Friday, April 16, 2010

From the Pages - Surviving the Reich

For Ivan Goldstein, a young Jewish-American GI thrust into the Allied war against Nazi Germany, survival would be tested both as a combat soldier and a POW. In the following excerpt from Surviving the Reich, Goldstein describes his baptism by fire as part of an embattled tanker crew during the late days of Battle of the Bulge.
There was no time for fear. We were headed for combat, and a healthy tension was palpable inside our M4 Sherman tank. There were five of us. In the lower section sat the driver, Andrew Urda from Michigan, an amiable, jovial person, and the assistant driver/bow gunner (me), operating a .30-caliber machine gun. In the turret was the gunner, Cpl. Cecil Peterman from Oklahoma, with a 75mm canon. A quiet and withdrawn person, Peterman was always neat and spotless. His hobby was making state-of-the-art, original hunting knives, and he carried one of his creations on him at all times. The loader, Pvt. Dage Hebert, had worked on a farm in Montana, and by nature he was a helpful and friendly person. Staff Sergeant Wallace Alexander was our able tank commander. Young and striking in appearance, he was an aspiring actor from New York. Before the war, he attended Columbia University’s Drama School and had acted in a number of plays. My impression of Wally was that he was the best tank commander in the company, including the officers, and that I was fortunate to be part of his crew. And I was particularly glad not to be in the companion tank commanded by my captain.

So there we were, as diverse a group as you could imagine, from all parts of the country, bound together in a single objective: to join the battle as courageous American soldiers, and, hopefully, to come out of it alive.

We had named our tank Barracuda, and as resident artist, I painted the name on it. We were attached to General Patton’s Third Army. The operation was code-named Poker because the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Wray F. Sagaser, was renowned as a poker player. Though I never saw Patton, I was well aware of his reputation. A daring general and a hard fighter, his theory was to take the enemy as fast as you can, no matter what the losses. The main thing was to win.

I learned later that other military leaders had objected to his putting the 11th Armored Division into action on that day, December 30, because many of us were exhausted from the long, freezing, overland trek of the days before, and because the artillery and infantry support deemed necessary for a successful attack had not yet arrived. Patton didn’t care. He sent us in anyway, despite his peers’ dismal predictions of heavy losses. In fact, the condition of 11th Armored aside, there were more casualties at the Bulge than in any other battle in American history.

At the time, we were unaware of our slim chances. Following orders, glad to be headed for action at last, we turned north on the road toward Morhet. We had two platoons in line and one in reserve. We moved easily through the northern edge of the village. When we left the road, heading into the fields, we heard the first sounds of German gunfire. This was it! The curtain was rising on the “big show.”

Our radio crackled: “Engaged in battle, 7:30 a.m., the Krauts are on the run!” As we came to the crest of the hill, I spotted a lone German soldier riding a bicycle as fast as he could in the valley below. I watched through my periscope as machine-gun fire from the tanks to my left ripped through the terrain, finally reaching the soldier on the bike—the first enemy casualty. Just like that. Alive one second; dead the next.

A wave of nausea welled up inside me. This was the enemy, I told myself earnestly. A German, a Nazi, a barbarian. We had been told awful things about the way the Krauts treated American prisoners, so we would be better fighters and be jubilant when we killed them. I just felt sick.

I had been too young at my father’s death to grasp its dread finality. In fact, my first meaningful brush with death had been when I was about twelve years old. A childhood friend, Louis Weicker, shared my love of drawing, and we used to spend hours together, sketching and creating what we deemed great art. Even as a child, he had inspired me, subtly pushing me to compete with his outstanding talent. We vowed to be fellow artists and lifelong friends. But right after we graduated together from elementary school, Lou became ill, deathly ill. It didn’t seem possible; it didn’t seem right. We were going to be buddies forever. When he passed away, I felt like a part of me—a joyous, creative part of me—had died with him.

But now, here on this barren battlefield, it was different. I was facing vicious, desperate soldiers, I thought resolutely. They were expertly trained to kill me, unless I could get them first. I should be glad to see their blood staining the frozen ground; I should be glad.

We rolled down into the valley. The barn in front of us was the next objective, and I pictured it full of enemy fighters. Our tanks hit the barn with an avalanche of firepower. The barn doors flew open, but instead of German soldiers, horses and cows came stampeding from the barn with blood spurting from their sides like fountains—whinnying, bellowing, writhing in the snow. Somehow, I hadn’t expected this, and I was shocked by it. More nausea.

But a growing sense of victory kept me going. For the next two or three hours, Company B’s offensive was going forward at full speed. We must have surprised the enemy by the first stages of our attack, for we met with little resistance. We swept through a number of villages, taking prisoners, demolishing buildings, and destroying houses that shielded enemy fire. Later in the morning, we were supported by a squadron of our air force P-47s, which strafed enemy vehicles and troops in front of us. By early afternoon, we had liberated a number of villages and farm communities.

We left a village, heading for the open road toward Lavaselle, following the company commander’s tank. We then realized that our two tanks had become separated from the rest of the company. It was around 3:00 p.m. when a voice shouted over the radio, “We’ve been hit!”

Urda yelled, “They got the captain’s tank!”

Alone behind a barn, we suddenly felt a jolt at the back of our tank and heard a loud explosion. We had been hit too, but we could still move, and Urda drove around the barn, headed toward the snow-covered valley below. We were surrounded. Shells exploded all around us. Urda headed for what he thought was a patch of open ground, but it turned out to be a snow-covered lake, and the Barracuda quickly came to a stop. The harder he tried to maneuver and free the vehicle, the deeper it became mired in the mud and water.

We were sitting ducks. Almost immediately, the Barracuda’s left side was struck with a powerful German 88mm shell. The tank was on fire. Behind my seat, there was an escape hatch leading out through the bottom of the tank. A square wooden ammunition box filled with candy bars and chewing gum was on top of the hatch. These were rations that I had saved up after hearing that there would be no candy rations in battle. My sweet-tooth stash would soon go up in flames, and the ammunition in the tank would soon catch fire as well. In a flash, I decided it was better to take my chances getting out of the tank than to be inside when the ammo exploded.

But the candy box blocked my reach to the release lever. Water was coming in through the bottom of the tank anyway, so escape below the tank was impossible. I did the only thing I could: I raised the hatch above my head and jumped out through the top. Running across the top of the tank toward the rear, I could hear a nonstop stream of machine-gun fire striking the metal below me.

I leaped off the tank into the icy water and tried to tread as far way from the tank as possible. Under the water, I held out for as long as I could, hoping the Germans would be satisfied with the burning tank and leave. After what seemed like a long time—but actually could only have been only a few minutes—I raised my head for air. My heart sank as I saw that half a dozen smirking German soldiers were right there, their weapons pointed at me. I climbed out of the pond with my hands raised. A gun was rammed into my back, guiding me away from the Barracuda, which was now a raging pyre.

No comments:

Post a Comment