Aug 282016
Shop area, Heerlen, 1945

Shop area, Heerlen, 1945

It took more than a month to get the Germans out of the bulge.

Because General Bradley had guessed wrong and chose ammunition before winter wear, our boots were inadequate. Special units like the paratroopers had waterproof footwear, but our standard GI shoes were porous. A frostbite deadened two toes and the bottom of my soles for the rest of my life.  Standing in a damp foxhole for days led to a more dangerous condition called trench foot: first the skin turns blue, and then becomes mottled like marble. Left untreated, the flesh rots away.

To avoid wet feet I tied two pairs of socks together and hung them around my neck. Whenever I could I changed. Body heat would help, but by spreading the socks over a heated empty helmet I could dry them.

A soldier’s helmet was his cooking pot. A small fire under an overturned steel hat could heat water and rations. The blaze burned off the paint.  The underlying blue steel was exposed with a black carbon overlay.

There have been a number of movies about the Battle of the Bulge, but I have never seen one with soldiers wearing helmets with the black and blue steel exposed.

After six weeks of battle we were filthy. I wore a blanket I had turned into a poncho by slitting a hole with my bayonet. If I had to move faster the blanket was removed. We wore two or three undershirts, a wool sweater, two shirts and a combat jacket. In time I smelled offensively. I tried not to notice myself.

Once out of combat we were trucked to the showers and soaped down thirty at a time. Clean clothing was issued, but not new helmets. They were black and blue pots of honor, not to be repainted. Blue badges of courage.

We washed up in a small mining town in Holland named Heerlen. Before the war the owners had installed shower heads in an open gallery for the miners. We were permitted only three minutes under the hot water.

I was billeted in a Dutch home, supposedly for a single night that stretched two weeks. Mother, father, and an ill, emaciated four-year-old boy were my hosts. There was almost nothing in the kitchen.

Heerlen is in the province of Limburg, pinched off by Germany on one side and Belgium on the other. The food supply was meager and the family was hungry. The next day American cooks set up a chow line for our troops. The servers slopped food into our mess kits and I carried refills back to the family.

It wasn’t enough food for three.

I didn’t know the mess sergeant who managed the food supplies, but I knew rear echelon soldiers liked battle souvenirs. I had picked up a German Walther P38 in bad shape and I offered it to the man in charge.

I said, “I need food for the family I’m staying with.”

He answered, “I never look at the ration boxes behind the tent until after breakfast. Nobody is counting. Get there before breakfast. Don’t be there when the chow line is moving. I don’t know you. And do you have some cartridges for the gun?”

In the mid-afternoon of the second day I stole two cases of ten-in-one rations. Ten separate containers of food were in each box. I brought them to the kitchen. I did the same for three or four days.

I persuaded a non-com medic to see the sick boy. He gave him pills to stop the diarrhea and put a bandage on a bad knee.

The father and mother were grateful. Too much so, it turned out.

I lived in a bedroom on the first floor, across from the kitchen. The husband and wife and child slept upstairs.

I think they talked things over before he did it.

I arrived one afternoon with another food bundle and put it on the table. The door was open to my bedroom, and I started for it. The husband made a sound, and I turned around. He looked at his wife, and then gestured her toward my bedroom. That’s how grateful they were. He offered her to me.

It was embarrassing for all. She was pretty and I was deprived. But I couldn’t do it. I shook my head and smiled myself away.

The father felt a sense of obligation. His problem was thankfulness.

I had to find some way to relieve their gratitude.

The next day the husband and I went to a local billiard hall. I learned billiards (not pool) at the Student Union at the University of Wisconsin. I wasn’t very good, but the nicest part was teaching Margie Ann and her friends how to hold a cue properly. I stood behind them and coached them from the rear. That’s the only way you can illustrate how to have a proper bridge in the left hand, while balancing the cue in the right. Snuggling girls is what I like most about straight-line billiards.

The pool hall in Heerlen had just two tables, covered in worn green baize. It must have been a favorite place for the husband, the out-of-work miner. I could see he was a better player than I.

