From the Woolner Family
© Leslie Woolner Bardsley
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Grand Spirit of America Triumphed Over Aachen
Frank Woolner
Journalist, Headquarters, 3rd Armored Division


AACHEN, GERMANY, Oct. 22, 1944 -- It was the day after this ancient fortress city of Germany had been beaten into surrender, and Aachen was a ghost town. There wasn't a sound in the rubble-strewn streets. Dead horses lay where they had fallen; here and there a German soldier or a civilian lay with arms and legs akimbo. You could still hear the rattle of machine-guns on the outskirts of town, but the defenders of this place had disappeared; they were in the PW stockade behind our lines.

Only a few military policemen patrolled the deserted streets of Aachen. A couple of main thoroughfares had been cleared for traffic, but the rest of the city represented a chaos of piled debris. The American First Army had passed this way. The soldiers who were represented to a naive Wehrmacht as "greenhorns" and "military idiots," had arrived and conquered. The headlines of the world's news belonged to them.

You had to be proud of these guys - the GI-Joe's of America - the guys who didn't want to fight, who rebelled against the regimentation of Army life, who wanted to go home - and who had beat the stuffing out of Jerry all the way across Europe.

GI-Joe is the man of the hour. In Aachen, we saw him with black stubble on his chin, tired and dirty, with a German Luger at his belt and an M-1 slung across his shoulders. He had just routed the Wehrmacht's toughest troops, the SS deaths-head gang, out of this wreck which once was a beautiful city. He'd seen his friends killed by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. He'd seen shellbursts and bombs devour an entire city. In unearthly silence, the city lay before him, blackened and gutted.

But this is the day after. Joe is still weary, but he's still got a sense of humor. Already the happy-go-lucky, goofy, grand spirit of America has prevailed over the utter desolation of war and hand to hand combat.

"Them scissorbills," says GI-Joe, leaning against a blasted Jerry half-track full of live ammunition and empty bottles, "was told by Hitler to fight until the last bullet. But they got the message wrong: they only fought until the last bottle."

Joe grins through his four-day growth of beard. He's wearing an old silk top hat with the crown punctured in a number of places. Yesterday it was bayonets against the black-garbed SS. The SS went down for the count, and today Joe is enjoying a brief respite before he slogs back into the line and bores into the guys of Nazi Germany.

In the armored division which is my outfit - mine forever, because I was a cog in the machinery all the way across the hedgerows of Normandy, the ambush towns of France and Belgium, through the once vaunted Siegfried Line into Germany - Joe is the same sort of guy who trudges with the infantry. Only, of course, we claim that he's a much more important soldier, being armored force, and chiefly because he's a member of our own outfit, the 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division.

Pride of organization is a part of such men. A "Spearhead" tanker will tell you that his division is the finest striking force in the world, and he can prove it, too.

A graphic example of the American way, now being so forcefully demonstrated to the supermen of Europe, occurred in Mons, Belgium, where the spearheading 3rd Armored Division smashed Wehrmacht troops who might have manned the Siegfried Line later. Sgt. Muriel F. Lehman, of Marissa, Ill., and his platoon of tank destroyers, in six hours of continuous fighting, destroyed 20 German vehicles and hundreds of enemy SS, paratroop and regular Wehrmacht soldiers as they attacked in an effort to break through the steel ring of our armor. A German officer, wounded in the attack and taken prisoner, complained bitterly: "You damned Americans don't know how to fight a war - all you want to do is slaughter us!"

"You're right," grinned Lehman, "I learned the trade from your panzers in Normandy."

War humor is something that springs from bitterness itself. There is no fun in the all-out attack, no cause for humor of any kind when death is so close. And yet, humor is there. After the tracers have quit streaking around and the crumping mortars are quiet, GI-Joe and his friends bat the breeze and find lots to chuckle about. They tuck tragedy away in the backs of their minds; it's always there anyhow - and they think about the funny things that happened.

Or they dream up a wonderful yarn, like the spurious report of a new super Jerry tank with a crew of 31.

"My gosh!" you exclaim, "that must be a monster!"

"Sure is," says GI-Joe solemnly, "One guy drives and the others all push!"

Joe is like every other American, an intrepid souvenir hunter. And the word is "intrepid" in this case. Souvenir hunting is a bad habit in the frontline areas, because the most desirable items are likely to be booby-trapped. However, Joe is no dope, and he carefully examines each find before touching it. An engineer captain of this division chuckles: "The soldiers in this outfit learn more about booby traps while they're looking for Lugers than they'd ever learn in school. We don't lose many men to anti-personnel gadgets - the boys are too cagey for that."

Many of the frontline GI's carry a captured German Luger or a P-38 pistol. Most of these weapons came from prisoners personally taken during the long, swift drive from Normandy. German bayonets and ceremonial daggers are zealously sought and often worn prominently until orders to the contrary are given. A number of these items, exclusive of firearms, have already found their way back to the States in gift packages.

In the matter of nicknames, Joe can't be beat. He calls the German airplane which drops flares over our position at night, "Bed-check Charley," and dubs the bombs he drops, "salami's." His own vehicle is always named with a talent for diversification. The ANXIOUS VIRGIN is a tank destroyer. "And now she's only anxious!" said the crew proudly, pointing to their record of eight enemy tanks and numerous other vehicles. Joe has a lot of fun along with his heartaches.

In fact, this is the best war that GI-Joe has ever been in - and he hates it thoroughly. He suffers in the mud of foxholes, and dies in the wicked crossfire of high-velocity guns. He's scared of Jerry's artillery, and yet he knows that we can take the Kraut any time at all in this department of ordnance.

Joe is a study in conflicting emotions - or maybe he's just a study of true Americanism. He hates the German soldier's guts, loves to see the enemy shot to ribbons.

He goes his way, slugging Jerry slap-happy every time they meet, wearing a top-hat and clowning after the engagement is over, collecting souvenirs, and cracking jokes about sudden death and the things associated with it. The German intellect can't understand this outlook: it's a form of weakness in their eyes. They could never see potential conquerors in Americans who talk loudly and laugh uproariously, who raise merry hell on Saturday night, and who openly refer to their officers as the real German secret weapon!

However, the record can't be wrong. For all his want-to-go-home attitude, GI-Joe is doing the job and he is one of the world's crack soldiers today.

But he doesn't like the job. He likes peace ... and America ... and maybe a glass of cold beer after his work is done in the evening.

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