By Harold Ratzburg
Did you ever look at your favorite piece of your collection and say to yourself, “Boy, if this thing could only talk, I wonder what stories it could tell, about where it came from, what kind of person owned or carried it, and how did it get to the place where I found it?”
Take for instance, a German Army belt buckle. Did an American GI pick it off of a deceased German, or maybe a prisoner of war? A GI in the front line would have all kinds of chances to have first pick at collectibles from prisoners or dropped or discarded equipment of the enemy. Or so I thought.
To find out, I interviewed WWII American veterans who had been in the thick of the fighting, “up in the front lines.” I wanted to find out what they thought about front line collecting.
One gentleman, Jim Cullen, shared some interesting tales. During WWII, Cullen was a sergeant in charge of a half-track personnel carrier that carried 11 other infantry men up to where the shooting was. His job on the half-track was to man the .50-caliber machine on a ring mount above the cab.
I asked him about what the troops were looking for as collectibles. He said, “Pistols, watches, and blow torches were the favorites.” Okay, pistols, I can understand. And watches? Yeah, they could be used for trading. But blow torches?
The story about blowtorches goes like this:
The troops found out that the German Tiger Tank carried a blow torch as part of its field maintenance equipment. So if the troops managed to take out a Tiger tank, the “hard” way, they got a blow torch that could be used to heat their C rations. They did this by digging a hole deep enough so that the nozzle of the torch was below ground level, and then they dug a little trench in front of the nozzle over which they set their ration cans to be heated. So, when the torch was fired up, the heat in the little trench did a great job of warming up the food. A big advantage was that the blowtorch did not create smoke or flame that could be seen by the Germans and draw artillery or mortar fire.
On occasion, according to Cullen, the troops picked up German helmets and hung them on the front of the half-track as decorations. When they got to the German border, they understandably took them off, since displaying a helmet of a probably dead German soldier in Germany would not be a smart thing to do in the enemy country.
In many instances, when the fighting was fierce and it appeared that the unit might be surrounded, the GI troopers had to make sure that they got rid of any German personal souvenirs they may had accumulated. If the Germans caught them with such things, they assumed the GIs had been looting German bodies. The GIs would be dealt with harshly, like just being shot out of hand.
Cullen was fortunate in that he was in the 3rd Armored Division, as part of the 36 Armored Infantry Regiment. He was riding in the half-track instead of walking, so he could haul his collectibles instead of carrying them, which a walking GI would have to do. That had its disadvantages, however, in that he was riding in a bigger target.
Cullen collected (”accumulated,” “liberated,” or “looted”) his own little stash of three German pistols, (two P-38s and a Radon). He carried the pistols in his musette bag that he hung on the armor plate around the machine gun.
He survived encounter with a German tank (since they were always at the head of an armored column). The tank opened fire on the half-track. The first shot killed one of Cullen’s men, and the second shot missed. By the time the tank fired a third round, Cullen was out of the half-track. Good thing. The anti-tank round went through the armor of the .50 caliber ring mount. A piece of shrapnel from the shell did hit Cullen in the chest. It also went through the musette bag holding the pistols, destroying Cullen’s looted gun collection! The wound put Cullen out of action for a while, but he recovered from the shot.
When I asked about the prisoners that they took, Jim told me that when they got into Germany, the Germans were so fed up with the war that they surrendered in droves. The American troops simply waved for them to just keep moving back to the rear because they didn’t even have time to search them. As to looting dead bodies, he said that the GI’s he knew just did not do that.
On those occasions when the outfit had taken a town after all the German troops had left (including the snipers who hung back to take their pot shots at the conquerors), the GI’s could relax a bit. The first thing they did was find a place to bed down for the night. Once that was accomplished, (if they were not too tired,) they headed out and to see what they could find that might be of use.
The first things that they would look for and “liberate”(they never called it looting) was booze, beer or some wine to help them unwind. Food, to supplement their canned rations, was also a major target.
Anneliese, my wife of 63 years, (whom I met in Germany while I was stationed there in the early 1950s) experienced that when the Americans roared through Germany. She was bombed out of her home in Ulm an der Donau in December 1944. Eventually, the Nazi government relocated her to a farm house in a small town out in the countryside. In May 1945, American tanks rolled into town and halted for a time. While the GI’s checked out the town and liberated what they could use, they “disposed” of any known or accused hard-core Nazis.
In the cellar of the farmhouse where Anneliese was living with a refugee family, the troops found several hams preserved in a salt bin and racks of German black bread that the farm wife had squirreled away for the use of her family and the French POW who had been working the farm. The farm owner was off in the war fighting in the Germany army. Much to the consternation of the farmer’s wife, the GIs took all the hams and bread. Before they left, they gave a ham and some bread to Anneliese and the refugee family with whom she was living.
Anneliese and the family hid their liberated loot, and very shortly, the farmer’s wife told them to get out, because now the Nazi Party could no longer tell her what to do, i.e. provide housing for the bombed out German refugees. But, at least, the refugees started walking back to Ulm with a little stash of food in their baby buggy!
Cullen eventually got back to civilian life with a few souvenirs that he still has today: Binoculars, pocket knife, M.P. Brassard, GI gloves, a German “Soldbuch” glider patch, and a piece of camo parachute silk.
It would be nice if each of the souvenirs could tell us how they came to be in Cullen’s duffle bag when he shipped home. For sure, each would have an interesting story!