I was inept. He was excellent but had to hide his skill. He wanted to throw the games. I pretended not to notice. It took some time before I was able to beat him. We played another game, and I beat him again. I bought two beers and we left. The debt of gratitude he owed me was partially paid.

I left for Germany two days later. The parting was formal. He shook my hand. I shook the hand of the boy. I shook the limp hand of the wife. Her eyes looked away.



Shop area, Heerlen, 1945; WWII Tracings, Sharing the Stories of the Men of the 111th Ordnance Company (MM);



Aug 222016
Omar Bradley, 1945

Omar Bradley, 1945

Seven years after the war ended, I met General Omar Bradley at a cocktail party. He had been the Commanding General of the Twelfth Army Corps and he had ordered the attack.

I had studied the war for a number of years. Almost no popular history was written about the November campaign north of Geilenkirchen and the Hürtgen Forest. Seventy thousand men were killed, wounded, or were missing in an action that has never made popular history.

I asked General Bradley why the battle had been fought. He said, “There wasn’t any military reason for the battle. Strategically, it meant nothing. But Stalin asked Roosevelt to put on the pressure so the Russian Army could have some relief. I was against it, but Ike pushed it.”

That’s what the general told me. I had trained with some of the seventy thousand. Fort-five thousand casualties had been caused by trench foot.  We did not have proper winter boots because Bradley had given priority to ammunition and gasoline, instead of the winter clothing we needed. I have two frostbitten toes, and Shad Northshield was evacuated with trench foot.

Other casualties: Lieutenant Mercer Yeager, S/Sgt Curran Begnaud, PFC David T. Powell, Pvts Jack Reynolds and Ben Levin. All dead.

Ben Levin was caught in a minefield after dark. We heard the blast of the anti-personnel mine, designed to blow its steel at testicle level. We heard his screams but we were not to go to him until the minefield was cleared. Anyone who moved forward might trip another mine.

We heard Ben yell for a medic.

He had been with me on the train to the embarkation dock in New Jersey and we had sung that silly song that got me out of the front lines. Levin never became the master of ceremonies he hoped to be. His patter included changing words in the sentimental tunes popular at the time.

I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places,” became I’ll be obscening you in all the old familiar places.

He mutated the opening of “One O’clock Jump” to: Open your legs, you’re breaking my glasses. I’ve got my face just where your ass is.”

He took the tune, “I’ve got my eyes on you,” and changed it to: “I’ve got my thighs on you.”

Ben’s screams became weaker as time passed.

      Hitler has only got one ball,

      Goering has two, but small,

      Himmler is somewhat similar,

      but Goebbels has no balls at all!

After a time Levin made no sound at all. Graves Registration must have picked him up two days after he was killed.

I suppose my face changed when General Bradley told me what his orders had been. I must have reacted. He explained.

“War is just the extension of National Policy,” Omar said.

Bradley’s biographers call him the soldier’s general.

The soldier’s general did not give us waterproof shoes.



Bradley, Omar. Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids.  Aug. 15, 2016.


“I’ve Got My Eyes on You (1939 song)” by Cole Porter






Aug 152016
Henry Kissinger in 1945

Henry Kissinger, 1945

I met Hyman Lipsky in an abandoned chicken coop outside a chateau near Marche-en-Famenne, Belgium on December 24, l944. Hyman and I had been part of an OPL, an outpost line before a MLR, a main line of resistance. Some tanks from the 116th Panzer Grenadier Division had overrun the two of us. The Germans came out of their vehicles and began cooking. We should have pulled out when we heard the rumbling, but they came too fast. Lipsky was first to hide in the chicken coop and I followed.

Lipsky and I held a short theological conference.

Here was the military problem: we could sit in the chicken coop until dark, about two hours away, and then scramble out. Or we could panic now and flee.

Here was the theological problem: both Hy and I wore dog tags with our name, serial numbers and our religion punched into them. According to the military, our faith was H for Hebrew. I never was observant but for me, only scholars and the anti-Semites used the word Hebrew. Jews called each other Jews; maybe “hebes” once in a while. But only in Temple had I heard Hebrew. Nobody minded yid provided another yid said it. I wished I could speak Yiddish, my mother’s second language, but my born-in-America father wanted us to be Yankees. “Bess, no Yiddish in front of the boys,” he’d say.

