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In his words: Leroy Fritz remembers Mama, the Bulge

Leroy Fritz is shown in Bamberg, Germany. He worried his father that he had lost a hand because the photos he sent home kept showing him with his hands behind his back.
Leroy Fritz is shown in Bamberg, Germany. He worried his father that he had lost a hand because the photos he sent home kept showing him with his hands behind his back.

I present the following as a personal family historical narrative of my World War II years. In some ways it parallels a letter by a relative of mine named George Fritz who served in the Union Army in 1863 prior to the Battle of Vicksburg. He wrote a detailed letter talking about his feelings prior to that great battle in Civil War history.

So, for what it's worth, I present facts and impressions as true as I can make them with a 44-year break. Please believe me, there is nothing glamorous about war. There were days of loafing, joking and boredom, but also days of being down-right scared to death and seeing so many dead American and German soldiers, some you had talked to the day before. Pictures that stay in your mind long after and remind you of how lucky you were.

So to begin, I joined the Army Reserves in 1942 when I was at Western Kentucky State college, and was called to active duty on April 20, 1943, along with my brother Lloyd. We reported to Scott Field, and my first week introduced me to four straight days of KP duty, like 18 hours a day. I learned what hard work was. Then a long train ride to Anneston, Ala., to Fort McClellan for basic training. The sand, the heat, my goodness. I applied for air crew training. I passed the mental and physical examination and then was sent to Biloxi, Miss., for processing, then sent on to the University of Arkansas for preflight.

I earned 25 hours of college credit, which helped me towards my degree eventually, and I had 10 hours of flight instruction, which I loved. When we were ready for transfer to San Antonio, the orders were frozen and we received a statement: "For the convenience of the government, all men with ground forces training will be returned to the ground forces." So there was some disgust.

I was sent to Camp Shelby, Ark., put in the 16th Armored Division and met other guys who were from the Air Force, Earl Gibbs, Miloski, Grisso and others. I applied for paratrooper training but there was a long wait for that. The first outfit I was in, frankly, I hated it, and the first sergeant was no good. Out of eight weekends in that unit, I had KP duty or guard duty seven of those eight weekends.

So I went to the office and applied for overseas duty with Gibbs and the others. We were sent to Camp Kilmore, N.J., for processing and then put on a little tub, the S.S. Black, about Oct. 20 and into a convoy to Europe. We zigzagged across the ocean.

There were rumors about spinal meningitis, probably more than rumors because we were force-fed huge sulfur tablets and were never told what it was for. But the trip took about 16 days in convoy to Liverpool, England. One overnight on a small train to Southampton and put on a small British ship with rotten food to cross the channel.

They landed us at Omaha Beach, where the original invasion had been made on June 6. We climbed the huge hill to the top with full duffle bags and equipment only to see white crosses as far as the eye can see, an American military cemetery.

We were fed a meal in the rain, and then we went and got put on a train in the open box cars called the 40 and 8, which were famous from World War I, and the same ones were used in World War II. In the course of transferring to the front, we were in a replacement camp at Fountainbleau, which was Napoleon's castle.

We called them "repple depples" -- they were actually replacement depots, and we were sent to another one and I was separated from Earl Gibbs and onto a front line area replacement and then to the 745th Tank Battalion. When there I was asked if I knew the difference between a gun and a rifle.

Well, Leroy never knew to keep his mouth shut, and I guess this time I was lucky and I said "Yes." I said a gun shoots a curved trajectory and a rifle shoots a flat or a straight trajectory with more speed. And immediately they asked if I knew anything about eighty-one millimeter mortars, and I said yes I did, I had basic training on them; therefore I was put in the mortar platoon.

Now for those of you who don't know what an eighty-one millimeter mortar is, I'll describe it because we used it constantly. It is a heavy metal tube that is approximately 4 ft. long and an inside diameter of about 81 millimeters or about 3 1/4 inches. They are used in heavy weapons infantry companies, carried by three men in those cases: the tube, the base plate and the bi-pod.

In this case, they were mounted in the inside cargo of 9 ton half-tracks. The half-track also carried ammunition, which made it faster to use, and the mortar had much more accuracy than when used by the infantry where the base plate had to sink into the ground with the first five to 10 shells depending on how soft the ground was.

A mortar tube stands from 40 degrees to perhaps about 80 degrees from the horizontal. The shell is dropped into the open end, it slides down the inside and when it hits the firing pin on the bottom the charges explode, sending it back up the tube.

