Immigrant Soldier: The American Journey of Albert J. Heim

Memories of Albert Heim (Part 8)

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Alsace Lorraine - - A taste of the real thing (continued)

As we expected, the orders came to move out.  Ever since early August, all sort of army units were concentrating in the St. Mihiel Sector.  At this particular period in the war we were always some where in some French woods waiting for further orders.  For several days now we have been on the move.  We usually pull out at night and come to a stop in some French forest before sunrise and we’ve been doing this sort of maneuvers for quite a few nights.  Then one day we stopped at a place where we saw many large caliber railroad guns.  They were indeed large, ranging from 12 to 21 inches.  I would not want to be around when these babies go off.  As we moved further on we again noticed many artillery positions of all sizes and they sure were close, almost side by side.  What ever the big brass had in mind it sure is going to be something big with all this hardware pointing towards the Rhine.  As we came closer to the front we very often saw in the distance Verey lights float slowly down the sky.  Of course we could not tell whether they were ours or the enemy’s.  There is no doubt that Old Fritz must have had a premonition of what was going to happen because he was throwing shells over at a pretty lively pace.  Finally we arrived at a wooded sector and the orders were to be on the alert at all times, ready for instant action.  We did not know it at the time but our battalion was held in reserve for the troops which were to make the attack.  Then one morning, it must have been after midnight, all hell let go. .. The flashes of the big guns behind us lit up the sky, the screeching of the projectiles whizzing over our heads from our guns was just unbelievable and the longest and biggest American barrage was on.  We were saying to one another, God help those Heinies, how any one could come through such a curtain of fire and steel would sure be a miracle.  Waiting for orders to advance when in reserve can be very agonizing.  While we considered ourselves very lucky that we were not in the first attack we knew that we had to move forward some time - - - but when?  Before long we saw the wounded being transferred to the rear and there were quite a number of them and most all of them received shrapnel wounds because the Germans also retaliated with a heavy barrage.  Finally we got the order to move ahead.  We followed a road which was all plowed up from shell fire.  Most all the bridges were destroyed and our engineers were working like beavers to repair them.  We saw many still forms lying silent by the way side mostly from the enemy but some were our own boys.  At last we arrived at a hill side where we established our position.  Before us lay a valley which only a few hours ago was No Man’s Land.  Patches of German prisoners were walking towards our rear and I saw a very large group of prisoners with only two of our boys guarding them, in fact we met four Germans carrying a wounded doughboy  on a stretcher and no guards at all.  I guess these fellows were indeed very glad the war was at an end for them.  We certainly must have taken the Boche by surprise because their equipment could be seen all over the valley before us.  The infantry made another attack that day and we supported them with criss-cross barrage.  After this some of the units in the front of us needed assistance and we had to move up to their lines.  This time it was really hot, the enemy shell fire was very heavy and again we lost quite a number of our buddies, the most of them were wounded by shrapnel.  About the sixth day right in the broad daylight our relief showed up and they certainly were welcome and we did not lose any time at all to hike to the rear.  While on our way to the rear, hundreds and hundreds of  fresh doughboys passed us, grim faced, going up to do their bid.  After a two-day march we arrived at a large railroad junction where we loaded our equipment and left at once towards the north.  No one had to tell us for we knew we were headed into the Argonne Sector.  We travelled all night and before the sun came up all our rolling stock and animals were back plowing through a muddy road wondering what will happen next.  It is a blessing that we are not able to see into the future because the next few weeks were indeed the most horrible and nerve wracking span in our lives.  This was the beginning of October 1918 and the weather was certainly not in our favor.  It rained constantly for almost an entire week.  And it was misery trying to make time sloshing through the sticky French mud.  There is nothing more tiresome than wading through this mess.  Your shoes get heavier by the minute, your feet are soaking wet, you breath as though you were climbing a mountain and all you want to do is just flap to the ground, mud or no mud and just sleep, sleep, sleep.  We finally arrived at some former German trenches for an indefinite stop and indeed we just flapped on the muddy and damp trench floor for a well earned rest.  The night was very damp and cold and it was difficult to get some sleep.  Everyone was wishing for a good slug of cognac or anything to warm our gizzards.  Then lo and behold, just before sun-up word was passed down the line to come and get it.  - - -     