Dog tags, two metal badges hung from the neck on a chain, were not only for identity, but also for funeral services. P was for Protestantism, C was for Catholicism, but everybody knew there was no Hebrew-ism. Why H? Why couldn’t the Armed forces of the United States give us a J? The military must have heard of Judaism.

A Gentile told me that if one Christian called another a Jew, he meant it as an insult. Hebrew was more respectful. That’s why I didn’t want to be captured by the Germans. I knew exactly how they felt about H’s. To the Nazis all H’s were J’s.

“I’m leaving,” I told Hymen.

“They’ll see you,” he answered. “I’ll wait until dark.”

They didn’t see me. The ground was frozen and covered with snow. I slid on my belly, remembering the first rule of the enlisted infantry: “Move forward and keep a tight asshole.” No one shot at me and I returned to our lines and my sleeping quarters in a holding area inside a jail in Marche-en-Famenne. When I returned I reported the tanks; they seemed to know about them.

As far as I can remember, that’s where I saw Private Henry Kissinger. A lot of books acknowledge Dr. Kissinger as a member of the 84th Infantry Division, but as a private he had become the top aide to the officers of Military Intelligence.

The Army had sent Kissinger and me to specialized training colleges in Pennsylvania. Later we had both been assigned to the same infantry division. I met him on the train that brought us to Camp Claiborne before shipping out to Europe.

Here in the Bulge were pudgy private Perry and pudgy private Henry looking at some newly captured Germans. It was Henry who brilliantly questioned a captured German prisoner in that Belgian jail. I heard his German accent when he spoke English.

The interrogator usually had a cigar box which held various insignia ranks. Had a German Hauptman (Captain) been captured, the cigar box held the eagles of an American Colonel to put on his collar. “Always outrank the enemy by two grades,” was taught at Camp Ritchie Intelligence Training Camp. Kissinger, who wore no rank, pinned the double bars of a captain on his shirt because on that Christmas Day, the German prisoner was a private. When the soldier was brought to him, at first the interrogator paid no attention. Henry shuffled papers on his desk for perhaps fifteen seconds, and then, without looking up said in German, “Is that the way a German soldier stands in front of a SUPERIOR OFFICER!”

Thunk of heels. Chin in, stomach in, chest out.

“What is the War Machine coming to? Are you just the People’s Storm, or are you a genuine soldier? Where is your emergency food packet?”

A slap at a pocket.

“I don’t suppose you can read a map. We’re here; this is Marche, our unit headquarters. Where is your company?”

The soldier pointed to the enemy position I had fled. They took him away. The interrogator put his captain’s bars in the cigar box and became a private once more. Somebody telephoned the nearby British artillery.

Two very cold days passed. Headquarters wanted to know if the tanks were still near the chicken coop. We went into the valley again and up the hill toward the chateau and the chicken coop. A German fighting force was not there. We drew no fire.

Our artillery had fired large shells. Some had burst in the tree branches and rained shattered steel. I found a few dead German tankers. Their corpses were cold, and they died clutching themselves, their bodies in rolls like tight beaded commas. I found Lipsky. too.

In military films featuring artillery or mortar bursts, the special effects people often light a fireball and a body leaps out of it and falls to the ground. If there’s a close-up, you may see the victim with blood around him.

What they don’t show is that shrapnel can cut through a soldier and split him in two or more parts. The frozen human body looks like cut sides of beeves hanging in a slaughterhouse. Hanging on a bush I saw what must have been a loop of human intestines.

Hyman had been sliced straight down through the neck to his crotch—two iced bloody sides of him with his insides showing. I couldn’t find his right arm. What was left of his face was yellow white. Allied artillery had killed him; artillery confirmed by the interrogator.

My co-religionist dog tags were on the ground. I found one and put it in his clenched mouth. The Graves Registration Detail would be sure to see the “H”, and he’d have an “H” service.

A few years later in New York I rode in a taxi driven by an old man named Nathan Lipsky. I didn’t ask if he knew Hyman. I never again saw Kissinger as a soldier.



