In the area around Mons, Belgium, late in August there was
a vortical convergence of pursuer and pursued. We succeeded in
cutting off the German retreat, but they succeeded by the same
token in cutting us off temporarily - separating the spearhead
from the shaft of the spear. We were surrounded as though on
a traffic island while the enemy traffic flowed around us for
three days. To put it technically, we were in a blocking position
across the path of retreat of at least five German divisions,
one of them a parachute division.
We captured five German generals and killed one; among our prisoners
was the commanding general of the parachutists, Riidiger von
Heyking. He was the first German general I had ever met, an older
man probably in his late fifties. He was very mild of manner
and indeed almost jovial. He was shortish and on the heavy side
- not at all my idea of a German general, who I expected to be
a sort of super Brandstatter. Von Heyking looked more like the
family doctor except that he was perfectly groomed. I was - as
always - fascinated by the uniform, the excellence of cut and
cloth. He wore the blue-black leather overcoat prescribed for
Army field officers and the dove-gray leather gloves much affected
by German officers. In fact, the higher the rank in the German
army the more leather there was in the prescribed and affected
wear that went with it. Germans love leather. Adalbert Stifter's
Witiko, chivalric hero and model for "rectitude of conduct
and righteousness of life," is called the "leatherman"
because of his dress: leather hat-helmet, leather doublet, leather
trousers, leather boots. But it is a very old love. Pagan German
warriors wore a leather harness laced together with thongs for
armor; this was called a "Schirm" (protection) and
the wearer a "Schirmmann," a word that according to
some sources was later Latinized by Tacitus into "German."
I had about an hour, most of it alone, with Von Heyking. Our
general refused to see him. There was reason for his aloofness:
our general was a Jew, Major General Maurice Rose, the son of
a Denver, Colorado, rabbi. Now Rose - he looked like the very
model of a Prussian major general: thin-lipped, sharp features,
closely cropped hair, a ramrod of a man whose legs drove him
forward like twin pistons - Rose was the toughest looking officer
I have ever seen. Appearances were not deceiving. Rose was a
troubleshooter who had been brought in to take over the division
in Normandy because the commanding general had been relieved
of his command. There was not a man in division headquarters
who did not fear Rose. I saw staff officers, full colonels, standing
at attention before Rose, the sweat pouring off their faces,
visibly shaking in their tanker's boots. And yet Von Heyking,
for all his Gemütlichkeit, had a considerable reputation
in the German army; he had been one of the commanding officers
of the parachute operation that took Crete. I tried to picture
the family doctor jumping out of a Junkers over Crete in battle
dress; I gave it up. I went through Von Heyking's personal documents
and found some old photographs of him in uniform as a lad. "How
long have you been a soldier?" I asked. "I have always
been a soldier," he said with a chuckle. "Always? You
can't have been born in uniform?" "Not quite,"
and he beamed at me, "but I put on my first military uniform
when I was eight years old." (I gave it up again.)
While Von Heyking was with us in our isolated blocking position
- cut off as we were by those we had cut off - four young Germans
in an armored car tried to break through on the road we were
guarding. They never had a chance. The gas tanks on the back
of their car riddled by .50-caliber machine gun bullets, it burst
into flame, crashed into a tree, and exploded. The four Germans
were quite literally blown to pieces. One of them had been cut
in two at the waist and had lost both his legs just above the
knee. The mutilated trunk looked like a piece of broken statuary.
"Ein tolles Unternehmen" (a mad undertaking), said
Von Heyking. I was reminded of Klopstock's "Ode to Hermann
and Thusnelda" - "demanding the supreme effort of his
sons, over thousands of young bodies shall his triumphal car
On that same night quite a few of our officers went out to try
to make contact with other American units and never came back.
Lieutenant Huni, a Swiss-German immigrant, was found dead the
next morning not far away from the barn where we were all holed
up; Lieutenant Peterson was likewise found dead nearby next morning.
Lieutenant Nolle, a German-American, had the good fortune to
be taken prisoner by the Germans. We were all pretty much huddled
together in the barn, the "German legion" of the American
army with their German prisoners of war. One of the "legion"
present was Sergeant Werner Neu, a short, stocky - not to say
fat, because he was very strong - German-Jewish refugee-immigrant.
Neu had fled Germany in the mid-1930's to escape the concentration
camp where most of his relatives were ultimately doomed to die.
He had found haven in France, and although he was later forced
to flee France in turn, he remained forever grateful for the
hospitality and graciousness of his first host country. Whenever
anyone shouted "Vive la France!" during our triumphal
passage, Neu would unfailingly add: "- et les colonies!"
As the night wore on and the sounds of battle quieted we would
hear the groaning and sobbing of the German wounded around us
outside the barn. One of our prisoners was a German staff doctor.
"Will somebody come out with me and help me bring in the
wounded? May be I can do something for them," he said. It
had to be one of the Americans, of course, because the doctor
and a German helper might simply take the opportunity to escape.
