A 17-year-old Soldier in Germany

I turned 17 in my second eight weeks of basic training at Fort Hood, Texas and was too young to appreciate a tour of duty in Germany. I did visit some of the sites, but most of my free time was wasted. I should have taken more leave while there and toured more.

After the troop ship landed in Bremerhaven, Germany, we loaded into a train and headed south to a small town near Frankfort, Germany. Hanau would be my home for the next two years. The cold war was building up and we were warned about riding the trains to close to the border. You could get on the wrong train headed for East Germany and it would not stop until the first station inside East Germany. And then it would be too late and it might take months for the military to get you back.

Following small arms target practice one day about an hour drive from Hanau, two of us decided to skip the target duty and hitch hike back to the barracks. Large targets would be raised for the solder on the firing line to shoot at, then you would lower the target and mark the bullet holes. If they missed the target all together, they would get a “Maggie Drawers,” a red flag would be waved from the pit for everyone to see. Sometimes if you didn’t care for the person on the line, we would give him “Maggie Drawers.” We walked out to the main road with our rifles over our shoulders and put out our thumbs. In no time we were back at the Barracks and no one said anything, I guess that we were not missed.

The Barracks at Hanau were built by the Germans before WWII and the base was well laid out in a half circle with the motor pool and equipment on one side and the barracks on the other side. It was a short walk to the motor pool but it seemed longer when you were caring all your gear and a 30-Cal Machine Gun or the barrel of a 50-Cal. We had Red Alerts about once a month and we would jump out of bed, rush down to the arms room in the basement, grab the equipment and run to the motor pool to await further orders. Our Barracks was on the corner with a good view of the athletic fields and lower buildings. The room was also on the top corner floor. It was great except for a low support beam that ran at an angle from the floor to the ceiling. We soon learned to duck under or avoid it.

We were trained for an Atomic War if hostilities broke out. One or more of the Atomic war heads for the Honest John Missile where stored in the basement of our barracks. We always new when they were moving them, because they would warn us about taking pictures out of the windows. I did take a few pictures of the crane that lifted the war heads but not of the warheads. Shells for the Atomic Cannon where moved around all over our area and could have very well been stored in the basement as well. One end of the basement was restricted and we had our classroom and arms room in the other end. There were rumors that we also had Atomic rounds for the 8 inch and 155 mm guns, but I never knew for sure.

B Battery, 3rd Armored Division 2nd Howitzer Battalion, 73rd Artillery, consisted of six 155mm M109 self-propelled howitzers and an armored personnel carrier for Fire Direction Control. Except for direct fire practice, the artillery would be shooting blind under the control of the Fire Direction Control Center. The Fire Direction Control Center would receive information by radio from the forward observer who would be watching the rounds hit the impact area. The pack of charges for firing the 155mm shells came in a pack of seven. They would then be told what charge to use, for example a charge five would mean that two charges would be removed and thrown into the fire pit. As a safety measure, one of the gun crew would count the discarded charges and repeat out loud to avoid mistakes.

A recorder on the phone between the fire direction group and the guns, would record all the information sent to the guns, in case there was a mistake or someone misunderstood, then verification could be made. This was my job, Battery Recorder. I would ride out ahead of the battery with the First Sargent and we would align the aiming circle, a device which had a compass and a scope for sighting in different angles. We would use this to obtain the correct direction for the guns and place stakes for them to line up on when they pulled into position. Great care had to be taken to insure that all six guns were pointed in the same direction parallel to each other. You aligned the device to magnet north by looking through a hole at the end of the compass needle. The danger here was that you had to be sure that you knew which end of the needle you were looking at. If you had the wrong end, then the guns would be laid out 180 degrees and you would be shooting backwards. One of the Honest John rockets was laid out backward in Grafenwohr during practice. The rocket with just enough explosive to blow the head apart, hit a building in a nearby town. No one was hurt.

