Interview of Charles O’Neil, Tec 5
3rd Infantry Division, 15th Regiment, Company I, 2nd Platoon
What do you consider to be the worst part of World War II for you?
Well, of course being in the war is bad enough but what I consider for me the worst part was one particular battle area during the winter we were up in the northeast part of France in an area they called the Colmar Pocket. It’s up near Germany, near the Rhine River. Colmar is one of the biggest cities in France and it’s up in the northeast corner of France up near the Rhine River up by Germany. We were fighting up in that area and it was an area that had been devastated. Originally, during the early part of the war the French were fighting up in there naturally when Germany attacked them. The Germans came through there and the French backed up, retreated. Then they counterattacked and went back up through those villages and towns again and there was more devastation. The Germans returned, counterattacked, pushed the French out. Naturally they went all the way to Paris the Germans did. Then when the Americans invaded France and started fighting back then the war returned to that area once again and the American Army pushed through that area.
What time during the war was that when the Americans first starting coming back?
When the Americans got back through there? It was probably the early part of 1944.
When did you enter the war there?
We came up there in the winter time, it was November, probably the middle of November 1944 is when we got into the Colmar area. We had battled our way all the way to Strasburg, France which is on the Rhine River. I was in the 3rd Infantry Division and we were the first American unit to actually reach the Rhine River.
Did you have any problems getting up to the Rhine River?
Not really, surprisingly. The Germans were retreating and I remember one day we took eleven consecutive villages. We did not have to fire hardly any shots at all. Nobody got hurt on either side.
Is that because there were not any Germans there?
There were a few. They were doing a delaying action. They were pulling back really all the way back into Germany again so they could build up for what we later found out was a big counterattack which really developed into the Battle of the Bulge up in the Belgian area. We were further down. I was in the 7th Army. We were on the southern end of the front line.
Whereabouts would that be?
We were down around Colmar, down in that area, a part of France known as Alsace-Lorraine. It’s a part of France. It is close to Germany. Most of the people there are French and German. They speak, strange as it may seem although it is in France, they speak mainly German in that area. It is the part of France where they grow all the grapes to make the fine French wine. We were fighting in all these little villages where all these vineyards are. We were fighting through the vineyards.
So you fought through all the towns and the vineyards and got to the Rhine River, what happened after that?
No, we got to the Rhine and Strasburg and then they were undecided whether we should cross or not. They figured maybe not, it was a little too early. Up to that nobody had fought in Germany. We were the first unit to come to the German border. There was a bridge there. (Kiev?) was the name of the German city on the other side. There was a bridge there but we never tried to go over it. I imagine if we did we probably would have gotten blown to smithereens. It was pretty well protected. So we did not cross over into Germany just then. We waited about a week. Then they decided that down in the Colmar Pocket, the French Army was being reinforced, and they decided that the French Army should take Colmar so that the people of France could see the French Army once again intact fighting back. But in order for the French Army to do that the American Army, namely us, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 45th Infantry Division, which was the Oklahoma National Guard, spearheaded the drive around the city of Colmar, taking all these cities and towns around the city of Colmar, so that the French could fight there way in. It was a political thing really.
So while the French were taking the city, we were just outside the city?
We were softening it up for them to go in there and take the city.
Were you having any trouble there?
Yes. We had a lot of trouble, and that is where the question you asked me where the most scary thing that happened to me during the war occurred there in a little town called Bennwihr.
Did you know it was going to be that bad?
No, we had no idea. Like I said it had been devastated before that because first the French took it, then the Germans pushed them back, then the French went back through there, then Germans came back, then the American 36th Division, which was the Texas National Guard, they went up through there and fought up there and then they got pushed back by the Germans.
Why was it such a valuable place?
Well actually it was not that valuable. I guess it was acceptable to both Armies to run back and forth up there. I don’t think it was particularly valuable to the Germans.
Did you have to send all your artillery up there?
Well, when we started fighting around Colmar we got counterattacked at the same time they got counterattacked which caused the Battle of the Bulge. We got counterattacked down around Colmar. They seemed to think that the bulge area was more important than the Colmar area so they were sending most of the supplies up there so we were not getting any artillery or very little artillery. We were allowed ten artillery rounds a day.
So were you having trouble keeping them off?
We were having a lot of trouble keeping them off. They would be quiet during the day but at night they would try infiltrating tactics. We did get air cover from the French Air Force because we were attached to the French Army at the time. The French Air Force was giving us air cover which was helpful. But in this little town of Bennwihr we had a lot of casualties. What precipitated this whole thing was there was a little hill outside of the town and the Germans were on top of that hill and they could look right down the main street of this town which was practically flattened. So they could see us but we could not see them. We were living in a school, in a basement of a school. It was all knocked down except for the basement part. There were even dead German bodies in the other part of the basement from us.