On the other hand an American volunteer would be running the
risk of a ruse by the German doctor once they were outside in
the dark. There were several more or less round rejections of
the appeal. Then Neu said, "I'll go out with you,"
and out they went - the handsome, blond German doctor and the
little (but very strong) German Jew who looked almost like a
Nazi caricature of a Jew. They brought in four or five German
wounded that night. Neu was a man of vast, apparently boundless,
good humor. He had a fine tenor voice and he loved to sing German
folk songs with anybody who would sing them with him. For himself
he often sang a snatch of a song. It went:
Tschim-bara-bim-bam-beh! Na, denn vorwarts - fromm, diel und
A kosher Jud geht niemals unter!
[Tum-tara-tum-tum tah! well, then, forward - true, pious, gay
A kosher Jew will make his way.]
According to a Division album, Neu's residence was in Saint Louis.
He was a butcher by profession. I assume he ran a kosher shop.
Although their military value was nil, the personal documents
of the generals we had captured or killed were highly interesting.
The dead major general's papers contained a number of family
photographs from his home in Hildesheim, among them a picture
of his daughter, who was either a beautiful girl or extremely
photogenic. I resolved to go to Hildesheim as soon as I could
and present her my compliments and condolences.
Rose, too, had his share of the vagaries that appertain to
general rank. When one does the grand tour of Europe as a member
of the headquarters of an armored division, one stays in the
very best places - chateaus, castles, villas, and the like. Of
course, there is some military sense to this; castles and chateau-forts
are by definition strong points, fortified prominences of some
sort. The best places also qualify by their size for the honor
of being commandeered as the command post of a general; the shelter
must be large enough to accommodate the party. Even so, generals
gravitate to aristocrats because generals are themselves aristocrats
in the most direct sense of the term. In wartime at least, generals
do not get to the top and, above all, they do not stay at the
top unless they belong there. Rose once put up for the night
on the country estate of Baron de Rothschild in the north of
France - and my, how the armored vehicles, the tanks, and assault
guns churned up the grounds of the estate! What a mess we made
of the front lawn! We put up with another baron - or rather baronne,
as the Belgians call a baroness - in Namur. The baronne was very
old but she had a very pretty granddaughter. The baronne also
spoke excellent German (which made my task easier), having been
educated at the court of some German prince or duke even before
the founding of the Second Reich. She had met Bismarck and all
three kaisers. She regaled me for hours with stories, historical
tittle-tattle that was somehow boring and amusing at the same
Maurice Rose had the honor - and he certainly had the motivation
- to lead the first Allied division into Germany in World War
II. In our sector the retreating Germans did not have the time
to man the Siegfried Line or even to lay mines in front of its
fortifications. So we did "hang our washing on the Siegfried
Line." The Third Armored Division simply rolled through
the ghost fortifications and kept on rolling until it ran out
of gas southeast of Aachen (where Charlemagne was crowned emperor
and lies buried) in a small town called Kornelimunster. It was
here I met my first German civilian on German soil, a six-year-old
boy standing in the middle of the road. He looked hungry. I gave
him a chocolate bar which he bolted. His mother came up and I
bowed and greeted her: "Gnadige Frau" (a set form of
greeting, literally "gracious lady"). She looked at
me wide-eyed and said with emphasis: "Gnadiger Herr!"
("kind sir" or "merciful sir," not the set
form of greeting, which is simply "mein Herr").
Once and only once, in November I think, we came under enemy
artillery fire at Villa Waldfriede. It was a barrage consisting
of some ten rounds laid down with great precision and so unexpected
that it seemed like an act of God at the time. What had actually
happened was obvious enough. We had been holding the line desultorily
in Stolberg for more than six weeks. During this time information
- perhaps nothing more complicated than a telephone call across
the front line - on the exact location of division headquarters
had passed into the hands of the German army. Some German artillery
officers had consulted their grid maps, plotted trajectories,
and sighted their guns. Thirteen of our men were wounded, two
of them very badly.
After our own artillery had silenced the German guns with counter-barrages,
the wounded who could still walk lined up outside the division
surgeon's office for treatment. Rose came up and talked with
them all until the last man had been treated by the surgeon.
Then he stepped up and said, "All right, doc, now you can
take care of me." No one had noticed it but Rose had taken
shrapnel in both shoulders. They were light wounds that had not
bled enough to show on the outside of his uniform. There was
a good deal of discussion afterward as to whether Rose's waiting
for the last man to be treated before going himself was done
for effect - whether he was merely taking advantage of an opportunity
to impress the troops. Notwithstanding the discussion, Rose's
performance impressed everybody. On December 6, 1944, I was commissioned
a second lieutenant in the field. I think I know from the transformation
that overtook me with the granting of the commission how "your
darling little general" felt when he finally received his
general's commission. It was a watershed. After that nothing
was ever the same - especially the food. As an officer I ate
in the officer's mess. For me this was very important; cooks
eat well and my memory was good.
But the biggest change was with the Germans; I was now "Herr
Leutnant," whereas before they hadn't known what to call
me. I wore no insignia of rank on the consideration that a military
man who interrogated German generals would be better off if he
could pose as or at least allow the inference that he was some
sort of high-falutin specialist if not a commissar. I also had
the pleasure, and my heart beat high with it, of having Rose
walk over to shake hands with me. "Congratulations,"
he said, "your new unit's gain is our loss."