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Interview with Bruce Donald Fenchel [11/22/2002]

Diane Moore:

Today is November 22nd, 2002. This recording is taking place in the reading room of the Hubert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. Today I am interviewing Bruce Donald Fenchel. He was born March 12th, 1925. His current address is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My name is Diane Moore, and I'm the interviewer. I'm a volunteer coordinator at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. Mr. Fenchel, could you please state for the recording what outfit you were in?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I was in the 3rd Army, the 4th Armored Division and the 8th Tank Battalion.

Diane Moore:

And what was the highest rank that you had?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I was up and down the ladder a couple of times and -- but I think after the time in the service I came out a PFC. My highest rank is a captain in the active reserves.

Diane Moore:

And when did you serve?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I served in England and went in on D-Day and was in all five of the major battles of Europe.

Diane Moore:

Were you drafted, or did you enlist?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I was drafted. In fact, I was drafted out of high school. I was -- I turned 18 on March 11th and got my papers practically on the same day. And we finished school early that year, 20th of May, and I graduated on a Sunday afternoon at 2:00. And at 4:00 the same day, I was on the bus on my way to my induction center.

Diane Moore:

And that was at --

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

That was at Strawberry Point, Iowa.

Diane Moore:

Did you pick a certain branch of the service when you joined?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Well, I thought I did, and that's kind of a joke in the -- with Veterans on how they were placed, where they were placed. I certainly didn't sign up for combat. I was only in camp two or three days when a first sergeant told me that the company commander wanted to see me. And he said, don't forget to salute. And so I did. And I knocked on the door of his office, and he said, come in. I walked in. I held my heels at attention. I gave him my best salute, which I had just learned the day before. And he said, according to our records here, you qualify for OCS, which is officer candidate school. And I tried to explain to him that I had just graduated from high school two weeks before and that I was only 18 -- I just turned 18 -- and I hardly felt I was officer material. And he said, your -- your tests show that you should go to OCS. And I -- I had said, I have a question for you. What branch of service are we talking about? And he said, infantry. Well, knowing the turnover of infantry officers, I requested not to be sent to officer candidate school. He then asked, well, what are you -- what are you qualified in? I said, really nothing. I said, I just finished high school, but, I said, I was a pretty good typist, and I said, I worked at a jewelry store evenings for my spending money. So they gave me a typing test, and I typed on an old manual typewriter. I typed 55 words a minute for five minutes without an error, and I was classified skilled and recommended for office duty. And they said, while you're at it, give him a watchmaker's test, which consisted of disassembling a watch and putting it back together, which I did, and they classified me as a skilled watchmaker. And I thought Air Force here I come. And low and behold from those two tests, they sent me to Fort Knox, Kentucky to learn how to drive a tank.

Diane Moore:

Okay. Do you recall your first few days in the service?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Yes. I can recall the first 24 hours. I left my hometown about four in the afternoon and reached Camp Dodge, Iowa, in Des Moines well later that afternoon, early evening. And we were given our physicals and issued our clothing, assigned to our barracks, and by that time, it was 1:00 in the morning when I finally got to bed. And at 4:00 that same morning, I heard my name called out by the first sergeant. And he said, Fenchel, you're on KP, which for those who don't know means kitchen police. So that's how my first day started out.

Diane Moore:

Can you tell me any other boot camp or training experiences that you remember?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Yes. After Des Moines and then Fort Knox, Kentucky, for tank training and then on to Camp Bowie, Texas, where we did extensive tank training and training for the invasion of Europe. And from that point, we then went to the Boston area by train. And this is the first time I had really ever ridden on a train, and I had -- I had an interesting experience. I was -- I was quite nervous about the whole thing, and there were 200 trains leaving to go to Boston for shipment overseas. And a few minutes onto the train, an officer called out my name and -- is there a Fenchel, Private Fenchel? So I put up my hand. And he came up and handed me a pack of papers. He said, there's 120 men on this train, and you are responsible for them. We will be making several stops between here and Boston, and it will be up to you to see that there's 120 men on the train on time after each stop. And we did arrive in Boston with 120 men, and it -- I felt good about it. It was a lot of responsibility, but I felt good about it.