On a clear day, you could see the shell go up at a large arc, tip over near the top; and then descend to the target area.

A tank battalion is made up of a headquarters company, A, B, and C companies of medium tanks, and D company made up of light tanks. The headquarters company was made up of an assault gun platoon, which was Sherman tanks with 105 howitzers, then a reconnaissance platoon, a headquarters platoon, and a mortar platoon of four half-tracks; three of them being gun tracks, and one pulling an ammunition trailer and holding an extra ammunition.

They fired AG shells, or explosive shells, and phosphorus shells to provide smoke screens for the infantry. The 745th tank battalion, which was my unit, was assigned to one of the finest fighting units in the US Army, the 1st Infantry Division known as the Big Red One.

On Thanksgiving Day, I joined the 745th and received a complete turkey Thanksgiving dinner at the battalion command post; and then we were put in a truck and taken to the front line. My first sight as I neared the unit was four of our medium tanks knocked out and one German tank burning. The unit was just inside Germany in the Hurtgen forest holding a firing position along with the artillery.

About the third night I was there, there was a very interesting engagement; and gaining my first true feeling of what war is. The Germans were getting ready to attack through an open area, and the artillery observer was radioing information back to us and had us get ammunition ready but hold fire; and when the German troops were midway across the open area, he had his artillery fire behind them. He had our 81mm mortars fire in front of them and eventually direct the firing into the middle and it wiped out the complete German outfit, which gave me my first feeling of death, a very weird feeling.

I was walking around a little German town of Lagerway, which we were set up in, and saw a GI walking by with a violin case. I asked him if he played it; and he said, "No! I'll mess with it and break it up." I said, "Well I play." He asked if I could play him a tune, so right there in the middle of the street in this bombed out town I took the violin out and played a tune. When I finished, he said, "Aw, you can have it." I carried it with me in the half-track for most of the rest of the war and did enjoy it.

During the next week, we could hear heavy German armor moving up at night. We expected an attack but didn't get any information on it. Finally the 1st Infantry Division and the attached groups were pulled back for a rest about Dec. 8. The 1st Division was relieved by the 99th infantry and the 106th Infantry. We were put in a large gray brick hotel in Upen, Belgium, and we thought how lucky we are. On the third day of our rest, walking back I checked the bulletin board for duty because we had duty whether we were on the line or if we were back in a rest area.

I saw the name Gibbs on guard duty. I asked but no one knew of a Gibbs; so I went to Lt. Raditz, our platoon leader, and asked him; and he said, "Well it must be one of the new replacements coming in. So I waited, and when the truck unloaded there was Earl Gibbs of all people. I talked with Raditz, and he said we would get one replacement; so I asked him to request Earl. He did and it worked so we were together for the rest of the time.

Our joy was cut short by the German Battle of the Bulge, which the people of Europe called the Ardennes. The breakthrough came on Dec. 15, and our unit was pushed back into line. Drivers pulled tanks, half-tracks, and all from ordinance so we could move back; and we moved in within a hinge of the Bulge, not knowing where the Germans were.

At night we put guards out on all four sides knowing there were Germans in American uniforms throughout the area. One night one of our guards came running in yelling, " We're surrounded!" I realized I had only a 25 caliber automatic in my watch pocket; and how little I felt.

The first days of the Bulge were weird. Heavy overcast, no air support, and rumors abounded. One night we shot up a German jeep with Germans in American uniforms as they went by the house we were in. It was so dark we stayed at the house, and in the morning we went down to where the jeep hit the ditch; and had to finish off the last one or two as they attempted to shoot at us.

In the Battle of the Bulge, the American armed forces lost more people than in any battle in U.S. history. The snows during the Battle of the Bulge were unbelievable. Vehicles were snow bound -- even tanks and half-tracks. At one point we found we couldn't move a half-track. The track was frozen so tightly to the ground we had to use pick axes to free it up. The deep snow -- in some places almost 30 inches deep -- made it difficult to find infantry men who were wounded. Almost impossible to find the mines which caused many vehicle losses.

Many infantry troops had trench foot and frost bite. Many of us were on the verge of frost bite during those days when we had to live and sleep outdoors. The weather cleared after about the first week, and we rejoiced to see clouds of B-17s and our Liberators coming over. So many that it looked like pepper sprinkled on a white sheet. By the hundreds we would watch, see the ak-ak exploding near them from the German side, and occasionally one would spiral down. We would count the parachutes hoping that the crew got out.

