Immigrant Soldier: The American Journey of Albert J. Heim

Memories of Albert Heim (Part 8)

<-- Part Seven

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

Then - - - in the middle of the night, to be exact at 1:30 A.M. on November 12th, it all happened. - - - An announcement from battalion headquarters came, that it was all over, an armistice was signed yesterday around noon.  Of course we got the news a little late but who cares, thank God we do not have to go back to that terrible mess again.  What a night – It was like Fourth of July in America, every Verey light and all the signal rockets we had were going up into the sky.  Nobody paid for the beer and wine, everything was on the house and that in itself was a miracle, considering these money crazy French tavern owners.  Some of our fellows were running around in their underwear, they did not even take time out to get dressed for fear they might miss something.  It was indeed a wild night and by sun-up everything was quieted down and not a soul was stirring.  At noon the sergeants and the corporals finally got the men out for formation.  Our major officially informed us of the armistice and reminded us, although the action was at an end we were still soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force and strict discipline and the proper conduct of each man was not only a must but an order from the president of the United States himself.  Until further orders we were free to go into town but there would be the usual details and full dress formation and roll call at reveille and retreat.  And so it went for several days.  Of course in due time we had our drills and inspections and due to the fact that our division was not assigned to the army of occupation we were already starting  to count the days when we again would be sailing the Atlantic for home sweet home.  At intervals we moved from one place to another and finally we arrived at Corre Houte Sone.  Here we spent the Christmas holidays and after a mild winter came spring and the Easterfeast.  During this period every one got a 10-day furlough.  Many of the fellows went to visit Paris and some spent their time in the French Alps.   Of course now that I was here in France I had a longing to see my aunt and my little cousin I applied for furlough to Clermont-Ferrand in the southern part of France.  After a lot of red tape proving that I really had relatives in Clermont-Ferrand I finally received permission to see them.  It was about the middle of February 1919 when I left my buddies all dressed up shining like a brass monkey on my way to see my relatives in Clermont-Ferrand.  Of course our base in Corre Houte Sonne was only a small railroad station and I could not purchase my ticket to Clermont Ferrand here, so I had to take a train to Dijon which was a very large railroad center.  After checking out with the military police at this station I finally could purchase my ticket all the way to my destination.  To my surprise I was informed that all enlisted men had to travel third class; the other compartments were for officers only.  Well after fighting this war for democracy I certainly did not think this was very democratic.  But then this was not the U.S.A. and I guess when you’re in France you just have to do the way the French want it.  I just about was on time, for my train was leaving in 10 minutes.  There were only a few G.I.s on the train and in the rush I got mixed up with a group of French soldiers and believe it or not these fellows were old enough to be my father.  They were real nice though, and at once they wanted to know how old I was, what fronts I was on and where I was going.  I told them the best way I knew in my meager French and we really hit it off very nice.  They even shared their lunch with me, a cup of red wine, a piece of bread and a piece of bitter chocolate.  I also found out that these fellows were on their way to their post to be discharged from the service and all of  them lived in the southern part of France.  Many of these men had a lot of ribbons on their chests and they must have seen a lot of bloody fighting in the last four years of this war.  I was glad I had a lot of cigarettes with me and at last I was able to treat them to an American cigarette.  They sure loved our smokes because they were much milder than their tobacco.  The time went very fast being with this crowd and around 6:00 P.M. our train arrived at the station of Lyon.  This was a very large city, in fact it was the second largest terminal in France.  All passengers had to get off here and of course there was a lot of hand shaking done, saying goodbye to my comrades in arms.  Walking down to the station platform I saw a large sign:  All American officers and enlisted men report to provost marshal  - follow the arrow.  Our papers were examined there then I had to show my tickets to the transportation officer and then I was informed that my train to Clermont-Ferrand would not leave until 10 A.M. the next day.  I was also told that I would get overnight accommodation in the railroad Y.M.C.A. but if I wanted to stay in the city at a hotel they would issue me a two-hour pass, providing I had sufficient funds.  