This was just too much, how could anybody cook a meal for a gang like us in this forsaken place?  Believe it or not, our cooks found a suitable spot for their rolling kitchen and, God bless them, they cooked up a mess of boiled rice and strong black coffee with bread and jam.  Never in all our lives will we ever taste such an elegant meal.  This may sound crazy but a whole company of weary and hungry and dreary doughboys will back me up, that after eating our fill we were at once not only warm inside but outside as well and this simple meal put us in good spirits again and come Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken, I guess we were all set to go. - - - As I recall, it was a good thing we felt that way because our non-coms were called for a briefing session and in no time at all we were moving up.  The rain finally stopped but a damp and heavy mist settled down and we really had to be careful so we would navigate in the right direction.  We heard stories that fellows actually went right across the line without knowing it and that was something we certainly were not trained for.  As it was, we were in a very bad position, right in a valley waiting to cross the river Meuse.  The engineers were trying very hard to construct a pontoon bridge but the Germans were harassing them with intermittent shell and machine gun fire.  Our infantry had crossed the river the day before but could not take the high ridge ahead of them.  This was now the task before us, to take that ridge and all we were waiting for was for our barrage to begin.  As soon as the first shells of our guns began to hit the ridge, the enemy really let go a terrific machine gun barrage.  Our boys on the line were smart, however, they kept their heads down while we peppered away at the Krauts with every thing we had.  We could see very plainly from our positions the puffs from their guns as they were spitting their bullets toward us from the high ridge. But once we got them in our range, one by one their guns became silent and two waves of our boys moved swiftly up the hill.  They sure had guts but we saw many of these brave lads fall.  We were still on the west side of the river and we did not like the idea of not being able to follow our boys right there and then.  We even gave the engineers a hand for we just had to get across to support our gang.  Finally we got the O.K.  to cross.  It was a hell of a looking bridge but it sure did the trick and it was strong.  Our orders were to reach the ridge as soon as the crossing was established.  It was rough going but it was worse to see all the poor fellows that were hit.  The corps men were doing their outmost to make the wounded as comfortable as possible and they were waiting for ambulances to take them to the rear.  Many of us felt as though we ought to give them a helping hand but that was out of the question, we had to get to the ridge.  Finally we made it and what a sight it was.  I guess our fire from across the river was quite effective because we saw a number of machine gun emplacements still manned but the figures were silent and some were even slumped over their guns.  I must say, that winning a score sometimes looks awful ugly. - - - Our infantry was already down the other slope of the hill and we at once began to set up our new position.  While we were doing this other infantry units passed us to strengthen  our buddies ahead and all the while the shells were exploding around us and we got so that we didn’t care about it too much just as long our name was not on one of them.  It’s unbelievable how the fear of death does not bother one too much when you are in a mess of this kind.  I was making the rounds with my sergeant  to check our guns and the ammo, when we heard one of the signal corps men shout:  GAS - - - That is a frightening word and no one moves slow at a time like that.  You just hold your breath until the gas mask is well on your face.  It’s a terrible and painful and for any one to be caught without a mask when mustard gas creeps towards you.   For almost 45 minutes we had to keep our masks on and we also had to be on the alert more than ever because this could be the time when the enemy decides to counter attack.  We were fortunate that nothing of this sort happened.  Old Fritz certainly let us know that he was still around with plenty of shell and machine gun fire.  Now and then the enemy would throw concussion shells over us and it was fatal for any one to be within a radius of 50 to 100 feet from where these shells would detonate.  