During January, we spent time in many Belgian towns: Waywortz, Vamenville, Chopin, Merefeld, Hepenbauch, and others. Moving into one town in a raging blizzard with about two feet of snow already on the ground, Chopin Belgium, we caught the German garrison and the buildings around the stoves. They knew that no intelligent army outfit would be out on a night like that. We got a write-up in the Stars and Stripes newspaper of Europe on that one.

During the Battle of the Bulge, we heard many robot bombs go over, some aimed at our positions and others toward England. They could be seen at night with their red jet flashes shooting out the back of them. Also during the Battle of the Bulge, we experienced our only "screaming meemies," which was our nickname for rockets with sirens on them which flew fairly low to the ground, showing their red streaks shooting out the backs. One whole night these things went over our heads. We envied the groundhogs getting to be underground.

One other move from town to town was blocked by knocked-out American tanks in hilly country with narrow roads, so we had to cross some low fields with our half-tracks. The command tracks started to cross and got mired in the snow, so the next gunned it and got a little further but also mired down. Then the third, a bit further, and finally the fourth so all were stuck.

Luckily the farthest one could let out the winch cable to the other side into a sturdy tree. It winched itself further and then all connected winches to the track ahead of them, and we pulled ourselves out.

February 1-5 was the bright spot in my army service. We received the break we were to have in December when the Battle of the Bulge came along. We were assigned to a private home in Rummoshlotz, Belgium, a little town on the Emble River, about 15 miles from Liege. Our whole platoon was assigned to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leone Uban, a couple in their early forties with an elderly aunt and six children ranging from 2-15 years of age, three boys and three girls.

A number of our fellows were sick with colds and flu during this five-day rest, and Mama, as we came to call her, treated the sick and the well ones with love and good food. I had the violin with me I had picked up in Germany, and in evening I played the violin, the aunt played the piano; and we all sang well-known songs in our own languages. What came as a break in fighting a war became one of the most wonderful relationships a person could hope for, one of complete trust, love and dedication seldom found in peacetime. The visits we have made to Belgium and the visits of their family members to our home have welded us together.

On February 5-6, we loaded up the cleaned and ammunition stocked half- tracks and headed into Germany -- Shevenhood, Guy, Rommushein, Galtzeim, Blatzheim, Hoturken, Libloar, Barnheim. We were told we'd give close firing support to our infantry. We were based along the Ruhr River for a little while and took over what had been a German dugout. It was dug into the side of an embankment with heavy logs over the top and canvas and dirt.

We called that our little home in the dirt, and I have a number of pictures taken there. Then we were told we were gonna be attacking Bonn. Naturally we had military maps but we didn't know the Germans would tear down street and highway signs. On March 8 we entered Bonn thinking we were right behind our infantry, only to find out we were ahead of the infantry. We had a platoon of four half-tracks including one 50 caliber machine gun, three 30 caliber machine guns and our side arms.

We readily found out that no infantry was in the area, and we faced many of the Volksturm defending their home town. We took many prisoners and felt sorry for those that were wounded, for we found that most of them were older men between 45-70 years of age.

One of the little interesting tidbits that happened in Bonn, we were all scouting around for German troops we should capture; and Earl rounded a corner and found what appeared to be a German general. He was in a fancy uniform with all sorts of decoration things on it, so Earl took his rifle and led the fellow back to the headquarters. Getting there he found out the man was a postman; so we had a lot of fun teasing Earl about that.

Since we took Bonn, we took over the Burgermeister's home a beautiful large house and grounds with three large Mercedes-Benz touring cars in the garage. How I'd love to have one of those today. We scouted around the area, and that is where one of the guys found a large, gray, three-storied house with three levels of basement -- the lowest being a full wine cellar. We immediately dumped our five gallon water cans and filled them with an assortment of good wine, then sent back to battalion HQ for a two-ton of empty water cans; and we had a brigade of guys passing empty cans down and the full cans up to empty out the wine cellar for the Germans.

When the military government arrived, usually when it was safe and clear of Germans, we lost the Burgermeister's house because they took it over. Again, we moved on into Germany: Hemroch, Duzdarf, Annuf. We were told that the Remagen Bridge across the Rhine River was just captured; and of course as much military hardware and men had to be sent across as possible.

I have a paper weight from part of the rock from the Remagen Bridge that the mayor of Remagen had made up years after the war and made available to those of us who knew about it. The Germans tried to demolish the bridge when they realized it was captured. They sent dive bombers to do the job; so we set up huge search lights and kept the sky like day all around the bridge all night long so as to shoot down the dive-bombers. They did damage the bridge but knowing this would happen, pontoon bridges were brought up and assembled in the first few days.

