Monday, May 25, 2009

My dad, William S. Peppler: an 18-year-old fighting in Germany

My dad dictated this to me when he was dying of leukemia in 1999.


The year was 1944. D-day occurred in June - I turned 18 in July, and registered for the Draft. I tried to join the Air Force and then the Navy, hoping to avoid the Infantry. But for the first time I found out I am Red-Green colorblind, and so was turned down in both cases. So I was drafted and where did I go, the Infantry. At the time the biggest need was for replacements for troops being lost in the ground war.

During training I had a chance to go to OCS (Officers Training) in Infantry or Artillery. It was a chance to get out of the infantry, but after I passed the written tests, I flunked the physical due to being color-blind.

The training was serious and tough - they taught us how to handle all infantry equipment (M-1 rifle, carbine, 60 mm Mortar, 30 Cal Machine gun, bayonet, rifle grenade, hand grenade). I enjoyed this part. They worked us from dark to dark , with some night patrols that lasted past midnight; some had us crossing thick swamps by compass at night. We hiked miles every day, with a 26-mile forced march with full equipment including a 60-70 pound backpack as the final test. At the end I was in great shape and had gone from 155 to 185 pounds, with solid arms and legs.

We were to have seventeen weeks of basic training, but the Battle of the Bulge occurred and we were pulled in our fifteenth week.

Boat ride

We were shipped by train to Boston and then loaded on the USS America with 9,999 other troops. The boat was an adventure in itself! I was assigned a cot in H-4, the bottom of the ship. The room had a high ceiling and the only access was one vertical ladder up one wall. The cots were 12-high, made of canvas stretched over pipes. They were so close your shoulders would bump the bottom of the canvas above when you turned over.

The ship traveled alone until a day out of port - it traveled fast enough and on a zig-zag course that gave it a better chance of avoiding U-boats then if it went by convoy.

It was winter and the North Sea was stormy. Some days the waves were so high they would crash over the bow of the boat and down the decks. I was only seasick once, but it lasted the whole trip. Almost everyone was sick - if not from the motion, you’d get sick from the odor. The ladder wall was known as the "Green Wall" from those who couldn’t quite make it up to "feed the fish" over the rail. The lucky ones had top bunks - others risked the drip from those sick above.

Everyone started out with a little money - there were non-stop crap and poker games. By the time we got there most were broke and a few had a duffel bag full of money. The high stakes crap games were amazing - the players still in the game had stacks and stacks of bills - mostly ones and fives, fewer tens, I never saw anything higher. I played in poker games with reasonable limits, and watched a game quite a while before getting in - only some of the games were "honest." I did well for the small games I played in and wired $600 home when we landed. (This was unlike the way back - I started with about $75 and lost it all on the first day.)

There were always rumors of a German battleship in the area ahead, and U-boats. About a day out of port we got an escort of two Corvettes. I was in a poker game on a top bunk and there were three LOUD explosions, and the ship started to heel over. We all thought we were hit and sinking, and clambered up the ladder to the deck. It turned out the explosions were depth charges, the ship was in a steep turn that caused the tilt. They got the sub - it surfaced and was destroyed - but by then it was a long way off, and we couldn’t see much but smoke.

We crossed to Glasgow, Scotland and then crossed England on a train with the shades drawn. We crossed the Channel in an old boat and landed at Le Havres. The entire dock area was destroyed so we walked about six miles to a freight train, then to Belgium, then truck, then walked, and we were into it. At every transfer, the group would be split until it was down to another guy and me to an Eight Infantry squad. We had our first experience with incoming artillery before we even got to our unit. We tried to advance a few hours later but were "called back" - driven would have been a better word. A friend that was with me in training was killed in the first hours - heard he took one in the throat.

I could write volumes on the details of the next three. Our Division, the Eighth Infantry, relieved Bastogne, crossed the Ziegfried Line (tough fortifications), went through Aachen, Duren, Koln, crossed the Rine above Bohn and went deep into Germany as point on a drive that cut off 100,000 Germans.

It was winter - muddy, some snow, wet and miserable. We went days without taking off any of our clothes. On occasions our unit would drop back on reserve (still in artillery range) and we would get new clothes - DRY ones!

By the next day we were back in it, clothes all wet from rain, mud, perspiration. We caught a little sleep when we could - usually during the day when we could "hole up." The German artillery was fierce, mostly 88s, and would cut you up if caught in the open in daylight, so most attacks were made at night. Patrols into the German rear were particularly "exciting." The night battles were brilliant fireworks displays - shell bursts, white phosphorus fountains, tracers, parachute flares, German rocket clusters (screaming Meme’s). But the most "exciting" of all was riding on the back of a tank to clear roadblocks - usually barriers with tanks behind them and infantry dug in around them.

We were used to staying close to the ground, doing as little as we could to draw attention. Riding on the back of a tank, you invite everyone to pick you off - rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery.

We took a lot of casualties, and got a lot of replacements. Inside, I knew my luck couldn’t hold - I didn’t think the war could ever end - my only hope was that a wound would be bad enough to get me out, but not lethal.

It was sad to see the dead G.I.’s, I didn’t feel sorry for them - nothing I could do for them - I felt sorry for their families and friends that would mourn and miss them.

April 3, 1945 - My Day

"My day" started out like so many others - the Germans were on the run, and we pushed as fast as we could to keep them from digging in. We were the "point" of a big drive to close a big pocket of Germans - later heard over 100,000 prisoners were taken. We were moving fast - way in front of any heavy support.

We were in hilly farm country, farms and small villages.

About 8 am we were looking down on a small village and the order was given for me and the second scout to go down to the first building. We ran down the hill and were crossing the pasture when the whole village opened up. Fortunate for me, I was hit by the first shot and fell to the ground. The other scout wasn't that lucky, and as we passed by him hours later, we saw he had taken several through the body.

