D-Day Story: Charles Roland
Here, Capt. Roland tells of his experiences beating back the Axis powers. From basic training through his part in the Nuremburg trials, Roland shares every exploit with candor and pride.
Let me just say informally to begin with that in 1941 I was a footloose, carefree young American, 22 years old. Had a little job in Washington, D.C., was having the time of my life. I thought, I thought the world was sort of made for me and then of course Pearl Harbor occurred and all of that came to a screeching halt.
I was drafted about three weeks after Pearl Harbor, sent to Camp Wheeler, Georgia, infantry replacement training center.
At that point I'd never had a minute of military training in my life, I didn't know how to salute, or do right face, so this was a new, in many ways interesting, and exciting phase of my life. Sgt. Baringtine was my platoon sergeant and was a quintessential Georgia cracker. Wiry, tough, he was probably about 30 years old and had been in the Army since he was a teenager.
The Army was his home and there was nothing that he didn't know about soldiering at that level, he taught me an awful lot and I was always grateful to Sgt. Baringtine. Sgt. Baringtine's speech was exquisitely pungent.
It's impossible to talk about Sgt. Baringtine without using words that, in some circles of society, doubtless would be offensive. We hadn't been to Camp Wheeler very long before the company commander went through the barracks and inspected our foot lockers and found what he considered to be an excess amount of shave lotion and perfumes, colognes.
He sent down an order that we would get rid of all of that, every soldier could keep one bottle of after-shave lotion and that was it. Sgt. Baringtine lined us up into the ___ parade and conveyed that order. And then, just to be sure that we knew what he was talking about, he emphasized it with these words, he said "A soldier don't supposed to smell like no whore. A soldier's just supposed to smell like a clean man."
My very favorite story of Sgt. Baringtine is his definition of a certain type of fire called enfilade fire. Now the field manual definition of enfilade fire goes something like this. "Enfilade fire is fire in which the long axis of the beaten zone of the fire coincides with the long axis of the target."
Well, Sgt. Baringtine quoted that carefully to us and then he gave us his explanation of enfilade fire. He said, and he reached over and picked up a rifle and put it up like this, "That means you got a bunch of Krauts or Japs lined up in your sights like a flock of jaybirds shitting mulberries on a barbed wire fence." Nobody who ever heard that definition of enfilade fire every forgot it.
After infantry basic training, I was selected to be sent to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the infantry school. We went through the three-month course there and came out as brand new second lieutenants. And my entire OCS class then was sent to the newly activated 99th Infantry Division, at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi.
I saw a lot of Army camps during World War II but I never saw another one that came anywhere close to being as terrible a place as Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. These freshly drafted boys got off the train at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi and thought they had died and gone to hell.
We had great amounts of turnover in the division, just when we thought we were about to be sent overseas after maneuvers, they pulled about half of all our people out and sent them out all over the world as replacements. Then they filled us up with fellows who were only partly trained and we had to put them through a very quick training program.
Now most of those fellows came out of a program called the ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program, a special program in which super-bright boys who had had some college education were pulled out and sent back to college. They had been on college campuses and they were told that they were being given technical training for some vague mission off in the future.
You can imagine the feeling of those boys when they are suddenly picked up and sent into an infantry division that is practically on its way overseas. We put them into a very rushed training program and in the late summer of 1944 we received orders that we were being shipped overseas.
I was now captain and operations officer of my battalion. As the operations officer I was sent as a part of the advance party of the division. Our mission was to go along about a month ahead of the main party of the division and make preparations for the arrival of the division.
Instead of riding from Camp Maxey, Texas to the port of embarkation at New York City on a troop train, the advance party went by commercial transportation. We went on pullman cars and were given priority in all sleeping and eating arrangements. We got to New York City and were given our sailing instructions.
The advance party sailed on the great British liner, Queen Mary, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a fellow passenger. He was returning to England from his Quebec conference with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Churchill and his entourage occupied a restricted portion of the ship and we did not get a glimpse of him until the last afternoon at sea when he came down to the grand ballroom and gave a brief inspirational talk which he spiced with humorous asides.
