This 1999 interview is with American Bill Davis, 180 Cav Rgt, 45 Infantry Div


What attracted you enlist in the army?

Bill: Pearl Harbor, very simple. When the Japs bombed us, it made me want to do something for my country. Our economic situation was not good either, I was a poor farm boy from Oklahoma with little to eat and my parents could barely hold on to the farm. We had been ravaged by the dust bowl, then the depression, even Rooseveltís measures like the CCC in the late 30ís were not doing anything to help. I knew we would enter the war at some point, a friend in the merchant marine told me we were sending England all sorts of material to keep them on their feet, and coming to blows with U-boats.

The Jap attack surprised us, we thought it would be Germany who would attack based on the aid we were giving England. I know today that we levied sanctions and freezes on Jap assets, aided the Chinese, and cut off all oil, but we did not know this at the time. I was just old enough to enlist and hitched a ride to town to sign up. I was sent to Ft. Stillwell for training being assigned to the 45th. The food was good, and I liked the uniform, but my parents were worried, but they understood I had to do my duty.

When did you go into action?

Bill: I went into the army in early 1942, and my training lasted several months, I was sent to a few different bases to learn advanced combat skills. After all these months, we were eager to get at the enemy. I was puzzled why Germany was our primary enemy when it was Japan who attacked us, I only wanted to fight so it did not really matter. We loaded on troop ships, and we were not told where we were going. We had heavy escorts, which made us feel better, but those U-boats scared us, as they had been very good at attacking convoys.

We landed in North Africa, after a long sea journey that saw no attacks. We got to see some effects of prior battles with the French, they appeared to have put up quite a fight, Stars and Stripes said they surrendered easy with little resistance but that appeared to not be the case. I saw fresh graves of soldiers, which gave me the willyís. We practiced landing on the beaches and eagerly read the news about the demise of Rommel and his army. I witnessed an air attack, and if I remember it was the French who flew over to bomb us but they were so high they missed any targets.

Rumors swirled that we were about to invade Sicily as Rommel was done, his army broken and surrendered. It was at this point I knew we would win this war. Our papers made the Nazis out to be supermen who could not be stopped in their quest to destroy the free world, and we stopped them dead. I remember seeing the first prisoners come through; they were French Africans, and Italians, we separated them as blacks could not be with whites back then, and I wondered why these men were fighting for the people who wanted to persecute them and kill them off. One had a German badge that I saw soldiers rip off as a trophy.

By July of 43 we were itching to get at the enemy, that wish was granted when were loaded up on troop ships and told to be prepared for battle. There was all sorts of scuttlebutt about invading Italy, France, the Balkans, and Greece. After a few days at sea, we were briefed that we were hitting the Germans and Italians on Sicily, I was very excited to finally get to see action. I woke up the next morning to see we were part of a large fleet, battleships, cruisers, all sorts of craft; we broke up into companies to go over objectives, when all hell broke loose. The noise was deafening as those big guns fired, and I could see way in the distance the smoke from the impacts.

We boarded the landing craft, and all were very nervous, some getting sick. We could hear battle sounds as we got closer to the beach. I heard bullets pinging off the boat as we got closer, but when we landed, the resistance was gone. Shells were landing among us just to let us know the enemy saw us, but we could not see them. It was an easy push inland, I saw the first American dead, paratroopers who had landed behind the lines. It was very sobering, and some men were filled with rage. We took an Italian airfield, then a town in which we could rest.

The civilians did not like us much; they refused to give us water or a place to stay, so we had to commandeer many areas. One boy in my company got into a fight with a homeowner and her son and was arrested for beating them both up pretty bad; he was released as it was proven they forced him to act. I remember it was very hot, and it was nice to have a great supply network, we had fresh water and rations very quickly. When the townís people became hungry, they all of a sudden were our best friends. Many GIís made girlfriends overnight with all the food we had. We were ordered back to action soon as the Italians had defeated the paras and were pushing toward us, along with the Germans.

We had to be on guard as enemy planes hit us daily, I could tell it was the same squadron as one plane had distinct markings, and wear and tear. I thought about how that pilot must be superhuman to not get much sleep. In spite of heavy attacks, we pushed forward, with the help our naval fire, which leveled everything in front of us. Casualties were a daily occurrence now, and we hated the Italians, we were told they would not fight us, that they wanted out, but they were worse than the Germans on Sicily. My company came upon a small town that they defended to the last man and we took heavy losses. I saw my first civilian dead now as well, our guns could not tell the difference between soldier and civilian.

