U.S. Soldiers Learned Fast That World War II Was A Battle For Survival

December 28, 2019 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: WarWorld War IINazi GermanyMilitary

U.S. Soldiers Learned Fast That World War II Was A Battle For Survival

The fate of the world was at stake.

Private Armand Lorenzi and his fellow soldiers were advancing through a snowy German forest when enemy machine guns opened fire. It was Lorenzi’s first time in combat. He started scraping a shallow foxhole until he heard German mortars and artillery exploding and rockets screaming in. Then he started digging desperately. “You learn fast,” he recalled. The Germans fired Nebelwerfers, rockets that made a high-pitched scream as they roared to target, earning them the name “Screaming Mimis.” One rocket exploded in the trees. “That’s what scares the life out of you.”

It was during the last months of the war, February 1945, and Lorenzi had just joined Company C of the 302nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 94th Infantry Division in Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.’s Third Army. Lorenzi and his fellow soldiers were trying to wrestle Germany’s Campholz Woods from the stubborn enemy.

In the following weeks, Lorenzi would fight toe to toe with the enemy, battling through forests and towns filled with destroyed German tanks and dead horses. He marched through minefields marked with white tape, constantly worrying about tripping a mine. “Then they send you to that room [in the hospital] where you never go home,” he said. Sometimes German shells, likely manufactured by slave labor, impacted near him without exploding.

A native of Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Lorenzi grew up with his parents, an older brother, and four younger sisters. He was only 15 when he read about the attack on Pearl Harbor in the morning paper. Although only a high school student, he worked as a projectionist at the Hilltop Drive-in Theater until he was drafted in July 1944, five months after he turned 18.

Lorenzi reported to Pittsburgh for his physical. A recruiter asked him what branch he wanted, and he picked the Navy, like his brother. The recruiter stamped NAVY on his card and told him, “We’ll call you in a couple of weeks.” Sure enough, the phone soon rang, and he was invited back to Pittsburgh for another physical. “Bring your clothes with you,” the voice on the line instructed, “because you’re not going home.” After his physical, Lorenzi and all the other recruits were put into the U.S. Army. “Everything broke out in Europe,” he said. “They needed soldiers.”

From Pittsburgh, Lorenzi went to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training, then to Camp Crowder, Missouri, where he was assigned to the Signal Corps. He spent his days climbing poles, stringing wire, and learning to operate a radio. While he trained in Missouri, across the Atlantic Ocean three German armies attacked the American First Army through Belgium and Luxembourg’s Ardennes Forest on December 16, 1944—the Battle of the Bulge. Lorenzi and the other trainees were immediately sent to Louisiana’s Camp Livingston for six weeks of infantry training, including fighting insects and surviving the heat.

After training, Lorenzi and the other replacements headed to New York, but he was able to visit home for a few days on the way. Once in the city, he boarded the SS Louis Pasteur, a French liner, for a six-day journey across the Atlantic. While he never succumbed to sea sickness, his fellow replacements did. “A guy across from me was throwing up in his mess kit,” he recalled.

The Louis Pasteur docked in England at night, and Lorenzi and the others climbed aboard a train. They had to keep the blinds down to prevent light from showing. “I didn’t see anything of England,” he said regretfully. The train deposited the men on a dock, and they boarded another ship bound for Le Harve, France, where they boarded trucks and sped to the front.

Lorenzi’s truck arrived at the front lines at night, and the men piled out. It was cold, and snow blanketed the area. Lorenzi was assigned to a squad in C Company, 302th Infantry Regiment, of Maj. Gen. Harry Malony’s 94th Infantry Division.

The 94th had arrived on the Continent in September 1944 and spent the next four months containing the Germans along France’s Channel ports. During the Battle of the Bulge, it raced across the country and took up positions on the southern flank of Patton’s Third Army. While most of Patton’s other divisions pivoted north to attack the southern border of the Bulge, the 94th was one of the few that remained in place to prevent more Germans from joining the campaign up north.