Other than Churchill's address, the voyage was uneventful, for which I was extremely grateful. After all, there were packs of German submarines prowling around in the Atlantic at that time. There is an interesting footnote to the story of the trip. In our initial safety briefing aboard ship, we learned that the famed Queens, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, sailed alone. They were too swift for enemy submarines to harm them. Escorts would slow them down and make them more vulnerable.
I learned years later in reading the published diary of Sir Charles Moran, Churchill's personal physician, that the lionhearted prime minister himself was rather preoccupied with the threat of a submarine attack on us. Questioned the ship's captain how long we would remain afloat if torpedoed.
While not to be taken alive by the Germans and had a machine gun placed in his lifeboat. Obviously my presence aboard the Queen Mary did not kindle in the great war leader the sort of confidence that his presence aboard kindled in me.
The main body of the division soon arrived in England and in early November we crossed the English Channel on LSTs and landed at Le Havre. On our way by train down from the port of Brinom, Scotland where the Queen Mary docked the train was stopped in one of those big English rail yards for a little while and children came out begging for handouts.
Soldiers were tossing candy and cookies and coins out of the window to these English children. One GI flipped a package of C ration crackers, now those C ration crackers were nearly inedible. We said they were saved over from the Civil War. This package of C ration crackers landed at the feet of a little English girl, about eight years of age.
She took one quick disdainful look down at that package of C ration crackers then she lifted that pretty little face up and in that marvelous cockney voice she said this, "Those fucking biscuits are useless." You can imagine the roar of assent from the soldiers.
By now I felt quite sea worthy. I had crossed the Atlantic without a trace of seasickness. I considered myself immune to this malady. How wrong I was. Caught in a Channel storm, I thought I should die before the voyage would end. It lasted almost as long as the trip across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary.
I staggered down the ramp at Le Havre about midnight still nauseous from the capers of the ship and as weak as a kitten from being unable to retain any food. An icy rain was falling. At the foot of the ramp a flashlight beam caught my eyes and an authoritative voice came out of the darkness. "Captain, give your name, unit and assignment."
It was the division commander, Gen. Walter Lowren. "Captain Charles P. Roland, operations officer, 3rd Battalion, 394th Infantry, sir." He then said, "You are hereby placed in command of troop convoy, blue five. Your destination is the town of Aubelle, Belgium. You are to conduct the convoy there with the utmost dispatch. My aide will escort you to the convoy and supply you with the necessary maps and information. Do you have any questions?"
"No questions sir," I replied with a note of false bravado. "Very well, move out." I saluted and walked to a waiting jeep with the General's aide.
After three days and two nights on the road, we arrived at our destination, Aubelle, Belgium on November 12. Winter arrived at Aubelle that same day in the form of a snowfall of several inches. I was exhausted to the verge of collapse. Most of the soldiers spent the night in tents pitched in a large open field that laid between the villages of Aubelle and Henri Chappel (?).
A few of us were fortunate enough to spend the night in a farm house with a bevy of young Belgium women who were eager to converse upon the American crooner they identified as Bing Crosby and an American city they called Chi-car-go. I wished to be social. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. Immediately following a hot meal, some eye drops and two APC tablets, reinforced aspirin, administered by the battalion surgeon, and a swig of sacramental wine, which Chaplain Hampton mercifully supplied, I fell into a deep sleep that lasted until noon the next day when I was awakened to receive further orders from the battalion commander.
The division was to move into the line at once and I was again to be a member of the advance party. My job was to learn the location of designated battalion assembly area and the routes leading into it and to guide the battalion there. The advance party spent the night in the cellar of a shell-wrecked house in a town named Murringe(?). I slept fitfully and had lots of time to meditate. We moved into a quiet sector located in the Loenshein gap, which is on the German border of the Ardennes region of Belgium.
