Saved by shrapnel

Sam Loeb tells of his days pushing with the 99th Infantry Division through Europe to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. (The uncut version of I Was There from the June 2010 issue.)

By Sam F. Loeb | Edited by Gary Ford

Le Havre was a major French port that had been heavily bombed by the Allies, and had just been cleared for us to land. With our duffel bags, we marched two or three miles out of town and they picked us up in trucks and took us farther inland to an apple orchard, where we stacked our duffel bags. The next day they put us on trucks and took us into Belgium. We never saw our duffel bags again. We had our blankets in them, and our personal belongings.

They let us off the trucks and we walked to the frontline to relieve the 9th Infantry Division. The Germans were out there, about one hundred and fifty, to two hundred yards away. The Ardennes was a quiet front. No one dreamed that any major battle would occur, so they put us on line opposite of what is called the International Highway, a four-lane highway between Germany and Belgium. The Germans were on one side and we were on the other side. The secondary roads were in terrible shape. That’s one reason why no one thought that any action would occur. The next day we started reinforcing our foxholes and digging more.

We started sending out patrols, which were sort of a joke. We were all green. Non-coms were green. Nobody had ever been in action. They’d send out a twelve-man squad as a patrol and they would tell you to capture prisoners or seek out paths through the minefield. No one knew what he was doing. Had we patrolled in a company-size unit, the surprise of the Battle of the Bulge would never have occurred. We would have penetrated far enough to see the German build-up going on behind the forest. They fooled everybody.

There was shelling back and forth and sniper fire. Sometimes at night the German patrols would come up close and throw grenades and we would do the same, but not aggressively. We were sort of inspired to live and let live. We had never been in that environment and the officers were not aggressive. If they weren’t, we weren’t. So we were digging in, cutting trees down during the day time, building command posts and strong points, and clearing fields of fire for machine guns. It was a quiet front, and it was very cold at night.

One day in late November we were constructing a command post. The Germans spotted the activity and dropped mortar rounds on top of us. I was hit in the hand. My good friend, a big, six-foot-four man named John Kavenewski, was wounded but we couldn’t find where he was hit. We finally determined he had a very small opening in his throat from a single piece of shrapnel. We put Kavenewski on a jeep and I rode back to the field hospital with him.

They sent him on to a general hospital. They patched me up. I thought I’d go back to duty the next day, but by morning my hand had swollen two or three times its size. I couldn’t fire a rifle. So they sent me back to Liège and I spent the night in either a church or a railway station with a lot of glass in the roof, and full of wounded men lying on blankets—perhaps five or six hundred of us. The Germans were sending over buzz bombs, which were very slow and had a putt-putt type of motor. When the motor shut off, the putt-putt stopped and you waited for the bomb to fall. We stayed awake all night, waiting for the buzz bombs to go by, and they did, fortunately.

In the meantime, the Battle of the Bulge had occurred. Our forces were desperate for replacements, so they pulled guys like me out and sent us up to the front. Fortunately, my battalion had been assigned to a supporting unit on an attack into the Hürtgen Forest north of the Ardennes, so they were out of their foxholes when the Germans attacked. I thought they’d all been killed, but they just fell back to the Elsenborn Ridge.

It was about ten degrees at night there on Elsenborn Ridge, and I was in a foxhole alone. That was probably the worst part of the war--by myself at night, and most of the day in an ice box.

Our winter gear was hopelessly inadequate for that climate. Standard army winter clothing is an olive-drab uniform, with a wool knit cap, an overcoat, a field jacket, a sweater, wool-knit gloves and in some cases, a poncho. Shoes were combat boots with the wrong side of the leather out, which acted like a blotter. So many men suffered from the cold, trench foot, and hypothermia.

We finally got overshoes. They shipped 15,000 pairs, but all in size nine. Fortunately, that’s my size, so I could wear an overshoe over my boots. The guys who had big feet took their boots off and threw them away and wore overshoes during the winter. So when spring came, they didn’t have any boots.

During the day, we were cowering in our foxholes. Occasionally the Germans attacked with tanks up the hill. Our artillery would drive them back. We sent out a few patrols, but the snow, of course, was so deep and the visibility was bare. You just couldn’t go anywhere. Night patrols went out, but they were not very energetic. Morale was terrible. Guys were fatigued. They were cold. But something they gave us when we got to France really helped.