One more attack on the enemy was made just before darkness set in and this time we were assigned to the infantry companies in front of us.  Surprisingly we reached our objective in good time and it was amazing the number of prisoners that were taken.  At this particular sector we passed an opening of a dug-out.  As was customary we had to make certain that the dug-out was clear.  The infantry had no time to take care of this, it was left to us to do the mopping up job.  So one of our corporals was just about to pull the pin on his hand grenade which he was going to throw in to the opening when we heard the tramp, tramp, tramp of boots on the boards inside the dug-out.  As if someone gave the command, a dozen of 45’s and rifles were immediately pointing toward the opening of the dug-out.  We only waited for a few minutes when through the opening emerged a boyish-looking German, his uniform was unbuttoned and when he saw us his hands flew up and in a frightened voice he shouted: Kamerad, Karmerad. - - - One of our boys shouted right back:  come, come raus - - - and like a parade of ducks, 22 prisoners came marching out with their hands raised.  They will never know how close they were to death and they looked so young in fact they were only boys and could not have been in the service too long.  Some of the fellows searched them thoroughly to make sure they were unarmed, then the sergeant pointed to the rear and off  they went all by themselves and if their own shell fire did not get them, on their way back, for them the war was over.  We held our lines for two days because the French on our right flank did not advance as quickly as we did.  On the second day, zero hour was at 10:00 a.m. Our objective was an old farm house.  But in order to reach this point we had to penetrate a wooded area.  Of course the barrage started right on the dot.  We saw our infantry advance and as the barrage crept up toward the enemy lines our boys kept right up with it.  There were times when our own shells were very close in front of us but it was the best way to get at the enemy.  We went over with the second wave.  Our first wave encountered trouble from machine gun fire when they reached the wooded area but our second wave was right behind them in fact they leap-frogged them.  At this time we were ordered to move to the right of this area.  Each gun squad set up its own position and the boys really poured a murderous flank fire in to the second wooded section and we kept it up until we received the cease fire signal.  Who ever was occupying these woods sure did not stay very long because in no time at all we reached the old farm house.  But we also paid the price.  One third of our boys were out of the fight for good and quite a number of them, our chaplain and his detail buried them right there where they fell.    Nothing really shocks anybody at a time like this or in a place like this.  Only yesterday I talked to a Polish buddy of mine, who changed his name to Joe Patrick because no one could pronounce his polish name.  I was out of cigarettes and had a rough time trying to roll a cigarette out of Bull Durham tobacco.  Joe came along and he saw me struggling trying to make a halfway decent cigarette for myself.  The wind kept blowing the tobacco off my cigarette paper.  Heimy, he said, whatsa matter, you no got much luck eh?  Out he comes with a pack of Camels and gave me three cigarettes.  Then we talked about what a good steak dinner smothered with lots of onions and a big stein of beer we were going to have as soon as we got out of this hell hole.  So, today, Joe is no more, just like that he went west. - - - You wonder some times, is this Christian ? At the same time, you can’t just stand there with your hands in your pocket.  That just about would be suicide. - - - I guess old Sherman was right war sure is hell  - - -
So, three more days passed, one worse than the other.  We finally got into an area which the Germans had well fortified.  This was part of their Krimmhield line and this line of defense was supposed to be impregnable.  Of course that is what ol’ Fritz thought, but here we are.  The dug-outs were from 30 to 40 feet deep and indeed safe from any shell fire.  Practically every thing was under ground it must have taken the Germans months to build this.  We also had to watch out for boobie traps and the Germans certainly were very clever in placing these traps.  Although we were warned, many of our lads fell for this deception and were either killed or badly hurt.  While some of the infantry units were being relieved by fresh troops, our battalion however had to stay in this area for a so-called breather.  This of course was not very popular with the gang but at least it gave us a chance to get some rest and while we were resting we cleaned up our guns and got every thing in A-1 condition.  