Diane Moore:

Okay. Could you state again which war you served in? And then do you want to tell me where you went and what kinds of experiences you had?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I served in World War II. And when we -- when we shipped out of the Boston Harbor, which was on Christmas, and we went -- I have heard different days on this, so I'm not exactly sure. But it was somewhere between 11 and 15 days going over of which I was sick most of the time. And we went up around northern Ireland and came down into the ports of Bristol, and from there by train, we went to Chippenham, and I was there for seven months. This is where we did -- we did further tank training and getting ready for the invasion. This was an interesting time because I was -- all of southern England became a training field for World War II, and I just happened to be at the base where General Patton was located. And we -- we were housed in a horse stable and the -- there were -- there were four men to a horse stall on bunk beds. I can still smell the blankets. They were horsehair blankets, and on those wet days in England, you could really smell that horsehair. I can -- I can still hear the -- the horse-drawn cart on the cobblestones outside of our horse stall. And -- and that was kind of a running joke all of the time we were there because our latrine was a building by itself, and instead of like the two-holer back on the farm, this was a ten-holer with a bucket, a five-gallon bucket, hanging below each hole. Well, the cobblestone noise was the hoofs of the horses pulling the wagon with the large tank on it and the -- as we called them the honey buckets hanging on the side and lots of jokes about that. That was kind of a fun experience. It was the best they had to offer when you dump that many men into a small country.

Diane Moore:

And then do you want to share about then where you went after that?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

From that, we just planned, and we drilled, and we rehearsed, and we did many dry runs of loading tanks. And then we actually -- the invasion took place on the 6th of June and -- and that was the last day. It was sometime during the 4th to the 6th according to the moon -- I don't know all of the particulars -- that we could actually go over. We couldn't go on the 4th. We did start to go over on the 5th and the seas -- the channel was so rough that they had to turn all of those ships around and bring them back in again. And then we took off on the 6th and went over, got over there about midnight and --

Diane Moore:

Now, where did you land?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

This was on Utah Beach just a few miles before Normandy. And the -- it was -- it was an eerie experience because you were down in the hold of the ship and big naval guns were firing. The Air Force was doing their job, and the -- the Airborne had gone in the night before. They dropped in at midnight. That was the -- I think the 82nd and the 101st Airborne, and they held an area of ground around the first towns so that they could start bringing the men and materials in. So it was quite an experience when they -- when they -- you're very anxious at this point, and finally, the command came down: Mount your tanks. Close and lock your hatches. Get ready to move. Well, as I came up the ramp ready to go down into the water, I -- I just had to see what was going on. So I opened my hatch, and we went off into about six feet of water. I was not the most liked man in that crew because we took on a lot of water inside the tank. But from there on, it was -- we were told, as soon as you hit the shore, just follow the tank ahead of you. And they had what they called cat-eye lights. Everything -- just little tiny green lights on the back of each tank. And follow the tank ahead of you until you hit the rendezvous area and then dismount from your tank, dig a slit trench. And a slit trench is just enough to get your body below the ground. It's not a foxhole. And lie down in your slit trench face up with your steel helmet over your face. I think the thought behind that was that if you were hit by shrapnel in the stomach your chances of surviving were better than if hit in the back. And we spent that entire day with the ground feeling like an earthquake that just wouldn't stop as 3,000 bombers from England bombed the Saint-Lô area which was the first town inland from our beach. And -- and then we moved out, so --

Diane Moore:

How many people would be on a tank?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

That's interesting. In a tank battalion, there's four, four companies, and there's 17 tanks to a company.

Diane Moore:

Okay.

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

And Company A, Company B and Company C are all heavy tanks, and Company D are light tanks. They weigh -- they weighed 17 ton, and the heavy tanks weighed about 33 ton. And the light tanks, this was their reconnaissance unit. And being a light tank, you could move faster. We had a smaller cannon on the light tank, but it was used mostly for reconnaissance. And you would just drive until you met trouble, and then you would radio back for the heavy tanks to come up along with the artillery and the infantry.

Diane Moore:

Which kind of tank were you --

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I was on a reconnaissance tank, a light tank.