Did that get you scared when you saw them?
Not really because we had been in the war then almost a year, so we were used to seeing dead bodies, Germans and Americans. So no that did not bother me. But what did bother me particularly was the night they came in and said we are going to patrol that hill. We are going to send a patrol up there, eight guys and you are the eight guys, meaning I was one of them.
Did they pick you out of a hat or something?
No, they just said the 2nd squad of the 2nd platoon is going to be the patrol to go up on the hill and find out what they have up there, come back and make a report…if you come back.
How did you feel about that when they said that?
Terrible, because we figured that this was it. We had an idea of what was on that hill. We figured half the German Army was on that hill. It was all mined. The roads leading up to it was mined. In that town was a lot of cattle that used to walk around, in the day time you would see a cow and then at night they would give us an artillery barrage and you would go out the next morning and you would see that the cows would be dead.
Is that because they thought it was you?
Yeah, they thought it was movement. They figured it was maybe a vehicle or they were trying to reinforce us or whatever so they just fired down in there. Unfortunately the cows would be in the way. So we figured if we had animals in front of us and pushed them up that hill they could explode the mines and then they said well no we won’t use the animals, the men will have to pick it up the best they can. We were going to be led up the hill by our sergeant who was a fella by the name of Sylvester S. Suyhada from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a tough sergeant, a real tough guy but a great combat man. We had faith in him but we also figured this was going to be our last night on earth. We were really terrified because we figured if we ever went out of that building, down that road and started up that hill you could count the seconds before we would be long gone. We would be either blown up by the mines or we would be just cut down by all the machine guns and automatic weapons they had up there. We were really scared. It was right around Christmas time too. This was no big Christmas present coming our way. So we were really scared. We did a lot of praying that night. About two hours before the attack was supposed to go off, they came and told us that they had called the whole thing off. They were not going to bother. That it would be suicide to send us up there. We had figured that out long before. They said it would be suicide to send the men up there. If we send the men up there most likely they would just get wiped out. The company had been really beat up as it was, we had lost an awful lot of men and our moral was low. We were cut off to begin with and the French and the Americans were trying to break through to us. We were just hoping that they would. Actually the next day they did. An American unit came through, a battle patrol from the 45th Division came through. They replaced us and they sent us back to an R & R, Rest and Recreation, area.
You must have been pretty happy when you realized you were not going up that hill?
I was. Right. Yes, indeed, we figured we’d have a lot of birthdays now. If we had ever gone up that hill I would not be sitting here talking to you now. But I am glad I am. I am glad they called that off. That was probably the worst, the most scared I ever was. It’s funny, because I had been shot at and it did not affect me that much. Naturally when you are in battle, you are in a war, you are getting shot at, you are scared but when the thing is going on you are not scared. It is survival and you are thinking I’m scared, so is he but everybody is running, there is a lot of movement going on. But here you are just sitting and thinking in two hours I have to go up that hill and I know when I go up that hill I am a dead man. It just played on our minds. We were really panicking, we really were.
Was this the worst time that you ever thought that this was it?
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. This was definite. That is a fact. If we had ever gone up that hill that would have been the end. There were other times later on where we figured boy if we go in there like this we are going to get wiped out but that was more or less in the back of your head. You said if we go in there like this, then this is going to happen but really we did not think it would. Like we were taking the city of Nuremburg, you all know about Nuremburg, the big German city, and you probably have seen in the movies where they blew up the Nazi swastika on the top wall of the Nuremburg Stadium, that was our division that did that. But we were fighting across the airport in Nuremburg, a wide open field, and we were getting shelled pretty hard, although we were making it well because we had tanks with us and they were firing at other tanks, German tanks. So it was an even steven thing.
Were there any German planes there, seeing you were at the airport?
Not then. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no they had long gone out of there. This was close to the end of the war. This was in April, the later part of April, the war ended in May. The German Air Force was more or less gone by that time.
Was this the last time you were in battle?
No, it was not the last time we entered battle. It was the last time we entered a really big battle and this was a case of where if we were going to try to take this city we were going to get wiped out but really in the back of our heads we knew that we wouldn’t. We figured we had a fighting chance. It was going to be a tough battle but we would make it. But when they told us we were going to attack that hill back in Bennwihr we knew, really knew deep down that if we ever left that building we were going to die. Fighting in Nuremburg we said boy this is going to be a tough battle and maybe we will get killed here. Of course you always had that, maybe we will get killed today but it would pass, and you really thought I’ll make it, I’ll make it, I’ll make it. But that one time we figured I’ll never make this. It was just impossible. That’s why they finally did call it off because they figured eight men are never going to survive on that hill.
