Reading’s Boys #11: February-March 1945, Part 2

“Reconnaissance” Under Fire

During the period of February-March 1945, Sherwood Collins’s 224th Field Artillery Battalion was on the offensive with the 29th Infantry Division, during which the unit saw much success. However, I struggled to find any really detailed information on this advance. This was thankfully not the case for Donald Wendell Davidson’s unit, Troop B of the 90th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), 10th Armored Division.

In fact, in the early days of February, while the 90th Cavalry Recon was patrolling along the Maginot Line, Donald’s Troop B actually linked up with the 5th Ranger Battalion. However, during this period, it does not seem like Donald or the rest of the 90th Cavalry Recon contacted the enemy and were relieved by elements of the 12th Armored Division on February 11. Although some action likely occurred between the 11th of the month and the end of February, it was very difficult to read the After Action Reports after February 11. However, from what I could pick out, it would seem that Donald’s Troop B crossed the Saar River after having worked very hard to establish a bridgehead there sometime on March 2. For the next few days, the 90th Cavalry Recon would actually be directing traffic across the bridge. I imagine that Donald got many friendly waves from the passing GIs, along with many 1000 yard stares…

On March 16 at 10:00 am, Donald’s unit would move out of Nunkirchen, Germany, to do reconnaissance. This particular action was one of the first obvious combat actions of the unit (that was legible) for a few weeks, and sure enough, it did result in a large firefight in the north end of Buschfeld. At one point, the unit reports actually cite that all weapons were firing as Troop B moved. When I think of Donald, and men like him, who served in reconnaissance units, I often wonder what the men thought of the patrols they did. Is it really “reconnaissance” if you’re being shot the whole time you’re doing it? How much are you actually going to see of the enemy positions if you are flat on the ground praying to god that the bullet that just hit your buddy in the face deflected off of his helmet or something?

As the 90th Cavalry Recon attempted to advance, they met stiffer and stiffer resistance as they went but somehow managed to avoid taking heavy casualties. As the month of March came to a close, Donald and his friends were still being engaged by the enemy. The reality that Donald might not live to see his home, or Reading, a town he didn’t even know yet, had not come to fruition.

The Final Mission

Valentine’s Day, 1945…likely not a day that most American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines thought much of. After all, we were still at war. But for Paul William Connelly of 129 High Street and the crew of “The Heavenly Comrade,” February 14 meant another mission. Thankfully (or perhaps, unfortunately, seeing as it wouldn’t count towards their total mission count), they had to abort the mission, likely for mechanical reasons. February 20 was the next attempt for the crew, this time to Nuremberg, Germany. A slew of more missions followed until finally, the morning of the magical 35th mission dawned. It is unclear to me if this mission took place on March 8 or March 9, but the grandson of Paul’s pilot told me that Robert Hall had recalled to his family many years after the war, the feeling he got as he set the crew’s plane on the runway, having returned from their final mission. It was a feeling of death, as though the next time he sat at the controls of a plane, he would not live through the experience.

I really wonder what the feeling in Paul’s stomach was. I wonder if I could relate to it a tad, having an anxiety disorder. Perhaps it was like that relieved feeling that I sometimes get at the end of an anxiety attack…the butterflies in my stomach begin to flutter rapidly, quicker and quicker until I nearly feel like I need to vomit, and then suddenly, it all stops.

Paul would obviously live through the war, having completed the number of missions he needed to finish his tour. He would return home to Reading and live out a very long and happy life with his wife, Ruth. He would have five children with her and would pass away on September 26, 2010. Today, you can visit Paul at Arlington Memorial Park in Georgia, where he is buried.

The March and the Fever

Out of all the trials and tribulations that James Arsenault, of 116 John Street, would go through, being captured by the Germans and being held in a German labor camp, the forced march that he would go on beginning in late January would probably be the most harrowing and difficult of them all. According to James’s book, Brothers of War, the sound of gunfire began to get closer and closer to the men of Burzen Kommando 1637 as January came to a close. It was obvious that the Russians were closing in. The Germans began rushing the men to pack up their things, and after lunch on January 30, 1945, the marching began. The three German guards that had been in charge of the 39 POWs came with them. The first night of the march, the men all stayed in a barn. When the sun rose the next morning, they left…and 15 minutes later, the Germans had blown it up. 

James said that he figured they walked nonstop for about 40 days, covering what the men had estimated was 500 miles. They walked without regular food or water, without shelter from the cold winter, and under constant fire from the Russian and German armies. At one point, apparently, an SS soldier tried to give the POWs a hard time, but a German colonel who had been with the men at Burzen Kommando 1637 got him to leave them alone. James recalled in his book that at one point, he made the mistake of taking his shoes off, which allowed his feet to swell and swell and swell. 

Not long after he had removed his shoes, he began to get a fever. As the night set in, the men found a barn to take shelter in, and James’s friend, Maurice, began to notice that James was starting to have violent chills. In the exact words of the book, “My buddy Maurice dug a hollow in the manure, put me in it, loosened my clothes and then lay down on top of me to keep me warm” (132). James said that he barely even remembered who was there during the incident but that he was sure that someone had broken open a gauge from a plane that had been shot down (which contained alcohol) and forced James to swallow it. The next morning, when James woke up, his fever was gone, and he could put his shoes back on. The men of Buzen Kommando 1637 seemed to agree in their various accounts in Brothers of War that the forced march ended sometime in March…ironic.

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