Diane Moore:

And how many people were with you inside?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

In a heavy tank, there's a driver and an assistant driver, and the assistant driver also mans a 30-caliber machine gun. And then up in the turret of the tank, there's the tank commander. There's the gunner, and there's the loader. The loader is responsible for getting the shells up to the gunner. In a light tank, there are four men. There's a driver, an assistant driver, and the assistant driver has control of the lower machine gun, and then there's a tank commander and the gunner, who does his own loading, and the -- well, the firepower on a tank, there's two 30-caliber machine guns, an antiaircraft gun, and a 75 millimeter cannon. On the light tank, you have the same thing, two 30-caliber and a 50-caliber antiaircraft gun. And a 37 millimeter, you're not going to do a lot of damage to a German tank with a 37 millimeter because the German tanks were very, very big and very heavy, in many ways superior to ours. Other than that, I --

Diane Moore:

Okay. Now, you saw combat. Do you want to talk about any of the combat?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Yes. I could talk some about that. I'll go through a couple of incidents with you that might be interesting and you'll wonder how you ever made out it out. We were told we were to have relief. They called it R and R, rest and relaxation, after so many days on the front, and they just felt that the strain had to have a break in it. Well, with General Patton there was no such thing as R and R, and my first run on the line was 82 days without a break. And then when we pulled into the Metz area in France, which was better known as the trench foot area because it just rained every day and every day. And the -- we were told we were going to get a rest there and mainly because they weren't getting gasoline to us. And at that point, the breakthrough, the Battle of the Bulge, was taking place at a very rapid takeover. And General Eisenhower radioed Patton and said, we want you up here -- this was on the twenty -- this was on the 19th of December. And we drove night and day 24 hours a day until we reached the Bastogne area and that was -- that was on the 22nd of December. This might be an interesting story to you, show you how close you can come to losing your life. We were making our drive toward Bastogne, and we were 16 miles from Bastogne. In Bastogne, the 101st Airborne was trapped and surrounded by the Germans, and they were fast running out of ammunition, and this is why they called for Patton to come up and -- for this breakthrough. On the 22nd, we moved into the outskirts of a town called Chaumont later on to be known as bloody Chaumont. And we moved into an open field getting ready for this last 16-mile run, and we -- we had a high ridge ahead of us when we stopped for the night, and we had a woods on the right. And we had machine guns barking into that woods most of the night. And not knowing, not having any idea what was ahead of us, we thought it was just -- get up in the morning. Terribly cold. And my feet had frozen during the night, and so the next morning -- well, during the night, the gasoline trucks came through and dropped several cans of gas at each tank so you could gas up that night and be ready to roll that morning. At one point, I got out of my tank and started my little stove, which was about this high and held a little bit of gas. And we would use it for heating our C-Rations, and I filled that and put it between my legs thinking that would keep my feet from freezing, and it -- it soon burned out. And the next morning we got the order to start our tanks, get them warmed up and ready to roll, and men were doing their last minute chores, whatever it was. But most of the men were out of their tanks, and then it -- just as day broke, it just appeared that that whole ridge was moving toward us, and that whole ridge was just column after column of German tanks, and they just literally wiped us out. It -- I think out of 57 tanks in my unit we salvaged about 17. But they -- I was out of the tank, and we managed to get back into the tank under fire with the machine gun bullets hitting the tank. And all of a sudden, I noticed -- I'm down below in the tank, and I noticed I'm being covered with blood, and I look up and I see my tank commander hanging over the side of the tank. He had been shot in the face. And I got out of -- I got out of the tank and more or less crawled -- my feet were so inactive -- to the back of the tank. And at that moment, a German 88 shell drove completely through the tank and through the first 50-gallon gas tank, and the tank exploded. And as I started to run from the tank, I could feel the machine gun bullets right beside my leg kicking through the snow and digging dirt up into my face. I ran back to the burning tank, and as I got back to it, high explosive -- another shell hit the tank, and the other 50-gallon tank blew up. And at that point, I just literally crawled to a ditch alongside the road. And it was just _____. Everything we had that could move, gas trucks, tanks, ambulances, everything was in full retreat. And as I lie in the ditch waving, a gas truck pulled up, and they had four men inside of a two-man cab. And they said, we have no room for you, but we will hold you beside the tank. And so two of them reached out with their arms, and they held onto my wrists, and it wasn't long until I had no feeling in my hands at all. And I -- I knew they were a time bomb with that much gas on them. And I said, drop me in front of the next house and which they did. And I crawled to the door of that home in Belgium, and I knocked -- I pounded on the door shouting, Americano, Americano. And they came to the door and literally drug me up to the attic and gave me blankets to wrap my feet in and my body and that -- and then this area was taken over by the Germans. And while I lie on that attic floor over the next few days, the town changed hands three times between the Germans and the Americans. And finally, on Christmas Eve, there was a lot of noise downstairs because this home, as many of them are, was a bar in the front and then they lived in the back. And these were German soldiers in the bar, and they were drinking their beer and singing and hollering their great victory and they were going to push us all of the way back to the sea. And then all of a sudden, it became very still, and I heard footsteps on the stairs. And I thought, well, I have seen my last Christmas. Instead, it was a -- it was a young girl -- I would assume 15 or 16 -- that opened the attic door, and in her broken English, she said, we asked the Germans if they would leave the bar so we could celebrate Christmas Eve. And I did go downstairs with her, and I ate Christmas Eve dinner, supper, whatever, with them. It consisted of sweet butter, which is just butter without salt, black bread, and head cheese. And for the younger people that don't know what head cheese is, it is whatever meat they can salvage off a hog's head, and it is put into a gelatin, and then it's sliced. That was -- that was the total dinner. And I even got so bold that I taught them a card game, and we played cards till the wee hours on Christmas morning and then back up to my attic. It's -- it's quite an experience. When the Americans finally came through for the third time -- and keep in mind, the Germans had captured so many of our tanks and so much of our ammunition that they were using our tanks. So you really didn't know who was in the street. And when I finally recognized most of the soldiers and officers speaking English, I worked my way out onto the doorstep and just unbelievable. One reconnaissance tank was going down the road with one man in it who was driving the tank. I recognized that one man as the tank commander of the tank that I had just lost. I beg your pardon. Not the tank commander. The gunner of the tank that I had just lost, and so I hollered at him. I shouted, Knight. And he turned and he looked not expecting to see me at all because he thought I was killed on the field. And I ran up to the tank and I said, just give me my purple heart. I want to go home. And he said, you're not going anyplace. He said, I'm going up in the turret of this tank, and you're getting into the driver's seat. And so we literally spent several days until we got replacements with just two of us in that tank. So that was quite an experience. I might add this while I'm at it. My brother was in the 8th Air Force in England, and he was doing a hospital inspection one day. He was a company commander. And he was doing a hospital inspection one day, and he walks up to this captain that had had a leg shot off at the knee. And he said, I'm Captain Fenchel. And the captain said, I'm Captain Blackburn. And as my brother walked away, he said, Captain, he said, what did you say your last name was? And he said, Fenchel. He said, do you by any chance have a brother in the tank battalion? And he said that he did. And he said, what company? And he told him, Company D. And he said, you know he was killed in action. And he said, I saw him when he was killed. And what had happened actually was as I was running from the tank a high explosive shell landed beside me, and the concussion of the shell catapulted me into the air. And when I came down, I was just literally unconscious for a while, and he was the next tank over, and he just assumed that I was dead. And so for a while, I was missing in action, then reported killed in action and then actually came out with nothing but minor burns that did not leave scars.

