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James W. Williams, Capt. M. C.
This history is intended to keep ever fresh the memory of the comrades of Collecting Company B of the 369th Medical Battalion serving the 69th Infantry Division, known as the Fighting 69th. Thru the maze of pitfalls of the European Theater of Operations from January 1945 to the 9th of May of that year, this company discharged its duty with honor and enjoyed its recreation with gusto. If this history should ever in the future bring a twinge of regret for what is past, remember that were 100 men in Company B, and we all felt the same way. So, “Here’s to old Company B – down the hatch!”
This is the story of a collecting company, Company B 369th Medical Battalion, as it performed its duties of tending those whose bodies, limbs and minds had been torn asunder, in satisfying the insatiable appetite of the God of War.
War, as such, is indescribable. Mere words cannot reveal the feelings, the emotions, the thoughts and the fears of the men of Collecting Company B. We would rather have this history remain as a memo of our activities and our travels, and to serve in future years, as we peruse its pages, as a reminder that America must ever be alive to the doings and the happenings of the whole globe. Never again can we isolate ourselves.
Collecting Company B came into being 15 May 1943, upon the activation of the 69th Infantry Division. For the following 18 months, the company’s personnel, as part of General Bolte’s “BBB” [Bolte’s Bivouacking Bastards] crew, was to learn the intricacies of De Soto National Forest. Countless hours were spent in blackout drives, blackout bandaging, water purification and allied subjects. D series and the “March to the Sea” were fitting climaxes to the training era.
After training came preparation for movement overseas, with its attendant counting of pills, nuts and bolts; checking of individual equipment; and packing and crating of organizational equipment. The increasing tempo of last-minute preparations reached its peak one fine day in November 1944 when ole Company B boarded a train, impatiently waiting to convey us from Camp Shelby to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.
Once in Camp Kilmer, we marched about in driving rains from building to building until the physical examination building was reached; all of us who could see lightning, hear thunder and chew milk were pronounced fit for overseas duty.
So after endlessly rehashing all the security rules, we were whisked away by train to New York, whence we walked and walked, with full packs and duffle bags, until we finally glimpsed her, our ship, with gangplanks leading into her innards, our home for the next two weeks, U.S.S. Le Jeune!
The sea was no too kind to some of us, helping some to decide that, after all, maybe the Army did have it all over the Navy. Life on board ship consisted of one continuous line after the other. Lines for chow, for latrines, for PX, to go on deck, to go below deck, for fire drill, for abandon-ship drill. “Sweepers man your brooms!”
Then on the 12 of December 1944, Company B was introduced to jolly England, via the part of Southampton. Disembarking the next day, we were taken to “The Grange,” just north of New Alresford. Nearby was the town of Winchester, containing King Arthur’s round table. Our time in England was occupied in drawing arctic boots, drawing vehicles, going to Alresford, Alton, Portsmouth, London, in drinking watery brew, and in having a spot of tea and a morsel of rabbit with the local gentry. The fond recollection of the “honey bucket” and the sight of the “H and C” wagon will always be remembered.
In January 1945, in a driving snowstorm, part of the ole Company’s personnel, together with the vehicles, left for the continent, to be followed the next day by the rest of us. In Southampton, we boarded the S.S. James McKay and the Sobieski. By the 26th of January 1945, we had all collected in Forges les Eaux, France, occupying a casino building that had formerly been used by Hitler’s Supermen as a hospital. Some of us rode cattle trucks from Le Havre to Forges, cold and miserable; others drove the vehicles over frozen roads at night, not certain of the way.
In Forges, we loafed around, saw movies in a cold mess hall, brought post cards and waited for the word that was to send us against the foe.
On 2 February 1945, we began a journey that was eventually to place us in the Bulge created by Von Rundstedt’s Christmas offensive.
St. Erme, France, was our first stop on this journey. Our abode was a monastery, the fourth floor to be exact, entrance only by ladder. Some of us rode to St. Erme on the damnable 40 and 8’s. What a man won’t do to fight a war!
On a dark and stormy night in February 1945, the 10th precisely, B Company pulled up at Montenau, Belgium, after having been impressed by the sight of Malmedy. We were cold, wet, hungry and miserable, with no place to stay. While here, we were joined to The Regiment: 272 Infantry. This was the land of trigger-happy guards, dead Jerries, and mines. Watch your step, soldier! For three days we caught our breath and waited to push on, while the hot breath of combat blew on our necks and became a living reality. From Montenau, a quartering party went up to Hunningen, Belgium, right on the border of Belgium and Germany, for we were relieving the 99th Division. Hunningen had little to offer except mud, manure, dead animals and shelled houses. Quarters were finally arranged for, after a set-to with Collecting Company C over a house, from which we were later thrown out by a Major from the 106th Division.
