Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Harold Updyke, WWII veteran and member of the 328th Infantry Regiment, sits in his Strasburg home, holding a framed display of medals he received in the war. Rich Cooley/Daily
STRASBURG--In the fall of 1942, Harold R. Updyke of Strasburg set out for New York City to join the Merchant Marines. The country was embroiled in World War II, and Updyke had high hopes of going to Sheepshead Bay, the U.S. Maritime Service Training Center.
"I knew I would get a good place to sleep and three square meals," says Updyke, now 85.
But Updyke never went to officer training school with the Merchant Marines: The day he received his commission papers, Updyke also was sent his draft papers a turn of events that would make Updyke's World War II journey anything but comfortable.
Updyke was drafted into the 328th Infantry Regiment of the 26th Yankee Division under Gen. George Patton's celebrated 3rd Army. The unit saw its first battle casualties by enemy fire on Oct. 7, 1944, Updyke recalls.
"Getting out of a hole and walking towards the enemy it took a lot of courage," Updyke says. "I didn't have to do that very often."
The regiment saw fierce fighting.
On Nov. 11, 1944, the men saw some of their bloodiest combat. For three days, the regiment was under fire in woods outside of Dieuze, France, a place they called the "Woods of Hell."
"The unit received a lot of shell fire," Updyke says. "There was continuous shelling for three days."
Many saved themselves by piling logs over their slit trench and then packing dirt on top, Updyke says.
On Nov. 15, when the infantry reached its objective, they moved on.
"We would take these little towns along the woods. If they put up much resistance, we would stay until we cleaned them out. We kept going until we hit resistance."
First in France then in Belgium and Luxembourg, the infantry eventually moved back into France before advancing on to Germany, south along Czechoslovakia's border with Austria and then north to Czechoslovakia.
The infantry fought in the Battle of France, the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of the Rhineland and in Central Europe.
Updyke's orders, first as a gunner and later as an 81-mm mortar observer, helped protect him from being mortally wounded by enemy fire, Updyke believes.
As an observer, Updyke and the others would receive orders from the company commander to shell a certain spot. The observers would use maps to figure out the angle, he says. The observers took turns. Updyke was on the front lines with a rifle company about every 48 hours.
"As soon as you opened the radio, they zeroed in on you. If you stayed every day you were bound to get it," Updyke says.
The regiment also fought in heavy combat at the Siegfried line in Germany.
"We lost a battalion commander. My company commander got hit," Updyke says. "I was with him when it happened."
The commander was killed from direct fire from a tank. "He walked into it unexpectedly. I happened to be under a shelf of rock with my radio operator. His radio operator was killed with him."
While in Austria going into Czechoslovakia, the 328th Infantry Regiment was the easternmost infantry going into the European Theater of Operation.
"We were out there by ourselves with the 11th Armored," Updyke says.
The infantry mopped up on the side road as the 11th Armored took the main highway. "We got ahead of our supplies and they cut our rations," Updyke remembers.
There were no cigarettes.
"No cigarettes bothered [the soldiers] more than the [low supply of] food," Updyke recalls. Some backtracked along the road to pick up cigarette butts, he says.
Updyke and other soldiers in the infantry faced harsh weather conditions as they trudged all over Europe.
"You had to stand and stomp all the time. You just had to keep moving," Updyke says.
Whenever Updyke received a new set of clothing, he would put on new clothes and wear the worn clothes over the top. One spare pair of socks was placed in his belt next to his body to dry them, he says.
Updyke, like so many other soldiers, suffered from trench foot. Updyke's right foot became frozen and so infected he was sent to a hospital in Paris in December 1944 for treatment.
Updyke saw many soldiers suffering from trench foot, with one or both feet propped up on pillows. The next day, he saw about half of the same men with stumps, their feet gone.
Updyke feared he would be next, but he was among the lucky.
The horrors of war were never far away.
One of his fellow soldiers picked up an abandoned boot, a boot in good condition and with many more hours of marching left in it.
"[The boot] had a foot in it," Updyke recalls.
In Austria, Updyke's division liberated the concentration camp at Gusen in May 1945.
Prisoners at Gusen were forced to build a complex underground system of tunnels "that connected to mammoth subterranean installations for aircraft production," according to the Web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As U.S. soldiers neared, the SS troops planned to collapse the tunnels with the prisoners inside, but the 26th Infantry and 11th Armored prevented the horror, it reads.
The starving prisoners were overcome by their arrival, Updyke recalls. Sadly, some were so malnourished that they died after eating solid food given to them by the soldiers, he says.
The soldiers were suffering, too.
"You eventually got worn out. You would go to sleep standing up sometimes."
When soldiers could not stand the stress any longer, they would receive treatment for combat fatigue, Updyke says. They were knocked out for three days, and sent back into combat.
Some soldiers shot themselves. Others stole morphine from packs of medics who died in combat. "It was the only dope you ever heard of over there," Updyke says.
"I don't think I had sense enough to let it bother me," Updyke recalls about the stress. "You just steel yourself to do it. You get so worn out you just don't care what happens. You are so worn out and the rain running down your back, it puts you in another frame of mind."
One of Updyke's most vivid memories while he was serving was Patton's arrival to see the famous
rescued and secretly removed from Vienna to St. Martin.
Updyke was a member of the honor guard formed to greet the general. Many preparations were made for his arrival, and the honor guard practiced its routine.
But when Patton arrived and stepped out to be greeted by the honor guard, the lieutenant in charge, in awe of Patton, froze, and said not a word, Updyke says. Someone else in the honor guard had presence of mind to call out the orders, and the rest of the ceremony went without a hitch, he says. "Three or four old men hollered attention," Updyke explained.
"I wouldn't be able to say anything myself. He finally came out of it," Updyke says.
Updyke only saw Patton one other time during the war. "Patton presented quite a figure," he says.
The 328th Infantry Regiment was in combat for a total of 210 days. Updyke fought in combat for about 170 days because of his hospital stay. He endured two months of straight combat from Oct. 6 to Dec. 14 in 1944.
After the war ended, Updyke headed back to the states, volunteering to board a ship that was overloaded. Even the voyage back home ended up being an eventful trip.
A seam broke in the ship and ruined the food, Updyke says. "We had hard-boiled eggs for two days."
In their sleeping quarters there was nothing but a floor. Updyke, along with a friend, took the floor beneath the stairwell. Good thing they did because a storm hit and tossed the ship. Some soldiers got sick. "It kept debris from falling on us."
When the ship finally arrived, "we bobbed around Boston Harbor for 24 hours," Updyke says. Happily, "a barge came out with a swing band. I was darn glad to get back."
* Contact Carolyn Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org