We stayed in this area for several days getting lousier each day.  This underground life was a filthy existence and just the thought of water and soap was like a beautiful dream.  During our stay here a lot of supply wagons came and before no time at all this place developed into a supply dump.  Of course by this time our front line was advanced about 6 kilometers.  This also made us vulnerable to heavier caliber shells from the enemy.  Quite often we suffered direct hits and a lot of material was destroyed.  One early morning the area where the animals were tied to a picket line was hit very severely and a large number of mules and horses had to be shot because they were so badly wounded by shrapnel.  We also lost quite a number of our boys from the quartermaster corps and all this happened while they were distributing rations.  Evidently the Germans had the range well figured out because they occupied this section of France for several years.  Day by day the weather was getting more brisk and it was now toward the end of October 1918.  It was still very damp and many of the shell holes were always filled with stagnant rain water.  This of course was forest country and the ground was always damp and moist.  Very few leaves were on the trees due to the terrific shell and machine gun fire.  It was just a forest of bare stalks and rusty barb-wire entanglements were every where.  When at times the sun would shine, a mist would rise from the ground and due to the numerous gas attacks in this area the bushes and the tree branches were saturated with this poison and many of us received skin burns by just accidentally coming in contact with these.  The puddles of water on this ground were also saturated with this poison and plowing through it even though we had good hobnail shoes was just murder for the skin on our feet.  There was always a peculiar stench in the air, in fact we named this place, Death Valley.  Again the time came for us to move forward.  Early one morning each company moved out to a separate sector.  The enemy was really being pushed constantly and it did not make much difference whether we moved at night or in broad daylight.  We reached our position again on a high ridge and just below us was a cross road.  Our orders were, that no one was to pass this point and to hold this sector.  The infantry was attacking on the sector nearby so our point was really left wide open.  This certainly was a well-laid-out plan.  When at zero hour our barrage from the artillery in the rear started it did not strike our particular point.  Of course the enemy took advantage of this and to their regret, old Fritz was too late to reorganize because three of our companies concentrated their fire toward that cross road and the surrounding area and it was  not a very pleasant sight.  Many prisoners and equipment fell in our hands and the infantry at once converged at this point and closed the gap.  During this action our guns fired so rapidly and for so long that our gun barrels became very hot.  Our water coolers could not cool them off fast enough and this caused our water boxes to steam up.  This became a troublesome situation for us because the steam could give our position away.  And sure enough leave it to the experienced Krauts, they started to shell us with 75s before we had a chance to change our positions and it took the lives of two of our gun crews.  At about this time the corporals were howling for ammo and we were getting real low.  Our skipper dispatched me at once with a detail to get the precious stuff.  I went ahead of the detail to get some new gun barrels and also get things started in order to save time.  Our ammo depot was about two kilometers behind the line.  I must have been halfway there, when the enemy let go with a heavy barrage.  The only thing to do when one gets caught in a barrage is jump for cover and the only cover I could see was a shell hole.  It was a deep one and I really hugged the side toward the front line.  I just about got my breath, when another figure came rolling into my quarters.  He too was breathing heavy and it was a French artillery officer.
Before I go on with my story I must break in here and go back to the time we arrived in Alsace Lorraine.  I distinctly recall, all us fellows who could talk German were called to division headquarters and we were briefed by our intelligence officer.  He impressed upon us never to talk in French especially to Frenchmen when in action.  He explained to us that when a German speaks French his German accent is noticed.  A Frenchmen can detect this at once and due to the infiltration of clever and well-trained Germans into our lines wearing American or French uniforms taken from allied prisoners the French soldiers were warned to guard against this and take proper measures to bring in or eliminate these men.  Of course this lecture happened a few months ago but not remembering this precaution  almost cost me my life.
