In the Heart of the War Zone

Leo D. Hymas, 97th Infantry Division


After nine days at sea, we landed at Le Havre, France (at the beginning of 1945). I don’t even know the date that we landed. We lost track of time because of what we were doing; plus, I didn’t have access to a calendar and we were ordered not to keep journals. They moved us to a big tent camp, called Lucky Strike, after the cigarettes. We were to move forward from there to the front, which, we were told, was right down the Rhine River. The Netherlands had just barely been liberated and, in Belgium, the Allies had just recovered and won the Battle of the Bulge. I knew nothing about Anne Frank, nothing about the horrors or atrocities the Nazis had committed – all I knew was that we were going to go and fight the Germans.

The next day, we were loaded onto a train because most of the roads and bridges had been blown up. We went by train through the low countries – in the very same kind of a boxcar that the Jews were shipped to the camps in, only they didn’t lock our doors and nail them shut, and they didn’t put two hundred fifty-three of us in one boxcar. There were only about ten or twelve in our car. As we travelled along in the train, we went through the city of Amsterdam, on our way to Cologne and Remagen, which is where we were planning to attack.

The train was going along slowly, and then it stopped. I was sitting in the open doorway as a little girl came walking out to the train. I looked at her. It was wintertime. There was snow on the ground and it was cold. She had a little pink dress on with short sleeves – no coat, no mittens, no cap… Her feet were wrapped in some kind of rags and she had a little piece of paper which she held out to me. I looked down at that little face, her sunken cheeks, and dark eyes, and I suddenly realized that she was starving.

She said to me in English, “Chocolate?” I had a piece of chocolate from my ration bar, so I reached into my pocket and handed it down to her. She took it and ran a little ways, then she opened it up. The train was starting up again. She turned and looked, and then she waved at me. I waved back. I’ve never seen that little girl since. I don’t know if she survived. That was the first time in my young life that I had ever seen a starving person. It made a tremendous impact on me to suddenly realize that those who suffer most in times of war are the children. I made a new resolve, stronger even than the one I had made on the ship, to do my best to overcome the enemy and to perform well, whatever I was ordered to do.

The train stopped someplace south of Cologne. We were on the western side of the Rhine River and the Germans were on the eastern side. There was a steel bridge at Remagen that the train used to cross the river, but the Germans had damaged it trying to bomb it and blow it up. Finally, the bridge just fell down. The engineers built a floating bridge made of boats tied together with tracks laid on top so that Jeeps, trucks, and tanks could travel across it.

We went across the bridge at 5:00 PM that night. Shells were coming fast and we were being shot at. We piled out of the trucks and spread out all along the hillside. Jimmy DeMarco and I were carrying a heavy machine gun, which is a two-man operation. I was carrying the firing mechanism, and he was carrying the tripod and the cradle that holds the gun. We dug in and I could hear the shells exploding and the screams of the wounded all around me. I could hear them crying out and calling for the medics – I’ve never been so afraid in all of my life!

We waited for the order to advance over the top of the hill and when the order came, I hesitated. My friend, Jimmy – my dear friend of only 3 ½ months, did not. He was killed at that very moment. He was hit by a 200mm anti-aircraft shell used to shoot down airplanes. The Germans depressed their guns and used them as anti-personnel shells. The tip explodes on contact. And so, I lost my best friend that very first night.

I remember attacking a munitions plant in the city of Düsseldorf, Germany and capturing prisoners there. I was guarding two of them who were sitting in a corridor with their hands behind their heads. One was even younger than I, and he was crying. Suddenly, there was a counterattack and we were surrounded, having to fight our way out. My lieutenant came in and commanded, “Shoot those two! I need you out here to defend our position!” I remembered that I had resolved to obey all of the orders given to me, so I said, “Sir, they’ve surrendered.” He responded, “I don’t care. Shoot them. That’s an order!”

To disobey an order in wartime is subject to court-martial and the penalty can be death. I knew that – but I thought to myself that there is a higher authority. I said, “Sir, I will not.” He grabbed my rifle and shot those two right then and there. “Come with me,” he snapped, “You’re on report. I’ll court-martial you for disobeying an order.” But he didn’t live to file that report – he was killed in that battle. I’ve thought about this many times since then. I’m so glad I disobeyed that order – otherwise, wouldn’t I have been just like the Nazis? Just obeying orders?

We were assigned to General Patton’s Third Army, comprised of many tanks and Jeeps and sometimes I would ride on the tanks. As we went through the Black Forest in eastern Germany, the riflemen would walk along the side of the road and I’d be up on the tank. The tank commander would have his top hatch open and sometimes we’d chat. My job was to watch for rocket attacks. The Germans had a habit of putting up a barricade in an effort to stop our advancing column. As we stopped to figure out a way to get through, the Germans would launch a rocket attack, blowing off the wheels and tracks of the tank and disabling it so we couldn’t advance. When we came across a German barricade, we’d shoot the barricades with a shell from the tank’s gun.

On Wednesday, April 9, 1945 (I know this date now; I didn’t know it then), it had been raining and was still overcast. Our objective that day was to attack and take the city of Weimar, in eastern Germany. It was a beautiful little city, in a valley, surrounded by fields of crops and accented with church towers. There was an awful smell in the air there. Nobody knew exactly what it was. I couldn’t identify it, but it smelled a lot like the Fox Food processing plant near my home where my father used to take our dead animals.

