One May night, the Third Battalion heard military movement on the other side of the Elbe. Some foolish American officer ordered random fire over the river. He was foolish because our reconnaissance parties and the Soviets had met several times. We knew they were on their side of the river, and they knew we were on ours. They returned fire and a Russian mortar shell burst fifty feet or so to my left, but nobody was hurt.
Reason prevailed over procedure. It could have been an international incident.
The Russians had brought tanks to the edge of the Elbe. They had advanced to the agreed upon line of demarcation between there Army and ours. We had been trigger happy but our official report (later dictated to me and refused by me) would read that we had run into a German unit and fired on it to defend ourselves. That action is still in the official Army History. Unhappily for historians, happily for me.
The next morning we saw their soldiers on the far bank. Our officers fueled the barges and went to meet their counterparts.
The first contact had been made a few days earlier at Torgau, up river. Both sides wasted a day getting their publicity machine ready. The Torgau meeting was re-staged for reporters and cameramen and became a stock footage standard for films on World War II.
GI Joe’s (we hated the term) and Russian Ivan’s meeting, shaking hands. Cut to a Soviet accordion player. Pan to Russians dancing on their heels, cut to Allies arm in arm. Smiles, many smiles to be used as inter-cuts. A Russian officer, a two star American general who had probably come from ten miles back.
No one will ever believe it could be otherwise. Documentaries can’t lie.
At our quieter meeting, further north, each side was curious, but indifferent.
A day or two later some fifteen of us were detached and trucked back to Hanover. We were told our mission was to guard a castle, Schloss Hanover.
“Against whom are we guarding, sir?”
“The Germans. The Germans loot too. This place is full of valuables.”
We moved into the guardhouse. We couldn’t wear shoes. The beautiful hardwood floors of the castle were not to be marred. Felt slippers were obligatory for all, including visitors. They came, mostly at night—officers with flashlights whose indifferently patterned beams reorganized grandiose paintings by obscure artists.
The Hanoverian Kings of England came from here. Indeed, the British relieved us several days later. Their officers arrived in an enormous Bentley.
We were moved south to the Neckar Valley, just outside Heidelberg. We had nothing to do.
There was talk that we would be shipped to the States, and then to Japan.
We lived among the Germans in German houses. A directive from the war department confused us. The policy was “non-fraternization.” Soldiers who fraternized with the Germans would be fined $75.
There was a quick answer “Fucking is not fraternizing!”
I was asked to use my Yiddish again. “How do you ask them out?” “Like, for a walk?”
“Say, ‘Whoa len sea spot sear en gay en.’”
I never asked it myself. After Ahlem Hanover and for the next decade I wanted nothing to do with them, and I bought nothing of German manufacture.
American capitalism appeared before American government arrived. The supply section liberated some red, white, and black cloth and recruited local women to make banners. The ladies were paid in soap, coffee and C rations. The flags were sold to the rear-echelon personnel.
In a local foundry a great circular seal was struck. In the center, the American eagle, and around it the text: THIS SEAL IS TO SATISFY GERMAN DESIRE FOR OFFICIALDOM. The flag ladies were given stamped documents, signed by a forged Franklin Roosevelt signature.
An engineering friend and I built a radio station, WCIR, for W Cowhide Infantry Regiment, our unofficial designation. Unfortunately, we had chosen the same frequency the British were using and we were shut down as soon as military government arrived.
I wrote and narrated a broadcast in the style of Norman Corwin—something that sounded like poetry but wasn’t. I remember the first two lines:
“You are in a foxhole north of Geilinkirchen
Between rain and winter…”
Later it reminded me of Robert Frost’s comment on Carl Sandburg’s free verse.
“It’s like playing tennis without a net.”
The commander of our regiment, Colonel Roy, was a stranger to me. I never saw him during the two years I served under him. The Colonel had an idea: he wanted a souvenir book published on the actions of his unit. He passed his notion to Captain Richard who told me I was to assemble all my papers and write a book about our valor. Captain Frank Roles accompanied him.
“We have chosen someone to do the maps. Captain Roles and I have gone to the biggest publishing house in Mannheim. They will do the printing. Captain Roles will go to Paris to examine the Signal Corps archives for photos. You will write the text. Clear, Wolff?”
“Sir, the pictures will be related to the text. I’d like to go to Paris with the Captain.”
“So would I, soldier. That’s all.”
Kalbfleish and Roles were both West Pointers. Our civilian officers often referred to regular army men as WPPS, the West Point Protective Society. As an infantry major, Roles had been drunk at the first American encounter with the enemy, the 1943 battle at Kasserine Pass in North Africa. By General Patton’s orders he had been stripped of his rank and given a dishonorable discharge. He re-enlisted as a private in the Army, requesting infantry duty. Whether it was his bravery, or the influence of the WPPS he got a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant, then a First Lieutenant, and then a Captain. As I was to learn, he had his eye on the gold oak leaf worn by Majors.
The manuscript was prepared from the notes I had gathered and from accounts sent in by each company in the Regiment. I was to take credit as the author, but that error on the banks of the Elbe suddenly became crucial to my future. I wrote that we had fired on the Soviets by mistake.
They wanted no mistakes.
Kalbfleish asked me to change it. He couldn’t order me to write a lie, but that is what he wanted. I said no. We had already disagreed. I had insisted on a listing of the men of the 334th Regiment who had been killed. An honor role. They disagreed, but I slipped the record in anyway.
Suddenly the obscure writing job assigned to me became of great importance. It was always expected to be a commissioned officer’s duty, as required by Army Regulations. My part-time job as a corporal writing military reports was taken over by Captain Frank Roles, certain to be Major Frank Roles again, particularly at pension time. I was to be his aide, unless I wanted reassignment.
Reassignment meant I was to be transferred out—to Paris.
The book was published as Fortune Favored the Brave and if you ever read it, you will see that our Third Battalion fired on GERMAN, not Russian targets.*
You will also see Colonel Roy looking fearlessly in the future—and showing a trim figure. You will probably not read the names of the dead, but their families will. No money was paid to the Mannheimer Großdruckerie. Butter, K rations and fuel were bartered for the printing. I received several copies once I was in Paris. I was credited as the author. I should have taken my name off the book.
* See footnote under Waiting for the Russians
The American-Soviet Linkup at Torgau, Germany on the Elbe River, http://www.69th-infantry-division.com/eastwest/eastwest.html