The village was full of troops, and a hot fire fight went on for hours, all around me. The shot didn't hurt more than a slap in the face, but that changed as time went on. I couldn't tell the damage, but held my hand over the area. Blood backed up and ran out my nose. There was nothing I could do - the nearest building, maybe one hundred feet away, had a lot of gunfire coming out of it. The bleeding wouldn't stop. I accepted the fact that it was over and got a very calm feeling. I thought of home and the sadness it would cause there.

I was there for hours, maybe three or four hours by the movement of the sun. A small mortar round landed close by - I felt the sting of small fragments, the chunks must have gone above. I would get sinking feeling where it seemed I was falling back from the light. I saw spots, but knew that if I passed out that would be it.

Then I heard hob-nailed boots coming down the road - I knew it was a German. I had heard of the wounded being put out of their misery. He passed me by and checked the other scout, then headed back. I raised my head and saw it was a German medic - he wrapped up my head and left - then returned with two others and we went to a nearby barn. There were our guys, they had fought in from another direction, and the Germans I saw had been captured.

I couldn't talk, but I got one of our guys to feel my pulse; it was very weak and very rapid.

They radioed for a Jeep to meet us back at the top of the hill (where we started), since no road was yet open to where we were. One of ours had two prisoners start up the hill with me on a litter - as we started up, we came under fire from back in the village. I got off the litter and ran up the hill with support on each elbow. The Jeep was there, I sat up for the run to an Aid Station. When they cut off the bandage, that was the last I remember.

Next came the trip on a litter in a van filled with others on the same. It was a long, bumpy ride to the field hospital - nerves in my jaw were now awake and the pieces of shattered bone rubbing together tortured me.

The field hospital was a big tent lighted by gasoline lanterns. The first thing they did was cut off my jacket, and I remember the slivers of that mortar shell fell to the floor. Next I remember being on a canvas table in this big tent with, it seemed, dozens of operations going on all around. They guy on the next table was face down and they were working on where most of one cheek was gone.

They put a wad of cotton on my face and poured ether out of a can. They poured a little too fast and some went down my nose - I could taste ether for days.

Next I woke up and found all my teeth, upper and lower, were wired together and elastics hooked the upper and lower teeth. Each tooth over the broken area held its piece of jawbone and that was the way they stayed for four months.

A nurse helped me write a V-mail letter home to tell them I was OK and that letter got home before the telegram, and eased the shock.

Next was a trip to an airstrip and off to a hospital at Stratford-on-Avon in England. They segregated cases, so everyone in my ward was a jaw wound case. We went to our own section at the mess hall and sat down to our liquid diet. There would be about five bowls with puree of anything - vegetables, meats, eggnog, etc. It wasn't bad.

I was there about six weeks - to be useful I got a book of card tricks, and spent time in the paraplegic ward amusing guys who really had problems. I also helped the Red Cross by showing movies in various wards with a small projector. The one I was uneasy about was Section 8 Ward - Mental. I'd go in with the same hospital clothes they had, there were no door knobs on the inside - what if I couldn't get out! I was warned to be careful not to lose an extension cord - some were suicidal.

In my jaw ward there were many much worse off than I - some were badly disfigured.

Next was a trip back to the States by hospital ship - to Savannah, a big Army hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia - closest there is to home. The first newspaper I saw when I got off the boat had this headline: "Army Says Not Sending 18 Year Olds Overseas." I was nineteen the next month.

Mom and Dad visited right away, and later I had long furloughs at home between treatments. I was given a disability discharge in January, 1946.

My dad went to MIT on the G.I. Bill - he was the first person from his Pennsylvania Dutch farming community in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania ever to go to college. While he was there he met my mother, who was going to Wellesley.

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At 10:36 PM, Blogger jlevy-architecture said...

Awsome story about your father's letter!

Sorry to change subject in mid commment, but I decided today to start putting down a solid family tree and was tracking down an old family story that goes back to the 1800's about the "LEVYs" being related to Jean Lafitte and found an old blog of yours from 2005 about Jewish Pirates. I've been looking for evidence of this for some time but not very diligently and also learned in returning from a trip to Monticelo today that it was resucued from delabidation by none other than Uriah Levy and his Nephew Jefferson Levy.

Where did you get the information about his marriage to the Jewish girl? It has been passed down in my family for generations that we are direct blood line and there was a name change etc...

Any chance you would re-open this discussion?

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Cap'n Sylvia Sharkbait said...

Wow, this is a fascinating story. I was entranced throughout. Thank you for sharing it.

At 6:40 PM, Anonymous novelera said...

What a wonderful thing you were able to get those memories of your father's recorded before his death! They certainly were the Greatest Generation, after all. My uncle served in the Pacific theater, but my poor dad always hung his head in shame because of his coke-bottle bottom lenses which caused him to be 4-F.

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous susanlynn said...

Great that you could interview your dad and preserve his experiences. An 85 year-old told his story of the horrifing D-Day experiences he had. If these stories are not captured and saved, they will be lost forever. My dad was a farmer, so he didn't serve, but my uncles were in the Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines. Uncle Art , who was a marine, is 85. He served in Okinawa , and he came home in bad shape mentally , but went on to have a wonderful life...a loving wife, 2 devoted daughters, a nice home, and a good job. He never spoke to anyone about his experiences , except perhaps his father a long time ago.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger Alma said...

Thank you for sharing your dad's story. It's taken me all week to read it -- I kept starting over and reading a little further each time.

How amazing that even while in recovery, it was important for him to find a way to serve others.

It's also evident that you inherited your awesome skill for story-telling from your dad.

Thanks again!


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