When we landed in Le Havre they gave us a pocketful of condoms, of all the things. We covered the end of our rifles with one. Then we’d put a dry pair of socks inside another condom. We would wear a pair of socks and have a wet pair inside our field jackets next to our body drying out. That saved many of us from a lot of amputations of toes. If you went back with trench foot you’d be court martialed.

The end of January came, and we were going on the attack before dawn on January 30, 1945. I was one of two platoon scouts. He and I started out around four in the morning, breaking a path through drifts that were waist-high. Each took turns breaking through the snow, and we’d go about fifty yards and we would switch off. By daylight we were supposed to be inside the German position. Well, we were still stuck in snowdrifts when daylight came, and we were exposed on the hillside without artillery support, because the regimental commander said, “My men don’t need artillery support. We’ll take them at night.”

Well, we certainly didn’t. Long story short, we came under machine gunfire. The other scout had just switched off with me when the firing broke out, and he was killed. I was twenty-five or thirty yards in front of everybody, and I fired off a clip, eight rounds, not knowing what I was aiming at. The guys behind me were hit. A thirty-year man from the peacetime army was hit in the shoulder, and I watched him break into a big smile over his “million-dollar wound.” He had been trying to get out of combat ever since we arrived overseas.

I haven’t touched on it before, but the medics were probably the unsung heroes of the infantry. We had a medic or two with each platoon who carried bandages, morphine syrettes for painkillers, and sulfa powder, the only antibiotic they had. All you could do for a wounded man was clean the wound as best you could, sprinkle the sulfa powder, wrap the wound, and give him some painkiller.

I crawled back to the main line. The sergeant, knowing how exhausted I was, told me to go to the rear. I went back to the medical station where there were a lot of guys trying to get out of combat. A doctor asked me, “Are you a replacement?” I said, “No, I came over with the division.” He said, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you rest for a while.” So I went into a tent, right beside a 105-millimeter battery, and crawled into a stack of blankets. I was totally exhausted, and slept twenty-four hours. I woke up with the battery firing and learned they had been firing for two or three hours. I got up and went back to the unit that had fallen back to our original departure point. There were a lot of casualties, more from cold than anything else. The next day they gave us artillery support and we went back and took the area where we had started out originally. It was terrible leadership. Then we continued to advance to the Siegfried Line, where we started taking the pillboxes one by one.

When you first look at them, pillboxes are more formidable than they actually are. If you get around behind them and blow a door or crawl up and throw a grenade through the gun apertures, you can overcome them fairly easily. There were bunks and living quarters of different sizes, with ten or fifteen men usually inside. There were gun apertures and gun emplacements, usually machine guns, and they had a ventilation system.

The Germans arranged the pillboxes so each one could give covering fire to the other. So if you took one, it was sort of like a domino effect. You could get in close without the covering fire stopping your advance. We went in one particular pillbox with a squad of twelve men and crawled down an observation trench. The man in front of me, Ned Goodnow, carried a BAR and shot a German guard in the trench. We would crawl past each other. One would go, then the other. The third man was Pete Sanchez, who carried the grenades. As I turned around to tell Sanchez to come on, he was taking a watch off the dead German. I said, “Get the hell up here.”

We traded grenades with the Germans perhaps for forty-five minutes. I lost track of time. They would throw grenades out. They’d open the door to the pillbox and toss a grenade out. We’d throw a grenade down. I had the satchel charge but we couldn’t get to the door because there was a machine gun outside the pillbox trained on the door. Normally you would run down the incline and pull the charge on the satchel, throw it against the door, and run back out, hoping you would get out before the charge went off. A German threw a concussion grenade that went off between me and Goodnow. It made me goofy for a while.

We failed in that attack, so they finally drew us back. If they had just put some mortar fire into the pillbox, it would have been all right. The captain brought us back into his pillbox and gave us some Scotch whiskey. Officers had a lot of liquor. They let us rest for a day and in the meantime another platoon took the pillbox, with one GI killed. Then we broke through most of the pillbox line and took them over and started living in them. There were bunks and blankets, and they were wonderful, but there was only one problem. The Germans had lice. So we were immediately covered with lice to the point where you could see them in your hair.

