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James A. Besong
Rank: Staff Sergeant
James A. Besong



E Company

France and Europe

1944, 1945

Survived the war?
86th Infantry Blackhawk Division

86th Infantry Blackhawk Division

Memoirs of E Company...

“This outfit will never go overseas! We may send replacements, but go as a unit? Never!” That wishful thought had stood up remarkably well. Hadn‘t we gone through basic training, “D” series, maneuvers? Didn‘t we send out replacements in large numbers on three different occasions? Hadn‘t we taken amphibious training? Hadn‘t we been “hot” before and cooled off each time? Weren‘t we, even now reposing in the carefree routine of Camp San Luis Obispo, California, before again going on maneuvers, this time at Hunter Liggett Reservation? Yes, we felt pretty secure on the basis of our past good fortune. And then it happened. It was on the 8th day of January 1945. There was nothing we saw in writing, and nobody, in so many words, said we were going overseas. But there was unmistakable, increasingly ominous signs pointing to it each day. Inspections, packing, issuance of new clothing, were a few of the signs. Where were we going; that is, if we went? (Still that if). Was it to be Fort Meade, Fort Lewis, Seattle, San Francisco, Texas, Joyce Kilmer, Myles Standish, or the old favorite, Camp Atterbury, Indiana?

On February 7th the first 0288-F train pulled out of Obispo with a send-off by the band. For six days we wended our secret trainward away from the warm sunshine of Southern California, across and through the beauties of the Rockies, over the vast, fertile Plains area, into the Eastern States, and finally to Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts, snowbound and cold, on February 13th. New speculation arose as top how long we might be at this new staging area. Probably two, three or even six months. Oh yeah? Five days later on February 18th, grim faced GI‘s of the “We‘ll never go overseas outfit” answered their first names and middle initials one by one as their last names were called out and they single-filed up that fateful gangplank.

We were barely on board when we were funneled fore and aft, starboard and portside to our respective decks; then to compartments; and finally to a triple-decker bunk, one of the three being assigned to each of us. A small card served as a combination passport, meal ticket, fare and luggage check. One was given to each of us as we came aboard. It was our claim to this space of about six feet in length, two and a half feet wide and two feet deep (less the Œsag‘ of the guy above you). This area was all yours. All of that thirty cubic feet of space provided one‘s stateroom for the voyage.

If you were in the lowest bunk and wanted to read, someone was sure to be standing in the semblance of light 98% of the time; if you had a top bunk and wanted to relax, it was 10 to 1 there was a poker game in progress; and if you were in the middle one and wanted to sleep, all the neighbors were sure to have heaped your niche full of gas masks, mess kits, packs, duffel bags and any other excess lying around; or if one did get to his middle bunk, some guy with a size sixteen shoe, supporting 200 pounds of bulk, was sure to step on some part of your anatomy in getting where-ever he wanted to go!
On the 19th of February, towards evening, our whole new world began to ease out of its docks in Boston harbor and headed into the formidable expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. At almost exactly 5PM the sun went down, literally and figuratively, on our whole world our home. Nobody said much. Silence told the thoughts in each man‘s mind. These thoughts turned from the singular pronouns “I”, “my” and “mine” to “we”, “us” and “ours”. The old, childish prattle and argument about my city and my state being better than yours, gave way to our homes, our families, our country. In our silent thoughtfulness some of us reminisced about a somewhat similar grim voyage to America by the ancestors of all of us sometime during the last tree or four hundred years. Those pioneers pulled themselves out by the roots from the ties of home, families, friends, and dared the ravage of the elements, of savage natives, of an unknown quantity on the other side just as we were doing in reverse.

Without stating in so many words what our forebears sought, we know now that it was freedom of worship, freedom of thought and speech, and most important, freedom of opportunity a chance to make a decent, honest living. They were seeking what later became to be known under that all-inclusive word Democracy economic, social and political freedom. Now, after having made great advances towards those ideals at home, this generation found itself going forward under the banner of the Four Freedoms, to (1) protect what we had established; (2) to destroy a foreign social and political tyranny; (3) to replace that tyranny abroad with our democratic ideals, and (4) to bring peace, security and contentment, according to our standards, to the whole family of nations, while we continued to seek higher levels of security for the common man at home.

