I had thought before that they were directly above me.

Another bomber roared overhead, quite low, and I saw the first of a string of flares splash into flame; it was dead ahead of me and it looked close enough to touch. I flopped back on the bottom of the trench and began to shake. The whine started again and I thought, “They are going to get me this time, they are systematically bombing the CP in a pattern of strips and this time I am right in the middle of the strip.” I tried to sink my head into my shoulders, turtle fashion, and I closed my eyes. The whine crept down the scale and I shook, not like shivering from cold but slower and bigger. Some of my weight was on my arms and they shook in particular, but the source of the shaking was nowhere and all over; I remember feeling my knees bumping the ground.

I had plenty of time to think, but nothing entered my mind except the idea that this was the one with my number on it. Then the bombs went off, the same all-embracing, blanketing explosion, and I knew that I hadn’t been hit.

My shaking, however, went on. The noise of the airplane motors grew fainter and I lifted myself off the ground, still shaking. The flares had dimmed. In the half-darkness I saw a figure run across the field and I remembered for the first time since I had hit the slit trench that I was not entirely alone, that I was in fact surrounded by slit trenches filled with my war-tent associates. I wanted to talk to them. For a moment or two I sat in the slit-trench trying to decide whether the raid was over, having a hard time making up my mind, unable to bring into proper focus the obvious facts that the flares were going out and that the plans were now almost out of earshot. I don’t remember that I ever made up my mind, but I did want to talk to somebody, so finally I got out of the trench and ran a few yards to a sort of dugout covered with boards and dirt. I was still shivering, but I could breathe again and I had become self-conscious to the extent of realizing that I was badly scared.

Two friends of mine were inside with a stray pup they had picked up. I crawled in with them and laughed at the dog, which was shivering too, and we sat in the dark for fifteen minutes, exchanging accounts of the raid, each of us claiming that he had been most frightened, talking the terror out of our systems.

Nothing Automatic About It

The comment, “Our boys are just automatically wonderful,” ought to be discarded. Presumably it is intended as high praise; actually it is false, and an unintentional insult to all those responsible for planning, training, supplying and supporting our winning armies.

I don’t know about the native aptitude of Americans for fighting. I wouldn’t be able to compare Americans with Germans, Russians or Japanese. I do know that some of “our boys” turn out to be cowards. Some are disloyal. Some are thieves. Some are not mechanically inventive in the slightest and have a hard time keeping issued equipment in working order, let alone building an ice-cream freezer out of the wreckage of a Mark IV tank.

It’s hard, furthermore, for a soldier to look presentable, much less “wonderful,” when he is on the losing side. I wonder whether the cliché would have become popular if we had not recently had a series of resounding victories.

So instead of “automatically,” I’d use “deliberately”; and in place of “our boys” put “our armies.” The real object for astonished surprise is that in a remarkably short time we have turned out armies good enough to win, armies made up of well trained soldiers, led by capable officers, furnished with superior equipment and supported by an air force of overwhelming power. And this is far more remarkable, if less romantic, than the idea that American boys have a trace of Paul Bunyan’s blood in their veins.

Night Watch

After our long and rapid displacement from Normandy to Brittany, it took about a week for our mail service, which had been pleasingly regular, to catch up with us. Finally, one afternoon, a rumor filtered down to our unit that the APO in the rear was stuffed with mail sacks; that there was bound to be a delivery just as soon as the letters could be sorted.

Knowles, the mail orderly, left Headquarters early in the afternoon, but he didn’t get back by suppertime as usual.

“He’s probably sending back for an extra six-by-six,” said Wood, an optimist. “He’s probably got so many packages they won’t fit on that old weapons carrier.”

But Knowles hadn’t returned by ten o’clock, the hour of darkness and therefore bedtime for almost everyone not on night duty. I crawled into my combination pup tent and slit trench and squirmed about trying to find the least uncomfortable sleeping position. Pfc. White interrupted me.

“Sir,” he said, “in case the mail comes in, do you want me to wake you up?”

I asked him if he weren’t going to turn in.

“I think I’ll wait a while for Knowles. Me and Batney and a couple of the fellows are going to wait. Knowles may be back any minute.”

I thought it over.

“If I do get a letter,” I said, “put it in my helmet. But don’t wake me up. And don’t you stay up too late.”

“No, sir.”

At daybreak the next morning I found a letter in my helmet and shortly thereafter I found White just finished putting on his leggings.

“Good morning, sir,” said White. “Did you find your letter? What do you think? I got three, two from my wife and one from my mother.”

“Damn good,” I said. “What time did Knowles get back?”

“Four-thirty,” said White. “But I didn’t mind waiting. There was a bunch of us. We got to shooting the bull. Knowles was back before we knew it.”

Capt. Bruce Bliven Jr.

Somewhere in Germany