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AN ARMY ENGINEER'S LIFE
by
Chris Brous
23rd Engineer Bn, 3rd Armored Division
Written in 2001 for his family, excerpts are presented below.


Wounded and a POW, and wounded again.
Not the engineer life that Chris had anticipated.

Click here for desert photo, brief bio & ID card

 

After the St. Lo breakthrough we had penetrated the enemy lines about twenty miles and I found myself with one of my forward platoons when darkness came. Since I felt it would be treacherous to return to my headquarters at night, I decided to spend the night on the front lines. I left at first daylight in the peep [jeep] driven by Ed Breedlove and with Lt. McKinney riding on the rear seat. As we headed back to headquarters on a quiet road between hedgerows, we drove around a bend in the road and immediately heard the roar of a cannon and felt the slam of steel through our peep.

We were facing the smoking cannon of a German Mark IV tank. We immediately jumped out of the peep into the roadside ditch, and I fired my rifle at the tank. I did not trust my issued pistol and took a rifle with me in the battle zone. Quickly, I realized the rifle fire was useless against the armor of the tank and looked around for an escape route. The tall hedgerow loomed above me, and the bend in the road was more than 100 feet back. Also, I realized that the tank commander had expected one of our tanks to appear and had fired an armor-piercing shell.

The next round would surely be a high-explosive shell. The tank was machine-gunning us, and the tank commander was yelling, "hand hoch", hands high. McKinney, lying in the ditch behind me, asked what do we do now. We were pinned down and there was no escape to the rear or over the high hedge, so I replied, "You hear the man -- we obey." We threw our rifles out of the ditch and waited for the machine-gunning to stop. We slowly got out of the ditch with our hands up, not knowing if the machine-gun fire would strike us next. The tank machine-gun was still wavering, ready to fire at us, when we saw the tank commander come out of the turret -- a relief sign that he accepted our surrender. Looking for our driver Breedlove to join us, we looked back and saw that the armor-piercing shell had gone through the front left of our peep and through Breedleove, killing him instantly.

As the tank commander approached us, we dropped our gun-belts, and he noticed that McKinney had a German Luger pistol in his trouser's belt. I was sure this would be the end, since he must have thought it probably came from a German that we had killed. Gratefully the tank commander was a level-headed experienced army man and took no action. At this point, my left leg started to give way, and I looked down and saw holes in my pants -- I had been wounded! The German also noticed this and ordered us by hand signals to sit down in a nearby field and await our fate.

While in the field I disposed of my field notes by scrapping them into the earth. I did not want to have anything on me that would identify our troop locations. We soon saw a pickup truck arrive and we were put aboard for the journey to what turned out to be a German field hospital in LeMans. McKinney had not disposed of his field notes and asked on the way to the hospital what he should do with them. My response "You know our orders ­ eat them!" He quickly obeyed orders.

At the field hospital, the Germans treated me more as a wounded soldier than a prisoner. I was given a tetanus antitoxin injection and then prepared for the operation to remove 16 shell fragments that had entered my left thigh and side of my chest. I awoke from the operation to find myself in a bed among German patients and treated the same as they were. McKinney was not to be seen by me henceforth. This respite as a "German" patient did not last long as my notes that follow show I was quickly taken to La Pitie Hospital in Paris that had been taken over by the Germans. Here the prisoners were separated from others and under guard.

My very brief notes of each step of my over one month as a prisoner of the Germans in hospitals in France were made on small pieces of paper hidden in my change purse. A purse I had used to hold the large English coins while in England. Below are some of the notations I made (from those original scraps of notes):