After a good month of heavy fighting Sicily was ours, although we paid dearly. It gave us lots of confidence; we had beaten the best the Axis had. We celebrated by going into an empty vineyard and taking some casks of wine, which we enjoyed, along with the Italian women who wanted some food. We were told the owner of the vineyard was a fascist leader, so we took everything we could carry.

Did you see any evidence of war crimes being committed?

Bill: No, Sicily seemed to be a clean battle. There was the occasional shooting of prisoners, and sometimes you shot the wounded to stop them from suffering, but I never personally saw any evidence of crimes, even the Germans seemed to behave themselves.

You mention shooting prisoners, was this not a crime in your mind?

Bill: You have to understand the strain combat puts on a soldier, when someone has been trying to kill you, then surrenders, you are angry. I never did this, but I saw plenty of friends do it. They would sometimes joke that they were saving more food for us, but it was just combat nerves that caused it. You might have heard that men from my regiment shot Italian and German prisoners after we captured an airfield that was a hard fight. I did not see it with my own eyes so I cannot say what happened, they could have tried to escape, or attack the guards.

They were all acquitted but for one NCO, so who knows. Those dam Italians were sneaky and fought very hard, causing many GIís to die, so we were not kind to them when they surrendered. We were angry to learn that the Germans had evacuated most of their army to the mainland, and when we learned of this, a couple of German stragglers were shot, but I could see they were trying to surrender. I believe Canadian troops next to our position did this.

What was your next action?

Bill: We stayed on Sicily, being able to enjoy the land, and water. I met an Italian girl who could not speak a lick of English, but she needed to eat so we became close. We would go for walks down to the beach and have wine with c-rations, it was an odd combination, but worked. We would have to deal with bombing raids, which were a nuisance, but other than that, it was quiet. We trained again for another landing, and received replacements. General Middleton thanked us for our hard effort, and told us bigger and better things were in store. I was able to meet allied soldiers from England and Canada, we traded a lot for the bounty we had.

We loaded onto ships again for another landing, Salerno was the next landing, and we went in on the second wave and had very stiff resistance. The Germans, Italians, and their allies fought very hard. The prisoners we brought in were a mixed bag of every nationality, which seemed odd again, as we were told the Nazis were enslaving people, yet they fought not like slaves. Russians, Greeks, Turks, Poles, and Frenchmen were captured. The British asked that any foreigners captured be turned over to them as they had a free Polish army. Rumor was any of these men captured were shot as traitors. The allied forces were taking very heavy casualties and this was much harder than Sicily. It took months to slowly push the enemy away, and that was with total air control.

We saw some of the new German tanks for the first time, but we outnumbered them 20 to 1, yet our tankers feared them. That was one of the harder things to understand, we outnumbered them a lot, yet they were fighting as if they were possessed. The only way we could move forward was to kill them all and destroy everything around them; our bombers were kept very busy. It was sad to see such beautiful countryside being destroyed, but that was war I am sad to say. We passed many churches that were very old where only shells remained. The churchgoers would say the Germans looted the art and religious treasures, I sometimes thought at least they were spared certain destruction by our shells.

Our sister company did come upon a truck that was hauling art and artifacts from a town we liberated, the men took everything they could carry, but their CO ordered them to return it as it was being moved to save it from the war and the mayor protested. I remember it was a big hoopla as our General issued orders that we were not to loot or take anything that was not military related. I took my first war trophy, an Italian helmet, but quickly traded it for a bottle of wine. Our division had many Indians in it and they were very fierce fighters, we had to keep them away from any prisoners as they were keen on attacking them. They fought very well and earned many high awards for bravery.

The 45th was all of a sudden pulled from the front and sent back for another attack, this time at Anzio. We were battle hardened, but this invasion was tough, we fought crack German units as the Italians had finally quit. They were much friendlier to us now, unlike earlier in the war. The Germans were becoming tougher, fighting as if they had everything to lose. They would throw a single tank against 20 of ours, with predicable results, even though they would take out some of ours as well. They deployed heavy guns that shelled the bay hitting many ships, we could see them burning from the hills. We were getting bad at taking prisoners; our CO gave orders that all surrendering soldiers be given quarter, and fair treatment. Some of us found that hard to obey since we were so full of hate for what we had to go through.