Diane Moore:

Do you have any other experiences about crossing the Rhine that you want to talk about?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Crossing the Rhine was quite an experience. And I'll cut this short. Our company commander was Lieutenant Kominsky, which sounds pretty Polish to me. And we had -- they had put a smokescreen down. All of the bridges were out over the Rhine. So we were going to have to cross on a pontoon bridge that the engines assembled on land and then floated it into the water and floated it into place. And the Rhine River is a very fast river. How the engineers ever did this, I don't know. But they got the bridge in place, and they got their generators going generating the smoke because the German planes were coming in at treetop level, and they would be in and on you trying to bomb this pontoon bridge out. We -- we did manage to get control of the German Air Force at that point, but they could not locate the one German gun or cannon that was zeroed in on this bridge. And so they told us that one tank approached the bridge and wait until you hear that German gunfire and then go across one tank at a time. And so Lieutenant Kominsky pulled up to the bridge, and I pulled up right behind him. And Lieutenant Kominsky drove this tank across the bridge. The instructions were if your tank is hit or if the bridge is hit bail out into the water and swim to shore, and I couldn't swim. So anyway, Lieutenant Kominsky made it to the west side of the Rhine River. And just as I pulled my tank up, the -- this German gun that had been firing hit dead center on the bridge and took out a couple of sections of the bridge, and Lieutenant Kominsky radioed back that he was over there all alone, and he was scared and what were we going to do. So we informed him that the engineers were on their way trying to float some new pontoons out, some sections of bridge and that stay in your tank. We will cover you with fire, but stay in your tank. Do not get out of the tank. And then he radioed back, and he said, a train has just pulled into the station, and they are unloading German troops. And he talked back and forth to us. Now they're unloading the antitank guns. And he kept talking until they took him out, and the entire crew was killed. And then by the next day, they had the bridge repaired, and I was the first tank that day then to go across the Rhine. Today you'd describe it kind of like sleeping on a water bed. You could -- you knew this water was fast, but as the weight of your tank hit these pontoons, they would kind of roll, and it was an eerie feeling. But they -- in the next several hours they moved the entire division across the river.