There was a forest of thick trees off to one side of the city. Looking through their field glasses, our commanders could see what they thought was a barbed wire fence or entanglement, a prisoner of war camp, perhaps. They thought some Americans or English might be held there. Our commander said, “You four machine gun guys,” (that was all that was left of our squad of sixteen), “go check that out.” So, we obeyed orders.

We got ready to make the attack. There was no shooting – it was quiet. We sneaked down through the trees. Anyone inside the place didn’t know we were there – we were very stealthy. We got to a barbed wire fence. It was huge – twelve or more feet high! I could see that there was a guard tower, but there was no one inside. I saw a brick building with a tall chimney which seemed to be where the strange, awful smell was coming from. Behind the fence were big brown barracks, quite a lot of them. There was no one in sight anywhere. The barbed wired was on white insulators, so we knew the wires were electrified; we knew we mustn’t touch them.

We had what we call a Bangalore torpedo, which is a long tube filled with explosive. It’s made to be slid under barbed wire entanglements and detonated. The sharp metal shards released on detonation cut the wire so that you have an opening to go through. We had two torpedoes with us, so we screwed them together, pushed them under the fence, and set them off. With that explosion, the guards came running out of the buildings and began firing at us, but we took them totally by surprise. They had no idea we were there. They were German SS officers. We had a fire fight and one of my friends was wounded. We killed or captured fourteen SS officers.

After the shooting ceased, we corralled them all and our whole unit came in to provide support. We ran to each one of the barrack buildings to see if there were any guards in them, but no guard would go into those places. I wasn’t prepared for what we found – human beings that were mere skeletons. You’ve seen pictures of those racks where twelve hundred men were herded into one building, with only a bucket in the corner for sanitation. The smell was horrible. We said, “Come out! You’re free!” They didn’t understand what we were saying. I didn’t know then, but I know now, that they had all gathered together to provide comfort for each other. They had heard a rumor that the Nazis were going to blow up the camp and destroy all evidence before the Americans got there. They thought when they heard our explosion that the destruction had begun.

As I walked among the racks, two little arms came out from the lowest rack and wrapped themselves around my feet. I looked down at another starving face. A soft little voice said, “Amerikanisch?” “Yes! Yes!,” I said. “You’re free! Go spit in their faces!” But none of them could do that. You can’t believe what awful, awful things we saw. I can’t even begin to describe them.

This was Buchenwald Concentration Camp, near what today is Weimar, Germany. The brick building was a crematorium where the Nazis burned bodies. There were 18,000 prisoners in that camp when we came. What could four men do for that many prisoners? What could three hundred fifty men do coming in after us? Or a thousand men? Very little.

I have seen the autopsy room with its jars and bottles of human body parts. I have seen the tattooed skins of prisoners that were taken because the camp commander’s wife collected such things, making lampshades and parchment out of them. Wickedness? You can’t believe the evidence of the horrible wickedness that took place there. Bodies were stacked, rotting in rooms and along the sides of buildings, because they hadn’t been burned yet. There was a pile of human ashes about eight feet high that the guards made the prisoners spread on the walkways in the winter so that the SS guards wouldn’t slip on the ice. The level of atrocity was inconceivable.

I was in Buchenwald for four or five days in 1945, but the war was still going on. We were ordered forward to catch up with our unit. We did so at the border of Czechoslovakia. At that time, the politicians and others had decided that the Russians should be given Czechoslovakia to occupy. General Patton didn’t agree with that at all – he wanted to push through to Prague.

It was Eisenhower who gave the order to attack the city of Cheb, the first city on the other side of the border in Czechoslovakia. We had marched all the way across Germany, yet the Germans were still fighting in Czechoslovakia. We attacked the city and it was a serious battle, lasting nine hours.

When we came to the edge of the city, we found that a deep cut had been made into the hill to accommodate railroad tracks. The bridge had been blown up, so our riflemen had to go down one side of the hill, across the tracks, and fight their way up the other side to enter the city. There was intense enemy fire coming from a German machine gun located just below the top of the hill and we needed to knock it out to enter the city.

Dusk was approaching. The Germans were located just below the Western skyline and they were difficult to see. Our riflemen urgently needed to make it into the city before darkness fell, but they were stuck unless we could silence the enemy gunners. Every time the Germans opened fire, our soldiers would take cover. They couldn’t pinpoint the source of the enemy fire for us. We were reluctant to provide covering fire because it would give our position away. I decided to move out on our right flank. Using my carbine (a small rifle), I planned to shoot in the direction of where we thought the enemy was, hoping that my muzzle flashes would draw enemy fire, giving away their position. If I didn’t get hit, my new machine gun companion, Arvazu, and I could then use our machine gun to finish off the Germans. It worked!

We captured the city of Cheb and the Czech people gave us a joyous welcome, so different from the sullen attitudes of the German people. Today there is a heroic monument in the city park dedicated to that day of liberation and to our 97th Infantry Division. Sadly, another friend of mine from Logan, who’d gone into military service with me, although in a different unit, lost his life there. His name was Perry Humphries.

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