Shudder, weather is here

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 17, 2005

Spring and fall are the best of seasons, most would agree unless they own a pair of skis. The problem is that one follows a winter and the other precedes one.

Winter, I know, is a season of rest for the vegetation and some animals wise enough to hibernate. But humans have to deal with it. Not all. Millions leave a warm house, enter a warm car, and then enter a warm place of business. But then there are those who have to work in the cold, and some folks, financially distressed, suffer it even in their home.

But what caused me to write this is that last month I was with my only remaining war buddy, Moose, and we talked about that winter of 1944, a record year for cold across all of Europe.


Email newsletter signup

Our kids in Iraq take casualties because of a lack of sufficient body armor; we took many thousands of casualties due to a lack of proper clothing. Blue frozen feet and fingers are as disabling as a 30 caliber bullet.

Consider this: It is 30 degrees below zero, you are out in the rain, snow, or wind trying to hold on to your rifle with a pair of wet gloves too thin to wear while raking leaves on a chilly day. Somewhere over there is the enemy, and he wants to kill you and go home.

You are wearing two pair of thin, wet socks jammed into wet combat boots. You have on everything you own, all of it damp, under a field jacket that leaves a gap at the waist, a ponderous wool overcoat and a steel helmet, under which is a thin wool cap and a helmet liner. You attempt to put on your paper-thin raincoat, but it will not stretch over the heavy wet wool. You throw it away as you did your gasmask on the beaches. You are freezing and there is no time to build a fire, nor would that be wise.

At the break of day we had just crawled out from under a piece of canvas, that with my buddy’s piece of canvas, formed a small shelter that leaked and was open on both ends. We had left our trucks and heavy equipment half a mile behind us in the woods.

Today we are going to build a cold-steel floating bridge across a rushing cold river called the Rhine. It is about 1,200 yards wide and the foe is just waking up on the other side. They have fires going and you can hear their voices while they enjoy a hot breakfast. Even their ersatz coffee would have been nice. They have been there for many months, but we had just arrived and it might be a day or two before any kind of food catches up.

You do have your K-ration tucked inside your wool underwear by your belly to get it to body temperature. Otherwise you’d never be able to eat that hunk of chocolate that is normally harder than a brick. The captain, sober this morning, insists there be no smoking, or a flame from a Zippo lighter tipping off our arrival. Our purveyance of the site is supposed to be &uot;covert,&uot; even though there are some 25,000 of us poised to get across one way or another.

How to construct the roads down to the river and build bridges while more than encumbered with all our stiff wet clothing is still to us a mystery. And the March wind is stiff enough to force us to fasten the helmet chinstrap.

First, someone must dispatch

the enemy, lest they begin shooting while we work. That would be unfair, and way off to our right we could see several small boats filled with infantry going across, their job to eliminate those that would make our work difficult, if not impossible.

In the coming days this was going to become a very busy place across from the city of Wesel, Germany. American and British armies were lined up along the Rhine and all intended to cross on the same day. As daylight sneaked in on us we could see the enormity of our planned assault on their last stand before final defeat. We were atop the hills that sweep down to the river; it was like looking down into the Grand Canyon with slanted hillsides.

Before us were to be two miles of quickly built approaches across swampy ground … sturdy enough to take the weight of Sherman tanks as they headed for the bridges that we would construct within hours … while artillery and enemy planes did their best to disrupt.

If only the sun would come out long enough to thaw us. It was now about 10 below and our freezing breath put out more visible sign than would have Indian smoke signals. They eventually spotted us, but it was too late for them as our infantry closed in. It was like watching a war movie in color. They brought us a few prisoners, but they mentioned the Geneva Convention and would not work.

During the three days it took to complete the roads and bridges, many young men were killed and may have been relieved to escape the cold. We had been given 57 hours to build those roads, and three bridges, across the Rhine.

I’ve written about this battle before, but not about the cold that made the crossing all but impossible. At that temperature you are clumsy … neither legs nor arms work as they should.

And hand carrying 600-pound bridge panels is as dangerous as the artillery rounds coming in and the planes trying to blow our work to smithereens. Now and then they succeeded destroying a section of bridge and blasting several Combat Engineers into the cold water. Many simply disappeared, a few scrambled back to shore if the wet heavy clothes, 40-degree water – pieces of steel in their bodies didn’t get them. Moose and I remember a lot of them.

Those are the kinds of days you don’t ever forget. So now, when November is painting the ground with leaves, anyone who was in Europe that winter, even the enemy, and citizens of all European countries, will remember it and shudder at the thought of having spent more than three months in a wet cold hell. Football games and Thanksgiving provide just what Moose and I need. Stay in the house with the thermostat up … and maybe a bit of Scotch to warm the cockles of the heart.

Robert Pocklington is a Suffolk resident and regular contributor to the News-Herald. Contact him at