The Fire Direction Control Center consisted of two drafting tables set up in the armored personnel carrier with field telephone contact with the guns. Each table was identical except that one used a plain paper chart and the other used a topographic map. The first order of business when we set up in a new position was to zero in on a known target. We would fire one round toward the target and the observer would then give us corrections over the radio. We would bracket the target with usually only three rounds. From this information we could then aim at any other target within our field of fire. The drafting equipment consisted of a metal scale for the elevation and protractor for the azimuth. There were other calculations that determined the proper charge and weather reports that gave us the air density. This information was sent to the guns in a string of information as Charge, Elevation and azimuth. The recorder wrote down this information as it was being given to the guns.

After setting up the alignment stakes for the guns and while waiting for them to arrive, I would dig a fox hole and set up the command station for our Lt. who over saw the operation. In practice I could get away with digging a shallow hole and erect a tent or camouflage over it, depending on the weather. Two pictures of Lt. Weske and myself on the field telephone are in the 1959-1960 Spearhead year book for the 73rd Artillery, 3d Armored Division

My cousin, Anna Lell, started writing to a pen pal in Germany when she was in high school and asked if I would look her up while I was in Germany. We wrote several letters back and forth and I was invited up to Hanover when I got some leave. Hanover was in the British sector and they were not used to seeing American solders. Annamarie’s father was a solder in WWII and I am not sure how he felt about his daughter seeing me. A friend of theirs owned a Hotel and they provided me with a nice room. We went to the movies, took long walks and toured Hanover. Nothing more became of the relationship and we lost touch. I am not sure if Anna Lell is still writing to her.

I also corresponded with Becky, my friend from Englewood, Tennessee while I was in Germany. It was nice to get letters from home and others while away from home. Once shortly after I arrived in Germany I took a week of leave and went camping. I did not have much money so it seemed like a good idea. I fit right in with the campers and my pup tent. The locals at the camp ground were friendly and they had a nice swimming hole.

I was not much for drinking, I might go out on the town with some of the other solders and just sit on one drink all night. However one evening I thought that I would see what it was like to get drunk. I persuaded Zink who did not drink, to go with me. Funny how we used only last names in the service and seldom first names. I guess it was because our last name was always there on the front for everyone to see. Zink took good care of me that night, I sure don’t remember much and was very sick the next morning. I hated not knowing what was going on around me and I don’t recall ever trying that again.

Operation Winter Shield took place in February 1960 with over 60,000 members of the Seventh Army at the Grafenwohr training grounds. The weather was cold and dry. This was the cause of a major motor pool fire at the start of the training. A returning jeep driver was refueling one night from a tanker parked in the motor pool, when a static spark started a gasoline fire. We were called out in the middle of the night to evacuate the motor pool. It was quite a sight with all the vehicles moving past the burning jeep and fuel tanker with the tires blowing and flames reaching hundreds of feet into the night sky.

One of the Batteries experienced a shell going off just after leaving the barrel of the gun. There was a road some 100 yards in front of the position and a Lt. in a jeep had a close call. We got the cease fire on the radio and listened to the excited chatter over the radio. The shell is set for an air burst by placing a tool on top of the shell and setting a dial for the correct time. There are safety limits on the dial, so it had to be a defective shell in order for it to go off that soon.

We would go to Grafenwohr about every six months for training and that summer we returned.

Gen. Colin Powell writes in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey” about his time with the Division in 1958-60 and about the Cold War and the Army’s mission in Germany.

Colin Powell was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division on December 1958, the 21-year-old 2nd Lt. joined the 2nd Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment, at Coleman Kaserne. After a promotion to 1st Lt. and training in Grafenwohr, he related the following story. I was also in the field at Grafenwohr that fateful day. We were in the middle of a firing mission with our 155’s when the radio broke open with a command to cease firing, hold all positions and maintain radio silence.

