Reading’s Boys #10: December 1944-January 1945, Part 5

The “F*** Hitler” Incident

During James Arsenault’s time in Burzen Kommando 1637, many incredible things happened, from singing Silent Night with an entire Polish village on Christmas Eve, accompanied by his German guards, to receiving food snuck in by the daughter of the prison overseer. But the “f*** Hitler” incident would probably have to be the most incredible one. Although it is unclear in James Arsenault’s book when exactly this occurred (not that he would have known either since keeping track of the time wasn’t exactly his first priority), I figured I would include it in this issue since it was talked about right after the Christmas carol story. 

James begins the story by explaining that although the German prison guards were normal German soldiers, they reported to the infamous SS. Apparently, every now and then, the SS soldiers would come visit the camp and tear apart the imprisoned mens’ living quarters, looking for any contraband or other incriminating items. One morning, a surprise inspection in the form of a very angry-looking SS soldier burst through the door to their little hut. Recently, the men that James was with had managed to get a tattered American flag and hang it up in their quarters, and naturally, this was the first thing the SS man saw when he entered the room. It would appear to me, from reading the book, that the display of the flag was less of a representation of their American pride and more of an attempt to retain some piece of their identity. Being constantly dehumanized takes a toll on the human psyche, and having a strong symbol of one’s individuality probably helped cope with this.

Anyway, the officer stepped into their little room and snapped his heels, raised his arm, and shouted, “Heil Hitler!” The other German guards returned the ‘salute.’ The SS soldier then noticed that none of the American prisoners had returned the salute and yelled at them that if they did not return the salute next time he came to inspect them, he would tear down their American flag by himself. A few weeks later, sure enough, in came that same SS man. He gave the salute with the words “Heil Hitler!” and James and every other American POW in the room snapped their heels and shouted, “F*** Hitler!”

The German soldier looked at the Americans for a moment before asking, “What?” The response the POWs gave was, “It’s the same thing as heil.” Satisfied with the response, he went outside and proceeded to say “F*** Hitler” to the other POWs there. Luckily for James and his buddies, apparently, the reason why the SS soldier didn’t see through it was because he was a veteran of the Russian Front and did not speak any English beyond the basics. 

The Heavenly Comrade

After a few months of grinding out missions and coming out completely unscathed, the luck of Paul William Connelly of 129 High Street and the Robert Hall crew finally ran out. The crew’s navigator, Gordon F. Henry, had been sick in early January, and as a result, missed one of the missions that the crew had flown. Out of a desire to still finish up his tour with the Hall crew, he informed his commanding officer that he wanted to make himself available to fly another mission with a different crew so he could still be at the same number of missions as his buddies. He was assigned to join Jack Collins’s crew for a mission on January 6, 1945.

In talking to a few of Robert Hall’s relatives, I learned that Robert Hall himself was approached by Gordon shortly before he was scheduled to take off for his mission with the Collins crew. He came to Robert in the morning and said something along the lines of, “I don’t think I’m coming back from this one, Bob.” Robert retold the story to his family after the war, explaining that the only thing he knew to do was to encourage Gordon that, no, he would be fine. 

On the morning of January 6, 1945, the wheels of Jack’s B-17 left the ground, with Gordon F. Henry, the beloved navigator of the Hall crew and likely very close friend to Paul Connelly, with it. But something was wrong. Almost as soon as the plane had taken to the sky, the #4 engine failed, and the plane came crashing to the ground. Some of the crew members survived and fought to get out of the plane, but Gordon was not one of the lucky ones. Almost immediately after the four surviving crewmen had exited the plane, the bombs in the plane’s belly detonated. Gordon F. Henry was dead…and there wasn’t much left of him. I wonder if Robert, Paul, and the rest of the crew were awake to see the plane crash. I’m sure they were woken up by the explosion if they hadn’t seen the crash, though, since some fragments of the wreckage landed near the rest quarters after the bombs had gone off. I wonder if tears were shed on that cool English morning at Bury St. Edmunds. 

After the death of Gordon, the Hall crew renamed their aircraft to “The Heavenly Comrade” in honor of him. The young Florida boy, 23 years old at the time of his death, would finish his tour with Paul and his buddies, just in spirit and not in actuality. 

The Bloody Philippines

Fred Melvin Day of 18 Elm Street had been out of the fighting for a little while now. The last time he had been in the thick of it was a few months prior, but the orders finally came, as they always do, to prepare for movement. But this time, the men of Company K, 148th Infantry Regiment, 37th Infantry Division, would be heading to the Philippines. This wasn’t exactly a massive deal, but it meant that American forces were getting closer and closer to the place we had been back in 1941 before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, seeing as the Philippines fell shortly after the attack that stunned the nation. When the orders reached Fred and the squad he commanded that they were to be the central landing force in Lingayen Gulf, the anxiety level jumped drastically. This was no small task: their objective would be to take Manila. 

On January 8, 1945, after spending the last few weeks in transit, final church services were held for the men about to land in the Philippines. The moment of reckoning came at 9:30 AM on January 9, when the 148th Infantry Regiment hit the beach. Interestingly, like so many battles that had come before in the Pacific, the landing was uncontested. On the beach, a number of Filipino people greeted the Americans with open arms. This was the first time that the Americans in the Pacific had ever been welcomed as liberators. I wonder if Fred found it in him to smile in those early days, to see the humanity that for the last two years, he may have thought he’d never see again.

The advance toward Manila was quick, and the men of the 37th Infantry Division didn’t encounter any significant resistance until January 16, when they discovered that a handful of bridges they needed to cross were heavily damaged (many of them, damaged by friendly planes on accident). On January 27, the race into Manila began, with Fred’s regiment taking Highway 3 with haste. The first barrier to the advance of the division was the seizure of Plaridel, a city 20 miles north of Manila. Upon the unit’s arrival in the city, they met a heavy enemy force but managed to get by alright, considering they had no experience with urban fighting. In the end, the 37th Infantry Division did not reach Manila until February 6, but up until this point, Fred Day was quite safe…or as safe as anyone can be in the middle of frontline combat, I suppose.

Meeting the Broken Marines of Tinian

George Anthony Enos, of 472 West Street, had joined the United States Navy on May 14, 1943. After a section of time in which George is missing from any records I could find, he would appear again attending Medical Field Service School at Camp Lejeune in the summer of 1944. George Enos was going to become a Navy corpsman, the lifeblood of the Marines in the Pacific: Navy corpsmen were combat medics. Around the same time that he was in training, the unit that he would ultimately be assigned to was fighting for their lives on the small island of Tinian. Around October, George would finally meet the Marines he would be serving with for the rest of the war…Marines who had just come off of Tinian. According to a footnote attached to George’s name on the Marine Corps muster roll during the period of October 1944, it would seem that George was assigned temporary duty in the Graves Registration Section of the 2nd Battalion, Headquarters Company, 25th Marine Regiment. Grave Registration duty meant caring for the dead men of the unit by bagging their personal belongings, burying them, and marking their resting place. 

In the winter of 1944-1945, George would spend time getting to know the Marines whose lives he might save while they were on leave in Hawaii. He did not yet know where they would be headed in the coming weeks, but I imagine he was quite nervous.

Photo of Gordon F. Henry courtesy of Ancestry. Photographer unknown.

Special thanks to Tyler R. Webb of Ohio State University, whose thesis on the 37th Infantry Division in World War II has been of great help.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email