Back in the realistic world it began to look, confidentially, as if we were going overseas! The first couple of days were okay a new experience for most of us. It was smooth sailing. We thought we had our sea legs. By this time a large number of ships had formed our convoy. We were near the center of it and a fighting, naval escort skirted our approach, our flanks and our rear all of which was very reassuring. Then the Edmund B. Alexander, of the pre-war SS America Line, captured from Germany in the last war, began to grow uneasy. It tossed and rolled gently but so damnably persistently that many of us found that our equilibrium had failed us or gone to our stomachs. “Be sure to eat all meals”, they said. “That will keep your stomach settled and your props under you”. Oh yeah? So you try to be brave and decide not to miss a meal. You try to convince yourself that that step isn‘t going down, as you reach for it on the ladder; or that the next step didn‘t come up to meet you with a good konk on the ankle. That wasn‘t too bad. But that steamy stuffy mess hall. Oh well, it‘s just your attitude; don‘t think about it. Feel better, don‘t you. Just then, “Splash”! The guy ahead of you lets loose on the floor, on the table, in his or someone else‘s mess kit. Poor devil. He can‘t help it. Stay with it, boy; you‘ll make it. Go ahead and eat. Eat what? This greasy, slimy stuff? Nope, can‘t do it. L

Well, that was the trial, either you made it or you didn‘t. From then on it was smooth sailing. Occasionally there would be rumors of wolf packs and a few precautionary ash cans would be dropped. And always at dusk there would be that grim reminder, “Attention all military personnel. Black-out regulations will now be observed." On March 1st we sighted land through the haze and fog of the English Channel. It was a welcome sight to most of us. Even though it was foreign territory, it was land. We edged as far as we could into what had once been the fine port of LeHavre, France.

Here we had our first view of the devastation that couldn‘t be truly portrayed by newsreels and commentary, regardless of how realistic they might have been. This was the real thing. There was no mistaking it. All was quiet now. But in the harbor were blasted Ducks, capsized ships, German gun emplacements, some blown wide open, others still in tact. On shore were knocked out vehicles; railroad tracks broken, twisted and strewn over the landscape in heaps as one could crunch and drop a handful of jackstraws. Since docks, factories and rail-yards were prime military objectives, they were pulverized into heaps of rubble by bombs, artillery shells, and every other destructive device of modern war. Farther back in the city, residences and other establishments of little or no military value were intact, except for windows shattered from concussion.

In spite of the destruction of property and the suffering that must have been endured by a great many people, human life continued to move about in these ruins. The harbor was alive with every conceivable type of small craft. The people were hard hit and destitute. They had been bombed so often and by so many forces that they probably questioned if there was anyone fighting for them. For instance Germany bombed and took this area; then the Allies softened it up for invasion with more bombing; and after we had retaken it, the Germans tried to bomb out what was left for our use.

When we struggled ashore under the burden of huge packs and duffel bags, we found ourselves in a strange land and in the ruins of willful man-made destruction -- something none of us had seen before. The natives looked and dressed differently; they spoke a strange tongue; they all walked or rode bicycles; they probed in the rubble for fuel or anything else that could be of value to them. But there were familiar, and in a weird sort of way, welcome sights too. They were GI trucks! We loaded into them, not knowing exactly where we were going, but we knew from experience they‘d get us there. Before we had gone many blocks we gasped a little at seeing our first real French pissary in operation. We had heard and read about them, but seeing is believing.

We saw signs of spring in green shoots of grass and gardens. The gardens were confined to the tiniest plots, every inch of which was tilled and carefully nurtured by those who would probably have to be supported almost entirely by what they produced. Our road led us through the greening, hilly countryside of famous Normandy province. The narrow, winding, surfaced road was shared by GI trucks and primitive looking horse drawn carts and wagons, many bicyclists and pedestrians. One of the fellows had the GI‘s and it bore down on him on this trip. Pass the versatile steel helmet! Cold, formidable looking steel dragon‘s teeth, which had served their purpose as tank traps, still were in place. We snaked through a number of villages with their narrow streets, stone buildings and blacked-out windows until we reached our new tent city, home of Camp Old Gold, France. This was the coldest spot on earth or so it seemed. No winter in the north, no Louisiana maneuvers, or no Texas Plains wind could compare with the penetrating, damp cold of this place. And yet fields were greening, farmers were tilling the soil, and spring was in the air. What a paradox!

