|Letter to Unidentified Recipient [ca. May 1945]
ca. May 1945
This was Germany
The official orders said that "the following named officer accompanied by enlisted men will proceed to --- and to --- and such other places within the liberated and conquered territories as necessary to carry out instructions of the Army Group Commander in a special intelligence mission". So on March 15th, a foggy but quite warm morning, I started out in a "C and R (Command and Reconnaissance) car with my driver. I had various headquarters at which I had to stop but the real mission was to see the situation along the Rhine for one cannot be a good intelligence officer unless he sees conditions for himself and understands them. No amount of official reports are adequate for such education.
We drove up the Meuse and through the smoky, dirty city of Leige and beyond and then eastward toward Aachen. The country becomes more rugged and here and there are signs of last autumn's battles in this area. Finally a little sign, "CIC Border Control", and we know that we have entered Germany. Aachen proves to be a battered, desolate spot that shows plainly the ravages of the struggle for it. A few civilians appear to be going about their business but American soldiers are no longer any novelty to them.
A few miles further we come to the Roer River; a placid little stream perhaps forty yards wide. It is just a contented little stream and one can hardly believe that it is one of the most famous rivers in this campaign and one that caused us more worry than the Seine, the Loire and the Meuse or the Moselle combined. It held us up for months because up-stream there were a series of dams holding one hundred and fifty million cubic meters of water and we knew that if we crossed that little stream the Germans would blow those dams and the flood of water would sweep away our bridges, isolate our boys and leave them vulnerable without support or supplies. This little stream now so placid held up our campaign for months until the enemy was forced to blow the dams and the floods came and went. Then and then only could the campaign for the Cologne Plain begin.
There are plenty of signs of recent battle on the banks of the Roer as we cross a Bailey bridge into what was the City of Duren which had writhed under air and artillery bombardment all winter and was the first city captured in the renewed campaign. It was Duren. Now it is nothing. Literally nothing. Simply mounds of churned up rubble that defy description. Forty-five thousand people lived here; there were three civilians in the city when our troops entered it. Duren was here; it is no more.
Further on we reached the Autobahn, --- part of the German super-highway system. It is an almost exact duplicate of the Worcester highway and we roll along it through the flat plain country feeling almost as if we were at home. The exception is that the over-passes have been blown and we have to slow down and crawl across the Bailey bridges the engineers have thrown across the gaps. Except for an occasional dead cow and here and there the remains of split open pill boxes there is little sign of war for the campaign moved fast through this stretch of country. Most of the isolated houses have been destroyed as the Heinies insisted on defending them but otherwise the plain seems peaceful. We move along rapidly and soon are in Euskirken. It is but a shell of a city but it is not like Duren. Here for the first time I see little white flags sticking out of windows. Pathetic little flags. They meant that the occupants of those houses had surrendered and that the house contained no snipers. They were mute pleas of German housewives not to destroy all that was dear to them, --- their homes. By and large our troops respected those pleas; the houses with white flags generally were not badly damaged. It is evident that many of the German people have had enough and in many towns they begged the German troops to leave as we approached so that the towns would not be destroyed. In instances in which the German troops did leave, the civilians ran out to tear down the tank obstacles themselves so that we would not bring our artillery to bear on them. They are learning what happens to the towns that resist.
Leaving Euskirken, I have little luck in reaching my objective for the day which is the bridge at Remagen and the bridgehead on the other side of the Rhine. Halfway to Remagen I run into a traffic snarl and spend a full hour going a half mile. I walked ahead to the MP and asked him how far traffic is tied up. "All the way to the river, Sir, about thirty-five miles." He estimates that at the rate traffic is moving I may get there by sun-rise and it is then three o'clock in the afternoon! So I reluctantly give up and head northwards to Cologne where I intend to spend the night.
We make good time going north and again there is little sign of war except for the broken and looted homes. The American soldier is just as lawless as the American people and now that he is in enemy country he feels all limitations are off. The reports and obvious evidence of looting and vandalism are all too evident.
Appearances are deceptive on the outskirts of Cologne but as one gets near the center of the city the results of five years of bombing stagger you. Cologne was a big city. Now there is no other description than it is a dead city, a prostrate city. One feels death and destruction all around wherever he looks. It gives you a creepy feeling. You feel as if you were looking --- somewhat disrespectfully --- at a corpse.
The city is built somewhat on the plan of Washington with the Cathedral at its hub; two-thirds of the way from the hub to the city limits is a circular street known as the Kaiser Wilhelm Ring. It is a two lane street with trees and street cars down the center. It was the main street of the city. I drove down it winding back and forth from one lane to the other to avoid huge bomb craters, threading my way in and out between the fallen trees, twisted tracks and the wrecks of street cars. Piles of rubble are everywhere. The entire area inside the ring is destroyed and scarcely a house is habitable. Imagine, if you can, the Back Bay with perhaps one house in each block damaged and with no windows. All the rest destroyed. Some are just shells with light seeping through gaunt window frames; some with front or side walls gone and the floors hanging precariously, perhaps with furniture still there and pictures on the walls; some with one wall standing and thousands just heaps of rubble. The streets, --- Beacon Street, if you will, --- are just winding lanes the width of a single car through piles of rubble much of which has been there so long that grass is growing on it. Over all hangs a horrible sense of oppression; over 150,000 civilians have been killed here. Most of them are still under the rubble.
Among the ruins stands the cathedral, --- miraculously unharmed. It rises above all this man-made ruin and suffering and in its beauty seems to say, "I am above this human way that wastes, tears, maims, kills and destroys. I am the Church. Unlike humans, I do not die."
I learn how dead is a dead city that night. The sewers are ruined and over all is an evil stench. There is no water as the mains have long since been destroyed; no water to drink, no water to wash in, no water to flush a toilet. There is no gas as the gas mains are gone and the plants destroyed. There is no light and there is no heat in any of the few remaining buildings. No, life is not pleasant in a dead city. No wonder that the people are filthy and lousy, no wonder that typhus and other diseases have broken out. Truly it is a dead, a prostrate city. Nothing that is dead is pleasant.
Finally, I find the headquarters that I am looking for and am glad of some clean American Army food and [am] content to spread my own relatively clean sleeping bag on the floor for the night. It is an oasis in the midst of destruction and despite sporadic shelling and mortar fire during the night I sleep well. In the morning we work our way down to the Rhine itself. I have been advised to use caution and not expose myself long to view from across the river due to sniping and mortar fire. Warning my driver, I manage to find a fairly intact warehouse on the edge of the river which we can approach unseen and go through to the waters edge. It is an extraordinary sight and experience. Here is the Rhine at my feet, perhaps three hundred yards wide, with every detail on the opposite bank clearly visible. The river is smooth and placid. But it is a false calm. There is the Hun. There is no visible movement on the other side except a little smoke from behind a building here and there. Down stream a little way lies the skeleton of the great Hohensollen bridge and the wreckage of another is a little way upstream. All is quiet in the morning sun except for the occasional whoosh and crump of a mortar which is answered in a desultory way by our light artillery somewhere behind me.
I hug the door frame as I take a few pictures of the river for the record and a couple of mortar shells land close by at the end of the building shaking dirt from the floor above down my neck. I take a final picture and then notice that my driver, who I thought was close behind me, is missing. I suspect at once what has happened and rush to the end of the building where I find him crouched in the corner, a sickly green color and trembling all over. His desire to hunt for loot was stronger than my warning and he had tried to cross an open space to the next building. Jerry dropped two mortar shells close by him in a few seconds! He has learned his lesson but I curse him out anyhow. Probably my own nervous reaction as I had expected to find his body when I realized what had happened.
As we leave the dock areas, I see the people for the first time. We, for the time being, only allow them on the streets between 9 A.M. and noon and then, in many parts of the city, permit them to walk on only one side of the street. The object of the strict curfew is to immobilize them until they can be "screened" for stay-behind agents and soldiers in civilian clothes while the restrictions to one side of the street is to protect American HQ's and personnel that are kept on the opposite side. The people look remarkably healthy and they completely ignore the Americans. They must hate us. But they do not show it. Nor do they dare to draw attention to themselves by exhibiting any curiosity about us. As the Americans are severely punished if they even talk with the Germans, there is a complete void between them. They simple ignore us and go about their business --- mostly trying to salvage a pitiful little pile of pillows and pots out of the rubble of their homes and carrying it away in little carts to wherever they have shelter at the moment. Occasionally there is a line outside of a store. It is either an American office where they must fill out forms or a food store. Food is the great problem.
And so I leave what was Cologne, --- a dead city. One of many in Germany. Why do they fight on? Why do their leaders permit this destruction to continue? Why is the continuance of this necessary? Yes, they are Huns. They are the people who have torn the world apart twice in a quarter of a century. They are the people who forced me twice away from family and normal civilian life for long years to be a soldier. They are the people who have killed many of my friends and dispersed the younger members of my family all over the world. I should hate them. I do when I think of the massacre at Malmedy, the countless atrocities in the West and the many horrible things they have done in the East. For this I must go on --- helping in plans to kill more Boche soldiers, to kill more husbands, to create more widows and more orphans. But it is hard to hate the old German woman digging in the rubble of her home in search of a battered pan.
I want it over soon. I want to move home and in peace, cleanliness and friendships of Newton. Wash away some terrible memories. Wash away the memory of things that the world must never forget.