Wouldn’t it be kind of stupid if you had to find out information if you guys were never going to get back?
That’s right. That’s right. They had to take that hill to get out of that town. The outfit that relieved us had to take that hill to break out of that town and break out of that whole area around Bennwihr, Sigolsheim and Colmar which the French eventually did take. Come to find out, they were going to send eight of us on that patrol up that hill that night. Come to find out we talked to some tank guys, fellas that were in a tank outfit who were down in Bennwihr after us, they made the attack on that hill with over a hundred men and it took them two days to get the Germans off that hill and we were going to go patrol that thing with only eight men. They said it was devastation, they lost a lot of tanks, it was a real…a real war they had on that hill. The Germans had everything, tanks, artillery and everything on that hill. They had a heck of a time with a hundred men and tanks and we were going to go up there with a couple of rifles, a machine gun and eight guys. So you see why I was scared.
That hill was that important?
It was. It was extremely important to both sides.
What happened after that?
They took that hill maybe two weeks after we left the area. We went back and got replacements and everything. Then they sent us up to another area closer to Colmar. We fought up to two towns before you got to Colmar. That is when the French Army had to come in because of political reasons the French had to take the city of Colmar. The French went through us and they did eventually take the city of Colmar. That was a whole tough area. That was known as the Forgotten Front. The Colmar Pocket.
Could you have taken Colmar without the French being there?
Oh, yes. Oh, sure. No problem. In fact, we probably could have taken it two or three days earlier.
Was it just a matter of the French people seeing their own Army?
That’s right. It was a political thing. It was set up by the Allied Governments; England, France and the United States to make sure the French people would see their army, retaking French territory because that hadn’t happened in any of the big cities before. The city of Paris was taken by the Americans, so they didn’t see their French Army fight back. This was the first chance that they really did have an opportunity to see their own French Army fighting the Germans and defeating them. Of course they didn’t know that the build-up that they hadn’t fought until they went into that city and that we had done all the fighting for three weeks prior to that to soften everything up.
Were you in that battle with the French? Were you there?
No. They went through us. We stopped. We let them go through us down the road and they went into town and we just went into the cities and sat outside. If they did have any trouble we would have went in but they didn’t. It took them two or three days to do it.
From there you went to Germany?
Yeah. Well, after that we went back and took river training. They took us back to a place called Pont-à-Mousson in France. We were taking river training to cross the Rhine.
They take you down to a river in rubber boats. They trained us to cross the Rhine River. We used to go back maybe a hundred yards, eight men, four on each side, in a rubber boat, pick up the boat and run like the devil, throw it in the water, jump in and row across. This was the Moselle River we were doing this on, row across the Moselle River and make believe you were attacking the Germans on the other side.
Did you ever have to use this type of training?
No. No because what happened was they got the bridge in Rema, Remigan or whatever it was and the Allies went over that bridge and got into Germany and fanned out. So the Germans pulled away from the Rhine River so actually there was no need for any river crossing. When we crossed the Rhine we crossed on a bridge, crossed over on a bridge in a bunch of trucks.
So you ended up not using the river training and having a battle at an airport?
Yeah. (Laughs) That was quite awhile afterwards though. The battle at the airport wasn’t that bad really. But we had the battle at the airport, that was at Nuremburg. After that we fought our way into Austria. We did fight beyond then, beyond the airport, we fought in Austria, all the way down to Salzburg
But it wasn’t that hard in Austria?
No. Down around Nuremburg and down in that area was what they called the Redoubt Area at the time and it was where Berchtesgaden was, Hitler’s big hideout was in the town of Berchtesgaden which was up on a mountain right outside of Nuremburg.
Were you aiming for that, the hideout?
Yeah. There was a big battle going on among the Americans; The 3rd Army, I mean the 3rd Division, my outfit, the 45th Division, the 36th Division, some French people and the 101st Airborne. We were running who could get to Berchtesgaden first.
The French. (Laughs) The French got there first. Of course everything was gone by then. Hitler, well, as a matter of fact by the time we got to Berchtesgaden, Hitler had already committed suicide back in Berlin anyway.
That must have been pretty good news?
Yeah. Well right after Nuremburg we knew the war was over then because they were just surrendering all over the place as far that goes.
So you just finished out the war?
We ran out the string more or less. We fought our way into Reichstag, Austria and maybe ten miles from the Russian front and the war ended.
Happy to hear that?
Yes, that night we said, remember that day in Bennwihr when they were going to make us attack that hill? And then we said yes, and they said thank God they didn’t because they if they did we would not be here today.