My platoon was scheduled to cross the first morning it was finished. As we approached the area in blackout, shells were coming in and what happened we really don't know for sure. The driver of our track lost control and we rolled down the embankment sideways about three rolls. Can you imagine a nine ton vehicle, ammunition and all the guys? Each of us carried flashlights on our belts, and as soon as we could get our wits about us, we started looking for the guys in our squad. I found my good buddy Freddy Chapeta from Chicago killed. I had cuts on my head, but no one else was hurt.

All traffic crossed the river, though, so we were loaded onto another vehicle and I went to the battalion aid station to have the wounds dressed. I goofed off for a day or two there and then rejoined the platoon. My injuries, for which I received the purple heart, included a deeply cut lip and a cut in the back of my head. I've carried a lump in my lower lip ever since, but it doesn't hurt unless I accidentally bite it. My wristwatch, which I had gotten from mom and dad for a high school graduation, was ripped off my wrist and I didn't even know it until I pulled up my combat jacket later to see what time it was and found the strap still on my wrist.

From the Bridge at Remagen, we fought some of the heaviest action of the war, firing more than 800 shells in one night alone. Once the armies broke out of the Remagen pocket, though, other crossings of the Rhine River were made and we moved miles every day. We were headed straight to Berlin, we thought. In the town of Hale, which was a large town, I climbed up in the town hall to get the huge swastika German flag and took it along as one of my souvenirs.

From this point on, we didn't meet many of the elite Nazi soldiers, mostly younger boys and older men. Prisoners were taken by the hundreds and thousands. They seemed to know it was lost, and most of them seemed to be pleased to be safely a prisoner. One group of three coming down a hillside with a white flag we saw; so three of us went to meet them, one with a Thompson sub, the others of us carried pistols. As we frisked the Krauts, I saw one was wearing a silver skull ring, so I signaled with my finger and he happily removed the ring and gave it to me. Bill now owns that souvenir ring.

On one day's break about that period of time, I went to B Company to visit my friend Art Grissle. He was sitting on top of a tank cleaning a machine gun, so I crawled up on the turret and we were chatting; and of course guys that were on the front were saying, "What have you found?" I pulled my 25 caliber pistol out of my watch pocket, it was actually that small, and I said, "Be careful, Art, it's loaded but on safe." Art didn't realize he had already kicked the safe off, and before we knew it there was a loud bang and my left eye was completely blinded.

Of course I doubled over thinking I was hit, and so did he and the men around him. He immediately asked if I was hit; and I said, "I can't see out of my eye!" Of course he said, "I can't see any blood." So I just sat there holding my head because I had an immediate headache as you can imagine. And finally daylight started coming back through the eye, and I realized I had had a powder burn. The bullet had gone that close to my head that even at about a three-foot range I had a powder burn in my eye that temporarily blinded it.

The Hartz Mountains in Southern Germany were beautiful for peace time, but difficult to fight through. One day we were in a semi-safe situation in a valley not set up to fire, and we received new replacements, one of them being Gene Morris, who became a good friend. He was a postmaster from Ohio. I was out showing him the workings of the half-track when a German Panzer tank opened fire on us from down in the far end of the valley. Surprised, he asked, "What do you do now?" I replied, "You get the hell out of here!" And I dove under the front end of the half-track. Unfortunately he dove under the wrong end and ended up covered in mud.

We had many fun things of that type that did come along. The high command obviously wanted Patton's army to move into Berlin, so we crossed paths. Our First Army was moving southeast into the Bavarian area through the little town of Rottenburg-Aunder-Talbot, one of the most beautiful old cities I've ever seen, and I've taken Marge there by the way. We headed on in to the western edge of Czechoslovakia, stopping in Chip where we heard things were about over.

V-E Day was announced in early May, so we helped guard the roads as the German troops arrived to surrender on cars, buses, hanging onto the sides and tops of trucks and each of them wanted to make sure to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians. Many of them who could speak English would cry out, "Hey American soldiers! Let us help you beat the Russians now while we can do it." And we laughed at them.

The word we received after the surrender was that we would go straight to the Pacific Theater of Operations to help invade Japan. We did enjoy the break, though, and knew it would probably take months for the military to do all that moving. We were housed in big brick buildings in Bamburg, Germany, that had formerly been a training center for German armored forces. Fitting, for the American armor force units to take it over.