I told them at once, that I had enough money, that I would like to see the city and especially get a darn good meal.  The M.P. in charge laughed, he filled out my pass and he also cautioned me to stay out of trouble and be on the alert for shady characters that just love  to get the American doughboy’s money.  He also mentioned the names of the hotels that were out of bounds for American soldiers.  I knew exactly what this M.P. meant.  Many of my buddies that visited Paris on their furlough just about got back to our post not only broke but their health too was impaired, experiencing many agonizing days in overcoming some sort of venereal affliction.  This was almost just as big a hazard as getting wounded in action for an American soldier in France.  So many nice young and healthy Americans got caught in this filthy stream and quite a lot of them had sweet hearts and even wives waiting for them at home.  What a price to pay for such cheap and frustrating so-called pleasure.  Thank God, I was well aware of all this and here was one guy that was going home clean.  As I passed through the large iron gate in front of the station I saw many men and also women advertising hotels by wearing special hats with the name of the hotel on it.  One man approached me from the Hotel de Victories, only five blocks from the station.  He was a crippled French soldier and he also spoke some English.  Very nice, clean and respectable place and good food he told me, not cheap, but not too much francs – nes pa -  So I went along with him and the place really looked O.K. to me.  An elderly lady at the hotel desk took care of me.   I paid for my room and before she handed me the key she informed me they want to make certain that the proper people or person picks up the key when they return to the hotel.  For many many years we have this hotel and it was always a nice place and we want to keep it this way -  comprane vous ?  That sure made sense to me and I felt that I was in a good place.  My room was indeed very clean and nice and the bed was real comfortable.  I got all cleaned up and shaved, of course there was no shower just an old fashioned wash bowl with a pitcher full of cold water that had to do for this was not the good old U.S.A.  So off I went to see this city of Lyon.  As I left the hotel a young G.I.  stopped me and greeted me with a very friendly, hiya bud, are you stag like me?  I told him, yes.  He replied, I saw you come in when you registered so I thought I’d wait for you.  I bet you are looking for a restaurant?   You sure are a mind-reader I told him are you planning to look for one also?  Yes siree buddy, what do you say, we go together?  O.K. by me off we went looking for that restaurant.  This fellow was from the 26th, Division and he was going to Nice on the Mediterranean for his furlough and like me his train also left in the morning.  I was kind of glad he came along, he seemed kind of a nice guy.  I also figured we would have a much nicer time together.  We’ve been walking for quite a while now and it looked as though would never find a restaurant.  Finally we came to a very busy corner and a M.P. stopped us wanting to see our passes.  Everything was in order and he asked us, where are you guys going?  We informed him that for the last hour we’ve been looking for a good place to eat, but no luck.  Do you fellows really want to have a good meal?  It’s going to be a little high but not too much.  We both agreed that it was O.K. with us.  In the meantime another M.P. came along and he was relieving the fellow who checked our passes.  O.K. boys, I’m off duty now he informed us and do you mind if I drag along with you, I just feel like treating myself tonight and I know just where to go and remember fellows, everything is strictly Dutch treat, O.K. ?  O.K. with us and like the three musketeers  down the avenue we walked in step and I must say, that M.P. sure knew this city well.  We stopped at a very cozy little place and we ordered the nicest and juiciest steak with pomptedere fride  and we even got the fried onions to smother the steak with.  The two of us ordered a bottle of white wine and of course the M.P. put up a big fuss but we told him, for leading us to this fine steak dinner, this was his reward.  We really had a ball talking about our experiences, about our homes and what we thought we were going to do after we got out of the service.  It was getting on toward midnight and we hated to break this nice party up.  Each of us still had another glass of wine to finish and what ever possessed me, for some reason I thought of my old buddy, Joe Patrick the Polish boy who got killed in action.  I must have gotten sort of quiet all of a sudden, because the other fellows noticed it.  The M.P. spoke up and asked me if I was getting sick or something.  I just had to tell them what I was thinking about, how Joe and I had promised each other to have a meal just like the one we just had when all the fighting was over.  For a little while nobody said a word but then the M.P. I’m sure understood and he raised his glass of wine and in a low voice says; fellows, I’m sure this is appropriate, a toast to the memory of Joe  - - - we all drank to that and what a nice way to end a perfect dinner.  All these years I often wondered why and how could a thing like that happen.  