THE THUNDERBOLT ACROSS EUROPE
his document tells a little of the
life we have known during the past year. It is dedicated to all officers and men
of the 83d Infantry Division. We Thunderbolts are proud of the record we have made. We
have contributed to the defeat of the enemy. We have grown a little older doing this and
we have learned to understand a bit more about men. When finally we go home we shall
have grown a little wiser.
This document is also dedicated to our dead and wounded, left behind along the highways
and trails of six nations. Those once strong-fibered, America-loving men gave their
lives or limbs that victory might be ours. We owe our stature, our existence to the
blood they spilt, to the cries born of their pain. They are gone from us now but we
shall never forget them.
NGLAND! We left her with mixed emotions. Some
were glad the final period of training was ended, glad to get started in battle. Some
regretted leaving England, kept remembering how Spring had grown full in May, kept
remembering the peace in Midland villages on Sundays, the rain and mud in Wales, kept
remembering the pubs, the inns, the girls. It was a little like leaving home.
"All around us the massive landing fleet"|
We were headed straight for the enemy now. This was the move that would take us from a
familiar life of training and playing to the unknown life of battle. This was it!
There would be no stopping off places like Stoke-on-Trent, Wrexham, Beston Castle,
Shrewsbury, Senny Bridge, Keele Hall, Pleinau-Ffestiniogh Hadley Hall, Stoke-on-Tern,
Shavington Hall, Market Drayton, Newcastle-under-Lyme. The life coming up on the other
side of the Channel was an unknown quantity. Quite privately we sensed the void in the
pit of our stomachs. We wished, now that it
was about to begin, that somehow we had never got tangled up in this thing. Many of us
would be losing our lives very soon. Some of us would live to see the Division grow in
strength and stature, come of age, rise to fame.
It was to have been short, that voyage across the Channel. Rushed through the staging
areas near Stonehenge, the Thunderbolt Division had top priority in everything. The
Thunderbolts were needed badly, in Normandy. The voyage was short in point of
crossing. But we did not disembark. A storm rose out of nowhere and slashed at
Omaha Beach and made life miserable for a week. We sat and stood and laid around on our
ships. We sang songs, cleaned our weapons, used our vomit bags, ate our landing
rations. We went down into the holds of the ships and drew more ten-in-ones. We
steam-cooked and ate ten-in-ones until they were coming out our ears. Still the days
and nights passed.
And there were the sheer, forbidding cliffs of France, smack in front of us. Not two miles
away. We wondered how in hell the D-day boys had managed them. All around us, to the
horizon and beyond, were hundreds of other ships of the massive landing fleet. Scores of
barrage balloons tugged with the wind, sometimes broke loose and floundered away. When the
wind died down the muffled sound of gunfire could be heard. Some said it was fighting
around Cherbourg. Others said it was around Caen. No one knew, really. None of us knew
anything about battle. If you were positive about it during the day, like as not you'd
change your mind at night. For then the sounds grew louder, and there were fires everywhere
along the horizon, east and west. And Jerry was always overhead, raising hell with
Those were fantastic, those nights! The sky brilliant with tracer fire rising, it seemed,
straight from the water itself. At first no one was sure about what to do during those
raids. It became a question of going down into the bowels of the ship to escape the flak
or staying on deck so if a hit was made you could jump into the water and swim for
it. After a while, though, no one paid much attention. We grew impatient about
landing. Anything would be better than sitting around in the Channel. Anything would be
better than being part of this gigantic target for Goering's Luftwaffe.
he Fourth of July, 1944 is a day the
Thunderbolts will never forget. This was the day we launched our first attack against
the enemy. We were young, then. Innocent. In spite of all the talking we hadn't learned
particularly to hate anyone. We had yet to see our buddies messed up bad. But we did know
fear in those days between Carentan and Sainteny and Periers. The kind that hits you
sharp in the groin and brings sweat to your face and hands.
t was a fantastic existence. Everything was
hedged or walled-in and mined. There was no room for breathing anything but air made
putrid by carcasses of horses and cows and what remained of soldiers uniformed in khaki
or green. The battle was everywhere, then. We had little desire to eat because, so we
said, the food was monotonous. Really, we hadn't the appetite. Our guts hurt. Sometimes
at night in slit trenches some of us remembered things we used to do as kids back
home. And some of us prayed a little and hoped to Christ Almighty we'd see tomorrow. There
were many tomorrows: all alike. All living hell. Nerves stretched. Resistance
hose blood-wet, stinking hedgerows, those foul
wrecks of villages! We can never forget them. And all the churches
with their steeples blown off because we knew the enemy would use them for OPs.
nd then there was always that sickening
feeling of claustrophobia. If for only an hour a fellow could get away from it all, back
to England, back to anywhere, maybe he could get things straightened out in his mind and
start fresh. Sometimes when we knew this was impossible, a bottle of Calvados was
produced. Drained. It was all right for a little while, then. But still — it was no
use. The battle was close, all around. There was nothing to do but fight on.