To go on with my story - - - No sooner was the French officer near my side, I had to open my big mouth and greet him in French with a cheery “ Good day Sir, what a nice place to meet each other.”  Well –it all happened so fast, and this crazy Frog had a pistol jammed in the back of my neck.  I could not imagine what came over this nutty character.  I was never one to use profane English but I turned around quick and called him about everything not fit for the dictionary.  He jumped back but he still kept me covered and I could tell by his eyes he was not fooling.  All the while this was going on the shells were plowing up the ground around us.  I was also thinking about my mission to get the ammo.  I also thought of my detail, they were coming this way also.  Finally the shelling slowed and the French officer motioned  to me to put my hands high and in an excited manner he howled Aley – Aley (go – go) So we climbed out of the shell hole and with my hands reaching for the sky, off we went.  Thank God, we were heading toward the ammo depot.  Of course I knew the captain who was in command there and I was never so glad in all my life because that is where my French captor was headed for.  I guess he figured it was the nearest command post.  Some of the ordinance men were standing in front of a dug-out and when they saw me coming, they just stood there and stared.  What the hell do you call this, I heard one of them say, but froglegs kept pushing the pistol in my back, a hollering:  Aley – Aley.  Finally we got into the dug-out and when the captain saw us he too jumped up and just stared at us.  Then he recognized me – well – I never saw and heard a man laugh so much, the tears were running down his face and I guess he’d be laughing yet had I not hollered out: Captain, for God’s sake get this character off my back. - - - The French officer stood there all bewildered, I suppose wondering why all this hilarity.  The captain called for an interpreter and while waiting for him he turned to me and said:  Heimy , this is the funniest thing I ever saw and I know just what happened and you are the dumbest and luckiest d - - - fool in this man’s army.  And now, what’s up solider. – At once I informed him we were low on ammo and detail was following me.  He bellowed out an order and in minutes a gang of fellows were stacking up our ammo waiting for the detail to arrive to take it up to our position.  By that time the interpreter arrived and explained to the French officer that I was O. K.  Of course the officer  felt quite bad about it and he did all but kiss me trying to apologize to me and to the captain.  But he turned to the interpreter and said:  tell this man to remember this lesson of this day and thank God I was not hasty.  And I must state here that I have never forgotten that day and I never will.  The captain then wanted to know how things were going up the line and by that time the detail arrived and we were very fortunate on our way back because we did not encounter any serious shelling.  Of course my buddies found out about my experience and before long the whole outfit knew it.  For quite a while I took an awful lot of razzing but in time it all blew over.  For several days we kept advancing steadily and then one fine day the boys of the 28th division appeared to relieve us.  They also informed us that there was a rumor, the Germans were asking for negotiations with the Allies.  I for one was hoping and praying that this was true because a lot us felt we were pretty lucky so far but will our luck hold out the next time we go in ?  So, slowly we made our way toward the rear of the lines.  For some reason or other they did not rush us.  Of course we still had to do some dodging now and then, old Fritz I guess was still after us.  I will always remember the day we hiked through a narrow ravine.  On one side of the road was a very steep bank and we noticed a sign which read:  Welcome soldier – Salvation Army Dug-out.  Sure enough a little further down the road was the entrance of the dug-out and before we even got to the entrance we could smell a most delicious aroma of a bakery.  A Salvation Army man was standing outside the entrance, inviting us to come in.  He told us to get our army cups ready and just stick your fingers up.  Some of the boys passed on their way up to the front were telling us about this wonderful place and we thought they probably were pulling our leg.  As we got inside the smell of the doughnuts  was enough to set a man crazy.  I would have never believed it, here were four Salvation Army girls wearing steel helmets and a gas mask on their chest, sleeves rolled up backing and handing out nice fresh doughnuts, coated with cinnamon and sugar.  They stuck doughnuts on our fingers and poured the most delicious cocoa in our cups right up to the brim. We came out through another exit, sat along the roadside and boy oh boy, did that hit the spot.  It was the first warm food we ate for quite a while and it made us feel like civilized people again.  Somebody hollered, if you want seconds fall in at the end of the line - - - well, we all felt like seconds but man, what  line - - - Finally we assembled again and began our trek further toward the rear and God bless these Salvation Army people it sure made hiking a lot easier after that delightful snack.  We spent the night in a village that was totally destroyed. Everybody found some sort of place to be as comfortable for the night as possible.  Of course this was nothing strange for us, by now we were well used to this sort of thing.  