Three total strangers meeting in this place to eat a meal Joe was dreaming about the day he went west – I sometimes wonder, perhaps Joe was there too, because everything went so smooth and friendly just like he would have wanted it.  So, we shook hands with the M.P. and went back to the hotel.  We did a lot of walking and also a lot of eating and the both of us were pretty well tired out.  Maybe we did not see a lot of Lyon but I would not have missed that steak dinner for anything.  I really had a wonderful sleep and had my breakfast at the hotel and was wondering where my buddy was.  I asked the madam at the desk and she informed me that he had left very early due to the departure of his train.  I was really disappointed for we only said good night to each other thinking that I would see him in the morning.  Is it not very odd, that the two of us met in this fashion, then to meet the other fellow just to have that particular steak dinner? ? ?  Another peculiar thing, we just called each other by our first name and never gave each other any information of how to get in touch with each other in the future.  Well, I guess we just came together, ate, drank a toast to Joe and parted again.  - - -              
So finally my train came along and after a four hour ride I arrived at Clermont – Ferrand.  I noticed at once, that this was a very old city and after leaving the railroad station I really was at a loss.  I had no idea how to get to my aunt’s home.  Of course I had the address, so I stopped the first Frenchman I met and showed him the paper with the address.  The man was very kind, he even drew a little map for me and in no time at all I found the street and the house.  My heart really started to pound, what will my aunt think of me, what will she say and I could hardly wait to see my little cousin, Mariechen, she certainly must be quite big by now.  So I pulled the handle by the door that rang a bell inside and waited.  The door opened and there stood my aunt and she knew me at once and her arms went tightly around my neck and I could feel the tears running down my cheek.  Little Mariechen of course did not know what was going on but her mother soon told her who this skinny American was.  She too put her little arms around me and I could hear her, “uncle Albere, mone uncle Albere.”  It sure was quite a reunion, after all we haven’t seen each other for over four years.  My aunt told me all about home and my parents and the rough time she had getting back to France at the outset of the war.  Of course poor little Mariechen could not understand a word because my aunt spoke German to me.  Naturally I just had to talk to my little cousin so I really tried very hard to use my very best of French.  We did very well but oh how she laughed at times.  She told her mother that I was nice and she loved me but I was so very, very funny.  Now that is what I call a very nice compliment and it made me happy to be able to make her laugh and love me.  I inquired about my uncle and was told that he would come home at 5:00 P.M. so we talked and talked about all the happenings since my aunt left the U.S.A. So many times she would tell me; Albert you look like a boy, you are so young to think that you had to go through all this terrible business but I’m so glad it is over.  She also informed me that my uncle would be discharged from the service in a few weeks.  The door bell rang and there he was, my uncle.  He just stood there looking me over from head to foot.  I noticed that he was wearing the uniform of a French officer, so I snapped to attention and gave him a real American salute.  Of course he returned my salute and he just shook his head, then he came over to me and gave me a strong hug.  Albere, he said, you are a man now and not the boy I once knew and you did well and you proved it and so did many of your comrades.  He informed me that when ever he had the opportunity he would check up on my division, especially the 111th machine gun battalion.  Thank God that you came through in one piece.  Of course I too was glad to see him but I just could not help but forget the remark he made that he would bring back the Kaiser’s mustache for a souvenir when he left Milltown to go to war.  Well no doubt many thoughts were running through his mind, perhaps he was sorry he ever made such a remark.  I just forgot all about it and let it go at that.  After a very nice supper I met my uncle’s mother and his two sisters.  They were very nice to me.  Of course I used some of my French and then it was my uncle’s turn to laugh.  He thought I was doing pretty well but he also informed me that I sounded like a Boche.  (German)  That made me think of my episode with that French artillery range officer in the shell hole so I told him the story and he replied, boy, you’re guardian angel certainly was with you.  Due to the fact that the accommodations in my uncle’s home were rather at a minimum he informed me that he already made [a] reservation for me for a room at a hotel in the city.  I was glad he did this for I did not want to inconvenience my relatives.  No, the evening went very fast and at 11:00 P.M. my uncle showed me the way to the hotel.  