Other than bullet casings, nothing went to waste

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2006

Once we were beyond the beaches every town looked alike regardless of what country we were in. An army seems unable to move against an enemy without destroying nearly everything in its path.

Small towns were in shambles because if we were to advance, the Germans had to leave, one way or another. If they stood their ground it was not a pretty sight. Many from both sides would just lie there until Graves Registration units came on the scene to do their work. Retreating armies are not well organized, as we learned during the Bulge, and there were no truces for body removal.

Though their respective armies recovered the wounded nearly as fast as action allowed, many of the enemy dead lay where they fell and I do not know when or if they were recovered, you keep moving.

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And there were the kids…we assumed the parents had been killed, wounded, in hiding, or had run away. It was the same in France as it was in Germany…kids carrying little buckets and approaching us for a handout, anything to eat. You had to wonder where all the food had gone…surely some could be hidden from the retreating army. Or were the little kids sent on this mission knowing we could not refuse them? But we had to and we did. It was easy to tell ourselves it was not our responsibility; but very difficult to ignore their pleas. They did get our surplus K rations, edible garbage and what &uot;weak willed&uot; soldiers parted with surreptitiously.

Kids living in undisturbed English towns got our chocolate and cookies. We were not many years beyond craving cookies ourselves but now that we were &uot;men&uot; we gave up cookies mailed from home as a gesture of friendliness. After all, they were our hosts. Chocolate bars became &uot;money&uot; on the other side of the English Channel and could buy many things. Of even higher value were cigarettes…an English or German cigarette was of such low esteem even the German prisoners turned them down.

When we had to hold prisoners until collected by others, our garbage was valuable to those inside the wire…but how to distribute it? No matter what went into that garbage can it was utilized when tossed over the fence long after dark. That was not pretty…seeing them fighting over every scrap. It would have been easier to bury the stuff but who knows how many lives were saved because of our &uot;generosity.&uot;

If you are familiar with the term &uot;slit trench&uot; you know that a well-trained army unit digs one if it can rest for a day or two. Prisoners dug theirs and a shovel was the only weapon allowed. Apparently dimensions of a slit trench are in every country’s military manual…or the British were just copycats. I wondered if the Mongol hordes thought about such cleanliness.

Unfortunately there was not always time to cover them up and that inglorious chore would be left to the locals.

Now and then we’d come upon piles of brass artillery round casings. It could be one of our artillery units we had caught up with, but more likely it was from German guns. Both make great souvenirs and we actually thought when the war was over we could take one home as an umbrella stand. We hid them in the trucks wherever we could but our clever captain must have been an Inspector general in a previous life…none escaped his searches.

One casing everyone wanted was from the German 88. That round had no trajectory but came straight at you like a rifle bullet and making no sound. One came through the windshield of the weapons carrier I was driving, exploded behind me and all that was left of my extra pair of combat boots was the shredded laces. Both back wheels and axle were mangled. The boys in Iraq riding in Humvees know of what I speak.

Contact Pocklington at pocklington@suffolknewsherald.com