We stayed there a few days until the 69th Division, a green division, relieved us. They assigned me to guide a company in and take them to each of their platoon and squad locations, which were mostly in pillboxes. And then I could come out. So I was the last man in. In the platoon that relieved us was a lieutenant, a big strapping, football-player type, wearing freshly pressed clothes. I briefed him and he put his men in the pillbox. I said, “Lieutenant, there are snipers out here. You’d better keep undercover in the daytime.” Well, I don’t think he believed me. So he started climbing up on top of the pillbox, and I thought to myself, “To hell with this,” and I started back. It was about dusk.

He took his binoculars out and as I went about fifty yards back towards the rear. I heard a single shot. I heard a body tumbling down. I never even turned around. That young lieutenant was on the line five, maybe ten minutes.

Many officer replacements were killed because they were green and their casualty rate was very high, particularly on patrols. They would come in very aggressive and lead a patrol out. If you survive the first six hours of frontline combat, you can survive pretty well. These new guys came out of Fort Benning, where they were taught the classic battle movement. Here we were in a pillbox line where the rules didn’t apply. You couldn’t out-flank anybody. You couldn’t penetrate the front. It’s just a totally different situation. Usually the company commanders and tank commanders would push those new guys out first because they wanted to preserve the old hands, the experienced officers. At squad level they sent the replacements out frequently because the platoon leaders wanted to preserve their experienced riflemen. We sent a lot of those replacements out on patrol as soon as they came on line. An hour, or thirty minutes later, they were wounded or killed. We never even knew their names.

Anyway, we were sent from the Siegfried Line back to a rest area in Belgium [near Aubel]. You’d think we were street bums. When a GI has been on line for a while he looks like he was brought up in a coal mine. We were really looking forward to the hot showers they had set up outside. We stripped down, they deloused us, and then we went into the shower line. They had the hot water timed so you had about three minutes per man. You could imagine what months of dirt and filth and delousing would do to you. Afterward they issued us clean uniforms and shoes.

At that point, and even way before that, I had no personal possessions, thanks to the disappearance of our duffel bags in France. I didn’t have a picture. I didn’t have a wallet. I didn’t have a fountain pen. My only personal possession was a knife that my brother had given me before I went overseas. I still have it.

With the Battle of the Bulge, everything stopped. No one received any mail. We didn’t get any pay. I think we started getting mail in March, and we received a lot of it at one time. The packages we received were all rotten for the most part, unless they were canned goods. There was none of this movie mail-call type of environment. Some guy would come up and throw a batch of letters in your foxhole and say “mail call.”

The next day we had dental inspections and some kind of medical inspection. We hadn’t brushed our teeth in two months. The amazing thing is, they didn’t seem to find cavities. And in all that terrible weather, there were no colds. Why? I don’t know. We had terrible trench foot, terrible frostbite, terrible hyperthermia. I had terrible dysentery. But we had no head colds. I’ve often wondered about that.

After rest camp, believe it or not, they started close-order drills and inspections. About the fourth or fifth day, word came down that battalion wanted a volunteer for a battalion scout. I had been a platoon scout and I knew that the farther back you get, the better off you are. So I went back and was interviewed by the battalion intelligence officer and he accepted me and I joined what they call the S-2 unit, which is battalion intelligence.

The division pulled out and started towards the frontline. By that time, the weather was beginning to mitigate. We saw action at the German border for a week or ten days when the order came to load all the divisional trucks. The 9th Armored Division had come up to the Rhine River and found a bridge [Ludendorff Bridge] intact at Remagen, where the first Allies crossed the river [March 7-8, 1945]. They sent a squad across, pulling the charge wires and fighting the Germans on the opposite side, which was a tunnel. So they called us. The armored guys needed infantry to secure the bridge and help in the attack, so they called us. It was an emergency.

We drove all night, and we didn’t know where we were. We came down a steep hill and saw the Rhine and Remagen, and the guys were saying, “Well, where are we?” We saw dead GIs lying out there. They didn't have time to clear them away. So we started running across this long bridge, which was a railroad bridge with planks across it, while the Germans were shelling it from the hills above. You could see the muzzle blast. The only casualty we had was our kitchen truck, and the cook.

The only air support we had was at Remagen. And that was the first time we saw a jet aircraft, a Messerschmitt [Me-262]. We reported back to regiment that we had sighted an aircraft without a propeller. They ignored us completely.

So we crossed the Rhine and reached a little town called Linz. We took over all the houses for our quarters, but rounds from big railroad guns started falling into the town. Those guns are tremendous cannons mounted on railroads, and can be fired twenty miles. They were trying to hit the bridge, but a lot of the rounds were falling short into Linz. So we ran into the woods and up in the hills to get out of range, but we still took a few casualties.

