Immigrant Soldier: The American Journey of Albert J. Heim

Memories of Albert Heim (Part 7)

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Alsace Lorraine - - A taste of the real thing

It was here that I received notice that I was attached to A Company of the 111th Machine Gun Battalion as an advanced ordinance man.  My duty was to keep all the machine guns and anything pertaining to the equipment for transportation and the functioning of same in the best of condition.  Spare parts had to be on hand for instant repair whenever necessary.  Our battalion had four machine gun companies and to each company was attached one ordinance man.  The four of us had one ordinance sergeant over us.  While we were attached to a machine gun company we received our orders from the captain of this particular company.  When we were not attached we were functioning with the Headquarters Company of the battalion.  As ordinance men we were always quartered with the company supply sergeant.  Of course I was not too pleased with this, for I had to leave good old H Company but due to the fact that I had mechanical experience in civil life, that was sufficient reason why I was picked and received training in regards to the care of machine guns.  At first I found my new duties very interesting and it always made me feel pretty good when my company passed the inspection in good shape.  Of course the fellows in the machine gun squads were always very cooperative and usually followed my suggestions about the care of their equipment.  However soon I was to find out that perhaps I would have been better off in the Infantry, because a machine gunner was not very popular with the fellows on the other side of the trenches.  But then we felt the same way.  So, for about a week we were very busy shining and oiling up our equipment, loading machine gun belts and getting used to the little Spanish donkeys that were issued to us to pull our machine gun carts.  The hours and the days passed quickly, while we were practicing and drilling so every man knew exactly what to do when the time of action arrived.  Finally the day came only too soon when we were ordered for immediate departure.  Our officers impressed upon us never to talk to the natives about our movements and to make certain that we would be very careful about discussing things of this sort especially when the natives are around us and can hear our conversation.  The territory we were in (Alsace Lorraine) was under German rule before the war and German was still spoken here by many.  In fact it was a sort of a dialect, a German and French mixture, for when I heard the natives converse with one another I could understand them fairly well.  The people were very friendly toward us.  A few of us could talk German but we would never speak to the people here in German. We always communicated with them in our very best of French.  That of course was really nothing to brag about.  It must have been very amusing to the natives to hear us talk for they always grinned, even when we tried to say something serious.  As I mentioned before, we were ordered to prepare for a “Move Up,” meaning getting closer to the front lines.  This time there were no trains to transport us and from now on it was all on foot and in the darkness of night.  So this day after our evening mess each man received a hike ration, two corn beef sandwiches and an orange.  All sergeants and corporals briefed their men and at 22 hours the battalion pulled out of the village just as quiet as possible.  There was no smoking only at the different rest periods during our night march and only when we were covered by thick foliage or other camouflage.  Movements of this sort had to be carried out at night because the enemy could very easily observe our movements by day by airplanes or observation balloons.  This was our first night march and it was indeed rough.  Our packs were getting heavier and heavier.  At last around four in the morning we arrived at a farm village and within an hour we were all billeted in barns, houses, and stables.  The packs came off real fast and the only thing we took from our packs were the blanket rolls.  Coats, shoes, and leggings were quickly removed, then belts were loosened and before any one could count t e n the gang was in sweet slumber, except the poor devils that were on guard duty.  Of course this could not be helped but for the next time, those who were sleeping now, will be on guard then and it is amazing, no one ever reneged on this rule.  None of us really knew where we were but one thing was certain, we were nearer to the front line than yesterday.  We were really lucky because the Alsace Lorraine front was a defensive sector and things were a lot easier here than other fronts further north from us.  This was in our favor and perhaps we had a better chance of getting used to this terrible business.  We were billeted in an old empty house and suddenly some one yelled, “Come and get it” which of course did not make us very angry for we were just about starved and ready for that CHOW.  I have forgotten the name of the this village but I do remember there was a wide canal and two canal – locks in the village.  We found out that this was a very important section of the Rhine, Rhone river canal, which connected the Rhine river with the Rhone River and we saw quite a number of barges that were being towed by horses that trampled on a towpath along the canal.  During the afternoon a platoon of men from another division marched in the town and they stopped at our field kitchen to be fed.  Naturally we were all very anxious to speak to them for we knew they came from the front.  They were being relieved and were on their way to a rest camp.  They had been in the trenches for 18 days and they certainly looked it.  They were indeed a tired looking bunch and were in need of a good cleaning up job.  The first thing they asked for was “Got a smoke buddy? “  According to their information we were 10 kilometers from the communication trenches and they also told us that the nights were worse than the daytime and while it was not too bad, anything could happen at any moment, so you guys keep your eyes open, that was the advice we got from them.  