Near the end of the war I saw my first jets -- German jets. They came near a flight of American pursuit planes, and when the Americans took out after them it was humorous almost as if the American planes stood still and the jet zoomed away.

After the atomic bombs brought Japan to her knees for surrender, we finally realized we were gonna go home. What a strange feeling it was. Our 745th Tank Battalion, which was located in Bamburg, was deactivated there, and the men transferred to 70th Tank Battalion. Our vehicles were pulled into large farm fields bumper to bumper, side to side, and just parked. We call them Victory Graveyards.

I found that Lt. Radditz had put me in for a Bronze Star medal for meritorious achievements as he had for a number of the fellows. Needless to say I did appreciate this. At the end of the hostilities, the HQ of the 1st Division authorized the men of the 745th Tank Battalion to wear the 1st Division patch, the Big Red One on a shield of army green on our right shoulder. The Armor patch was on our left. The little lapel pins which we had made from shell casings in a Nuremberg factory held the motto that had been selected by the men early in the war: "Our tracks lead to victory!"

Men were being returned home by points depending on decorations, time in service and time overseas; so while waiting I became supply sergeant of the 70th Tank Battalion. I had a jeep available and was pretty much my own boss at the time. It was here I was assigned sergeant of the guard for one 24-hour period but wasn't given a jeep driver to help post the guards; so I signed my own jeep out; and after posting one guard during the night at the Nuremberg railroad station, I came out to find my jeep missing. In the morning I reported the jeep missing, and the CO threatened me with a court martial.

One of the officers I had fought with though informed him that I had been assigned two jobs, sergeant of the guard and jeep driver; and I was doing one of those jobs. The commander then asked how we stood for jeeps, and I informed him that we had been two over our authorization; but now we only had one. His comment was, "Don't lose that one dammit!"

Finally it became my number to head home, so I left Earl Gibbs and my buddies, made several stops on my way to Amsterdam, boarded a Victory Ship, and we headed home with storms keeping us company the whole way. Some of the poor seasick guys begged to go back to Europe, but after 17 days we pulled into New York Harbor on New Years Eve in time to see the search lights, sirens and all.

We almost capsized the ship with all the guys wanting to see the sights; and I heard one GI looked at the Statue of Liberty and said, "Lady, if you wanna see me again, your gonna have to turn around!" Well, this was one time the army moved fast. We disembarked into Camp Kilmore, NJ. We were given a huge New Years Day dinner, and asked not to go AWOL.

They sorted us, loaded us on trains, and red-balled our trains to all parts of the country. No side tracks like we experienced earlier in the war when you sat and waited hours. I went to Camp Grant near Chicago. They processed us, and we were given our final pay and travel money to get home, so I took the train to St. Louis. When I arrived in St. Louis, I got to the bus station, caught a Belleville-St. Louis Coach Co. bus and took it to the square in Belleville.

By now it was probably 2 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1946. The city buses weren't running, so I went to the taxi office and asked for a ride out to North Church Street. One driver looked around and said, "How many ride?" When I said just me, his comment was, "Just wait until someone else comes along for a ride." To which I said, "Buddy, I just fought a war for you and I'm coming home. If you don't take me, I'll take that damn cab and go myself."

It was interesting because he immediately jumped up and apologized. He said, "I just thought you were one of the Scott Air Force guys goofing off through the night." So he drove me to the house.

When I got to 1536 N. Church St., I rang two short rings on the bell thinking I'd fool mom and dad; but I could hear mom scream, "It's Leroy!" They let me in and to my surprise, Dad just sat on the couch and cried. He had been so sure I had lost a hand since the photos I had sent home usually had me standing with my arms clasped behind me. His relief was just more than he could handle.

Well, that was the end of the World War II experiences. The incentive for us to visit Europe on our several trips since then was initially to see the Uban family. Each time the visit with Mama was something special, especially the 1974 first visit. Eve drove us from Liege to Rommachantz; and when he pulled the car to a stop in front of the house, Mama came running out with her arms outstretched; and I jumped out of the car; and we just hugged each other and cried with joy. To think of getting back together after all those years.

That first evening when we said our "bon nuits," as we joked about it, going to bed in the same room I had gone to sleep in in 1945. Marge came to me with tears running down her cheeks and said, "Lee, you always said they were so wonderful, and I couldn't believe it till now. You were right."

So dear friends, that's about the best I can do. I've mulled over this, read over this; added, subtracted, changed and I feel like it's the most complete narrative that I can make. As I said before, there's nothing glamorous about it; but if it's of interest to any of you, why I'm glad I did it.

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