  • 2 August - Wounded and captured by German troops.
  • 3-4 August - LeMans German field hospital, operated on to remove shell fragments in left thigh and left side of chest. Left one fragment in leg and one in chest - too close to muscles.
  • 5-17 August - La Pitie Hospital in Paris taken over by Germans.
  • 17-18 August - In Paris railroad yard being loaded with about 80 others in boxcar for evacuation to prison in Germany. Through appeal to French Red Cross, the underground kept boxcar in yard. At 1900 on 18 Aug. approximately 25 of the boys moved out of yard on foot by Germans. Rest of us taken by Red Cross to Hosp. Auxiliaire de la Croix St. Simon, 18 Rue de la Croix St. Simon, Paris.
  • 22 August - Met Greek barber.
  • 22 August at 1600 - Visit by French General.
  • 24 August at 1630 - Visit by French Colonel with cigarettes.
  • 24 August at 2330 - Yanks and Free French reported in Hotel de Ville - Bells ringing.
  • 25 August at 1030 - Singing in the streets.
  • 25 August - Swell dinner with all the trimmings.
  • 26 August at 1500 - General DeGaulle fired on.
  • 26 August at 2330 - Bombed.
  • 26 August at 1100 - Visit by American Lt. Col. CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps).
  • 27 August at 1700 - Visit by British Captain Civil Affairs.
  • 28 August at 2315 - Air Raid alert - one hour.
  • 29 August - Visits from International Red Cross and Colonel of CRF.
  • 30 August at 1100 - American doctor, 382 Medical, told will evacuate in PM.
  • 30 August at 1500-1900 - 42 men leave.
  • 30 August at 2400 - Air raid.
  • 2 September at 1600 - Visit from Captain, 108 Gen. Hosp. Beaujon, Paris - Will move the rest of us in the morning.
  • 3 September at 1100 - Last 20 left for 108 Gen. Hosp. Beaujon.
  • 5 September - Left 108 Gen. Hosp. by plane.
  • 6 September - Left for England by plane - 2 hours to 130 Stat. Hosp.
  • 7 September - To 188 Gen. Hosp.

These brief notes were made to chronicle the daily events of my prison days. A little further detail may be of interest on some of the events noted. At La Pitie Hospital, the Germans changed our wound dressings only when we complained. The food left a lot to be desired especially when you had to remove a bug before you ate it. The best part was the afternoon spritzer -- wine with soda water. Our German guards were young recruits and on several occasions, I had to warn my fellow prisoners not to irritate them since they might be trigger-happy. I was the senior officer amongst the prisoners and they listened.

As it became obvious that the Allied forces were closing in on Paris, the Germans started to evacuate the hospital and as the notes show about 80 of us were taken to the railroad yard to be loaded on boxcars for our trip to German prison camps. The Red Cross fed us in the yard and provided contact with the French underground. At my request, the underground managed to shoot up our train each night to keep us from being evacuated. We were concerned that our aircraft might hit our boxcar during their daily attacks so we had our guards get red paint for us to paint red crosses on the top of the cars. To our relief the Germans gave up trying to move the rail cars but as I note did take about 25 of our group who were ambulatory off by foot. The rest of us were quickly picked up by the Red Cross and entered the Hospital Auxiliare de la Croix St. Simon. As you can tell from my notes this was a very pleasant hospital with excellent treatment by the French doctors and nurses. I did not want the Americans to find us!

It seems like I must have done something right at the time of my capture, as I was awarded the oak leaf cluster to my Bronze Star medal for heroic achievement in action against the enemy on 1 and 2 August 1944. No other details of the citation are available. The Purple Heart medal was awarded to me for wounds received in battle.

In the US Army hospital in England, the doctors examined my wounds and decided that the many holes would leave me with many scars and they could do a better job of stitching the wound areas to leave me with only a couple of thin line scars. The result was a failure when the taut skin parted at the stitching and I was left with large scars. My recuperation was otherwise pleasant and ended with a week at a very beautiful English estate for R&R (Rest and Rehabilitation.) There I enjoyed the pleasures of an English gentleman with the butler awakening me in the morning and drawing my bath. The lady of the estate would join us in the evening for cocktails and dinner, which was served on the finest English china by the butlers and maids. What a life!