Diane Moore:

How were you able to stay in touch with your family?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Only by letter. And there just was no such thing as cablegrams coming through, and sometimes the letters would take two, three weeks, maybe a month to get home. My mother had four children -- five children and four of them boys, and we were all in the services at the same time. And I could remember after the war her telling me one day she got 17 letters that had been held up in the mail, but --

Diane Moore:

Now, were you able to get letters from home to you?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

On occasion. Because when you're moving and you're on the front, there's just nothing delivered up to the front line. It was -- it was pretty hairy experience.

Diane Moore:

How many days again were you on the front line?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Well, the first time was 82 days, and I know we were pretty rebellious about it, so we literally let our beards grow and let our hair grow. There was no taking the time to cut it, and that was really the only thing that I lost in the war was my hair and my beard when the flash fire hit me from the tank. And so I -- I feel that I was fortunate.

Diane Moore:

Do you want to describe what the food was like and if you were able to get supplies all of the time?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Yes. We never suffered for lack of food. We got tired of the food we had to eat because it was so seldom we could get a kitchen up to the front that could serve you a hot meal. So we lived mostly on our K-rations, which were pretty much a dry ration, and our C-Rations that -- well, the favorite thing in the C-ration was the little can of baked beans with cut up frankfurters in it, but you even get tired of that day after day.

Diane Moore:

When you did get leave, what did you do for entertainment and where did you go?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Well, you know, there just wasn't much entertainment all of the time we were over there. The entertainment during the seven months we were in England was going to the USO clubs and dancing and drinking a little beer and -- but we weren't particularly liked by the British. And they knew that they needed us, but they -- they'd resent how much more money that we made than they did, and I think they kind of resented us drinking all of their beer because they would have to have a cut-off hour every night. But one of the things that I did enjoy, kind of crude, but I did enjoy going to a pub and watching the fights before the night was over between the Irish and the British, which usually ended up out on the cobblestones. And you had to learn to drink warm beer because nothing was chilled.

Diane Moore:

Do you have a particular humorous or eventful story?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Yes. In the height of combat when we were being very heavily shelled and -- extremely cold. We just sought out anything we could find for shelter, and we found this one house barn, which is usually in connection with the home. But this one did have a haymow, and the men were actually putting their bed rolls down in the straw between the cattle to try and take advantage of some of the heat from the cattle. And I said to the gunner on the tank, I said, you know, Snell, tonight we're going to die. It is not going to be because of German fire. We're going to die because we're going to freeze to death. And I said, you know, there's a whole haymow full of hay up there. So the two of us went up into the haymow, and we took off our shoes so that we could put them between us. And we'd lay there like lovers on his bedroll covering up with my bedroll. And we were making the snide remarks, isn't this just like home, and how could you have it any nicer, when an artillery shell hit the roof of the barn. And it took the roof off of the barn, and we were looking into the -- into the heavens, and how we scampered to get down out of that haymow into the lower level and fellows actually laughing at us because we thought we were so smart as to go up into the haymow, so -- now, that's pretty subtle humor, but you've got to make light of some things, even in combat.

Diane Moore:

What did you think of some of your fellow officers or fellow soldiers?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I -- I admired them very much. I think -- I think it took a lot of guts to lead the way that they would lead, and it was not unusual at all for an infantry outfit to suffer 200 percent loss of officers, and this kind of takes you back to my basic training when I turned down OCS school. And we had men that were commissioned right in the field. A three-stripe sergeant would be made a second lieutenant with what they called a field commission, that he would be the highest ranking officer or the highest ranking noncommissioned officer in the field. And so he would be commissioned and maybe go until the end of the war and never put his bars on. It -- but they -- it reached a point where you just got so tired of seeing the killing that it just turned your stomach. I don't know if we have time. I could tell you about the liberation.

Diane Moore:

We definitely have time. You go right ahead.