"Those foul wrecks of villages"
ut strange — those days we didn't realize
how mightily we were striking the enemy. Our blows, our continual hammering did the
trick. We knocked panzer and paratroops to their smooth knees.
We beat them. We broke their backs. True we were losing our lives, losing our limbs,
losing the things a young fellow values most in his body. But we were beating the
hell out of the Germans. Their vaunted might, their pure Aryan strength was tottering
before the prowess of us multi-raced Americans. Before a plain ordinary civilian
"All the churches with their steeples blown off"
T was a quick trip we had out of Normandy
when the miracle of the Breakthrough finally occurred. We went through Coutances and
down by Avranches and then west into Brittany. At the same time the Germans tried fiercely
to break out to the sea again, to cut our forces in half. Those of us who made that trip
in daylight saw the roads strewn with freshly-wrecked German tanks and trucks and
staff cars and occasionally lined with good Germans. Men and women and children stood
cheering us or bawling their eyes out with joy as we went by. They gave us wine and
fruit and eggs. They threw us kisses. They threw us flowers.
"Bombs in the pitch of night"
hen when the sun went down and it got dark,
the French disappeared into their houses and we were alone in the night. The Luftwaffe
was over, contesting our lines to Brittany. It was like the nights on the Channel. Ack
ack wild in the sky. Searchlight batteries going full tilt. Crazy autographs of
tracers. And bombs coming down in the pitch night with a hellish whistle, splashing
too close to our columns and the bridges we had to cross.
ut we got through. The long night came at last
to an end. We watched the first of many dawns rise out of the mist of Brittany. They
said the mist was caused by a combination of the warmth of the soil, the height of
the land and the winds of the Channel. But no matter. What sticks most in the
memory was the space there in Brittany. It was good to be able to see for more than
fifty feet. And there weren't dead animals and burnt-out villages, at first. To
many of us the salt air coming from the Channel near Mont St Michel, Pontorson and
Dol was good to breathe. Good and clean. The kind of air that made you glad to be
N the 14th of August the Citadel at St
Servan surrendered to the Thunderbolts. Unlike Normandy it was a short fight. About
two weeks. We were a little excited by it. Being off by ourselves there in the St Malo
Peninsula while the rest of the Army was going east in France had somehow got us into
the limelight. There were correspondents and photographers from the States around
in the forward areas. Everyone wanted to know all about the Citadel, and later
about the tiny island offshore called Cezembre. We were still young enough to be
embarrassed by the attention the world was paying us.
"Our guns gave it to Heine positions"
Those clear, clean days in August and September! Our planes came over in droves to
dive-bomb the Citadel or the islands offshore. And the hotels we used as artillery
OPs — luxury! Our guns gave it to Heine positions square on the button. It was that
direct firing that cracked them. And then there was the way we got around the Rance
Estuary by building a bridge over the one hundred seventy-five foot gorge at Dinan.
We remember those resort hotels along the beaches in Dinard! That was the
life. Beds! Sometimes with sheets. We could have slept forever in one of those
things, with the sea air coming in the open windows. And — there were good looking
girls. We were learning to speak a little more French. That made it easy for
"We were learning to speak French"
Up at Pte de la Varde and Hill 48 we worked over those immense forts of the
useless Atlantic Wall. The Germans had put up those forts, mined the beaches, erected
big concrete obstacles in anticipation of a sea-borne attack: And then we crazy
Americans came up from the south!
Some of us weren't there for all that. We had other things to do farther west. Out
through the high wooded and sometimes windswept hills of Brittany to the Crozon
Peninsula. That was where we helped to break the back of the garrison defending
"A bridge at Dinan"
We were growing up. There were still kinks to be straightened out. But we were holding
our own now.
ate summer in the Loire Valley! We got to
know France, then. We cannot recall place names without thinking of some neat little
cafe, a restaurant with good French fries and steak and red wine of Anjou. Some bit of
civilian and FFI gaiety. A shop filled with the very perfumes we wanted to buy. We had
the job of protecting the enormous flank of the Third Army as it raced east. It extended
for over two hundred miles.