By the 13th of February 1945, we had set up in Hunningen, supporting our regiment that was in reserve, along the outer fringes of the Siegfried line. Here, we saw our first sample of strafing and had our first encounter with the fabulous 88s. From here, some of us, as litter bearers, were sent out to help the medics in the 271 and 273 Infantry, where the going in the Siegfried was tough. During this experience, some of us had “close calls,” and some found that one door won’t admit two men at the same time, when seeking shelter from 88s.
The 4th of March 1945 found us laboring away at building log dugouts near Loshermergraben, Belgium. It was cold, snowing, and our log roofs all leaked. We slept in Belgium and had our mess just across the international highway in Germany, and then “This is it!” as we were going through the Siegfried line! Pillboxes or no pillboxes! Dragon’s teeth or no dragon’s teeth! Mines or no mines!
So, some of us begged two rooms from the TDs in which to set up a station, at Neuhaus, Germany. We saw our first bunkers and encountered mines everywhere. Vehicles blew up on the road we had just traversed.
After clearing a helluva roadblock, The Regiment took Dahlem, enabling us to set up there on 11 March. Here, we were to pick up food trailers and reconstruct thm for our use. We had free access to showers and clean clothes – “ah!” Now we were sweating out the Remagen bridgehead – and sure enough! The 25th of March saw us in Waldorf – just behind the bridgehead and some three miles from the Rhine. Now we were girding loins preparatory for the crossing of the Rhine amid a combat team of Infantry, Cavalry, Rangers, Division, Corps and self-propelled artillery-powers plus! Our crossing was somewhat of a letdown after the tension generated by the thought of “Crossing the Rhine” (our “Watch on the Rhine” lasted only two days!) being accomplished in bright moonlight, using a 1,370-foot pontoon bridge. We arrived in Weitersberg, in the middle of the night, on the 27th of March – anxious lest the 88s on the opposing ridge open up on us. The next morning, The Regiment took Fort Ehrenbreitstein and Bad Ems, to which we went on 29 March – staying in a German O.C.S. barracks, along with Regimental Headquarters.
By the 31st of March, we were in Dehrn – on the Lahn River, flooded by Jerries’ blowing up of dams. On Easter Sunday, we marveled at the state of German nutrition and their clothes during the Easter Parade.
And now, once more the ole company must spend a wet, cold, miserable night of travel – 108 miles to Altendorf – under blackout conditions – an accomplishment! Here, SS men in GI clothes and vehicles shot messengers; here, an Engineer convoy was strafed, practically in our front yard.
The 4th of April 1945 found us in Brundersen, a stopover point on the route to Kassel. It was here that some of us acquired a roadster – classy!
In Bettenhausen, a suburb of Kassel (6 April), we marveled at the destruction wrought by bombs in the latter city. From this point, our regiment began to clear Jerry out of the rough terrain so our armor could roll again. Our casualties were getting heavier, but we were well equipped to care for them, in an apartment building.
We spent the day in Uschlag on the 7th of April – just waiting here until The Regiment cleaned up ahead, before resuming our ever-forward movement. Jerry planes were overhead.
Later in the day, on 7 April, we arrived in Klein-Almerode. This was destined to be our night for handling the largest number of casualties – three ambulances were borrowed from Army. Our route of evacuation to clearing was treacherous; over a muddy, narrow, twisting, darkened road, but we made it.
Early on the morning of the 8th of April, we packed up and wearily made our way toward Witzenhausen, where we once again found ourselves in an apartment building. Jerry three 88s at intervals all day at the pontoon bridge that The Regiment had across the Werra River and at night, sent his planes over the town. In Witzenhausen, we encountered 12 American soldiers, all wounded, as prisoners, in a Jerry hospital, and we were given a Jerry ambulance for our use. In this town, PFC Richards received a scratch on his leg while his ambulance was being hit several times by Jerry’s fire. Richards was to be the only man in the company to receive a wound at the hands of the Germans.
Leaving Witzenhausen, we arrived in Arenshausen on 9 April, minus our roadster, which was too low to cross the pontoon bridge. Quite unexpectedly, here we ran out of “friendly” territory held by Jerry. So the ole company withdrew behind a railroad embankment, acquired itself a hotel, set up a station in a beer parlor and sat down to spend the day.
Later the same day, we pulled into Heiligenstadt and occupied a hotel, with beer on tap, plus a large home. The hotel had been vacated by SS troops a few days previously. Some of us aroused the ire of a German medical officer, when he had to lift a German soldier who was wounded off a litter.
By now, the Division had done its job of clearing Jerry from the rough terrain and had emerged into flat open country – just to the liking of our armor. With riflemen aboard tanks and tank destroyers, we were to follow in close wake of the armored giants, until the Russians were met – and pursue them we did, even though it frequently strained everything we had to keep the pace. Jerry was on the run now; this was no time to ease up and let him get set again – so “Forward! Forward! Against the foe!”