It was a good 15 minutes walk and we talked about the war while on our way.  He told me that he saw quite some action in the beginning of the war but when they found out that he could speak English fluently he was assigned as an interpreter for the English and French troops in Normandy.  Later, when the Americans arrived he was transferred as an interpreter to the American and French command.  I did not tell him too much about my experiences but he certainly knew and had a good idea that it was not a vacation.  He also seemed to be well satisfied the way I handled my affairs.  He was very much interested in what I was planning for the future.  I just told him that I was still in the army and that my job at the Michelin Tire Company in Milltown, N.J. was there waiting for me when I got back home and by that time I will surely know what I intend doing.  We arrived at the hotel and he introduced me to the desk clerk who furnished me with my room key.  Then of all things, my uncle asked me if I felt like having a drink before we parted.  Well.  I almost fell over.  He must have noticed my being surprised and he said: O.K. soldier I am not in company of a youngster any more, what will it be.  I replied, O.K. lieutenant if it’s all the same with you we’ll have a small cognac.  Well – mon vieux (old boy) you did grow up eh?  So after an argument about who was going to pay for the drinks and this time I won the argument we sat down and had our night cap.  To tell the truth I did not feel at all like having that cognac but I just had to show off this time and to my sorrow for the next five days every night about the same time I had to have a cognac with my dear uncle. – That is what I got for showing off - - - - I really had a marvelous time during my visit here.  I met so many of the French people that left Milltown in 1914.  Practically all of them were working at the enormous plant of the Michelin Co.  This plant not only manufactured tubes and tires but they also build airplanes turn out shells and many other articles needed to carry out the war.  This place was a regular arsenal and thousands of people were employed here and quite a large number of women were also working, due to the shortage of men who were still in the service.  Now and then my uncle would take a few hours off to show me some of the sights of this very old city.  The best time however I had with my aunt and my little cousin.  I tried to be with them as much as I could because my uncle informed me that he would not go back to the United States after his discharge from the service.  It might be a very long time before I would see my relatives again and when my furlough was at an end it made it very hard to say fare well with that thought in mind.  I shall always remember my furlough with my relatives in Clermont Ferrand because I really did enjoy seeing them again and although I did not know it then, it was the last time we saw each other.  The trip back to my post was a lot easier for there were no overnight stops and the train was not crowded and I arrived at Corra Haute Sonne in plenty of time.  After reporting to my adjutant I went to my billet where I received a friendly welcome by my buddies.  I sat down on my bunk and counted my money and discovered that I only had 20 francs left.  That was figuring mighty close said my sergeant but don’t worry, Heimy, we got paid two days ago and the top sergeant has your dough waiting for you.  So everything turned out tres bien ( very good).  Of course the old monotonous army routine started all over again.  Toward the end of May we received orders to turn in all our ordinance equipment and one fine day we hopped into our 40 and 8 box cars said goodbye to Corre Haute Sonne and our destination was the port Saint Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay.  It was a long ride across France and ordinarily the box car was nothing to brag about but this time nobody was complaining, we’re on our way home. - - - We stayed about five days at the embarkation center in Saint Nazaire going through one physical after another and finally one morning we crossed that beautiful gangway to board the ship that was going to take us back to the good old U.S.A. There were many French people at the dock waving fare well to us as we sailed away.  Many of us stood at the rail just looking  East way over the heads of those people on the dock, thinking of the many good pals that should be here with us and maybe we waved our hands but that was the last salute to those wonderful guys resting Over There. - - - Our quarters on board were the same, the usual troop ship style.  Of course old foxy Heimy made sure he got the top bunk again.  The food on this ship was really good.  Several times we were served steak.  The first two days crossing the Bay of Biscay was a little rough but the rest of the journey was just great.  We had beautiful weather all the way across the Atlantic and all of us really got a good sun-tan.  Usually every afternoon  there was something going on top side.  Boxing or a show and of course the card and crap games had more customers than could be accommodated.  The nights were beautiful and what a relief it was not to have to stand twilight watch and worry about those German submarines.  