We slowly slogged through the Italian countryside, we could hardly see the enemy, but they could see us, we seemed to always be on the receiving end of a few well-placed volleys of mortar fire. I am glad the Germans always seemed to be low on ammo, they could never fire for very long, usually just a few rounds was all they could muster. We slogged through the Italian peninsula heading for Rome, in the spring we were pulled out of the line again, to rest and refit. Rumors were we were going to aid the Normandy landings in France, clearly, Germany was being beaten and victory was in sight for us.

I enjoyed the weather, for the last 2 years I was in warm tropical weather with nice water, nice girls, and plenty to eat. Except when we were fighting, it like was being on a peacetime vacation. I was a little miffed that we were heading north into France, as I was losing the warm weather, I remember thinking. My unit was sent into the south of France, to aid the soldiers fighting in the north. We encountered French soldiers who put up token fights, causing few causalities. The resistance was very active here, doing a lot of recon for us, and getting the Vichy army to surrender.

We saw some evidence of Nazi crimes here, resistance soldiers who were sabotaging rail lines and enemy installations, had been captured we were told, then they shot them. Men and women were seen strewn where they fell. As retribution, the Marquis shot several Germans we captured, after we turned them over to them. It was nasty business, but that was war. We had it easy after we broke the German lines, by the end of August they were in full retreat. We were able to take our time, moving along stopping from town to town to enjoy French hospitality.

I saw some of the women, who had relations with German soldiers, being beaten and shaved. It was hard to watch, as one was pretty much murdered right in front of a large crowd. We were under strict orders not to interfere, as the French wanted to be able to root out traitors on their own. To this day, I still see their pretty faces covered in blood crying, as they were punched and kicked by the resistance members. One had a baby with her still suckling as she was being pushed to the ground and kicked, yet no one stood up to protect her. I had to turn and walk away as the crowd jeered and cheered at what they saw as vile whores. This scene repeated itself in many southern towns we went into.

You were part of the regiment that took Dachau. What do you remember?

Bill: Well, at the end of 44 we were fighting on the French German border, we had stalled due to stiff German resistance, and to rest. Hitler gambled on the bulge in Dec, and lost, so we now had a free hand, along with the third army, to punch into south Germany. By this stage of the war, the great Germany army was no more; they had been bled dry, with no striking power. We pushed into town after town, all with white sheets hanging out of windows. All we had to deal with was the small platoon size defenses that needlessly caused more destruction to their towns. A lone tank would try to hold off a whole battalion, a lone sharpshooter a whole company, or a few Hitler youth would stage small attacks on convoys passing over a bridge, all with the same result, dead Germans.

These small attacks could cause losses, so we did have to go slow and be mindful of our surroundings. Our papers were reporting the war was mostly finished, the Russians were advancing to Berlin, we had taken north Italy, and we were moving into south Germany. Prisoners were now in the tens of thousands, every day more and more were captured. We also started to hear about what was happening to the Jews. The papers showed stories about the camps we were liberating, and the dead that were being found.

By April 45, we were in Munich. In addition, orders came to oversee the handing over of a concentration camp, Dachau. We were one of the first units to enter, and what we saw was beyond description. Bodies everywhere, and sick laying out in the open. I heard other soldiers talking about a train that was next to the camp, it was full of dead and sick. I left to go check it out, when I heard machinegun fire. Some of our men had shot the German survivors while they were lined up against a wall.

What do you remember about the train and the killing of the guards? Colonel Buechner just wrote a book about the killings, saying it was a stain on the division and hundreds were killed.

Bill: Remember, I had no part in the shootings; I was off looking for the train. I remember the train had many cars to it, and I could see it had been strafed. I overheard an officer talk to one of the wounded, who had been on the train for days. He said German planes had attacked the train, but by April 45 that was impossible. I could tell it was our free-roaming 51ís and 47ís who were looking for targets of opportunity, as I found a spent .50 bullet in one of the cars. To them this was just another Nazi train; they did not know inmates were on board.