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

We had -- after we had relieved the 101st Airborne, we headed -- we headed west and -- north, north and west and all of a sudden, we were -- we were stopped, and we were told to remove our insignias, to cover up the lettering on our tank, and get rid of all of the markings. And then we took -- we headed south. It was a secret mission, and I think what most people don't realize is that when we thought the war was over, the worst fighting was done at the Battle of the Bulge. And after the Battle of the Bulge, we really thought we would be home for Christmas that year, and it was the following year. But we were heading south, and I forget exactly what town it was. I think it was Gotha, G-o-t-h-a, where we came to a halt, and I don't know what all the different outfits were doing. But I know as a reconnaissance unit -- and you will hear this disputed many times on who liberated what camp, who was the first tank in and so forth. But this is one thing that I can document because I was there, and there's no one that can dispute it. It seemed -- I'll back up a little bit. This seemed so unreal to me, what happened, that to convince myself that I really went through this when I got married in 1985 to my present wife we went to Amsterdam on our honeymoon. And this -- the archives had not been opened yet where after 50 years they were going to release all of the information on both sides of the enemy and so forth. Well, we went there in 1985, and I was able to tell them enough that they let me into an inner chamber, and I was finally -- I wasn't able to take my wife with me, but I was finally able to convince them that I knew more about this concentration camp than anyone else. And so then they let me in to the archives and just literally gave me free rein of sealed documents and materials that were not supposed to be disclosed. And so I said to them, one of them who was in charge, I am just interested in one concentration camp. And there were many concentration camps. I said, I want to know about Ohrdurf, O-h-r-d-u-r-f. And he just brought me reams of material and offered to copy me parts of this material, pictures that I wanted. And now I'll go back to the experience. We left Gotha, and we were heading south. And early one morning, they sent us out on just kind of a mini recon mission. In fact, there were only five tanks of us. And we -- we pulled up into this open field, and I was sitting on the tank with my binoculars looking up and down the road to see if I could see anything, and I noticed a bunch of men running in a ditch. And I said to the tank commander, I said, if we're the forward echelon, who are they? And he looked down, and he took my binoculars, and this was his expression. Kick her in the ass. Move out. And so we did. We at full speed which was probably 30, 35 miles an hour in a light tank. We drove down this road until we came to these large gates which were locked, and he -- and long before we reached the gates, we could literally smell what -- not knowing what a concentration camp -- we knew there was an odor in the air, and we could hear the machine gunfire. So we rammed the gates and went in and found ourselves in the heart of this concentration camp. And everywhere you looked there were people on the ground that had just been shot. Most of them dead. Many of them wouldn't survive even if you were there and within -- we radioed back to what we had found. And they got word to President Eisenhower, and President Eisenhower -- or General Eisenhower, General Bradley, General Patton all flew into Gotha and then by jeep came to this camp. So there was a time when I actually spoke with General Eisenhower, General Bradley, and General Patton at the same time. And they were so repulsed from what they saw. It was just so unbelievable to see a person that maybe weighed 240 pounds lying there 80, 85 pounds. But anyway, the orders were to go into the town of Ohrdurf and round up the people, including the mayor and his wife, and to take them through the camp. And they swore up and down they didn't know what was going on there. And the camp was so close to the town there's no way that they couldn't smell that camp from the burning of the bodies and the decaying bodies and so forth. They were totally amazed. And the mayor and his wife went home -- and this has been documented in every book that you ever read on this particular concentration camp. He hung himself, and then his wife hung herself. And so I have -- I have lots and lots of literature on the concentration camps. This was a satellite camp to Buchenwald, which is one of the big ones, and this was a work camp where they just literally worked them to death. And a few days before when they knew the Americans were that close, they put them on a forced march to try and walk them back to Buchenwald which was about 40 miles, and most of them dropped on the way, so -- and all of this time, I was still -- I was only 19 years old, and it was quite an experience.

Diane Moore:

Do you recall the last day when your service ended?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Yes. It was in Czechoslovakia, and actually, I think that -- I think that Roosevelt died on the same day that we liberated the camp, and the only rumor that we were getting was that the Japanese war was still in full swing and that Patton's outfit was being geared up to go to Japan. And after almost three years, that was the last thing we wanted, and then while we were in Czechoslovakia, Japan fell just a few days after that. So then we knew that we -- we went home by the point system. Anyone that had 80 points -- and how those were figured, I don't know -- they would be the first ones to go home. And then anyone with 60 points -- and that's where I was at depending on when your unit was founded. Then I -- I was sent home. And so that was -- and I arrived home after all of that at 20 years old, so --

Diane Moore:

What did you do in the days or the weeks after you came back home?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Well, that's interesting. My father had died while I was overseas, and that was a crushing blow to me, and I just didn't know what to expect when I got home. And I know I was only home -- well, I think my mother was about 47 years old. The one thing that did shock me was that she had gone from brown hair to gray hair in that length of time that her boys were overseas. And I wanted to surprise her. So I took a train and arrived at Manchester, Iowa, which was 16 miles from Strawberry Point, and I hitchhiked home with my duffel bag on my back. The first car that came along was a sister of a friend that I had graduated from high school with, and she took me right to my doorstep. And after I got settled in -- I think it might have been the next day or the following day -- my mother said, you know there's a phone call for you to return. Cliff Huntly's meat market wants you to interview for a job to learn the meat cutting business. I guess I had been in the meat cutting business for the last year or so, and I didn't want any part of it. But I did agree to go and talk to him. And on my way up to -- which wasn't more than five or six blocks. Small town. On my way up, a car passed me, and as it went by me, it backfired. I don't know if you can remember that or not, but occasionally a car would backfire if the carburetor wasn't adjusted just right. And I just lost it. I was face down in the dirt clawing with both hands, and I got up and brushed myself off and acted like I had tripped. And it was only within minutes that I met a high school classmate that had served in the Navy and been released, and I told him my experience. And he said, well, you got to do something to get that off your mind. He said, I'm going -- I'm hitchhiking down to Iowa City to see about going to college, got GI bill. So I said well, gee, I'll just go along with you with no intention of enrolling because I didn't feel that I'd ever feel I'd be able to afford to go to college. So the two of us thumbed our way over to Iowa City which was over a hundred miles. And when I left Iowa City, I was enrolled in liberal arts and hopefully trying to get into dental school. And we hitchhiked home and got home late that evening, walked in the house. And my mother said, that was one long interview. So I told her what I had done, and she was very happy, and it did. During those years of college and building a practice, having a family, you are able to put the war on the back burner, but my problems really developed after I retired, and then the garbage started to come back and so realistic it would be in dreams that many years later. 50 some years later, I would scream out in a nightmare. So I went back to work for a few more years as part-time. Now I have fully retired. And we -- I might mention that Gina and I have been back to Europe three times. The first time was on our honeymoon when we went to the archives. The second time we went -- rented a car, and we went to the beaches. And I didn't -- I didn't tell anyone that I had gone in on the first -- we went with another couple, and he told one of the people there that I had gone in on Utah. And oh, my. They gave me the book to sign, and I came across signatures that I recognized had been back, and one of the signatures was General Patton's. And then they gave me a medal, and they really rolled out the red carpet. And then we went -- we went back this past summer, and we went to the concentration camps, and that was interesting. I went to -- we drove -- I kept thinking, this camp isn't going to be there. And I would ask different people when I got to the town of Ohrdurf where was that camp located. Things looked familiar after 55 years. Things looked familiar, but I don't know which end of town the camp was on. No one, absolutely no one, knew anything about the camp. And finally, I went and talked to a librarian. She said, I think what you're referring to is our military base here. And what had happened after the camp was liberated, the Russians took it over for a military base, and it was a Russian military base for 40 years. Then in '91, when the east and the west merged, then it became a German military base. And I walked up -- and so I said, that's got to be it. That just has to be it. And I went up to the -- we drove right to it. And I went up to the gates and told the guard on the gate that I'd like to go inside. And well, in very broken English, he indicated for 50 years it had been a military base. And so I pulled a little picture out of my billfold and showed it to him. It showed a picture of me beside my tank. So he goes to a telephone, and he calls the commandant's office. And the commandant sent a lieutenant down to meet me. And I showed the lieutenant the picture, and I said -- and he spoke fairly good English. I said, there's the tank that took those gates down. And then he went to the telephone, and he called the commandant, and the commandant said, bring him up. They wouldn't let the other three of our party go up, but he escorted me up to the commandant's office. And the commandant spoke excellent English. And I was a PFC when I got out of the service, and it was something to walk into the commandant's office and have him salute me. And we had a nice visit. He looked like he could have been my oldest son. And I said, I would assume that your father was proudly in the war. Oh, yes, all of my uncles. And then he called in the other officers and introduced me to all of the other officers on the base or on -- yeah, in the office there. And it was a about a quarter of five, and he looked at his watch. And he said, could you be here at 9:00 tomorrow morning? So we did go back at nine, and he had two staff cars where my wife and I got in with one officer and the other couple with us got in with the other officer, and they spent the entire morning with us going over -- I had taken quite a lot of material with me which I presented to him. I had it on me and told him he could keep it. And then he took that little picture, and that morning -- he kept it that night, and then that next morning, he had had it blown up to about a 7-by-11 picture which he was going to hang behind his desk. And anyway, I assured him that I would keep in touch with him. But it's such a hard bridge to gap, you know, the hatred that we had and the toll of lives, and here to be meeting someone that could have been my son who thanked me. He said, we thank you. We thank the Americans. We thank everyone who liberated us from Hitler. But it took a long time to do it.