It was quiet because most of the Allied ground forces were concentrated north and south of us awaiting the coming of spring to launch the final offensive to end the war. We had been placed here in order to give us a feeling for the front before being subjected to heavy combat. We were spread out for some twenty miles and on our south flank lay a gap of several thousand yards between us and the next division.
Each division had about 13-14,000 troops in it. In a similar war, the Union army in the Battle of Gettysburg with about 95,000 troops was on a front of about four or five miles, so that will give you some comparison and that will tell you something about what a thin front line were on there in Belgium. The area was largely covered with fir forests which could have served as the model for a Hallmark Christmas card. We sustained a few casualties from long range enemy fire and mines and from patrol activities.
We were not severely uncomfortable, nor did we appear to be in great danger. Intelligence reports from higher headquarters advised us that the enemy had only a handful of beaten and demoralized troops in front of us and that they were being supported by only two pieces of horse-drawn artillery. What the enemy actually had along the Ardennes front, skillfully concealed a few miles behind their forward line, was an immense force of two entire armies, poised to strike in a desperate offensive planned by Hitler to abort the Allied advance in the west.
Our top commanders were afflicted with what I have dubbed the Shiloh Syndrome, the sort of preoccupation with one's own plans to the neglect of enemy capabilities and intentions that came near destroying Gen. U. S. Grant's army at Pittsburgh Landing in the American Civil War.
Hugh Cole's authoritative history of the Battle of the Ardennes opens with a discussion of a situation on both sides on the eve of that great encounter. He shows how the German attack was to be focused in the action of the 6th Army against the green troops holding the American line in the Loenshein Gap. The end of his description he comes to my regiment. Here's what he says, "The faithful position of the 394th infantry regiment would bring against it the main effort of the 1st SS and the deed of the entire 6th Army."
It came at dawn of December 16th in a mass artillery fire amid the blinding mist of the Ardennes winter. The shelling was followed by a surge of supported by tank fire. All that day and night and the following day we were assaulted front and flank.
At one point my eyes fell on an enemy tank that had been stalked by our fire 1000 yards in front of the line. How like a child's toy it looked until I fixed my binoculars on it and could plainly see the bodies of the crew men hanging from their waists like rag-dolls out of the smoking hatch. One of our young lieutenants danced a rubber legged jig as he twisted slowly making the bullet hole between his eyes clearly visible.
One moment our battalion chaplain and his assistant were kneeling beside their disabled vehicle. The next moment they were headless, decapitated by an exploding shell as if by the stroke of guillotine. The entire division was in peril of destruction. Yet it held, at least for a precious two days.
If in places there was panic, in others there was valor supporting it. Lt. Plankard and his men repeatedly beat off attacks and overwhelming strength, where an east-west highway from Germany entered Belgium was intended to be the enemy's major line of operations. At a village, which lay on the secondary road that ran past the south flank of our position, the eighteen soldiers of the regimental intelligence and reconnaissance platoon led by 1st Lt. Lyle held up an entire throughout the first day of fighting.
The rifle company of Capt. Neil Brown plus a part of the company of Capt. Wesley Simmons and the battalion anti-tank platoon led by Sgt. Sevino Travelini decisively repelled the attack of an enemy column that attempted to turn the division flank and seize the highway behind our front. Lt. Plankard was credited personally with destroying one enemy tank, a dreaded Tiger, that ventured too close to the cellar at which his command post was located and attempted to thrust the muzzle of its 88 millimeter cannon through a small vent in order to blast out the defenders.
According to regimental folklore, Plankard dispatched the monster by launching an anti-tank grenade up the bore of its gun before it had time to fire. Sgt. Travelini individually used anti-tank bazooka rockets to flush a group of German troops out of an abandoned railway car. He cut them down with rifle fire as they emerged. Our unit organization and cohesion above the company level was virtually gone. The resistance was largely that of small units fighting independently for survival.