The next day we continued our advance. The weather was really turning pretty then, and the scenery was beautiful with the streams and rolling hills. The Germans would be on one side. We would be on the other. We didn’t have a lot of firefights, but several things happened. On one occasion, I was on a small farm on our side of a river and there were chickens down the hill. So I started down the hill with several other men trying to catch a chicken. The Germans on the other side could see us right out in the open and started dropping mortar rounds. We were running faster than the chickens! Give a good mortar man three rounds, and if you stand still, he can put it down your throat. We never got a chicken.

Two or three days later we were still advancing towards the hills when they called me up and said, “There’s a platoon of black soldiers being assigned to our battalion. I want you to go back, you and two other men, and guide this platoon up.”

They were infantry, all volunteers, and most were non-commissioned officers. They had a white platoon sergeant and a white lieutenant. We went back and brought them up in trucks. Our sergeant told them to dump their duffel bags, and grab their field packs, sleeping bags, ponchos, and rifles. When they dropped those duffel bags we were like a bunch of scavengers. We start peeling our clothes off, putting on their clean underwear, taking their excess sweaters and other things. They stood back and looked at us like we were wild men.

They were good soldiers. They joined our company as a fourth platoon, and they stayed with us the rest of the war, and did a good job. To my knowledge, that was the first time American troops were integrated in combat units. But I think they picked one battalion, one company, and one platoon in several divisions as an experiment. Being all volunteers, they were mature men. They were not kids.

By that time we had moved into the Ruhr Pocket in Germany. The German army was retreating and things were beginning to open up. We advanced for miles in a day and found most pockets of resistance were in the towns. Time and again, we’d just fall back and call in artillery and it would pulverize a town. The worst problems were the German anti-aircraft called Triple A batteries that were manned by teenagers. The guns were all eighty-eights, which is a versatile artillery piece. It can be an antiaircraft weapon, a field artillery piece, and a tank destroyer. It fires in a direct line, and a shell gets to you before you hear it. These kids were hepped up on the Nazi doctrine and they would lower the eighty-eights and fire direct fire at us. Again, we called in heavy artillery and just demolished them.

We didn’t fight in any large towns or cities until later on. The Germans would hang out white flags in these little towns and withdraw. Sometimes it was a trap. They would just pull back and call in artillery. But sometimes civilians would hang out the flags, and they were legitimate and we’d enter the town. Some unnamed GI, a hero you might say, discovered that German farmers smoked their sausage and hams on hooks inside chimneys. That discovery spread fast and we ate very well.

We didn’t linger in towns. Military government teams followed us. They would move in and take civilian control, keep the utilities running, and provide law and order.

By then it was a beautiful spring, probably April, and we were moving fast, farther and farther south. When the Ruhr Pocket was closed, they attached us to General [George S.] Patton’s 3rd Army, and things really picked up. We lived off the land. We never had a hot meal after joining Patton’s army. Patton didn’t believe in hot meals. We were riding on tanks or behind tanks and just overrunning town after town. We began to get into larger towns, like Regensburg, and we were going due east towards the Czechoslovakian border. Then they changed directions. Apparently the politicians had agreed with Russia that we would stop, and let them take Czechoslovakia.

So instead, we headed down towards Austria through Bavaria, which is beautiful country, with hills and manicured farms. The sun was shining, and food was plentiful. We were sleeping in houses, but as frontline troops, we did not fraternize. We were just trying to stay alive, and we didn’t stay in one place long enough to fraternize or get acquainted. We did spend the nights in some homes when the civilians were there. We’d just run them out of their bedrooms and take over. The next morning we were gone. Or else there was a firefight that night and the civilians would go in the basement and we would too, sometimes.

On our way south towards Austria we liberated a concentration camp, a sub-camp of Dachau [May 3-4, 1945]. We had no idea such things existed. I didn’t stay long enough to see this, but our troops emptied the town nearby [Mühldorf] and made all civilians walk through the concentration camp and bury the bodies and clean the camp. In some cases they turned the camp guards over to the inmates, and the guards were just torn apart literally. I didn’t witness any of that. I only heard it secondhand. But everything you’ve read or heard or seen of concentration camps is absolutely true. It’s beyond belief, but it’s true. Without the film and the verification from so many people, it’s just an unbelievable concept.

