Second World War: Troop Ship

Soldier recalls his journey to Europe aboard a troop ship during the Second World War.

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During the Second World War, I was on board a troop ship for nine days on the high seas bound for England. It was a French ship with a British crew. The food was not what Americans were accustomed to - mutton and more mutton. I was seasick most of the time, but not so sick that I could not sit through the movie, "Home in Indiana," seven times. 

It was early January, so the ship was covered with ice onto the third deck. Once it was reported that a German submarine was spotted. Knowing what a prize a troop ship with many thousands on board would be, I did not feel one moment of fear. In comparison to what lay in store for me, this would be the "good times."

We landed in England and got on a train rigged for night blackout. Some of the travel I had been looking forward to lasted one night in this curtain-drawn train. In the morning we boarded another troop ship bound for France.

At Le Havre, we left on a train to Metz. It was there I received my first line of defense, the rifle. It was a rifle picked up from a battlefield and placed into a barrel of oil. My rifle was still loaded, and the front arm piece had been damaged by shrapnel. Knowing that the rifle had not brought the last soldier any luck, I tried to change the pattern by carving my mother's name, Andrea, on it.

When we got to the German border, I said goodbye to the last of my buddies with whom I had gone through basic training. It is a very lonely feeling to go into combat without one friend.

I was assigned to the Third Army, 87th Infantry, L Company. L Company was guarding the crossroads one-half mile into Germany at the Siegfried Line, Germany's famous line of defense in the Ardennes Forest. The Ardennes is like northern Minnesota - all pine trees.

Before I even got to L Company, a 10-minute walk, the Germans sent two artillery shells within killing range of the 1st sergeant, who was taking me there. Artillery shelling was something we would live with just about every day until the end of the War.

We lived outside during the daylight hours, and we moved into German pillboxes at night. The weather was like Minnesota during the month of March. Without any type of heat inside or outside, and living in the January cold and snow, we were cold day in and day out.

One day, about two weeks after joining L Company, we boarded trucks for a one-hour ride to the rear for a shower. We were allowed 15 minutes of warm water, and it was the greatest feeling to be clean and warm. Little did I dream that this would be the last shower the Army would supply for us until the end of the War.

It was about this time that I received my first stripe and the Combat Infantry Badge. The stripe paid $6 a month more. I received the stripe because the Army did not want any more plain privates killed in combat. The combat badge paid $10 a month for as long as you remained in the Army. I was now making $76 a month.

The uniform included a helmet, helmet liner, cap, scarf, long johns, one belt, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks, combat boots, overshoes, shirt, sweater, field jacket, overcoat, rain parka, cartridge belt with 10 clips of ammo, canteen of water, two bandoliers with six rounds of ammo each, two hand grenades, gas mask, field rations and all your personal goods. With all of these extra clothes and equipment, I'm sure we were burdened with 30 extra pounds.

About four weeks into my War experience we were pulled back to work on the muddy roads. After the first day I got the chills so bad I was sent on sick call. I asked the medic what my temperature was, and all he would tell me was that I should be dead. The fourth morning in the hospital the doctor asked how I was feeling. I told him that the bronchitis was better, but my diarrhea was as bad as ever. The doctor told me he was very sorry, but he had to send me back to my unit.

I was in no hurry to join my unit. When I was driven back to Company L, I could see the spring attack was on the way. Jeep after jeep with three stretchers on each drove past me. Most of the wounds were caused by trying to cross a mine field. How did the Army get soldiers to cross fields they knew were mined?

As usual, the kitchen was unable to get food to us, so three of us had to walk back three miles to the field kitchen. We ate our fill of canned peaches -- the first fruit I had eaten since joining L Company. We carried back three cases of K rations for the rest of the company.

The next day we were on the move again. I was on the far left flank with my new buddy Smitty next to me and the rest of the company stretching over the hill. That's the way we were proceeding when I saw two Germans running for a pillbox. I thought this would be a quick "one, two" for me, as they were close and unarmed. Before I could fire, I heard incoming artillery shells.

Shrapnel was flying all over the place. One guy caught fire when he was hit. Someone rolled him over and over to put the fire out. I went over to check on him a little later; his eyes were rolling around, and his left leg was hanging together by a little piece of skin. There was not much blood by the stump of his leg, so perhaps he had other wounds, too. I'm sure he died long before he could get any kind of medical help.

We then dug our two-man foxholes to spend the night. We had a wounded soldier lying near us. He kept crying "water, water" over and over again. He had shrapnel in his gut, so we could not give him anything to drink. Around midnight a medic woke me to help him carry the wounded soldier to an aid station they had set up in a pillbox. The pillbox was filled with the wounded. Some-one really dropped the ball when the wounded had to wait eight hours to get their first medical help. Instead of me getting a couple of unarmed Germans, they kicked the heck out of us!

In the morning, we were on the move again. We had a very easy day, and we even found old foxholes in which to spend the night. Our foxhole was one in which someone had spent at least a week. The longer you stay in a hole in the ground, the better and safer it becomes. This one was big enough for two good-sized men, with pine branches for the floor, and a log roof with just a small opening. The reason for the two-man foxholes was that while one man slept, the other kept watch.

Because of the tension and lack of sleep, we both fell soundly asleep. I awoke in the morning to the sound of our machine guns. I looked out of the foxhole and about 40 Germans were coming over the hill. I fired three clips of ammo as fast as I could pull the trigger. I was too excited to take much time to aim. Our foxhole was way to the right of the Germans, so I was shooting down and to the left. I was able to shoot at them, and they had no idea w here I was.

I dropped back into the foxhole to reload another clip of eight rounds. I raised up to shoot again, and two Germans were within 100 feet of me. At my age, they looked like a couple of very old men. Of course at that time, 60 seemed old to me. To this day they are the only ones I can still see when I close my eyes.

After taking care of that problem, I reloaded and concentrated on the others. I took careful aim at a big German behind a tree. As I began squeezing the trigger, he turned his back to me and I saw on his back the cross of a medic. I felt disappointed, but knew I could not shoot him.

My last clip fired in this firefight was at a German crawling on his hands and knees. Every time I fired, it looked as if he crawled faster and faster until he made it to some brush. I finished the clip into the brush.

We took 17 prisoners. The others got away or were killed or wounded. Think for a minute about the poor wounded in the losing army. I felt sure the Germans would not have been able to go back for them, and we never went down the hill. In this War, we did not have a body count.

By nightfall we were out of the Siegfried Line into farmland. That night we dug in around a sand pit overlooking a field with woods running along the side. We could hear Germans working on a tank. Infantry men have a big fear of tanks, especially us since we had lost our bazookas days ago. We were lucky we never had to deal with it.

Thirty some days ago L Company had been 138 strong. We were now 18 strong, and we had lost our last officer four days before. We had 77 percent casualties. Everyone of us knew we would keep going on until it was our turn to die.

I still do not know if there are any atheists in a foxhole. I know I used to pray a lot, but perhaps not the kind of prayers I should have been praying; mine were mostly for personal favors. I prayed for help to make it through the next battle, and for God to take care of my folks and my brother and sisters. My trouble with that was I knew most of the Germans were praying to the same God.

My 100 days of combat with the Third Army ended with the end of the War. I was the youngest of the few left who had walked from the France-Germany border, across Germany, to the Czechoslovakian border.

Calvin H. Christensen
Lakeville, Minnesota

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.