The German plan called for complete breakthrough of our position in one hour after the assault the morning of the 16th. But the battle raged furiously throughout the 16th and the morning of the 17th with our regiment, along with the entire division holding its place at all critical points. Hugh Cole lists the tenacious defense of the Loenshein Gap among the major factors that defeated the German offensive. Many units in the division received presidential citations for their role in the defense.
Those so distinguished comprised the 1st battalion, 394th infantry, the 3rd battalion, 395th infantry, Lt. Bouck's intelligence and reconnaissance platoon, and Capt. Simmons and a portion of his company. The entire 99th infantry division received the commendation of the Belgium government with a citation that reads "for extraordinary heroism in combat."
Significantly, one of the most meaningful accolades to my regiment was not at all intended as an accolade. It came from the enemy, from the man who was considered by Hitler to be the toughest and most resourceful soldier. Colonel Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny had staged a spectacular rescue of the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and an equally daring abduction of the Hungarian regent Edward.
In planning the Ardennes offensive, Hitler placed Skorzeny in command of a special force that was supposed to follow close behind the attacking echelon, go through the anticipated breech, commit sabotage behind our line and dash forward by vehicle along the highway to seize the river bridges. In his memoirs, Skorzeny recorded how on the first day of the battle he anxiously awaited word for the quick break through that did not occur.
Describing the situation that prevailed at mid-day, he wrote, "The Americans were defending themselves particularly stoutly. The only news is that of violent fighting without any considerable gain of ground."
But our open south flank was by-passed during the night of the 16th by a powerful enemy. By the afternoon of the 17th, our front line was shattered into a ragged series of disconnected and isolated pockets of resistance and our communications with the division headquarters and supply base were only intermittently open.
We had no rations left and almost no ammunition. Our situation was desperate, eventually we were ordered back from this exposed and vulnerable position. After a cross-country march, deep snow throughout most of the night of December 17th and the following morning we reached the town of Elsenborn, where the division was deployed along the forward slope of a ridge, along with other units that were being rushed to that location.
The first night in this position, the flash and roar of exploding shells was incessant as the enemy artillery blasted the approaches behind us and our own artillery blasted those in front. In all directions the landscape was an inferno of burning towns and villages. We only a few hours of grace before the enemy would be upon us with renewed fury. We distributed ammunition and field rations, cleaned and oiled weapons, dug foxholes and gun emplacements in the frozen earth, planted anti-tank mines, strung barbed wire, studies maps and aerial photographs by shielded flashlights in an effort to determine where the attacks would strike.
Plotted fire zones for machine guns, mortars and artillery. Installed field telephone lines to the various command posts and set up an aid station to receive casualties. Everyone was aware that there would be no further withdrawal whatever the cause.
Our position on the Elsenborn Ridge became the hinge of the northern shoulder in the Battle of the Bulge. We remained here for six weeks repulsing all efforts by the enemy to dislodge us and seize this terrain. John S. D. Eisenhower in his book The Bitter Woods, says the action of the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions in securing this position may have been the most decisive operation of the entire Ardennes campaign.
Enemy mortar and artillery fire went on around the clock. It became impossible to take a step in the snow without touching one of the ugly fan shaped smudges left by the exploding shells. Our own artillery also fired continuously.
One immense time a target concentration of our core artillery broke up the most threatening German attack before it could be launched. The weather now became almost as formidable as the Germans. Night after the night the temperature fell well below 0 Fahrenheit. The wind blew in a gale that drove pellets of snow almost like shots into our faces.
Providing hot food on the front line became impossible and we were obliged to live exclusively on emergency or canned rations. Remaining stationary in the damp cold fox holes where physical activities extremely limited, we began to suffer casualties from trench foot.
Trench foot in its advance stage becomes gangrene. Amputation is then the only remedy. At one point we were losing more men from trench foot than from enemy fire. All troops were ordered to change socks daily and to exercise the feet and massage them vigorously for at least thirty minutes at a time. We got clean socks by swapping our dirty ones for them. The dirty ones were then sent back to the kitchen facilities miles behind the line where they were washed and dried to be returned to us for the next exchange.