(Form General Powell’s book)

While working as Louiseil’s exec, I got a foretaste of what hot war could be like if the Cold War ever ignited. It was a morning after payday in the summer of 1960. Our brigade had gone to Grafenwohr for field training. The troops were to be billeted in over six hundred general-purpose tents. Our company had not yet arrived in force, but a sister unit, the 12th Cavalry, had come in the night before. Its tents were full of troops, still asleep at this early hour. I was returning from a bartering mission with another company’s exec., bringing rations I had traded for back to our mess hall. My ears pricked up at an odd, whistling sound overhead. In about a nanosecond, I realized it was an artillery shell that had strayed wildly out of the impact area. I stopped, frozen, and actually saw the 8-inch round come in. It struck a tent pole in the 12th Cavalry’s sector, detonating in an air-burst. The roar was deafening, followed by a terrifying silence. I dropped the food and rushed toward the blast as dismembered legs, hands, and arms thumped to the ground around me. Money from payday came fluttering to earth. Some other soldiers joined me, wading through the acrid smoke and fumes. Inside the tent, I zipped open a sleeping bag, and what was left looked like an illustration of viscera in a medical textbook. In an instant, a dozen lives had been snuffed out and more men wounded. The tragedy was later found to have been caused by human error in aligning the gun, and the battalion commander and other officers were relieved of their duties. I had seen a hundred war movies, but nothing had prepared me for the sights I saw that day.

(End of account from General Powell’s book)

(Account of the accident from the History Web Site of the 3rd Armored Division)

Accidents in an actual shooting war, as well as a Cold War, are inevitable. This one, however, stands out as apparently the worst U.S. ground training accident of the entire Cold War. Just after roll-call, on a rainy Friday morning on September 2, 1960, sixteen solders were killed and 27 were wounded when a 200-pound artillery shell landed amongst them at Camp Kasserine, Grafenwoehr. All of the men were from the 3rd Reconnaissance Squadron, 12th Calvary, 3rd Armored Division. The shell, which had an incorrect charge due to human error, was fired by a V Corps Artillery unit — Battery A, 3rd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery.

I knew exactly what happen that morning, someone misunderstood the correct charge and the round over shot the impact area. The big fear in that tent area that morning was that they all knew that usually a fire for effect would follow and that would mean six more rounds could be following the deadly misplaced round.

I tried to take a typing course during my time in Germany, I started the course three times and each time when I was about half way through the course we would pull out for field training. I never did complete the course. However the typing lessons have helped me over the years.

I took a couple of weeks leave and visited Copenhagen, Denmark. Saw a lot of museums and towers, one tower was built for a queen to ride up in a carriage had a circular ramp all the way to the top. I saw Tivoli Gardens and the Littlest Mermaid. I loved the food, they had a lot of dairy products and everyone was friendly. The bars rotated hours, at midnight half would close and another group would open. Copenhagen had a lot of night life and although I did not dance much, I enjoyed watching. I was a loaner, maybe because I was younger than the others. I took this trip and others by myself.

Near the end of 1960, the majority of our unit rotated back to the states for discharge, these were the drafted men who only had to serve two years. The enlisted who had to serve three years had to take over the operations for another six months. At the same time the Nike Missile sites in Germany were being turned over to the German Army. The men who still had the remainder of their tour to serve were transferred to units like ours who were now short of men.

I was promoted to Sp4 and placed in charge of the Fire Direction Control Center under a new Second Lt. Phelps. Even though I had received advanced training at Butzbach, Germany in January 1959 in Fire Direction, I had been acting only as the Battery Recorder up until this time. Now I had a new crew with no experience or training in the Artillery. I conducted classes, but it was hard to hold the interest of displaced men with only months left to serve. I was very cautious, remembering the accidents that had occurred I did not want any blood on my hands.

During the winter of 1960/61 we were involved in more tests at Grafenwoehr and I am proud that we completed the exercises without incident. However, were slow in performing the test. I was given an article 15 and reduced back to Private and 2nd Lt. Phelps did not get his 1st Lt. bars. I fought the article with the help of barracks lawyers, until it was almost time for me to ship back to the states. One of the guys at headquarters told me at the end that if I had not fought so hard, he could have torn up the papers and no one would have been the wiser. But it was too late at that point so I stripped off all my rank from my uniforms, except one set that I saved for the trip home. This would keep me off any picky details that were dished out along the way.

We were fortunate to fly back to the states and I had a month off to visit family, now living in Florida, before reporting for duty at Fort Lewis, Washington. I was hoping to be stationed closer to my home, however you are returned to the nearest post that you enlisted. As I enlisted in Portland, Oregon, then Fort Lewis would be where I would be discharged.