Diane Moore:

Were you able to share some of these stories with your family, or how soon were you able to do that?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Not really. My one brother that was in the Marines has never talked about the war, and he went in on Nagasaki the day after it was bombed. We didn't share too many military stories. I guess we were just all so glad to get away from it. My brother, being in the Air Force, he had horrific stories to tell that he would tell me, but he wouldn't tell anyone else. And I think that's why I'm glad for this opportunity today to encourage more and more people that do remember their stories to get them on paper and for their -- for their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren so that we never forget that this horrible thing did take place. And this is being taught in the German schools. You know, after the war they went into denial, but they have certainly come out of that, and they are teaching all about the Holocaust. So they want their people to know what happened right under their eyes.

Diane Moore:

Do you still keep in touch with anybody that you knew then?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

No. It's been several years. I did -- I did keep in touch with my gunner for a number of years. He would call me every Christmas morning, and I don't know -- I don't know now if he's alive any more or not. He would be my age. And I thought he was killed in action. But at the same time that our tank blew up, he was captured by the Germans, so he spent the rest of his time in a German prisoner of war camp. And I can -- now, this is supposed to be funny but I -- it got to the point when we were back in combat, and we were eating these C-Rations. It was like Cracker Jacks. What's my prize going to be? And our tank commander, he was really kind of an ornery cuss. All he could talk about was going home and being with his three daughters, and they were small. And I remember one day I drew the lucky K-Ration, and I had these pork and beans with the frankfurters, and the next thing that I knew I saw him eating up my pork and beans and in its place was a can of hash, which wasn't too good. I walked over to him, and I said, you're eating my pork and beans. Now, this sounds very silly. And he said, they were your pork and beans. Now they're my pork and beans. And I pulled my revolver out, and I laid it on his ear. And I said, right now we're going to decide who owns those franks and beans. And he handed them to me. And about five years after the war, I get a strange phone call from Idaho. And my mother said, well, who would you know in Idaho? I said I haven't -- Idaho potatoes. Who would that be? Mike was from Idaho. So this voice on the other end of the phone -- and he had kind of a gruff voice. He said Fenchel? And I said, yes. He was very abrupt. He said, would you still kill for a can of beans and franks? And then I knew immediately who it was. And it was -- I think we must have laughed for the next three or four minutes before we could talk, and we talked for probably an hour. And my gunner that kept contact with me was the one that we chose the warm hay to lay in -- to lie in and then lost the roof over our heads. But that really is the only two. And since then, I have met men who were in our outfit and never met them until we got back to the States.

Diane Moore:

How do you think the service or these experiences affected your life?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

Well, it was a great learning period. It took -- as it did in tens of thousands of cases, it took a young boy and made a man out of him very, very fast, and it taught you forgiveness. It's just so -- it's so -- it's not easy to discuss how you benefit from the war. I was glad I got to go to college. And I -- it's kind of like a sentence that's been placed on you. You may get out of jail, but you never get over the sentence, and you take it to your grave with you. It was a great experience. I sure wouldn't want to go through it again. Wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience.

Diane Moore:

Are there any last-minute memories that you have that you'd like to share?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I think -- I keep going back to my father. We were so close, and I had this -- I had this very good friend in high school. He was my -- he was probably my best buddy. And two weeks -- he was admitted to law school because of being 4F with a hearing problem. And two weeks after I left for the service, he was -- he drowned. And his mother just kind of adopted me as Russell, and she wrote me every week while I was in the service. And it was -- it was the letter from her that told me that she and her husband had just come from my father's funeral, and I didn't even know he was sick, and he was dead and buried two weeks before I ever knew about it. And I think from that point on I lost a good part of my life and the fun of going home and talking over stories. And I think I might have become a little belligerent. When I said I was up and down the stripes a couple of times, it was -- it was rebelling. And I didn't -- the ain't-fair game. But I'm enjoying fairly good health now and enjoyed coming over and doing this interview today. And I'd like to do some follow-ups on some of the other interviews that have been done.

Diane Moore:

Okay. Do you want me to stop the tape now?

Bruce Donald Fenchel:

I think finally I've told just about all I can tell at this point. So thank you.

 
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  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
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