Well, at least we had some idea of what to expect but we were just wondering when will it be our turn.  We did not have to wait for the next day.  A and C Company were ordered to stand by.  Things really started to move.  Each platoon had their own briefing sessions and the supply sergeant and I were informed where our gun emplacements and ammo suppliers were supposed to be and besides numerous other orders we were ready to take off.  We were just sitting around waiting for darkness and to make it more interesting a fine drizzle started to come down.  Finally at 22 [hundred] hours the drizzle changed into rain but they did not stop the war on account of that, we just took off and the closer we got to the line the muddier became these French roads.  I forgot to mention, before we left the village each man had to enter a gas chamber to test his gas mask.  If your eyes did not water while in the gas chamber, the gas mask was O.K.  This was a very important precaution because a faulty gas mask surely would have been fatal in case of a gas attack.  We must have been two or three kilometers out of the village, when our captain held up the entire column.  There was a French liaison officer with the skipper and he was the one that suggested this sudden hold.  The orders were passed through the column that we were creating too much sound and it had to stop, unless we wanted a few rounds of artillery shells to fall on us.  Between the mess-kits and some of the equipment not properly secured, they could hear us all the way to Berlin.  This certainly sobered us up very fast and with all the training we had there is always some thing new to be learned.  Indeed this could have become a very unpleasant situation for us and it never happened again.  Our column moved through a wooded area and just before we came to the edge of the other side of the woods our little donkeys and the machine gun carts were stored under the trees and some camouflage and now the men had to carry their guns, tripods, water boxes and ammo belts through the winding communication trenches which started at the edge of the woods.  These trenches were about wide enough for two fellows to pass each other and about six feet in depth.  The rain had stopped but it was very misty.  Every now and then we came to an open section of stone wall and care had to be taken to keep low because there was no protecting trench.  One good thing, the rain gradually stopped but it became very misty and the wet clothes and shoes certainly were anything but comfortable.  Again we entered a section of trenches and then the column stopped and the first gun squad crawled through an opening in the trench to their gun emplacement to relieve the fellows that had been there for over two weeks.  Of course the usual exchange of instructions and observations took place between officers and non-commissioned officers and after a silent and cheerful “good luck”  they went the way we came for a well-earned rest.  And so it went all the way down the column until all our guns were in their proper position.  So, finally we made it for the first time we were facing the real enemy and I might as well state right now that I did not feel as brave  as I thought I would especially when I moved from one gun position to another to see if they had everything they needed.  One of those annoying Verey lights zoomed up into the sky and transferred the night into day.  My heart stopped, the supply sergeant and I just stood petrified the way we were trained until it became dark again and I believe it was the longest lasting Verey light the Germans sent up.  In one of the other sections  some one must have moved, because bursts of machine gun fire came across no man’s land and we could see the tracer bullets zoom over the heads of some of our emplacements.  We were just lucky, no one got it, and this is how we found out, that the other side was not fooling.  As I look back now, we were indeed very fortunate to be assigned to this sector in Alsace Lorraine for our first contact with the enemy.  As I mention before this was a defensive sector and the action that took place here was by no means as severe as on the other fronts further north.  However one could never foresee what was ahead.  - - - The enemy must have been very nervous this night.  Perhaps they had an idea that new and fresh troops were being brought up for before sunrise we heard for the first time the long and whining sound of shells screaming over our heads and what a relief it was when we heard the ear splitting blast of the exploding shell.  A few of these landed not too far in front of our position and I never hugged mother earth so tight in all my life as then.  It was not too comforting to hear the whistling shrapnel and dirt and rocks fly all over the place.  But we pulled through in good shape on this our first night on the front.  The only thing is the wondering, who got it this time and like one French soldier told us, when you hear them (the shells) you’re OK, it’s when you don’t hear them, then you got nothing to worry about.  Really a very comforting thought? We felt a lot better when daylight came, for quite often sudden rat tat tat tat of a machine gun would start from the other side and just to let them know that we were still here we gave them a dose of their own medicine and the fellows felt a lot better for being able to retaliate.  Machine guns were used as sparingly as possible during the night because this would give away ones position.  This was the reason why more machine gun activity took place during the day.  It is a very weird feeling to hear the zing of bullets whistle across ones path and our good guardian angel sure was on the job especially when I had to go from one gun position to another for check ups.  Each day at the front brought us many anxious moments but like every thing else we were beginning to take this awful business in strife like already seasoned veterans.