"And — there were girls"
And as we stretched out along that ancient, that noble river, we set up our headquarters in
beautiful chateaux in the valley. Company CPs were often more luxurious than regiment. We
had parties for the French, they entertained us in return. They opened the doors to their
homes and their cellars. They greeted us as brothers.
In that great valley there was Nantes! Angers! Chateaubriant, Tours and Blois! Vendome
and Orleans and Auxerre! And - there were girls. We were their liberators. That meant a
lot. We forgot about the war when we tipped glasses at places like the American Bar in
Angers and the Hotel Commerce in any town.
Some people talked about the hysteria of the Parisians when they were freed. It could not
have been more sincere than the weeping, smiling, gurgling joy of the people in the little
towns along the river and in the gentle hills to the north. Their handshake was warm. They
took us into their homes, into their arms. Our French, of course, improved by
We caught the eyes of the world for a moment while we were in the Loire country. The German
front in France had collapsed and the Wehrmacht boys were rushing for the concrete comfort
of the Siegfried Line. But about twenty thousand of them had tired feet. They wandered
around for a while, were made to twist and turn on roads south of the river by the FFI
and our air force. Finally, they called it quits. At Beaugency Bridge on the 16th of
September almost twenty thousand of them formally surrendered. Nothing like that had
happened before. But this time we weren't embarrassed by the attention the world paid
us. We hardly knew we were being watched.
For we had come to know that there are other things in a soldiers life besides making
history. And we were applying that knowledge, down there in Nantes and Angers and
uddenly we were no longer needed in the Loire
Country. Rumors flew from one corner of our vast area to another. We were going up to the
front. We were headed into Germany. This was it. This was the drive that would end the
war. Some of us felt a little like the way we had back in England, on the day we shoved
off for Omaha Beach. For surely we would be hitting the Siegfried Line. And there would
be the Germans themselves. It had us wondering.
So when word came around we pulled ourselves together, and hit the road. Began a three
hundred mile journey to Luxembourg. It was a sight-seeing trip. It was an exhausting
trip. It was a monument to logistics. Town after town, city after city, rolled by. We
saw signs pointing to places our fathers used to talk about when they'd recall the
First World War. Chalons. St. Dizier. Bar-le-Duc. St. Mihiel. Verdun. Conflans. All
day we rolled on — and all night. And when from time to time we got fidgety and our
posteriors ached, the convoys would stop and all of us would get out and stretch. And
most of us would find a spot on the right shoulder of the roads.
We ate our rations, shifted drivers, and were off again. The places we passed through
were crowded with gay civilians, probably celebrating another of the endless series of
holidays the French have. Or maybe they were just trying out their lately renewed right
to walk in the open air, saying what they wanted to say, without being checked by
Himmler's tough boys.
The long hours wore on. Night came. We were dirty and cold. It rained off and on. We
turned on our headlights. And when the road curved and twisted, we could look ahead
or behind and see that our convoy was endless. All through the night we drove, through
the thick forests of the highland country east of Verdun. By morning most of us neared
Luxembourg, the tiny country we knew nothing about. We felt in a few days we would be
in Germany. We did not know we would be staying in Luxembourg longer than we had stayed
"The long hours were on"
N the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg we pushed the
enemy beyond the Moselle and Sauer Rivers. And there was Germany, right across the
water! There was the Siegfried Line! We used to watch the Volksgrenadier boys running to
their latrines near the pillboxes. Sometimes, when they felt better, they'd come across
to our side. But we knew how to handle them. For some of us it was a kind of a
rest — after the long summer.
"That looking around helped a lot"
We remember going down to do a little inspecting of the Maginot Line near Thionville. That
looking around helped a lot, later on. Others of us will always remember the
Konz Karthaus Express. Konz was a little switchyard west of Trier. Trains used to go
through there regularly, and just as regularly we used to shell and bomb the hell out
of the place. Then at night the Germans repaired the damage — just so next day trains
could operate. Just so next day we could knock them for another loop.
Some of those clear autumn days were marked sharply by brief white trails of V-2s. We
saw them and wondered. From east of the river they went up straight out of sight. That
was all. Then, just at dusk, or maybe a little later when some of us were ready to turn
in, buzz bombs would pass overhead on their way west. And once, on a hellish night of
rain, we had a paratroop scare back near Esch.