This down to earth but essential laundry and logistical operation occurred daily for more than a month. Platoon leaders and sergeants were to visit every fox hole and personally see that the massaging and sock changing were carried out. Officers were subject to court martial if their units developed an excessive number of trench foot cases within a week. In time, the combination of extreme cold, fatigue, boredom and hazard became maddening.
A few men broke under the strain. Sometimes it occurred through a gross negligence born of fear, exhaustion and misery. Men who commit self-inflicted wounds were also subject to court martial. At Elsenborn, we received fresh troops to replace our heavy losses which amounted to one third of the strength of the front line companies.
By Army policy, all units were kept constantly at full roster, or as nearly so as possible. This was done through a complex replacement system, except that the newcomers were not called replacements. In an effort to avoid further demoralizing them, by reminding them that they were taking the places of men who had been killed, wounded, or captured, they were designated "reinforcements."
Upon arriving in Europe from the basic training centers they were sent not, ironically, to reinforcement depots but to replacement depots, or repple depples, as they were quickly nicknamed by the soldiers and from there up to the divisions on the front.
Before reaching this destination they had no unit assignment, no way of developing either personal friendship or organizational confidence and pride. They were ever changeable parts in the giant machine. We soon established a brief behind the line orientation program, but quite possibly some of the early replacement troops, a number of whom had quit eating Christmas dinner at home with their families were killed in action before they had an opportunity to learn the names of the soldiers in the fox holes with them.
The marvel is that the draftee divisions were able to generate and maintain any esprit de corps at all. Formed originally by mixing men indiscriminately from throughout the nation, the severing all personal, social, community and regional bonds, identified by anonymous numbers, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, and replenished through the notorious repple depples, their only source of morale, other than the shared experience of hazard and hardship was the character and patriotism of the soldiers rank and file. Fortunately that proved to be sufficient.
The last day of January, still in the dead of winter, we left our maze of dug outs, fox holes and connecting crawl trenches to participate in an Allied attack to straighten out what remained of the enemy in our line. We sustained many casualties from anti-personnel mines planted under the snow by the Germans as they withdrew. These devilish contrivances shattered the leg of any soldier who was unfortunate enough to step on one of them.
One of the bravest acts of my knowledge, within my knowledge, occurred in connection with these mines. Here and there as the advance progressed, a soldier who had exploded one of them lay groaning in agony. 1st Lt. Samuel Lombardo's platoon of Company I, 394th Infantry halted.
Nobody moved when Lombardo gave the signal to resume the advance. He made his decision ordering the soldiers to follow him single file and to step carefully in his footprints in the snow, he led them through the mine field, providentially without a casualty. From this time forward his troops would have obeyed his instructions to walk through the gates of hell.
After a brief return to our unit's former position on the ridge, we were pulled back into corps reserve for a few days of rest and rehabilitation. Then we joined the general Allied advance through the Rhineland.
In early March we reached the Rhine at the city of Dormargen(?) which is located some forty miles north of Cologne. With a broad plain between us and the enemy, we felt secure. The weather was now pleasant with the first touch of spring. We had learned that somewhere south of us a bridge across the Rhine had been captured by one of our armored divisions. The war seemed about over. By early evening we were busy selecting comfortable houses for billets and liberating captive wine cellars.
Some of the soldiers in a gesture of disdain and whimsy, carried out a promise made earlier, by walking down to the bank of the historic river and making a direct personal contribution to its volume and ammonia content. A holiday mood began to take hold of the entire command. The mood ended abruptly.
Fresh orders from corps and within an hour or two we were on trucks rolling through the night, destination unknown. We halted after midnight and camped in an open field. Shortly I was awakened and escorted to division headquarters to join an advance party. We rode in jeeps for a few miles, then dismounted and walked for a thousand yards to the crest of a low bluff. In the dawn light we could see the Rhine below us. Spanning the stream was a long bridge with an arch super structure. Peering at our maps we made out the made out the name of a town that lay at the near end of the bridge.