About two weeks passed, when we were relieved by another green and fresh outfit of young fellows, who like us wanted to know what it is like at the front.  Of course we told them, keep your head down and your eyes and ears wide open, things can happen awful fast.  Again all our troop movements took place at night after two night marches we arrived at a village further north in the Vosges Mountains of Lorraine.  Here we had a chance of cleaning up, washing our filthy clothes and of course our guns and all other equipment got A priority, ready for instant use.  Our rest period lasted for about a week.  Every evening between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. all the wine and beer establishments were open for the boys.  We also had a Y.M.C.A. hut in town where the gang used to hang out and listen to records, every now and then they showed a movie and of course that is where we bought our cigarettes and other sweet items.  This was also a great hangout for the French kids and how they asked for chewing gum and candy.  They also came around our field kitchens and of course  our cooks were always nice to them.  They loved our wheat bread with syrup and our Karo and quite often some of the boys in particular would eat with us at mess time.  The French women never stopped admiring our ivory soap because they thought it would stick to the bottom of the fountain and when they saw the soap floating on the water they just stood there in amazement.  And believe it or not they would gladly exchange two or three fresh eggs for one of those marvelous cakes of ivory soap.  All the French school children wore black smocks and wooden shoes over felt slippers.  They always removed their wooden shoes before entering their class rooms.  You could always see a neat and straight line of wooden shoes in the hall of their school.  One of our cooks was really a jolly fellow and he loved to tease the kids.  He always gazed at that neat and straight line of wooden shoes in the school hall.  So one day he told us to watch the kids coming out of school at noon.  Just before we lined up for our noon day mess he sneaked over to the school hall with a can of Karo syrup and poured a little of the sweet stuff in quite a few of the wooden shoes.  He even held back the mess line so every one could see what would happen.  The school bell rang and it was indeed a very funny sight when the felt slippers stuck to the wooden shoes.  Some of the kids laughed and some of them did not, especially the girls.  The noisy chatter attracted the attention of the teacher and when he saw what it was all about he immediately looked in our direction but I guess he changed his line of thought, after all a bunch of grown men certainly wouldn’t be capable of even thinking of a miserable trick like that ? ? ?  The kids were really good sports because they were just as friendly as ever as though nothing happened.  Our lieutenant who also enjoyed the episode had a wonderful idea.  He thought we were rather mean to the kids, so let’s be nice to them and give them a party.  Everybody was in favor of his suggestion.  We all chipped in and bought all the sweets in the Y.M.C. A. hut, the cooks made a big pot of cocoa, our Y.M.C.A. director had a very funny film to show and a group of our fellows who were quite talented put on a very funny skit, half in French and English and we even had a magician in the gang.  Everybody was really excited about this party.  So we sent a delegation to see the director of the school and informed him of our plan.  He was delighted and immediately he told the children to come to the Y.M.C.A. hut that night for their big party.  Of course the kids had a ball and even the parents that came there to see what was going on had a good time also.  Best of all, we ourselves felt very good about the whole thing and the wooden shoe episode was a thing of the past.  The only trouble about this army life is, that sometimes, some of us can’t be good for too long and I might as well confess what happened a few days after we were so nice and thoughtful and good. - - - There was quite a large store in the village and they sold about everything from soup to nuts.  One day while loitering around the place we saw three large wheels of the nicest looking cheese stacked one on top of one another.  Each of these wheels were about two feet in diameter and six inches thick.  That is an awful lot of cheese.  So my sergeant remarked, hey fellows, let’s get some of this stuff before the rest of the gang finds out about it, because this cheese is going to sell like hot cakes.  I went up to the store keeper and told him that we would like to buy some of the cheese.  Oh la la he exclaimed, impossible, impossible, you must have a ration ticket in order to purchase this product.  Ration ticket? Where in the world would we get a ration ticket.  We were rather disappointed because we certainly had our mouths all set for this cheese.  We left the store and went back to our billet and just as luck would have it, our captain and another officer walked by.  We asked them how we could obtain  a so-called ration ticket and told them the reason why.  They just shook their heads and informed us that it was indeed impossible for an American soldier to get a ration ticket for cheese.  However the other officer sort of winked one of his eyes and said, I’m sure you fellows can find some way of satisfying your appetites and by the way, I too would like to taste a morsel of cheese. - - - So the four of us got together and had a regular board of directors meeting, planning of how to get a piece of that cheese.  It’s surprising when four heads get together how quickly they can solve a problem.  Perhaps this was not the proper method of obtaining our desire, but as the French would say, It’s the war. - - - The four of us went right to the store.  The sergeant and myself asked the storekeeper about some maps we wanted.  