Most of the three weeks time at Old Gold was spent in getting quartered away for the big show. Vehicles, ammunition and other combat essentials were issued. Conversion of good old American lettuce to those French shinplasters and saddle blankets was part of this new order. Our vocabulary enlarged here too. Nor D‘ Guerre was one term; ETO another, which when prefaced by BTO became a popular dub upon slightest provocation. And French had its place too. “Merci, Sil vous plais”, were most popular. Some of the fellows could only master the word, “Pardone.” Oh well, someday the war will end and we won‘t have to endure it anymore.

Non-fraternization was another new term. It was an English one, but it had a French, and later German, Austrian or what have you meaning. Even so, eggs, wine, cider and bread of French origin became popular chow supplements. With a long loaf of that dark bread under one arm and a bottle of “cee-der” under the other, the average American GI could hardly be distinguished from a French shopper, except by dress. This barter may have been a little tough on the cigarettes, chocolate and soap, but no one suffered or even cared. A few passes to Yvetot, Rouen, Grainville and other nearby places revealed the hopelessness, the slovenliness, the degradation of a people sold out by political rottenness and too tired or beaten to go forward aggressively in reconstruction for a better day and a better France.

On March 25th Sunday, of course; and raining of course we left our tent city in France. We rode about ten or twelve miles in trucks and then boarded the “trains” for an unknown destination. Such trains! They had miniature engines like the kind we use for switching or for jockeying coal cars in a mine. The boxcars were four-wheeled wagons. The wheels were about 2 _ feet in diameter, and were spoked instead of solid or disced. The cars had leaf springs rather than coils. Every car had two buffer like, shock absorbing bumpers on each end. The cars were 25 or 30 feet long and designed to hold 40 hommes or 8 chevaux 40 men or 8 horses the famous 40 and 8‘s! Each car had about two feet of clean, coarse oat straw for bedding nothing less, except a supply of K rations. And that was to be our home for the next couple of days.

Have you ever compressed your winter clothed body into the shape and space of a trunk murder victim for two days and nights? Then you can‘t appreciate what a ride in a 40 and 8 is like! You sit that way, you eat that way, you sleep that way. If you stretch out your over-shoed foot lands in someone‘s solar plexus, groin or face. Or if you are one of those who has the guts to stretch out (and you can get away with it) some wandering bastard is sure to step on your shin and slide off with your skin rolling painfully under the rubber grip of his new overshoe. It doesn‘t help any either if someone gets out to defecate while the train is stopped and then, in the darkness tramps through his own feces and brings the fetidness back into the car for all to endure.

But if you got to see Europe its‘ better to see it from such a vantage point then crawling on your stomach from shellhole to shellhole. So far we were seeing it the easy way. We had already rechristened our outfit the “sightseeing Division” rather than “the never go overseas outfit.” But the land was not destroyed by war; nor was the peasant who plodded behind his fine percherons, habitually planting another crop for his and his country‘s sustenance. How important his contribution for holding together a semblance of national stability was probably least known to him.

Eventually we reached Belgium. It was cleaner, more active industrially, and apparently recuperating faster than France. The “V” for victory salute was genuinely meaningful here. We waved the “V” sign too, hesitantly and self conscious at first, but soon with enthusiasm and feeling. People still begged, but they cheered too. We were liberators. We felt encouraged in seeing their smashed industries and rail lines rapidly being repaired and already back on our side actively helping in the war effort.

Into Holland where the famous canals cleansed the countryside. Well tended gardens and attractive flower beds added cheer to the desolate atmosphere of war. Fresh, clean washes were laid out on the green lawns for drying and bleaching. People dressed trim and neatly in styles similar to our own although wooden shoes were quite prevalent. The Dutch too wanted our cigarettes and candy, but they were proud and insisted on paying or offering to pay for whatever we gave them. In Holland we saw more cows and, as in Belgium, fine Belgian draft horses. Much to our surprise most of the Dutch we contacted understood English and many of them spoke it brokenly. As we approached Germany, near the boundaries of the recent Ardennes Bulge, our progress was slow and halting. Other essential war traffic had to get over the treacherous rails, too. Railway labor battalions were hard at work, fixing blasted trackage, reconditioning damaged and badly needed rolling stock, searching out sabotage; in fact, actually relaying the track ahead of us in some places. Acres of captured Nazi equipment, particularly stacks of 5 gallon cans, stood out on the landscape.