Thanksgiving in Luxembourg was a day to remember. The people opened their doors, begged
us to eat with them. The Prince attended services in the cathedral, and the bishop stood
at the door afterwards shaking hands with GIs. We recalled, then, how in September when
we'd arrived the people had been a little aloof. It was as if they were afraid the
Germans would be coming back. But we threw a few dances, drank lots of beer, played a
little. And it wasn't long before they all loosened up. Well, that Thanksgiving Day
made us feel good. As Frenchmen had so often during the summer, the Luxembourgers on
that day demonstrated the depth of their appreciation for the thing we were doing in
"Into the Hurtgen Forest"
In December we left Luxembourg, eased north in Belgium through a peaceful place called
Houffalize, and on up to Germany. We moved through the Siegfried Line without knowing
it. Then we plunged into the Hurtgen Forest, into the thick of the deadly battle for
"We had never seen such utter devastation"
t was not for us to decide why the Germans
fought so viciously before Duren. All we know is that those were bitter, bloody
days. Those villages in the shattered forest and beyond — Strass and Gey and Rollsdorf
and Gurzenich — when we reached them, we found stinking wrecks. We had never seen so
many German dead. We had never seen such utter devastation. All muck and mines and enemy
dead. An epithet to the German way of life.
At first there was rain and mud. Our feet were wet and cold. Then there was snow. The
ground froze and our hands got blue. The smell of the pines that still stood made us
think of Christmas. Of days when we were kids. When we hated no one. When war was a
thing in books. When Christmas never failed to be white. When our hearts were warm,
tender. But here we were in Germany! Some days the sky was a brilliant blue. It was
good then, for our planes would be up, making crazy patterns in the glacial sky. Blasting
more enemy out of existence. And sometimes Jerry came over, dropped bombs, strafed. We
ducked, and then moved forward. We pushed the enemy beyond the Roer. Some of us entered
the roofless city of Duren.
We got our Christmas packages — somehow. We took them and wondered how much longer this
fighting was going to last. How much longer? We cursed the Germans for their insane
desire to fight. We cursed them long for the life they had forced us to lead.
he battle in the Ardennes in December and
January is history. While the world held its breath we lunged without rest against the
panzer might of the German. We surprised him by our headlong dash through Holland and
Belgium in a single night. We moved against him continuously — for he had aroused
us. He was threatening to undo the work we had taken so long to accomplish.
We came of age in the Ardennes. We rose to our full stature. The enemy fought us in
vain. Our thrusts were fatal to him.
But more than the mere German we fought the weather. Those winter days when snow fell
like powder without pause, when the sweat of our dirty bodies froze our clothes to
us! Our knuckles were raw and bleeding, and our lips were cracked. Our noses ran and our
eyes were blinded by the whiteness that was everywhere. Our feet were wet and frozen
and numbed with pain. The walking that had to be done was agony. When we could use our
mess kits the once hot food was icy, the coffee useless. And in the howling wind of
the afternoon or the cutting blast of the night, it was painful to use a latrine. For
most of us sleep was a thing beyond our ken. There was time for nothing but fighting
"Our feet were frozen"|| |
The people of those Belgian towns and villages crowded into the remaining buildings and
with wet eyes watched us go by. There was no waving, no throwing of kisses. There was
only the cold. It could be seen in their hands, in their faces. It could be seen in the
way they crowded around the little fires that were somehow produced.
The history of those weeks will be a story of suffering. And it will be a story of
"A story of American endurance"
ucky ones got to Paris on pass. It was unlike
anything in the rest of Europe. It was to hell away from the war. There wasn't any real
blackout. We could see pretty good at night — except when we'd had too many.
Some of us remember the Metro and the crowds just before supper or just before closing
time, trying frantically to get on the trains. Usually when the trains were loaded
beyond capacity there was a woman with a broad behind who'd back up to the open door
and push her way in. We got lost sometimes in the Metro, sometimes up in the city
itself. Map reading came in handy, then.
For those of us who knew Parisian families there is the memory of warm hospitality. We
saw how the war had hurt them. At a dinner party for ten a one pound slab of meat to be
divided evenly — a little cheese sneaked up from the box of K rations — some fried
potatoes — bread and wine. That was all. That was the dinner party. It's easy to
remember the embarrassment in the Frenchman's face. And sometimes if we looked
carefully at the kids we could see how some of them were getting cross eyed. Lack
of food. Oh, there were no
shells or bombs in Paris. But there was the war. It was not at all like some visiting
dignitaries said back home. "Paris has plenty." People did not have enough to eat. It
was blackmarket or starve.
