Back in 1945
Irving Baum, 16th Armored Division
On May 31, 1944, at the age of 18 years and three months, I was drafted, the third of four children. My older brother had been in the war since 1941. I went down to Macon, Georgia for basic training in the infantry, and was eventually assigned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to join up with the 16th Infantry Division. After the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944, we took a long train ride back to New York. I saw my family briefly for a day or two, then embarked on one of the troop ships out of Camp Shanks, New York, on a very, very cold day in January, bitterly cold. We embarked in the middle of the night and everything was very hush-hush, and the gangplank was covered on all sides so that no one could see anyone leaving on the vessel. There were troop movements in all directions and Uncle Sam was trying to keep everything as quiet as possible. One of the slogans was, “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.”
We had about 7,000 troops on the ship, which was originally an Italian luxury liner, fitted for about 1,500 passengers. We didn’t know where we were going, but we were guessing either England or France. We were on the water for 13 days and we zigzagged as part of a convoy of 30 or 40 ships. We were stalked here and there by a U-boat and the whole thing was kind of an adventure to me. I spent my 19th birthday on the ship.
We arrived at the port of Le Havre on a very cold day in February and there the shock of war hit me personally, because from the deck of the ship we could see the devastation of the port area – from shells, bombs, and every other piece of ammunition. We disembarked and were put into great big warehouses, and ultimately put onto trains. We arrived at this little village in Normandy in the middle of the night and it was absolutely freezing.
I spent several weeks in France and Belgium serving as a French interpreter because of my high school French, working with an infantry contingent assigned to disable mines along the French coast, and overseeing the transport of German prisoners of war. We started our march into Germany sometime in April, spending a day or two in the town of Mainz on the Rhine River and then crossing over the river. We listened to rumors flying around all the time – we were in the heart of Germany. During that time we entered one concentration camp – Dachau, and a couple of labor camps, where we liberated Russian and Polish slave laborers. They were all exhilarated.
We ended up in the very large city of Nuremberg for a night or two, and there was a certain amount of sniper fire during the night. We did guard duty, and I was part of a machine gun squad in our company (an infantry company). I was in Company C, 69th Armored Infantry Battalion, 16th Armored Division. Our company consisted of about 250 men, and our company commander was Captain Diamond out of Pennsylvania. We did most of our “walking” riding in a half-track.
We jumped off on the morning of May 6, outside of Nuremberg. We knew what was coming. It was a cold, rainy, misty morning and we jumped off at about 3 in the morning –about half the vehicles were stuck in the mud. We finally extricated ourselves and continued eastward through whatever was left of Germany, and crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. I was in the third or fourth vehicle of our division. We were stopped while we were en route by a civilian who was waving frantically and speaking in a very high voice. This man told us that there was a contingent of German soldiers billeted in the little village that we were approaching –hiding in a convent probably 15 or 20 miles west of Pilsen. We drove straight to the convent, dismounted, and ran into the courtyard… some of our boys ran into the convent itself. Before I knew it, there were Germans coming into the courtyard with their hands up – mostly German officers. After about half an hour of firefight, the whole contingent of about 250 soldiers surrendered to us. That was our first real “baptism by fire” – except for some snipers.
We continued on into Pilsen… The reaction of the citizens there was unbelievable. It seemed as if there were a million people – probably it was more like ten to fifteen thousand or so. They crowded around all the vehicles. There were women all over the place with cakes, beer, and flowers, and everyone was shouting, “Nazdar! Nazdar!,” which means “hi” or “hello” or “welcome”.
All of a sudden, from behind me, I heard the sound of what was unmistakably a German “burp” gun – an automatic weapon. There was a second of dead silence from the crowd, and then the gun opened fire from somewhere and we all scattered. I ran into the doorway of an apartment building, and there were two of my buddies from another squad. One was helping the other load a bazooka and there was shooting from all directions. We found out that the original sniper sound came from the steeple of a Lutheran church we had passed. One of the tanks came up and blasted the steeple, which went up in the air five or six feet and landed right back down on its foundation. We had a couple of casualties there – our mess sergeant had a bullet shot into his helmet – this is really a miracle – the slug itself ricocheted on the inside of his helmet and then came out. He had a flesh wound around his whole scalp and he wore a turban-like bandage for two weeks.
Only a few patrols had preceded our arrival in Pilsen. There were strong rumors of the Germans regrouping, but they were really crumbling by that time. The next day, we were told that the war was over, and then we had to go into the woods and flush out the rest of the enemy units. We captured eight Ukranian generals who had been fighting for Germany against the Russians, and we guarded them for 24 hours. I remember that one general thrust his head through a window to cut his neck, but he didn’t die. The only thing on the Germans’ minds was that they wouldn’t be sent into Russia, because of what they had done to the Russians.
We stayed in Pilsen another week or so, and then we were sent back to a small town in the Sudetenland in west Bohemia. Nearly everybody there spoke German and they were of German heritage. The German-speaking Czechs were forced to wear white armbands for identification. The Czechs humiliated them the same way the Germans had forced the Jews to wear yellow armbands. It was a town by the German name of Landek and was the border between the American zone of occupation and the Russian zone. We were billeted in a farmer’s house and everybody in town was very gracious to us, even though they were all of German descent. I went to Pilsen several times during my stay in Landek.
I’ve been back to the Czech Republic four or five times. The people always host us tremendously – they are just absolutely gracious and they thank us so much, it’s almost embarrassing. In 1991, my daughter and I were pretty tired one night and started to walk back to the hotel. A Czech citizen stopped us and asked if I was a veteran and begged us to come to his home. His wife spread out some ham and cheese and, again, it was almost embarrassing. He had been seventeen at the time of the liberation and I had been nineteen.
From book 500 hours to victory