It was Remagen. Later that day I had an opportunity to examine the bridge in close range and to read the improvised sign that hung above its western end. The sign said, boastfully but fittingly, "Cross the Rhine with Dry Feet, compliments of the 9th Armored Division." That night we crossed the Rhine by foot on the captured bridge.
My mind flickered back to the historic episode in which Julius Caesar crossed the same stream at almost the location, same location, to fight the same enemy 2000 years before. My revelry was cut short by the whistle and crash of hostile shells. How exposed and vulnerable I felt on that strip of metal, high above the black swirling waters. Walking forward became extremely difficult. We who had gained the bridge were relatively safe.
The shells were hitting in the approaches to the bridge, amid the marching troops who suffered many casualties. The German guns had been quiet until the head of the column reached the bridge. We were convinced that someone in the town was giving the gunners the signal to open fire.
For some two weeks we fought hard to secure the bridgehead until our armored units could cross and break out of it. Here we had a new experience of fighting against women soldiers. In their desperate effort to contain or destroy our bridgehead, the Germans brought up a number of anti-aircraft units armed with multiple barreled rapid fire, 20 millimeter guns that were operated by women in uniform. We jestingly called them flack Wacs, but their activities were no joke.
Due to the battle the battalion aid station in full activity. Located in a deep cellar, it was lit by gasoline lanterns suspended from hooks screwed into the overhead beams. Lining the floor on levers and covered with blankets were wounded soldiers waiting to be transported to a field hospital. Most were heavily bandaged.
The battalion surgeon and his assistants worked ceaselessly among the wounded. Most of the soldiers lay still and quiet. Their pain eased by morphine or shock or both. One man held up a taped leg and said that he had received a million dollar wound, we called the wound that was severe enough to get one out of combat but not severe enough to be permanently disabling. In one corner, partitioned off with a tent canvas laid a group of soldiers whose faces were covered with blankets. They had given, to borrow Abraham Lincoln's exalted words, "the last full measure of devotion."
The highlight of our non-combat activities in this situation involved Lt. Lombardo's platoon flag. Having come to the United States from Italy as a young boy and being filled with an intense love of his adoptive country, he requested an American flag to be presented as we advanced into Germany. Told that none were available he managed to make one.
Using a white sheet that had been hung from the window of a German house as a sign of surrender, he and the members of his platoon found pieces of red, white and blue cloth, which they cut and sewed to the sheet to complete the stars and stripes. This flag crossed the Rhine with only one side finished. The first American national emblem to be flown east of that river in World War II. That flag is now on display at the infantry museum at Fort Benning, Georgia.
After the Remagen operation, the 99th Division participated in the closing of the Ruhr pocket, then in the sweep across Germany, moving in a truck convoy some 250 miles southeast. We met our last serious resistance at the Danube which we crossed under heavy mortar fire and which inspired the composition by our troops of a crude parody of Johann Strauss, Jr.'s famous waltz tribute to that river.
After the war in Europe ended, I remained there for seven months in the army of occupation. In the middle of the summer, the 99th Division was deactivated and a number of its soldiers, including me, were transferred to the 1st Infantry Division. A regular Army unit which had been selected to be the security and service organization for the Nuremberg tribunal that was to try the German war criminals.
I was a member, the very lowest one actually, of the division reconnaissance detail that made the survey of the public buildings in Nuremberg and chose the ones where the trial was to be held and the prisoners detained.
At the time of the survey, much of the city lay in ruins. The buildings selected were themselves badly damaged with windows broken and gaping shell holes in the walls. Later in the detention area I once got a quick look at the prisoners. Only Hermann Goering was recognizable to me.
I returned to the United States just before Christmas of 1945 and was discharged from active duty in March. I returned clearly aware that the tumultuous events of the past four years had vastly and permanently changed my life.
[Editor's Note: The transcript for this recording was provided to Military.com by The Eisenhower Center for American Studies, University of New Orleans.]
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