The train engineers and guards were long gone, later a prisoner who spoke broken English told me the train stopped often and the trip took days, the guards had tried to get the prisoners water when there was a creek or stream, but they could find no food. Our medical teams were yelling at us to stay away, as they feared some prisoners could have typhus, which was contagious. I am glad they warned us, as I was ready to start helping prisoners off the train, and give them food and water.

The survivors were begging us for water, as they had not had any for days. Our medics radioed in for lots more help, as this was going to be a huge task to undertake. All I could do was sit and watch. I threw my canteen to a prisoner, but a medic yelled at me, and the prisoner, saying he could drink too much and die. They were yelling at all of to get back, and not to feed anyone. Our officers were in the camp trying to organize as much as they could so the NCOís had their hands full.

It was an awful sight, very surreal, dead all around; luckily, they did not smell yet, as it was cool. I later heard that there were about two thousand pulled off the train, and these poor people were inmates from camps in western Germany that we liberated. The Germans took them to help with war production. I saw dead Germans scattered around too, sadly a few nurses fell victim to the rage of the inmates. Mostly it was SS men, as there was some type of SS hospital nearby, wounded were pulled out and beaten by the inmates.

As far as the numbers, I do not remember but it had to be more than one hundred. They were scattered all over the camp grounds, the inmates got to them before we did and killed many. The guards actually surrendered to the inmates first I was told, asking for fair treatment, but once they handed over their weapons all bets were off. I remember looking at the bodies of the SS soldiers by the wall; they were a mix of old and young. There were perhaps 75 or so, maybe more. A machine gun had been used and I could see the pile of spent shells.

I will tell you a sad story that I know. Before any American units arrived, the camp inmates revolted and broke out of the camp. They went into the town and attacked anyone they could find, killing a few civilians. The German guards had been disarmed, and those who were left alive begged us to stop the inmates in the town. We could hear gunfire and our recon unit went further into Dachau to see what was happening. It turned out these prisoners fired on Americans, thinking they were German; they were then recaptured and brought back to the camp. I was there when they brought them back. They had taken the guns from the guards and were trying to find the bank nearby. We thought it was funny justice, so they were released back into the camp, so they could be registered and released.

I will say from what we know today, the Germans got what they deserved; they put these people in camps for no reason at all, then went on to kill them without mercy, I saw the gas chamber at the camp, the ovens still had ashes in them from the bodies. An inmate labeled as a Jewish Communist by his colors on the uniform, told us the Nazis killed hundreds a day, and had them all burned by the evening. That way there was no trace. They were gassed, burned, and then it started over. The press was brought in to document this so the world would see. People say today it never happened, luckily we have the pictures and movies to prove it did. We even saw the soap and lampshades the OSS brought in to show everyone.

We made the Germans come and see what they did to these people, some were in disbelief, and some said we staged this; they were Nazis who were then sent to camps for investigation. These people were made to bury the dead, they complained about not wanting to get sick and all that, but we had no sympathy for them. We felt if they got sick, it would be just payback for the crimes their leader did to these poor people. One woman who got a rifle butt to her face said to our German/Jewish medical officer that the Jews brought this on, and the Allies caused the deaths. It was on May 1 we learned Hitler was dead, and by May 8, it was all over, the war was won.

My company moved into Munich and I was awe struck at the destruction our bombers wrought on cities. Munich was a shell of a city. The stench was awful, as the dead had not been fully recovered. I again was astonished to see the amount of foreigners in the country. Special centers were created to get them back to their homeland, but many did not want to return. Some had to be forced, as it was part of the agreement with Russia. At this stage I was ready to go home, I had seen enough war and killing. My regiment stayed on occupation duty for a few months, and then it was discharge and home.

What awards did you earn, and did you bring back any war souvenirs?

Bill: I won a few; I have the campaign ribbons, good conduct, and overseas service. Some of the men won the MOH for actions in Italy and Germany. Not so, for me, I was never really in the thick of heavy combat. I was just a plain old infantryman who knew how to keep his head and ass low, and to not volunteer for anything. That was a good way to get yourself killed. As for trophies, I brought back a flag, bayonet, medals, pins, and a luger pistol that I had to guard from thieves. The flag came from the camp hospital at Dachau, I traded a pack of smokes for it and will never sell it. My buddies and I all signed it to remember our service and victory. I also brought back some silver flatware and artwork that could be folded, it was Nazi art so it was set to be burned, and I snuck some back in my shirt.


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