At about this time, the war was changing, with a lot of pressure from the Russians from the east and the advances of the Americans so deep into Germany. The roads were full of Germans running from the Russians and displaced persons turned loose. Dutch, French, Belgian were all trying to get home. The advancing troops were just overwhelmed by the masses of people. It was like an avalanche. A lot were POW’s. Some were British and some were Russians.

The Germans were scared to death of the Russians. We’d go into a town, then as we’d leave we’d say, “Russen kommen,” which is German for “The Russians are coming.” We would just deliberately instill fear in them.

We went all the way down to the Danube River. General Eisenhower thought that the last German fanatics were holding out in the hills of the Austrian Alps on the other side of the river. The Navy brought up assault boats and the entire division crossed the Danube. We had resistance and machine gunfire upstream, and we took some casualties, but overall there was not much, except occasional artillery fire.

I was given a bunch of POW’s to take back to the POW camp, which may have been three or four miles to the collection center. As I was walking them back, artillery started coming in and we all broke for cover. I finally took them into the camp and started back. Artillery fire was coming in, and so I headed for the nearest house and went down into the cellar where there were about forty or fifty German civilians there from their own artillery fire. I was the only American, so I didn’t linger. I left and went back to my unit. After crossing the Danube we went inland about twenty miles. I remember we entered a large German hospital in that area, where German casualties were recovering and being operated.

And then it happened. In Vilsbiburg, Austria, we received orders to cease forward movement. The war ended just, bingo. Everything stopped.

I remained in Europe with the army of occupation around Zirndorf, and pulled guard duty during the Nuremberg Trials. Several of us enjoyed a trip to Switzerland. It was untouched. It was like walking through the looking glass. I went to Lake Geneva, Montreux and the Castle of Chillon, which was famous in one of Lord Byron’s poems. The food was good. The first time I saw myself in a full-length mirror after the war, it was shocking. I weighed about one hundred and twenty pounds. Most of us had lost a lot of weight. We weren’t emaciated, but everybody just looked lean and hard, like a bunch of hungry wolves.

I sailed home and received my discharge at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on February 9, 1946 with the rank of technician fifth grade. Back in Shreveport, I stayed home a couple of months and I guess I was sort of morbid. My parents realized I was pretty much a changed person. They took me down to Destin, Florida. I just sat on the beach and tried to put my life back together and decide what I was going to do.

I had no education to speak of, but the GI Bill had been passed. It’s probably the greatest single legislative act in this country in terms of long-range benefits. It educated a whole generation. I graduated from the University of Missouri business school, went to law school, and met and married my beloved Joanne Cowan. I went to work in pipelines for United Gas Company, then joined Louisiana Paper Company, first in the warehouse, then later as a salesman. Meanwhile I had joined the Air Force Reserves, received a commission, and was called up for duty and served as a first lieutenant during the Korean War.

In the mid-1950s I became CEO of Louisiana Paper Company, which grew and later became Consolidated Marketing. We sold the company to Georgia-Pacific, and I became a division manager.

Today I’m CEO of Multi-Merchants, Inc., a commercial warehousing company. I go to the office every day, and play tennis three times a week.

For my service in World War II I received the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Combat Infantry Badge, and other medals. Only a few months ago, however, after tracking down the proper paper work, I finally received my Bronze Star for service as a combat soldier.

I’ve rarely talked about the war. You can’t talk the language of experience you have with people that didn’t have it. A lot of guys like me just sort of withdrew. I’d say, “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to live it again. I can’t forget it, but I don’t want to bring it up.”

I never was deeply religious, but I think when you’re in combat and you have the experiences you do, you wonder if there is a just and merciful God. A rational man has to question that. Seeing the concentration camps, seeing all those casualties, you ask unanswerable questions, such as “Why them and not me?” I noticed that deeply religious friends of mine were well served by their faith. I think particularly the Catholics really found strength in their faith and I think it’s a remarkable thing. But I tell you this: when a man is dying, he doesn’t pray to God. He asks for his mother.

This story is an edited transcript of an interview with Sam F. Loeb. The original interview is one of nearly 500 housed in the oral history project collection of the R.W. Norton Art Gallery of Shreveport, Louisiana, www.oralhistory.ws. Gary Ford, a staff writer for the gallery, edited the story for publication. A slightly shorter version of the account appeared in the June 2010 issue of America in WWII magazine.