At present, the weather wasn’t bad at all except the nights were getting some what cooler.  We did not mind this either, as long as the rains stayed away.  The next day we met our four-legged friends, our donkeys.  They were tied to a picket line at a remound station outside the village.  This was indeed a big relief  now we were able to put our heavy equipment in the carts and this will increase our speed.  As we were hiking across this country I could not help but think, that only a few weeks ago this ground was held by the enemy and every inch of it was no man’s land at one time or another.  All the lives that were lost, all the suffering that was caused and all the maimed young men that will have to go for the rest of their lives wondering what will happen to them.  The enormous destruction of property, factories and farm lands, that made the rich poor and the poor destitute, was it really all worth while?  Who can tell - - - every one said we were fighting for freedom - - - What an enormous price - - - I know now, freedom is indeed precious, especially after seeing and knowing what it takes to keep it.  Some time during the late afternoon we arrived at a village and were greeted by the villagers.  It was the first town we came to that again was occupied by its former citizens.  They shook our hands and shouted, Vive la Amerique – and some of them treated us to all kinds of drinks – wine, cognac, rum and a lot of other stuff and that was the worst thing these folks could have done.  Although they meant well they really did horrible, because after hiking about two kilometers more, the spirits which we so eagerly accepted and swallowed  really started to make themselves felt and believe it or not it almost felled the whole outfit, for the whole column just came to a stop on the side of the road and officers and men alike thought it was a good idea to stop here until morning because the poor boys were so tired. - -

The next day dawned bright and sunny but it wasn’t so bright for a lot of us and no one would ever have thought that we were the fighting men.  There wasn’t a fight left in the whole gang and the only thing of concern was a cup of black coffee and how can you get rid of that heavy fog in the head. - - - If a thing of this sort ever happened at any other time, I am certain there would have been courts martial galore.  But as the French say:  c’est la guerre (it’s the war).  No one will ever know how the cooks managed it, but they did make coffee and that was about all we got for breakfast and it was about all the gang wanted.  Ordinarily the boys can handle their drinks pretty well.  However in our condition just back from the front, no regular meals, just grab whatever and whenever we could get something, our stomachs  were in no shape and the stuff just got the best of us.  - - - Perhaps it did us a lot of good at least for one night we forgot all about this messy war.  Around noon, the gang was in good shape again and we were having our mess at a very large quartermaster depot.  This was our first real honest to goodness meal we had since we came back from the front and it perked us up nice and fine and we were good as new.  That evening we arrived at Bar le Duc which was quite a large town.  We hiked right through the main street and we noticed a lot of theaters and cafes and many doughboys and hardly any one was wearing steel helmets.  Like my sergeant remarked: well fellows, looks like we are back in civilization again.– Everyone was really giving us the once over as we marched through town.  I guess they knew where we came from and no doubt we must have looked it.  None of us had used a razor for almost three weeks and none of us smelled like Fu Fu’s either?  About a kilometer west of Bar le Duc we stopped at a small village where we billeted.  We really were tired this night and after mess practically everyone hit the sack.  As we were laying there, my buddy remarked, Heimy, will you listen?  It sure is awful quiet here. – No one really thought about it, but now we began to notice and appreciate this blessed stillness and off we went for our first real honest the goodness sleep.  The next day after morning mess we were all lined up and marched to a delousing center.  Every one received an envelope for our valuables then we had to strip, all our clothes were taken to a delousing tank.  While they were taking care of our clothes we enjoyed a most welcome and warm shower.  We were given a special kind of soap for our hair to make sure there were no crawling and agonizing tenants on our carcass.  They actually had to drive us out of the showers and then we received brand new underwear, socks and shirts and some who needed them got new blouses and breeches and, so help me, I felt like floating through the air, so clean and comfortable.  The next trip was to the barber shop.  Two men and three ladies were kept very busy this day because we got every thing they had to offer, haircut, shampoo, shave and lots of good smelling Fu Fu water.  That may sound like a bunch of sissies but it just was heavenly.  That night we went to Bar le Duc and for once we enjoyed ourselves like regular people again.  Of course there were some who had to make a regular mess out of themselves, but we will always have that type with us.  The next few days we took care of our guns and equipment even our little donkeys got a good scrubbing down.  All the while we were here, rumors were really going around about an armistice.  Of course nobody paid too much attention to these rumors but yet every one was sort of hoping it would come true.   

<-- Part Seven | Part Nine -->