Henry Kissinger 1945,







Aug 082016
John Robas

John Robas

The man who fired the BAR and saved me was John Stoddard Robas. He was slim, apple-cheeked, quick, and had only one eye. When we were sent to the 334th Infantry Regiment to become combat soldiers we were told it would only be a matter of time before he and I would be transferred. The Company Commander never took us seriously and John and I never took basic training seriously. I was a myopic miscast as a rifleman; he was a half-blind misfit carrying a Browning automatic rifle.  The BAR was designed as a two man sub-machine gun, but the Company Commander was so sure Robas was a misfit that he never gave John a partner.  I was called the other misfit or the nearsighted goldbrick.

In Louisiana, John and I had combat instruction only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we broadcast a radio program from KALB, Alexandria: Fatigues and Leggings. KALB was a few miles from Camp Claiborne but far enough removed that we missed garbage details and some tedious, strenuous hikes. We both found girl friends who were announcers at the radio station.

“Muff” Ayres announced in a southern accent when she broadcast, but otherwise she was unaccented, beautiful and literate. She helped me forget the girl at Wisconsin who said she would never forget me, but who quickly forgot to write.  “Muff” and I got along well, but I never knew whether the kisses we exchanged were lip-synced southern hospitality or more than a moment in a magnolia scented evening. She did invite me to her very rich home and introduced me to a father who tolerated my watered-down Marxism, and my earnest civil rights innuendoes. Miss Ayres became a famous southern writer, “Ellen Douglas” and while I laid a hand on her, that’s as far as it went.

John Robas went farther and farther with the other lady announcer. He counseled patience.

“It will happen, Perry. I can see it will happen. Despite her genteel southern accent, her body language is yelling.”

When it didn’t happen, he said, “I was sure you’d bed her. I owe you one.”

He paid me back—and later I paid him back. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

We were suddenly quarantined. No phone calls, no goodbyes. I wrote “Muff” and she wrote me a letter I received during the Battle of the Bulge. By then she was married, and had a stomach ache that later turned out to be a son.

John Robas and I remained foot soldiers. Our division was shipped to England, and then to Europe.  On the boat coming over the Regimental Commanding Colonel lectured us.

“We are a well-trained fighting outfit. I can’t say who will be hurt in combat, but those of you who are best trained, the odds are on your side. Those who are poorly trained had better get lucky.”

As if the enemy’s artillery could make the distinction.

The twelve day crossing was cramped and boring. Half the time we were above decks rolling in seasickness, and the other half we were below in smelly cots and slings, three men atop each other. I found our ship had quarters for prisoners. On this trip the cells were empty and gave us more room and fewer odors than our assigned quarters. We slung our bed packs into the cells and John sat on the toilet playing his guitar for two comrades, Ralph Loeff and Benjamin Levin. Ben had aspirations to be a night club comedian and we made up a skit based on the inherent hostility between enlisted ranks and the officer class. Ben choreographed a chorus line for the three of us, and Robas improvised a tune.

It is strange that in all the movies I have seen about World War II, the class warfare between enlisted men and commissioned officers is almost never mentioned. Germans and Japanese did not incite dislike as rabid as that between ranks. Here we were: eating standing, sleeping so close together that our farts could be smelled three sleeping bags away, and there they were dining with tablecloths and napkins—being served at tables.

We college boys improvised a song and dance citing our dislike of our rulers.

          A golden bar, a shiny bar, a semi-private jeep!

          A separate mess, and wouldn’tcha guess,

          Sheets in which to sleep!

I forget the rest of the doggerel. The GI’s were amused. By chance the officer in charge of Special Services thought it might entertain the brass, and asked us to sing and dance at the officers’ mess. We recruited three more privates to the chorus line, and did the ditty for the brass, who, being predominantly civilians in uniforms took our griping in good cheer.

          War’s disaster

          For a Quartermaster

         Doesn’t seem too great.