By the time Lorenzi joined the 94th in February 1945, the Battle of the Bulge had ended, but the Germans were still in the fight. There would be at least three more months of fighting before the war ended. While the division fought specific actions during those months, Lorenzi does not recall the exact towns, hills, or forests where they occurred, but most of his memories coincide with locations and certain aspects of the regiment’s campaigns. 

Company C was probably in Pillingerhof, Germany, east of the Moselle River, when Lorenzi joined the unit. On his first patrol, he witnessed the carnage of combat. “The first German I saw had his hand sticking out of the snow.” It was a dead enemy soldier. Behind him Lorenzi saw three American bodies covered by blankets with rifles topped with Army helmets stuck in the snow. “That was pretty scary for an 18-year-old just leaving home.”

One of the first soldiers Lorenzi befriended was a Texan named Leon Stenson, who was older than any of the replacements. Stenson had been fighting with the division for months. “He never smoked or drank,” remembered Lorenzi.

Soon after his introduction to Company C, Lorenzi came under fire for the first time and learned to dig a deeper foxhole. Later, on a predawn patrol with a redheaded sergeant, he crept up to a series of German foxholes, spotted a German, and raised his rifle. “Don’t shoot him,” the sergeant whispered. The shot would have alerted the enemy to their presence. Instead, they made their way back to friendly lines, where they reported the German location. American artillerymen targeted the foxholes and fired a few volleys. The Germans retreated.

Company C’s next task was to take the town of Orscholz on February 19. The men jumped off through a forest at 4 am. When the Germans fired flares into the air, illuminating the area, the men ducked, trying to reduce their profiles. Then the Germans lobbed mortars. “They were more of a concussion than anything,” said Lorenzi.

At night the men climbed aboard some tanks for an attack into Keuchingen. “They smelled of diesel,” Lorenzi recalled. The tanks reached the town, and the men jumped off. Then the tanks roared forward, driving straight into a German ambush. The infantrymen heard the clash. “They got shot up pretty bad.”

The men entered houses, less interested in booze than just finding a place to sleep. They found two old people sleeping in a bed. “We told them to go to the bunker,” said Lorenzi. The Americans preferred German homes to any other place to sleep. In one house, Lorenzi found an Italian .34-caliber pistol while rifling through some drawers. He made it his own.  

For meals, Lorenzi enjoyed C-rations, canned meals. Special meals, which were supposed to be treats, had the opposite effect. One of the worst was fresh turkey. “They didn’t even clean it well,” he recalled. “There were some feathers.” Fresh eggs were another disappointment. One day the men were each given two raw eggs. “Cook ‘em the best you can,” the sergeant told them. Lorenzi tried heating his with hot water in his helmet. The result was two soft boiled eggs. “That was the worst.” 

Even basic needs resulted in pain. “I drank a lot of bad water,” said Lorenzi. The men had been issued iodine pills to drop into their canteens to purify whatever water they could find. But the pills needed an hour to take effect, and the men were usually too thirsty to wait. The result was misery. “I had diarrhea for a long time,” he recalled. During night marches, Lorenzi and other soldiers would run out of the line to relieve themselves. “Some had it worse than I did.”

One night Lorenzi was standing guard on the line when his stomach started burning. It felt like heartburn. A soldier offered to relieve him from his post, but Lorenzi refused. His guts hurt so much he couldn’t sleep, so he figured it was better to stand guard, explaining, “That was 1945 and I still have it today.”

At the end of February, the division pushed to the Saar River’s west bank near Taben. Lorenzi and five other soldiers clambered aboard a rubber raft, commanded by a lieutenant, to conduct a night reconnaissance. They paddled through the pitch-black night until they could hear German voices and truck motors on the east bank. They were supposed to land, but when the lieutenant heard the noise, he whispered, “That’s enough. Let’s go back.” They turned around.

The next day, February 22, the men received an oral order as they bivouacked in a field: “Patton’s coming!” They scrambled to put their camp in order, but the general never arrived. Patton did visit the division’s headquarters and told General Malony and his staff, “I don’t care if it takes a bushel basket full of dog tags, we’re crossing the river right here.”