"We hardly knew how to act"
But there was another part of Paris we all remember. The wild life of the night. Place
Pigallel Bal Tabarin! Moulin Rouge, Folies Bergere! After months of living practically
without women, we hardly knew how to act when those girls came out in front of our
table and wiggled everything they could. We didn't worry about the terrific cost of the
champagne or other things. The show over, we said yes when the doorman asked if
there was anything else we wanted to see. For there was plenty.
"Lucky ones got to Paris"
Those GI night maneuvers around Place Blanche, Place Clichy — around the Madeleine and
the Opera! The world knows those squares. We know them — now. In spite of the thousands
of uniforms seen there, the war was totally forgotten. It simply didn't exist. Those other
things, the reckless life was all that mattered. A guy was crazy not to cut loose a
little. Maybe when he got back to the front he'd be stopping an eighty-eight. Go hog
wild in Paris! That was the thing. And let the Parisians stare and point when we were
drunk in the streets. Let them stare. They could never know why we were playing so
hard. They could never know. No civilian anywhere could.
"We got lost sometimes"
rouched, we waited for the word to get
going. It came, finally. We poured across the Roer River, across the ground that had so
long been flooded. We turned northeast toward the Rhine and a city they called Neuss. We
found ourselves in a rat race. Command posts moved into the south end of towns before the
racing Nazis could clear out of the north end. People hurried to get huge white flags
strung from their windows and gates before we rounded the corner. It was curious to see
how gentle, how docile, how sinless the people became when we appeared. They went out
of their way to tell us they were not Nazis, that they could not conceivably be blamed
for the thing their country had done.
Then, suddenly, on the 2nd of March, we were on the Rhine. Before anyone else. Again the
world was looking at us, asking a million questions. Big people visited us, passed around
compliments. Once, during that day, the Germans tried breaking through our flank. But it
was a clear, clean day and we had friends in the air. Some one got on the phone. The
trouble was straightened out soon enough.
"The bridges collapsed"
Some of us were up in Neuss, slapping through the city to the bridges that led to
Dusseldorf. During the night there were some loud explosions. The bridges collapsed
into the river. We set up OPs along the west bank and watched and directed fire. And
we saw the water flowing north over the half-sunken bridges. In time, we knew, we would
be on the other side.
ince the beginning of summer we had helped
to drive the enemy from four Allied Nations. Now, during Easter Week, we swept him
across Germany. From the Rhineland we moved across the Prussian Provinces of Westphalia,
Hannover and Saxony. Across the German States of Lippe, Brunswick and Anhalt. Through
the Teutoburger Forest, over the Hills of Hess and the Harz Mountains. Across the Lippe,
the Weser, the Leine, the Saale and the Elbe Rivers. This dash of some two hundred and
eighty miles we made in thirteen days.
"There was no let up"
In those thirteen days the Thunderbolt Division threw away the books and improvised. We
became a weird caravan. We picked up vehicles of any kind — and kept moving. Some of us
drove deep into the Harz Mountains. Some of us dashed toward the Elbe. Our eyes ached,
our backs were sore — but there was no let up. At times we were so tired we did not know
what we were doing.
The Germans could not stop us. Rivers and mountains could not stop us. We passed beyond
the Elbe, threw back counterattacks, then waited. Suddenly it became very quiet. We had
time, then, to recollect a few of the things we had done and seen.
The press acclaimed the fact that we had established and held the only American bridgehead
over the Elbe. But we will remember other things. The beauty of the country — and the
horror hidden beneath that beauty! For years we had read of the barbarisms practiced
by the children of Hitler. For years we had tried not to believe. But now we saw with
our own eyes. We were nauseated. There, beyond the stench and vermin of the concentration
camp wire, was the gentle countryside, blossoming into spring. And there were the huge
white flags, the docile, guiltless people. It made a fellow wonder.
When our drive was finished and the world had proclaimed our accomplishment for a
moment, we could only remember the hate that had risen within us as we passed through
those camps, saw those thousands of helpless people. If we had not known hatred of the
German before, we knew it now. Its proportions frightened us. We saw the thing that had
been done to mankind. We will never forget it.
Nor will we forget in years to come the record we made across Europe. We went a long
way — from the unnerving days of Normandy to the sure days east of the Elbe. We have
grown a little older . . . learned to understand a bit more about
men . . . grown a little wiser. It is conceivable that history will
not ignore us.
"We passed beyond the Elbe"