The first breathing spell in the chase came at Schlotheim on 10 April, where we occupied a house owned by an English-speaking woman. The Division was moving so rapidly at this stage that we didn’t know where the clearing company was. On the 11th of April, amid a cloud of dust, we took off for Rettgenstedt. The roads were ground into fine powder by the passing of so many vehicles; another item to add to our list of discomforts. Three Jerry planes attempted to give us a going-over as we entered the town to occupy a schoolhouse and a nearby house. Two miles away, we found the armored division’s clearing company – a break for us! In this town, some of our members “liberated” a ton-and-a-half English truck. We were now wondering how much longer the chase would continue – we longed for time enough to shave, bathe and go to the latrine. How abut you big shots calling off this war for a day or two and letting us guys rest awhile?
In the middle of the afternoon of the 13th of April, we set out from Rettgenstedt, “to go as far as we could go.” By 2300, we had reached Naumburg, where there had been a scrap in the afternoon. Not knowing exactly where The Regiment had set up, we decided that discretion was the better part of valor and elected to sit tight and spend the night. We secured a hotel, large enough to house us plus the Regimental Aid Section, and quickly fell asleep. Arising early, we went in quest of The Regiment and succeeded in finding our dog-tired quartering party in Prittitz. In this village, we heard of the President’s death via a Tank Destroyer radio. Only 10 cans of gasoline could be obtained – we were really eating up Jerry’s homeland. Supply was becoming a great problem – so great that C and K rations were the order of the day – ugh! – once we had eaten Panzer division rations.
Once again, we wearily set out, the afternoon of 14 April, in a convoy that stretched as far as the eye could see – Cub planes overhead acted as our eyes – to go “as far as we could go.” Little did we know, that very afternoon was to see an incident that would shock us into the realization that a war was going on and into the knowledge that war was more than merely pursuing the enemy – for we were now entering the Leipzig territory, defended by a heavy concentration of dual-purpose 88s. So there we were, proceeding in convoy – half asleep – thoughts across the sea 4,000 miles away and – bang! – the self-propelled artillery deployed in surrounding fields sounded off! Stopping to investigate, we learned that Jerry artillery was dead ahead. We withdrew to the town behind us and took houses amidst the 9th Armored personnel. Within an hour, Jerry planes were making pass after pass at our town – dropping fragmentation bombs. Miraculously, none of ole Company B was hurt. We were destined to sit in this spot for two days while The Regiment took the numerous flak guns – the longed-for rest – ah!
Came the 17th of April, and another long-remembered incident in the life of B Company. We set out for a position to the rear of Leipzig in order to surround the city and, by dark, had reached the city of Pomssen. The Regiment received orders to push ahead – casualties were to be expected – Collecting Company C must sit tight in order to best fulfill her mission of caring for wounded men – so service and anti-tank companies and a battery of field artillery were graciously left behind, to “cover the medics.”
After a night that saw nothing develop, on 15 minutes’ notice, we began a drive to Zweenfurth, some 10-12 miles away, arriving on 18 April. Now, Leipzig was encircled, and we awaited the final assault! In Zweenfurth, we passed the time by caring for our vehicles and watching the lineups of Jerry prisoners across the street in the PW cage.
The 20th of April saw the entry of The Regiment into Leipzig, and we followed suit, by occupying an apartment building in Paunsdorf, a suburb of the city. Here, we concerned ourselves with the treatment of burned and poorly nourished Poles and Russians.
Five Jerry soldiers, in civilian clothes, surrendered to us via a German woman doctor, just as we left for Wiederitzsch, on the 21st of April. Wiederitzsch was just north of Leipzig, where we were fortunate enough to secure five nice houses – plenty of room for all-lights, water, washing machines – what a deal! Here, we sat behind the Division line at the Elbe River to await the Russians.
Having met the Russians in a world-renowned episode, some of us went to Mochrehna on the 24th of April, to accompany The Regiment as it guarded the roads that important personages were to travel. The rest of us followed on the 31st of April, when we were all gathered in Oberaudenhain. Here we swapped yarns with the Russians, viewed their endless streams of wagons, tasted their “he-man” vodka and marveled at their woman soldiers. While here, we took up baseball in earnest. We all decided that the Russian soldier was a big-hearted, carefree guy who could scrap.
On the 3rd of May, we bade the Russians goodbye and moved to Borna, where we were to lose our foreign vehicles and where a woman was to write, in sand, “Soldier, you are welcome,” and “Soldier, America is All-right” on the sidewalk. Here, we were told that the war was over and began to sweat out the CBI.
11 May 1945 saw our entry into Zeitz – where we had plenty of nothing to do and tried to answer such pertinent questions as, “Wonder if we’ll get home?” – “When, how, where?” Some of us were lucky enough to draw passes to England, Paris, Brussels, and the Riviera.
This, then, is the story of Collecting Company B – of its activities and journeys in the ETO. There are no heroes, just 100 men doing their best to help end it all.
From Steadily Advance: The Combat Story of Company B, 369 Medical Battalion.
Activated 15 May 1943, Camp Shelby, Miss. by James W. Williams, Capt. M. C.
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