The many stops gave us an opportunity to survey the slam-bang results of hard toe to toe infantry combat. Personal clothing and equipment of Germans and Americans alike were strewn everywhere. There were canteens, helmets, packs, blankets, shelter halves, entrenching tools, mess kits, and first aid kits. While there were no visible dead, death was everywhere. There was a tell-tale whole right through a helmet; there a burned out German gun emplacement; communication lines, cut and tangled, were everywhere; countless dead horses littered the fields; the earth was marked from bombings; trees were sheared; buildings perforated or demolished. But all was quiet now. And while our train stopped, GI‘s satisfied a suppressed boyish desire and smashed with stones the useless and undamaged insulators on a grotesque and battle-scarred telephone pole, nude of all wire.

Aachen and Duren were our first German towns. They were lifeless! There was positively not a building that wasn‘t destroyed or badly damaged. No natives were in sight. But GI‘s had already taken over and were doing repair work on our vehicles and using these ghost towns as supply depots. Duren was the end of the line. While waiting for trucks here, everyone was quiet and awe struck at first. We were warned that the place was probably mined and booby trapped. But soon curious GI‘s overran the place. I‘m sure it wasn‘t booby trapped we had no casualties! This was our first exposure to loot and while our eyes blinked, civilization still had a hold on us novices and we left everything I think!
Soon, trucks came and picked us up, we were off to battle, stopping on the outskirts of a town called Surth, about midway between the great city of Cologne and Bonn.

So this was the “Faderland” that will never be invaded! Well, something went wrong with your plans, Adolph! Our first night in Germany we shall all remember. After a few winks of sleep, we marched into town in the “wee” hours of morning. We relieved the famous 8th Division, and we were now facing the enemy across the Rhine River. Our initial troop “engagements” were patrols sent across the river. Soon casualties were reported, mostly unfortunate accidents, but the first 86th blood had been drawn. It was there we learned to recognize the difference in the whistling and whining of our own artillery and that of the enemy. There was little activity but it was enough to teach us the fundamentals of warfare. While on guard, we had little difficulty in imagining footsteps following us, hot on our breath, shiny green eyes peering out of the darkness, and rifles in our backs at all times.

In a way, we felt a lot like civilians, for we were living in up-to-date houses. Even so, shades of Nazism still lingered in the surroundings. Posters hung everywhere; those weird “Pst” shadow men, warning all not to talk to strangers. Needn‘t have bothered, Goebbels, we had a non-fraternization policy of our own. Approximately a week after arriving in Surth, we were on our way again. We went south on the west side of the Rhine, through the scene of recent bitter engagement where Americans forced the crossing of this famous river. Just above Remagen, we crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge, christened the General Hodges Bridge by the engineers of the First Army who built it.

If one dared to stroll in this vicinity it revealed ghastly sights. Trolleys appeared as if caught in transit by shell fire and were riddled with machine gun bullets. Tracks and pavement were broken. Everything was smashed. MP‘s directed native pedestrians and cyclists through the ruins of their own town. Heads protruded from windows of dwellings, staring in scorn, defeat and unbelief at what had and was happening.

After traveling through many little towns, we finally arrived in Milchenbach, along the southern edge of the Ruhr pocket. The road was hard surfaced all the way and in good shape except for occasional repaired bomb craters. Trees evenly spaced and of equal height bordered each side of the road. A little imagination marked this as sort of a triumphal arch, and we were playing a leading role.

Many vehicles from the largest war machines to the smallest were knocked out, and strewn along the road. War leaves weird and grotesque scenes. One in particular sticks in my mind. The wall of a house was completely blown away and the rest was in tact. On the second floor all the furniture was in place (davenport, chairs, stove, rugs), exposed to public view. It looked like a sheet out of a mail order catalog showing a cross section of a room advertising furniture or room arrangements. Upon this movement we saw blitzkrieg in reverse. Innumerable German civilians with bundles on their backs, were going west as the French and others were forced to do in 1940. Many of these were French and Belgian slave labors, recently released by our advances.

