Knisley in Nordhousen
On March 25th the 3rd Armored Division spearheaded a big offensive which was to drive into the heart of Germany. The idea was to go as far and as fast as possible, staying on the main highway and not to worry about cleaning up any by-passed enemy troops. At a staff meeting I remember that we were told not to take any prisoners. The route was to be through Marburg, Korbach, Marsburg, and Paderborn. The entire division moved almost one hundred miles in one day, out-running our own supply forces and reaching Paderborn at dusk. What most of us didn't know (and I suspect even the high command didn't know) was that Paderborn was the "Fort Knox" of Germany, a training camp for the Panzer tank divisions. I had moved my ground crew to eight different stopping places and finally had them traveling with the battalion headquarters unit, when they hit Paderborn and were cut off from the rest of the battalion. It was here on March 30th that the 3rd Armored Division commander, General Maurice Rose, was killed by a Nazi tank soldier. General Rose was a rather popular commander, who liked to be "up front" with his troops, a soldier's soldier. I had flown General Rose on a couple of occasions when we were still in England, and I found him to be very common and personable, unlike most of the career officers I knew.
I managed to get our two planes on the ground within the area of our battalion but found out right away that we were pinned down, because as soon as we tried to take off, we were showered with ground fire from tanks and anti-aircraft guns. In a pocket (later called the Rose Pocket), we were completely surrounded by Panzer troops and simply had to sit tight and wait for reinforcements. For the first time, our artillery howitzers were firing direct instead of the customary trajectory firing. It was Easter Sunday. I recall that the chaplain held services in an old granary. I attended, as did many others who were not regular church attendees, and the service was impressive.
By April 5th, after the 2nd Army had linked up with us, the division proceeded eastward toward the town of Nordhausen. During the rapid spearhead movements, the air section was used primarily for reconnaissance. As a result, my passengers were often members of the division staff and the task force commanders, especially General Boudinot, who were looking for ways to cross the rivers where bridges had been blown up by the retreating Germans. We were a couple of days each in the towns of Frohnhausen and Asche, awaiting the engineers to complete makeshift bridges.
Nordhausen, which we reached on the eleventh of April, was a place of horror. Camp Nordhausen was a Nazi slave extermination campground. Decomposing bodies were everywhere, and the stench was unbearable. Wandering among the dead were emaciated, ragged and starving prisoners, who were so far gone that few had any chance of surviving. Most were, I understand, labeled as political enemies of the Third Reich, Germans as well as other European nationals. After being liberated, those who were able to walk just staggered about aimlessly, staring straight ahead. We learned that the procedure in the camp was to hang thirty-two men each day, while the entire garrison watched. Then the prisoners who were able hauled the bodies to the ovens. History relates a lot about the Jewish holocaust , but I have read very little about Nordhausen and the neighboring Camp Dora, where the prisoners worked to build V1 and V2 weapons, the robot or buzz bombs. It was an ugly scene! It has been well over fifty years since I saw Nordhausen, but even now, when I see someone walking along the highway, I am reminded of the liberated prisoners in their striped uniforms aimlessly shuffling along the roads leading out of Nordhausen.
After Nordhausen, the division spearheaded eastward through Sangerhausen toward the Elbe River.
My crew bivouacked on Friday the 13th of April at a little village named Gerbstedt. The next day, while flying over our column of tanks, we were attacked by eight Messerschmitts strafing the column, two of which came after me. With tracer bullets all around the airplane, I panicked and "hit the deck," crash-landing in a plowed field, where the Cub nosed over on its back. I was strapped upside down and remember having a frantic time trying to get the seat belt loosened so that I could get out. The Messerschmitts made a couple of strafing passes at my plane, and at me, as I ran across the field to the column of tanks, the bullets kicking up the dirt around me as I ran. At the same time, I was trying to shed the cumbersome parachute I was wearing. It would be a gross understatement to say simply that I was scared. At any rate, I survived both Friday the 13th and the day after. We were able to salvage the plane, but the landing gear, the propeller, and the rudder had to be replaced.
The last German city taken by our 3rd Armored Division was Dessau on the Mulde River, and it fell on my birthday, April the 23rd. That was also the day that I flew General Boudinot a little west of the Mulde River, where we sighted the Russians. My last fire mission in combat was the next day, when our battalion fired its 170,100th round of 105 millimeter shells. The twenty-fourth of April marked the 221st day of combat for the Third Armored Division. On the twenty-fifth, the 9th Infantry Division relieved the 3rd Armored, and we moved back out of range. We were mighty happy knowing that combat was over for us. My air section had collected several bottles of champagne, with which we had a real party to celebrate.
I still did quite a bit of flying, but most of it was administrative in nature. One day I flew Colonel Garten to Kothen Airfield to see our first German jet engines. I also worked in a seven-day rest and relaxation leave to Liege with Mike Cronin. On the way, between Kassel and Bonn, we were forced down by a sudden snowstorm at a little village appropriately named Winterberg, where we spent the night. After our return from Liege, our outfit moved farther back to the town of Sangerhausen, staying there for about one week. On May twelfth we moved to Neu Isenburg, a suburb of Frankfort. This was to be our final move as a unit.