Those few minutes of enjoyment saved my life in World War II. The officer in charge of Special Services needed one more man in his Table of Organization, and I was temporarily assigned to him. It meant in part getting two bottle of whiskey to each officer once a month (enlisted men received no free alcohol, rationed or not rationed). Along with offloading booze from cargo trucks driven by black service troops, I was appointed Regimental Historian. I was to compile reports from the battlefield, write them up, and send them to the Division Historian.  I took the assignment seriously. At the time nobody else did. Because Lieutenant Redfield needed only one man. Loeff, Levin, and Robas remained in the rifle company.

The 334th Infantry went into battle early in November 1944. One week later, one third of its soldiers and officers were casualties. In the first advance, lasting two days, 55 men were killed, wounded, or missing. James Grey, a professional boxer, the man who had replaced me, was killed on the first day. That would have been me. John Robas and his Browning survived the first advance. I don’t know what happened to Loeff, but Levin was killed a few weeks later. The Company Commander was so inept, he was replaced and assigned to the Graves Registration Unit. He commanded the detail that picked up and wrapped the dead in mattress covers.

While they fought, I guarded the duffel bags containing the officers’ personal effects, and I prepared to write the regiment’s history. In my first days as regimental historian I found something had gone terribly wrong north of Geilenkirchen. The officers who were responsible to see that our regiment connected properly with the unit on our right had not gone to the front lines to see that had taken place. They should have verified our right flank, but instead there was a gap, a salient, in our lines. The approach road below was exposed to enemy fire. None of the reports they sent and I read noted anything about the mistake. The Germans had infiltrated and taken high ground looking down on us, into our foxholes. That was one of the reasons the regiment had taken so many casualties.

Robas saw it happen and told me about it. John’s word was as good as the official statements. I wrote the error into the report: We were flanked and exposed to German small arms, artillery and mortars. Robas told me the story and added: “’Wolff, I’ve had too much. Maybe a self-inflicted wound. Maybe I’ll run away.”

My report went forward and I heard nothing more until the Division was pulled out of the lines. Lieutenant Redfield appeared.

“They want you to change the report,” he said.

“How, sir?”

“Re-file, and get rid of that stuff about mistakes. Drop the section on the casualties.”

“Sir, that’s what happened. I went to the aid stations, and I went over the ground myself.”

“I want it edited.”

I said, “Sir, this report has to go forward over your name. The Regulation requires the signature of a commissioned officer and I am not an officer. You are.”

We hung. A deal could be made.

“Wolff, what do you want?”

“I want John Robas sent to a rear echelon job.”

“I can transfer him to a job as a Military Policeman.”

“I appreciate that, sir. And I’ll edit the report.”

So much for accuracy and honest journalism. I edited out the officers’ errors. I violated journalistic principles to save the life of a friend. I had no pangs, then or since. Until the Battle of the Bulge my friend John Stoddard Robas was safe, as I was. I wrote a fable to save my friend. As Napoleon Bonaparte surmised, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”

Years later I searched the official history of the division. The story of the gap had been left out. The losses to the enemy artillery were emphasized. The fable had been written and frozen into the official after-battle record, and I had helped write it.

I saw John once in the Battle of the Bulge and twice after the war. He flew bananas from the Caribbean. He and his wife came to New York for a visit. Then we lost touch. War had brought us together but peace separated us.



John Robas, p. 199, Fortune Favored the Brave, A History of the 334th Infantry 84th Division, by Cpl. Perry S. Wolff,  Mannheim Press, 1945







Aug 012016
High Ground North of Geilenkirchen

High Ground North of Geilenkirchen

Five months after D-day, both sides were exhausted. The Germans retreated from France to prepared positions inside the Siegfried Line. The Americans and British waited for supplies. The lines were fixed. November 1944 was a battle with echoes of World War 1. We huddled in holes in the ground to escape machine gun fire from concrete bunkers, and heavy artillery barrages.

Several miles behind the front, high-powered searchlights banked their beams into low clouds. The reflected light spread for miles through the night sky. Men and vehicles moved as shadows in the haze. At times a brilliant flare would fly up, explode; hang like a tiny sun battling midnight, and all action would freeze. In a minute or so the flare collapsed into darkness. The pupils of my eyes reopened and adjusted to the thin light. The explosion, which had brought fear, could not sustain it.

There was time to think of what had been left behind. Fear surrendered to petulance, petulance dissolved to remembrance, and remembrance cascaded into speculation.

Until the next flare, until the next artillery barrage.

There are differences between terror, fear and panic. Terror explodes with the first explosion. Terror cannot be dealt with.  Fear comes when terror is localized— rifle or sub-machine fire. Those sources are near and something can be done.

Panic builds. Artillery fire, coming from so far so suddenly and so long. The explosions are consistently, persistently near. Nothing can be done, but dig a hole in the ground for protection. In World War I prolonged panic was called “shell shock.” In World War II “battle fatigue.” In Vietnam “post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Though the artillery fire was heavy, one search-lit night the engineers crawled forward with mine detectors. They left a cleared area, a tape corridor wide enough for a sniper to crawl through before the attack in force began. I entered combat crawling on my mud soaked belly.

There were some fourteen million uniformed Americans behind me. Not one in front of me.

An exposed machine gunner had to be careful. If he were in a bunker he could fire a heavy water-cooled machine gun in long bursts. But after the Americans breached the concrete defenses of the Siegfried Line, the German machine gunners were in the open with sub-machine guns. That’s why they fired short bursts. Long ones would reveal their position.

I became exposed. As part of the 334th Infantry Regiment, I was inside the Geilenkirchen salient, in a field northeast of the town of Geilenkirchen, when a German machine gunner saw me. He shot and missed. I dropped behind a small rise onto the wet cold ground. What I had to do was roll over on my shoulder and release an entrenching shovel hooked to my back cartridge belt. If I could dig, I could increase the height of the sheltering mound.

I tried to move.

As I turned, my left shoulder rose above the small rise. The gunner fired and missed. The bullets hit the ground and ricocheted above me. I felt the splatter and heard the whine.

Face down again. He fired again.

I waited a few minutes and tried once more. I lifted my shoulder and twisted for the shovel. The mud splattered. It started about ten in the morning. Now and then he shot just to show he was there. I was on the cold and wet ground for some two hours. I thought I would die. So I talked to God, whom I had neglected for many years.

Because I thought I would die in combat, I wanted to be connected to Infinity. Lying on the ground, becoming more certain of death, I tried to negotiate with the Cosmos. I was 23 and a virgin. I didn’t think masturbation was on the Universe’s agenda of sexual sin.

I had disagreed with my father on the marriage he wanted for me. Abe Wolff worked for Reich Dress, and his friend Yitzhak had a daughter in Manley Frocks. I had said no. “If I ever get out,” I told the Universe, “I will marry whomever my father chooses.”

I never thought you could make a deal with God. My father was a salesman who liked negotiating, but I never liked seeing him do it.  The Universe does not wrangle. But I tried: “Infinity, I will go to medical school as my mother wants, and give up literature. Do something for me, please.”

Our machine guns had triggers. If they were thumbed quickly, a minimum of bullets could be fired. About four …tock..tock..tock..tock. I think the German guns worked that way. His sub-machine machine gun went tock..tock. Only two. I heard only two tocks, instead of four. Maybe the German gun had jammed.

I tried to run before he cleared the feed. I dragged my left foot, which seemed paralyzed and I found shelter among the vegetables.

The German farmers had dug up sugar beets before the battle. Large harvested mounds lay in elongated piles across the fields. The heaps were about three feet high and three feet at the bottom of their extended pyramids. I rolled into their protection, belly down. A few minutes later a very long burst, which was absorbed totally by the vegetables. I was safe.

He should not have fired that long burst. He had given away his exposed position. A Browning automatic rifle on my right answered him immediately. A BAR was not a machine gun. It was an inelegant weapon that weighed a lot but not as much as a machine gun. It did its job. He did not fire again. He had given away his position. He had been killed by my friend.

I crawled until it was safe to stand and hobble away.



“High Ground North at Geilenkirchen,” p. 38, Fortune Favored the Brave, A History of the 334th Infantry 84th Division, by Cpl. Perry S. Wolff,  Mannheim Press, 1945