From Milchenbach we started north into the Ruhr Valley. Our objective was the city of Hagen, and it was there we all received a real baptism of fire. We did our job, and split the pocket into smaller segments for assimilation for the Allied “meat grinder.” It was a difficult assignment for our “green” outfit, but the boys did a brilliant job, not without the loss of life andlimb, however. The mission was achieved completely and in short order. The 86th had won its spurs.

Our attack on Hagen was on Friday, the 13th of April, 1945. Some of us were superstitious, but since then lost all trace of it. We are still alive! It was there we first started our sipping of the famed German champagne, schnapps, wine and beer. Our Polish, Russian, French, British, Italian and other Allied Prisoners of War had saved such for the day of their liberation. In Hagen, we first heard of the death of President Roosevelt. Unbelieving, stunned, we soon had the report confirmed on our liberated radio. The man who in depression or war, with his infectious personality, figuratively slapped every faltering American on the back and said, “All we have to fear is fear itself”, is gone. He saw realistically long before his peace-loving electorate, the war clouds gathering and painstakingly, almost single-handedly, made the nation conscious of the great danger that was ahead. He set astronomical goals for production which we were sure couldn‘t ever be met, but which were exceeded, surprising ourselves, and proving that America was truly the arsenal of Democracy. This great commoner and world statesman was a war casualty of the greatest loss to all mankind.

On the 18th of April, we loaded up on trucks and left the city of conquest behind. Via, Limburg, Frankfort on Main, Wurzburg and finally to a little village near Ansbach. The long distance took us to a new front and a new Army the rip-roaring Third Army. (Blood and Guts Patton in Command). We had been in the new Fifteenth before going into Germany, and were in the First Army during the action in the Ruhr, (the industrial heart of Germany). The drive to nearby Ansbach was about 190 miles cold, rainy, and miserable but a panorama for sightseers that we were. The potato country gave way to small grains as we neared Hanau on the Main River. Cows still provided the farm motive power, with horses, few and far between, tractors being a rarity indeed. Part of the country was very hilly but every inch of soil was utilized by terracing.

Most of the little villages we passed through were touched little by war, probably because white flags fluttered from every window, indicating surrender without resistance. Other towns and cities of military importance bore evidence of all the devastation that modern war can bring. Even the country around these towns showed signs of opposition, semi-circular gun emplacements in fields were already filled up by farmers, but the scars were still on the earth‘s surface. Markers along the German highways warned “Mines swept to ditches”. We wondered how many innocent people would be killed in the future by these bastardly contraptions. Road blocks and bombed out bridges were common sights too.

Wurzburg revealed one of the most thorough-going job of mass, precision saturation bombing we had seen. Block after block of brick walls stood unsupported by roof or floors. The floors and roofs were so much rubble in the basements of these buildings. There were no windows, just gaping holes where they had once been.

Refugees of all descriptions clogged traffic at all times. They headed away from the front if they were Germans, French, Belgians, or English; or followed the front if their homelands were to the east. They all carried bundles of necessities and walked, or rode bicycles if they had them, or could appropriate them. Tanks, trucks, jeeps, halftracks, semi-trailers with supplies, food and gas jammed the highway. Many times when our convoy would be held up, all eyes and words went to the pretty blonde German Frauliens, who seemed to be everywhere.

Apple trees were blooming everywhere, as were lilacs, pansies, marcissus and tulips, and the air was fragrant with spring. Many of the towns we passed through had old churches and forts of medieval architecture. Old middle age castles, with moats surrounding them, were not at all uncommon. American military units had taken over many of these castles for their headquarters.

Every night we had a new home. As evening closed down upon us, we picked out a nice home, having a good strategic position for defense, and got ready for a few winks of sleep. After evicting the occupants of the house, (where they went we didn‘t care) the first thing we looked for were chickens and eggs. Most homes had food and fuel aplenty in their basements. An evening meal consist of eggs (any way we wanted them), french fries, coffee bread, jam, and the old reliable German schnapps, champagne or beer. Beautiful little trinkets that may have been found, can be found today in many homes of America that I am sure.