I insisted I wanted to return to my unit, so in November I rejoined the 23rd Armored Engineers in Aachen/Stolberg region of Germany as Battalion Intelligence Officer -- S2. I would have much preferred taking back command of my Company but my good friend and able officer Jeff Artz had taken over and was doing a great job. This staff position put me in close contact with our battalion commander and could lead to the promotion I had missed when I was wounded in France.

The battalion was recuperating and being refitted after the advance through France and Belgium and finally breaking through the Siegfried Line, a strong fortified German defensive position with concrete dragon teeth and pillboxes. I had missed this advance during the three months of captivity and recuperation. The amount of destroyed buildings and shell holes in Aachen attested to the fierce battle that had taken place to capture the city.


In our drive across Germany, I had been promoted to Battalion Operations Officer (S-3) and given the responsibility for assembling and assigning any support engineering groups. At the Mulde River, we needed to build a ponton bridge for the Division to cross and attack Dessau on the route to Berlin about 60 miles away. The bridgehead across the Mulde River had been well established by our infantry. An engineering bridge company was assigned to me to build the bridge approaches and the bridge while the Division was being re-supplied to be ready for the drive to Berlin. The Germans were making a last ditch defense and had the artillery firepower to make it miserable for us. Several times, we had the bridge almost finished and their artillery fire knocked us out and destroyed our work. We had limited counter-battery fire because our supplies had not yet caught up and the guns, I was told, only had about five rounds per gun.

We kept rebuilding the needed bridge and finally on April 17, 1945 I found the work looked complete and decided to make a final inspection of the bridge site to approve it for our Division troops to cross. The German artillery rained down heavily on the site and one of the high explosive shells exploded above me and I took cover. As I tried to get up, my right arm hung along my side. I was sure the shell had ripped my arm but I saw no blood. My driver evacuated me to our headquarters where I started to get a severe headache and putting my hand to my helmet, I noticed blood. I realized I had been hit on the head and medics were called. The next thing I know I was on an airplane to England.

Later, in the news I realized one of the reasons our re-supply may have been slow is because Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had agreed the Russians should enter Berlin first and that there was no urgency to re-supply us at the Elbe/Mulde River front.

In England, I was immediately operated on by a very capable Army neurosurgeon. A shell fragment had pierced my helmet, bounced off my skull, and sunk back into the helmet liner. This had fractured my skull and damaged a small segment of my brain on the left side that caused the paralysis of the right side of my body. The operation was a success and I slowly started to recover the use of my right arm. I felt sorry for many of my fellow patients who were young men in their early twenties who from brain injuries had lost vision or speech. During our month long plus stay in the Army hospital in England we tried to work together to help each other regain the use of our senses.


According to my records, I returned to the United States by ship leaving England on May 29 and arriving on June 8, 1945. I had spent VE Day (May 8th) in England at a hospital deprived of enjoying the celebration with my 23rd Armored Engineers of almost four years. The hospital in the USA was the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall and Traymore Hotels in Atlantic City, NJ taken over by the Army and designated the Thomas M. England General Hospital. The private room I occupied was a hotel room with an Army cot and a small dressing table. The hotel luxuries had been removed. This didn't matter since I spent little time in the room except to sleep at night. If my day was not occupied by hospital tests I managed to go to the beach and enjoy the day and evening with Greek friends I met. This pleasant stay lasted until I appeared before a medical review board and they decided I could not remain in the Army and therefore was granted a disability retirement as of October 20, 1945 from the Army of the United States and sent home on July 13, 1945.

I had served in the U.S. Army as an enlisted man from July 30, 1940 to September 27, 1941 and as an officer from September 27, 1941 to October 20, 1945. The five battles and campaigns in which I participated and the awards received are enumerated in the Certificate of Service that is attached to this summary. In addition to the decorations and awards shown, the Prisoner of War Medal and the Belgian Fourragere were awarded. The one-page brief history of the 3rd Armored Division that is also attached mentions some of the accomplishments of this great "Spearhead" military force.

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