Of course we knew the maps were on the other side of the store from where those three wheels of cheese were.  The store keeper was a very friendly and helpful man and he assisted us in getting just what we wanted and we kept him with us as long as we could.  In the mean time our other two buddies just simply rolled out one nice big wheel of delicious cheese and took off with it as fast as they could go to our billet.  Finally we found just the kind of map we wanted and it cost us seven francs and we also thanked the store keeper for being so nice to us, and on our way out we noticed there were only two wheels of cheese left.  So my sergeant told me, Heimy, mission accomplished. - - - The was enough cheese for the whole outfit and we made sure that the officers got a piece of our booty and we even made certain that the major, our battalion commander got some too.  Nobody asked any questions about where it all came from but they all said, it was delicious.  Of course we knew that sooner or later that wheel of cheese would be missed and we all hoped that when the time came we would be far away from the village.  But no such luck, the next day the store keeper with a French interpreter, who by the way was a French officer reported to our major that a big wheel of cheese was missing from our good store keeper’s establishment and the perpetrators must be found and punished.  I have no idea how it settled, no doubt Uncle Sam paid plenty for it.  Of course the major too had the pleasure of enjoying a morsel of the delicious stuff and being a very congenial and good sport he simply bawled the living daylights out of us at or morning roll call and formation.  The sergeant and I did not feel too bad about this because it cost us seven francs, of course we are not counting the map?  So follows the end of the battle of the cheese. -      

Once again we received our orders to move up to the front and this time, while it was not easier at least we knew what to expect and we also learned many things that otherwise might not be too pleasant for us.  Of course, our movements were always at night and this time it took three night marches to get to the front line.  Long before we reached our positions we could hear the rumble of the big guns and the flashes in the distant sky looked and sounded like a terrible thunder storm.  For us it was a rather awesome sight and no one needed to tell us that in this sector the action was more severe than in Alsace.  Mounted M.P.s were stationed at practically all the cross roads directing the traffic of the troops, supply trucks and ammunition wagons.  Before long we turned off the road, one company at a time and we knew then that we were heading towards our position.  The little donkeys had a hard time pulling the machine gun carts for there was no road just the bare farm land and on account of the rainy weather the ground was soft and muddy and this made traveling more difficult.  Shell hole craters were so numerous that it was very hard to keep a straight line, but we just kept right on going.  We passed many batteries of heavy artillery and they certainly were pumping the stuff towards the enemy.  Never in all my life have I heard such a racket and our poor little donkeys  were frightened by the constant firing of the guns and the fellows actually  had to pick them up bodily quite often just to keep the line moving.  This was hard and agonizing work but we just had to because there were only a few hours of darkness left.  It was quite an experience to hear these heavy shells whiz over our heads and we were feeling rather comfortable because they came from our side.  Finally after climbing a hill our equipment was taken from the carts and it was now up to the boys who handled our little four legged friends to camouflage them well.  In fact I saw them taking the road back from where we came and no doubt they would have a real fine time controlling the animals again.  We still had quite a distance to go down through the valley and up another hill.  On this hill we passed more batteries but this time they were of the 75 millimeter caliber and they too were busy sending their greetings to the Boche.  Now we knew we must be pretty close to the line for these types of guns are usually the closest to the front.  They certainly were throwing a heavy barrage across the line and my sergeant remarked: Heimy, old Fritz is sure getting it tonight.  – He no more than spoke the last word when WHAM – right along side of us a German shell hit and automatically we went hugging the good old earth.  For about 15 minutes shells were exploding all around us.  Some of them came very close and it seemed the longest 15 minutes in my life.  It looked as though the Germans knew we were moving up the line.  We were caught in a barrage and some of our men were not as lucky as we for they were hit by shrapnel and they were our first casualties.  The medics took care of them.  There was no time to say, so long.  On we went to the top of another hill and at the summit we really had to keep low, because there was not a single tree or any other vantage point in sight, it was just jumping one shell hole to another until finally we arrived at our position.  The boys we were about to relieve are indeed very happy to see us and in no time at all instructions and the necessary information was exchanged and off they went to the rear for a well earned rest.  Our positions were established just before the sun came up and we also received our orders of what was going to happen this day.  Only a short distance in front of us but further down the hill was the infantry all set to attack and we were to support them by throwing a machine gun barrage over their heads.  At this particular time we did not know when zero hour was going to be but every one was well briefed.  The proper range of fire and timing was all set and all we were waiting for was the time to go over.  