This was indeed a pleasure cruise compared to the one that brought us to France.  So, the day arrived when we saw that beautiful lady in the harbor and never did the Statue of Liberty look so welcome.  All the boats in the harbor gave us a welcome blast from their sirens and two ferry boats just loaded with people met us.  There were Welcome Home 29th Division signs hanging on the sides of the ferry boats and now and then some one on the ferry would show a card with a fellow’s name on it and if he was recognized the people on the ferry would almost jump over board with joy. Finally the ship docked at a pier in Hoboken, and in no time at all we marched single file down the old gangway and what a wonderful feeling, to step on good old American soil again.  I saw one of our fellows who really showed the world how glad he was to be on American soil again kneel down as soon as he left the gangway and kiss the ground.  There were hundreds of people all around us, some recognized each other and of course that was really a heart warming sight, but the majority were not that lucky.  We were marched right to a train and in less than an hour we were off for Fort Dix in New Jersey.  Many of the boys were passing their home towns while on the route to Fort Dix, and if it were not for getting killed I honestly believe they would have jumped off the train.  One of the fellows remarked, after going through all this nasty mess, boy I ain’t taking no chances.  We arrived at Fort Dix just in time for mess and then we were marched to our barracks.  Boy we sure could tell we were in God’s country again, no more 40 and 8 box cars and a real building with beds and mats instead of stables and hay.  For two days we were restricted to quarters and that was about the worst thing that happened.  So close to home but could not get out.  I might as well mention that quite a few boys did get out but I was very hesitant about this.  On the third day we were allowed to have visitors because it happened to be a Sunday.  An awful lot of folks came to our barracks and to my great surprise the orderly on guard was bellowing out my name and when I got to company headquarters there was Mrs. Shephard running to meet me with her arms outstretched and what a hug I got.  Even Mr. Shephard put his arms around me and it certainly was a great reunion.  They had all sort of food and cake in their car.  I got some of my buddies to help me get all those goodies in the barracks where we sure had a great feast.  Real honest to goodness home cooking and the cake.  We must have bought as least three gallons of milk to wash down this good food.  For some reason or other all of us could not get enough milk to drink since we got home.  The people in the commissary must be making a fortune  just selling milk to us fellows.  I can see Mrs. Shephard yet, she just sat there smiling and watching us guys devour her goodies.  The other three buddies that were with me happened to come from Indiana and of course they had no one here to visit them, so Mrs. Shephard felt rather good to be able to treat them also.  Mr. Shephard informed me that my job at the Michelin Tire Company was waiting for me any time I felt like starting to work and I told him that I really would like to have a few days to get back to normal when I got out of the service.  At this time we did not know when we would be discharged.  The Shephards told me all about the things that happened in Milltown while I was away and of course  Mister Shephard wanted to know all about the war, what was it like and did I see a lot of France.  I replied that at the moment I did not even want to think about the war but just give me a little time when I will be home again and I’ll see what I can remember.  I know Mr. Shephard understood and how we fellows felt and there were no more questions asked about the war.  At 5:30 P.M. all the visitors had to leave camp and before leaving Mrs. Shephard reminded me to make sure and call before coming home because a real nice dinner was waiting for me.  She certainly was a real nice lady and so was the whole family.  My buddies remarked that I was indeed a very lucky fellow to have a fined boarding mistress like her, she was more like a mother.  They certainly did not have to remind me, well I knew it and I always appreciated it.  We spent another five days at Fort Dix before we finally received our last pay and honorable discharge from the United States Army.  I had thoughts of making the army my career and after giving it an awful lot of consideration I decided to become a peace loving citizen perhaps interested in civic affairs but also hopefully looking forward of finding the girl who would share and become my life partner and then raise a family.      
____ ____ ____
Another period of my life is completed and I have no fear of the future life because I know now the value of life, especially a good life.  I purposely left out many of my experiences in the war and at times in action.  These I will keep to myself for they are not examples for peace and brotherly love but of course were necessary for self preservation.  I am proud that I was able to serve my country and I am also thankful to God for leading me back home again, whole in body and clean.


<-- Part Eight