After leaving the little village near Ansbach, we pushed forward to the town of Immelsdorf, that being the 21st of April. On the 22nd and 23rd we were in Spalt. The morning of the 25th found us starting out on foot again, driving down near the Altmuhl River. A cold night it was, lying in a foxhole in an open field, watching the snow flurries rain down upon us, and wondering how much longer this had to go on. The bridge ahead had been knocked out by the enemy artillery.

On the morning of the 26th we crossed the river on a hastily built pontoon bridge. From there on it was a walking and fighting marathon; it seemed to go on for days, a never-ending march forward. Finally we did come to a stop, it being in Ingolstadt on the famous “Blue Danube River.” Ingolstadt was shot to pieces. Smoke rolled from the ruins, rubble lying everyplace, and thousands of Russian and Polish slave laborers, liberated by our advances, overran the ruins like rats. They were in stores, in basements, in homes, coming up with every kind of wearing apparel from boots to scarves; and any kind of conveyance from a go-cart to a horse. “Rooskies” received us with a regular Union Square speech, but the only words we could recognize were, “Roosevelt” and “Stalin.” Many of us participated in some of these liberation parties (given by the liberated), and reports are that they were really “rough” parties indeed.

We crossed the Danube under fire during a snowfall. We were the first outfit to cross, and it was anything but “blue”, “romantic” and “beautiful” that day.

On the 29th of April we were relieved on the outskirts of Windham on the Isar River, some 25 miles north of Munich. After one day of rest, we started out again through a driving snowstorm. A miserable life, to be sure; stopping at Wasserburg, we were off again, never stopping until we crossed the Inn River. On the 4th day of May, we left the city of Berghausen behind, and pushed across the Salzach River into Austria.

All during our advances, POW‘s were being brought in and it was a steady stream to the rear. Packed in large personnel trucks, so tightly -- they looked like fence posts. Many surrendered of their own accord, others needed a little persuasion, but all seemed to be glad the war was just about over win or lose. They were on the move to the POW cages in the rear, 24 hours a day, by the thousands; it looked like we had run out of war. Yes, after a sensational 120 mile drive in 12 days, we routed the staggering defenses in the vaunted “Redoubt” area, capturing thousands upon thousands of prisoners, and releasing additional ten of thousands of Hitler‘s slave workers. We had come out at a point where the Third and Seventh Armies joined. All opposition in our present area had surrendered to the Seventh Army. We were now part of the inactive Seventh Army, waiting for the end of hostilities, which we knew had to come soon.

On the fifth day of May, our long and torturous advance ended, we were in Eggelsburg, Austria. At this point, we were not far from Salzburg, the birthplace of the great musician Mozart; the beautiful lake, Chiem See, was nearby, the home of Hitler (Bertchesgaden) was just an hours drive away. An awe-inspiring backdrop to the green valleys and rolling hills, were the majestic snow-capped Alps. The colorful dress of these people was like a picture book. High pointed Tyrolean hats, knee high pants, and flashy colors made us expect anyone of them to start yodeling. But many were destitute and waited in our garbage lines for scraps and left-over coffee, which they gulped like starved vultures.

It was here in Eggelsburg, in the shadow of the Alps, that we got the glorious news of victory in Europe. Although it was a great day, most of us observed it in a quiet way. Church services were held and everyone went, we had so much to be thankful for; even though there was still a war in the Pacific, and we felt certain we‘d be in on it, or be stuck for occupation in Germany. At any rate we were sure we wouldn‘t be going right home.

On May 14th, we moved nearly 300 miles in a convoy, arriving at Vierheim, just 2 miles from Mannheim in Western Germany. It was a long trip, but we overlooked it this time, because of what we saw. We crossed the Salzach River and went to Munich where we took one of the splendid Autobahn Highways to Augsburg. Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi Party, had been a large, modern city. Now most of it lay in ruins, and clean-up parties were moving rubble from the streets and alleys. Long lines of natives waited their turn for rations and supplies, now being given out by the Allied Military Government. Flags of the United Nations waved over these headquarters. Just outside of Munich we passed within a few kilometers of infamous Dachau.

