Metro-East News

Seeing it start: Millstadt veteran served before WWII hit America

Herman Pellman of Millstadt with items he brought back from World War II — a metal cup and a German helmet.
Herman Pellman of Millstadt with items he brought back from World War II — a metal cup and a German helmet. Tim Vizer/BND

Millstadt resident and World War II veteran Herman Pellmann was on guard for America even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

He joined the American coastal defense forces in March 1941 -- nine months before the infamous attack -- to protect the shores of Alaska from a feared Japanese invasion. When the shooting and bombing started, he was sent to San Francisco where he manned a coastal artillery battery. Later, the battery moved to Washington state where it guarded the inland waterway to Seattle, Tacoma and Mercer Island.

"I was one of the first from Millstadt to go to war, along with a few guys I knew from town," Pellmann said. "The war hadn't started yet. But we knew it was coming. It was just a matter of when and where."

Pellmann had already been protecting his country for two years when, during a furlough in 1943, he was reassigned as a cannonier to the 7th Army's 69th Infantry Division, 880th Field Artillery Battalion.

"That was a hot division, scheduled to go off to war in Europe," Pellmann said. "I was transferred in November and then I was in Redding, England, by Christmas."

There, the men of the 880th began to grasp the scope of the war. Every day, they looked up to see the massive groups of American bombers as they lined up in formation at the convergence of the Kennet and Thames rivers to start their assaults on Germany.

Soon the 880th was also in the middle of the fight. Loaded on landing craft and shipped across the English Channel to France, the division made its way to Belgium where it was met with signs that said "This road under enemy fire."

"The Germans would zero in on sharp turns in the road where you had to slow down and they would really let us have it with their 88-millimeter guns," Pellmann said. "They had good guns. But ours were pretty good, too. Mine was a 105-millimeter howitzer."

It was in one of these attacks that Pellmann's brother, Fred, was wounded just yards away from him.

"I didn't know he was wounded until after the fact," Pellmann said. "I tried to go see him, but he had already been taken to the rear."

Pellmann said he was reassured by the medical staff that his brother's injuries weren't life threatening and he quickly got his mind back on work. He didn't get to see Fred again for three years.

In the Monschau Forest the 880th faced off against the Siegfried Line, a saw-tooth-shaped stretch of bunkers, gun emplacements, tunnels and tank traps that ran along the German border from the Netherlands to Switzerland. It was designed to prevent the Allies from reaching the German Fatherland.

The opposing armies took turns bombarding each other day and night from their dug-in positions.

"We were under almost constant fire," Pellmann said. "I think we had more casualties from splinters from the pine trees than we did from shrapnel."

After the battle, Pellmann was walking through the forest and saw a dead American GI that there had been no time to bury.

"I looked at one of the bodies and saw a guy that I knew from Belleville," Pellmann said. "He was Elmer Schaefer, who worked at the Wessel Brothers meat market. We played ball in the same league. He was a pitcher, and I batted against him on many occasions."

The thought of his friend's face haunted Pellmann until after the war. He was sure it was Elmer. But what were the odds that he would come across the body of someone he knew half a world away in the middle of a war?

After he got home, Pellmann asked Schaefer's family if Elmer had died in Monschau Forest. It was him.

Pellmann was awed by the devastation he saw as his unit pushed forward toward the Rhineland. It reached the Rhine River at Remagen shortly after the German's blew up the bridge. When the unit was finally able to cross the river on a makeshift pontoon bridge, the Nazis on the other side had been pushed a long way back.

White flags flew everywhere you looked and German citizens treated the Americans as liberators instead of the enemy, he said. The men of the 880th were sent to ferret out hiding German troops.

"In a barn we captured a couple of German soldiers," Pellmann said. "One was an old guy and the other was a young boy of about 15."

The pair were hiding in the hay loft. And while the older guy surrendered quickly, the boy was scared to death. He wet his pants and was literally shaking in his boots when he finally gave up.

Pellmann was one of several men who found a place to stay in a German farmhouse where the apprehensive frau served him homecooked meals.

"The other guys told me she was probably going to poison me," Pellmann said. "I told them that I was willing to take my chances because the food was so good."

While they waited for the war to move on, Pellmann helped the frau milk her cows, bring in hay from the field and do other chores to keep the farm running.

"She was a nice lady," Pellmann said. "She asked me to fly to come see her after the war. But that was too expensive, so I never did."

Pellmann's father was born in Germany, so the soldier was tempted to try to look up family when he got there to see if they made it through the war.

"He told me not to look for them," Pellmann said of his father. "He told me, 'You're an American now. An American soldier. You need to forget about the past.'"

Pellmann looked anyway, but never found any relatives because his father refused to provide names and addresses.

As they made their way across the German countryside, Pellmann said American soldiers grabbed anything that wasn't nailed down as souvenirs.

"I got a silver cup from an old German fort and a Nazi helmet," Pellmann said. "I used to have a Luger. But when I was on the way home to be discharged, a guy offered me $35 for it, so I sold it to him. That was a lot of money back then."

The only other thing Pellmann swiped from houses was clean, dry socks -- a luxury for soldiers used to slogging through the mud and sleeping in foxholes or ditches. But he said he always traded a wet, dirty pair to make up for what he took.

The last stop for the 880th was Merseburg where the U.S forces met up with Russian troops. The Allies called a three-day truce to let the German field marshals decide what they wanted to do.

With the guns of the 880th trained on the German officers and soldiers, the Germans decided to surrender and the war was over for Pellmann.

"I was in the Army for four years, six months and 10 days," Pellmann said. "I was ready to go home."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at or 239-2626.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat