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William Wells

Koblenz 1945: How He Remembers It

      He joined the Army just after his 18th birthday, thinking that if he volunteered he would not be sent to the Pacific Theater. After Basic Training, the Army offered him several positions. They said he could enroll in parachute school, in officer school, or join the infantry. He declined the first two, thinking that parachutists and officers attracted a lot of attention on the battlefield. Because an infantryman carrying a rifle didn't attract anywhere near as much attention, he chose the infantry.
      He was attached to the 87th Infantry Division just in time for the American counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge. He participated in the battle for Koblenz a couple of months later.
      He doesn't talk much about the battle for Koblenz. The senior officers featured as the victors on the front page of Stars and Stripes were no closer than four miles to the actual fighting. The boys, teenagers really, who won the victory actually had to overcome two separate opponents: the streets of Mosel-Weiss and the Germans occupying Koblenz.
      Koblenz lay on the far side of the Mosel River from the American forces. Although the bridges across the Mosel had been destroyed, the American commanders thought to surprise the Germans by having their soldiers row across the river in 10-man steel boats in the middle of a moonless night, in order to assault the German positions once they were ashore. But the American commanders hadn't considered the town of Mosel-Weiss.
      Mosel-Weis was situated in the path of the American advance. It had not been planned in the modern sense, but had grown haphazardly in response to the needs of its people for almost two millennia. The streets were the afterthoughts of buildings, leftover spaces that turned unpredictably and in unexpected directions. In some places, the streets were so narrow that two people couldn't walk abreast, were paved with cobblestones and often slippery.
      The trucks that brought them to the battle of Koblenz had to stop on the outskirts of Mosel-Weis. Already made clumsy by heavy combat backpacks, his squad had to manhandle a metal boat through the unlit streets of a medieval town. The planned “surprise attack” soon became one of the most widely heralded events in military history as dozens of squads just like his filled the night with cursing and clanging of steel boats being dropped onto cobblestones or run into the sides of buildings. In his words, “the only Germans that didn't know we were coming were both blind and deaf. Or in Berlin.”
      He doesn't talk much about the initial assault or the three days of house-to-house fighting that followed. He remembers the uncertain dread of not knowing if the next opponent was going to be a squad of weary men who just wanted to go home or a squad of Nazi fanatics who would willingly die if they could just strike one last blow for der Führer, or if he was the target of the ever-present snipers. He doesn't talk much about the battle for Koblenz, but he does talk a little about the German garrison's “last stand” at Fort Konstantin.
      Hitler had made “no-retreat” a standing order. German soldiers were expected to die defending the ground they occupied and to never yield a centimeter. Surrender was not an option except in extreme cases. Because of this, the German garrison of Koblenz had not withdrawn across the Rhine and into Germany, but instead occupied an old fort built on a bluff overlooking the city. On the other side of the bluff was the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel, both uncrossable without boats, so that the garrison of Fort Konstantin was effectively trapped between the Americans and the two rivers. The Germans prepared to fight to the last man.
      The Americans did not want to incur the casualties it would have cost to assault the German position and, despite Hitler's order, the Germans were not eager to die. So the commanding officers of each  side started to talk. The German commander revealed that surrender might be possible if the Americans were to use some sort of “secret weapon.” It is unclear which side came up came up with the idea, but the German commander eventually conceded that his soldiers might consider the use of phosphorous grenades to be the deployment of a secret weapon, something that might offer grounds for surrender.
      Phosphorus grenades, also known as smoke grenades, were available to soldiers in both the German and American armies, but they were not widely used. They were designed to be thrown by an infantryman and spray a cloud of white phosphorous “smoke” into the air, hiding the movement of friendly troops. The phosphorus grenade was both an ugly and an uncertain weapon; the phosphorous burned everything it touched and could not be extinguished. A wayward gust would blow the phosphorous onto friendly troops, or blow it away completely to leave advancing soldiers suddenly visible to the enemy. The fragmentation grenade, which weighed about as much, was deadlier and more dependable. Because of this, most soldiers chose fragmentation grenades over phosphorous grenades and trusted the artillery deliver the smoke if it were to be needed.
      The American commander, acting on the hint dropped by his German counterpart, ordered two of his squads to be equipped with phosphorous grenades, had them to sneak up to the German lines, and toss the grenades just shy of the German positions. The German garrison surrendered immediately.
      After the German surrender, he was bivouacked in the Fort Konstantin/Fort Alexander complex. There he made three interesting discoveries. In the luxurious accommodation in which he had been housed (luxurious in the eyes of someone sleeping in mud), he discovered a very large Nazi flag packed away in a chest of drawers. The flag was quite dramatic: black swastika on white circle, placed on a brilliant red field, and perhaps eight feet long by six feet wide. He sent it home to his mother as a spoil of war.
      The second discovery he made was that they had no running water. The pump house that supplied the citadel had been destroyed and the only way to get water was to transport it up a winding road from the city below. Only one vehicle at a time could travel this route because the German artillery on the other side of the Rhine had zeroed-in on the road. One truck or a jeep with a trailer could usually get by, but two would invite enemy fire. When the drivers arrived in the city, they found they had to make a choice: they could either fill up their transports with water... or with champagne; the cellars of Koblenz were flowing with sparkling wine and, because the civilians had left the city some time before, it was there for the taking.
      Most of the drivers chose not to take water. For the week that the soldiers were bivouacked in the  Fort Konstantin/Fort Alexander complex, they brushed their teeth with champagne. They bathed in champagne. They drank champagne when they were thirsty and sometimes when they were not. And before long they became a little difficult to understand. Although they were never falling-down drunk, the artillery missions they directed often went somewhat far afield. And the soldiers' condition made for some rather uneven decision-making when the third thing was discovered.
      In addition to being the last refuge of the Koblenz garrison, the Fort Konstantin/Fort Alexander complex had served as the regional headquarters for the German army. Through the diligent exploration of foraging parties, also known as looting, the Americans discovered the German regimental motor pool, which had been parked underground to hide the vehicles from allied air reconnaissance. Perhaps a hundred staff cars, light trucks, tracked haulers and halftracks gleamed silently, inviting a certain amount of speculation among the bored young men bivouacked at Fort Konstantin. Experiments were conducted to satisfy scientific curiosity - experiments designed to determine just how many staff cars parked side-by-side could be crushed by a half-track ramming them at full speed - tests to determine if a head-on collision between a stationary tracked hauler and a hauler traveling at full speed would cause as much damage as a head-on collision between two haulers moving at equal spped in opposite directions. Eventually the individual experiments merged into a full-scale demolition derby. The flood of champagne that ran through the encampment did little to inhibit either the young men's creativity or their restraint.
      About a week after this scientific inquiry began, the unit received orders to turn in the German motor pool. But by then though, there wasn't much left of it; perhaps one in ten vehicles was still partially functional. So, after a week of excess, the soldiers reacted in the only way that made sense at the time: they collected all of the vehicles that could still roll and pushed them, one by one, off a cliff.
      This is mostly what he remembers about Koblenz, but there is one more component to the story. His mother, although apolitical and generally a pacifist, was a compulsive “must” detector. Anything stored in a closet or packed away for any length of time was automatically deemed to be “musty.” According to her, the sole remedy for mustiness was a good airing out. She became an overnight sensation in their small Pennsylvania town when, upon receiving the the enormous Nazi flag from her son, she decided to air it out. On the clothesline.

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William Wells is a senior at Metropolitan State University. Returning to school after being laid off from a job in the graphic arts, he is hoping to recreate a skill set that is in demand. He writes because writing helps to define him.