Augsburg, an important industrial city, had those industries stilled forever. Smokeless stacks stood as solemn markers over the graves of once intensely active war factories, now dead. The only productive German activity the whole distance was in agriculture, where hand workers toiled laboriously to eke out an existence. One couldn‘t help admiring German thrift and industry. It was apparent everywhere in the splendid highways, fine bridges (what were left of them), power lines, forest stations, modern conveniences, parks, recreation, facilities and health. Even what agriculture lacked in modern methods, was made up for in the hard work rotation of crops, and the general know-how. Yes, Germany had a sturdy, healthy people, and a beautiful country, a great industrial production. But for what? For the greedy appetite of conquest and war, turning good into evil, and security to destruction “kaput" is the German word for it.

Vierheim was a respite from the damaged cities we had been in. The town was spared. It was grateful, but uncertain of the nature. We had very nice homes to live in, made homelike by the hospitality of each and every German Frau and Fraulien. Flowers everyday decorated the rooms, cleanliness was throughout every German home and family. It was here in Vierheim, just 4 kilometers from the great German city of Mannheim that we all settled down and began to enjoy life once again. We visited fine old churches, splendid orchards, gardens and flowers; the Displaced Personnel Camp, nearby Heidelburg; and (to the single men only) the lucious, tempting, buxom but very Œverboten‘ frauliens. What a display on a bicycle!

Out of a clear sky, while we were still wondering what would happen to the 86th, came the almost unbelievable good news that we were the first Division to go home, enroute to Tokyo but soon. A soldier learns to live from day to day. Any dread of Tokyo was lost in the exuberance of being home for a month. On May 31st we left Germany, going through battered Mannheim, where we crossed the Ernie Pyle Memorial Bridge (pontoon). Soon our trucks raced through to our old reliable 40 and 8‘s, waiting for us there on a siding. Once more we loaded in these cars, only this time going the opposite direction we were going to the coast and from there, a waiting ship could carry us home once again. The return trip through France was more cheerful and encouraging. The fellows were in better spirits, and all loaded down with their prize “war souvenirs.” The people were working, beginning the long task of reconstruction, perhaps wondering if this time it would again be in vain.

By noon of June 2nd we were back where we came in, three months previous to the day Camp Old Gold, France. We thought staging was rough at Obispo, and especially at Standish, but brother we hadn‘t seen nothing yet! It only lasted five days, however, because on June 7th, the heavily laden (mostly loot) 341st Regiment boarded the General T.H. Bliss, through the active and alive port of Lehavre, and headed home. The trip was uneventful except for that breathless moment when it was announced over the ships PA system the “orders have been changedÝ..”. However, instead of heading directly for the Pacific we were relieved to learn that we were slowing down for the other 86th ships to catch up so we could all enter port together. We cursed the delay, but it was entirely forgotten when we saw “everybody‘s girlfriend”, that grand old girl with the torch in her hand in New York harbor, who symbolizes freedom and liberty and America. And those white stones on the green landscape that said, “Well done welcome home”, were tear jerkers. The reception of photographers, blimps, airplanes, ships, cars

The clean, busy, undamaged life and property, and industry of this great city were at once astonishing and soothing after what we had seen. For a second our perverted minds thought, “Gads, what looting territory!”
On Sunday, June 17th we debarked, loaded on ferries and went up the East River past the world famous skyline to waiting trains that whisked us to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. There we were given a grand American steak dinner, hurriedly processed and issued new clothes.

“Did your clothing fit?” “Who the hell cares, I‘m going home!”And the next day we did.

James A. Besong

86th Infantry Blackhawk Division
  • Ordered into active military service: 15 December 1942
  • Overseas: 19 February 1945, for the ETO; 24 August 1945, for the Pacific
  • Campaigns: Central Europe
  • Days of combat: 34
  • Awards: DSC-2 ; DSM-1 ; SS-12 ; LM-1; SM-1 ; BSM282 ; AM-2
  • Commanders: Maj. Gen. Alexander E. Anderson (December 1942), Maj. Gen. Harris M. Melasky (4 January 1943 – December 1945), Maj. Gen. Paul J. Mueller (January 1946 – April 1946), Maj. Gen. Harry F. Hazlett (June 1946 to inactivation)
  • Returned to U.S.: 17 June 1945, from the ETO, "the first combat division to return from the European theater."
  • Overseas: 24 August 1945
  • Deactivated: 30 December 1946 on Leyte, Philippine Islands
Veteran's personal medals
European Theatre of Operations
European Theatre of Operations
Victory Medal
Victory Medal
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