Our objective was the top of the ridge across the valley in front of us and as the infantry advanced we were to support them where ever needed.  Finally the order came to synchronize all watches, zero was at 10 :00 a.m. for us to open our barrage for 10 minutes then to increase our elevation and fire a criss-cross pattern for 5 minutes.  By that time the infantry would be advancing and then it was up to each platoon commander to use his fire power to the best advantage possible.  It is so easy to record all this but it was an unforgettable morning.  We reached our objective in good time but many of the boys were wounded and a good number of them we will never see again.  After reaching our objective all lines and positions and communications were re-established, and exhausted, we waited at our new position, ready for any counter offensive old Fritz might have a mind to start.  It was then that we realized the terrible sights we saw and how close we were in meeting the grim reaper and the thought of still being alive was almost unbelievable.  We held our line for the night and early the next morning we made another attack.  This time it was somewhat easier because our artillery really threw a terrific barrage across the line which cut down their resistances considerably.  However we too paid the price by many dead and wounded because the enemy also knew where to place shells where they would do the most harm.  Very unexpectedly we were informed that we were to be relieved and sure enough that very night our relief came and after only five days we again hiked to the rear.  We marched all that night and just before sun rise we arrived at a small village which was practically destroyed by shell fire.  Here we were reunited with our four-legged friends, the donkeys.  We slept where ever we found shelter from the weather and we also received orders to get all our equipment in good order at once for we were scheduled for the St.  Mihiel drive.  We never heard of such a place but where ever it was it certainly must be something pretty big coming up because we never saw so much equipment and troops of all descriptions, all moving in one direction.  About a kilometer out of the village we saw an observation balloon high in the air and it was manned by a French outfit.  It was the first time we saw an observation balloon in operation.  Not far from the observation station was quartermaster depot and there were several large tents there that covered many bales of hay for the animals that were also quartered there.  A number of us and some of our officers included of course had to find out how these Frenchies were operating that balloon.  So, we strolled over to them and after exchanging a handshake and a lot of American cigarettes they showed us around.  One of the French soldiers was really quite a host.   He offered us his canteen which was filled with Pinar, a red French wine which is a French army issue. However, this canteen was not like our canteens.  He had a peculiar nozzle attached to his canteen and in order to have a drink you had to aim at your mouth, squeeze the canteen and hope that your aim was good or the red wine would squirt all over your face.  We had more fun with this canteen, experimenting with it and trying out our marksmanship.  Of course the Frenchmen had more fun than we did and all in all we were quite a hilarious group.  Everything always happens unexpectedly, and out of a clear sky, three German planes appeared.  It all happened so fast, we stood there with our mouths wide open.  Then our captain who was also with us shouted, run for cover. - - - By that time we could hear the rat-tat-tat of the planes guns.  One of the planes went straight for the observation balloon and I saw the observer leave the balloon by jumping out, tangling his parachute and by the time he landed on terra firma his balloon was a big ball of fire.  The other two pilots made things miserable for us by strafing the streets.  It is an awful experience to see the puffs of dust from the pilots’ machine guns bullets spatter toward you and you just guess, hoping you’re going in the right direction, trying to get out of the enemy pilot’s murderous barrage.  I made a bee-line for the nearest tent and forced myself deep into the bales of hay which were stacked there and just held my breath and oh, how I prayed.  One feels so helpless without a weapon or anything to retaliate with in a situation of this kind.   However, the Germans did not have everything their own way.  The French observation unit had their anti-air batteries stationed around their base and they certainly poured the ammo up to them.  The Germans only made two passes over our area and then off they flew toward their fatherland.  It really was a miracle that there was no casualties.  Of course the balloon was a total loss and the observer who parachuted out of the balloon when he saw the Germans were going to attack him got off with a badly wrenched ankle.  We noticed the markings on the planes were a skull and the planes were painted a bright red.  We were told that these were the boys of the famous German war ace, the Baron von Richthofen.  Of course we did not care how famous these Krauts were as long as we were still able to talk about it, after everything had quieted down some it was then that I realized what a stupid thing I did, when running for cover when the German planes were strafing us.  My captain passed the place where I took cover and he started to laugh.  He put his arm around me and remarked:  Heimy, for God’s sake, is this the place where you took cover?  And then it dawned upon me, here I was under a thin canvas cover, thinking that I was safe from machine gun fire. - - - Well the thought was a little terrifying and I guess it was a good thing that I did some praying.  Of course I was not the only one that acted like an ostrich, there were some of the boys who took cover behind a stack of ammunition boxes ? ? ?

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