Of the three Christmases we spent overseas, this is the only one that stands out in memory. Not only because those of 1942 and 1943 came and went without our really being aware of them, but also as circumstances developed in December 1944, we were anticipating a complete departure from our usual combat situation to a more peaceful atmosphere.
We had just finished driving the Gerries across the Rhine River at Strassburg Alsace, when we welcomed the good news we would be in the area through the month. Better than that, we also were informed that we would have showers, new clothes and hot meals. And as an extra bonus on Christmas Day, we would have turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and the rest of the trimmings.
We also were to be free to do as we pleased, except when securing the area or on firing duty. We weren't quite free of the military as we set up our heavy weapons to shoot interdictory fire across the Rhine River -- more to harass than to damage.
We passed around the gunner duties, so we had ample time to enjoy a bit of freedom.
During the next few days, I discovered most of the civilians living in our area were Germans. Gen. Eisenhower had ordered we were not to fraternize with German civilians, but none of us paid any attention to that silly order. After the children in the area were assured we meant them no harm, we became friendly with them.
I was the only one in my squad who spoke German, so I had to do translating. I especially noticed a little girl who seemed too shy to make contact with us. In a couple of days, I was able to work my way up to her and asked the usual questions.
Her name was Winifred, 10 years old and a student in the very building we were housed in. We soon became great pals, spending time in the building with her explaining to me all of the Nazi slogans on the chalk board.
Portraits of Adolf Hitler appeared in every classroom with a story about how he was saving Germany from the exploits of the British and Americans. I soon realized that, at her age, she hadn't been exposed to anything but the Nazi doctrines, so how could she believe anything else? We went through some of her books it was easy to see how those kids worshipped "Der Fuehrer."
I forthrightly told her Hitler was finished and they would have a government much as we have in America and Britain. Of course, she had never heard of a republic form of government, so I explained it as best I could to someone so young and hoped that I might have been a good ambassador and that she might have remembered some of it when Germany formed a new government after the war. She came to visit every day, even went with me one time when it was my turn to fire the guns.
A couple of the gunners were staying in the basement of a German banker's nearby house. He had two automobiles, a Volkswagen and a Mercedes, but no gasoline. Of course, we had gasoline, so I traded him 5 gallons of gasoline if he would let me take Winifred for a ride. She couldn't remember the last time she had ridden in a car so really enjoyed the Volksie.
Then came Christmas Eve, and we were told no shooting until after midnight that day; I don't know if they had an agreement with the Germans, but we received no incoming fire either during that period. The cooks told me they had ample food -- I could invite Winifred to eat with me. Boy, did she eat the turkey; it was obvious they were severely rationed on food.
Since there was more than enough, I had the cooks fix up some turkey and some of the trimmings and some coffee grounds and sugar to take home to her mother. The two lived alone, when the Germans took Alsace back from the French, Winifred's father was drafted into the German army. They hadn't heard from him for more than a year. They presumed him dead -- he had last written from Russia.
Some of the strangest things happen, even in war. The German banker where two of my guys were staying had an 18-year-old daughter named Marilese. Turned out, she was betrothed to a very nice German young man; I wondered why he wasn't in the army but didn't ask. To my surprise, her father told me she dumped her fiance to marry one of our tank drivers after the war. I had to do all the translating; it was agreed that after the war, Stach would come back and manage an automobile agency the father was going to establish.
Privately, I told the prospective farther-in-law not to count on that. I said when he gets back to the States, all bets are off. The old bummer told his daughter what I said and she told Stach, so I was in the doghouse there. Boy, what I don't get into! Stach was wounded severely later and sent back to the States, and I found out later he did not go back to Alsace and marry Marilese.
My plans were to keep in touch with Winifred after we moved on; I would have liked to have known what all befell her while growing up. Unfortunately, we were rousted out at 2 a.m. and told to be ready to move out in 30 minutes; the Gerries had a last bridgehead on the west side of the Rhine River between Strassburg and the Swiss border and they were trying desperately to expand it at a place called Kohlmar. The French troops in the area were unable to hold them, so it was up to the 3rd Infantry Division to get down there and stop them. It turned out to be one of our hardest battles in France, and we did stop them and drove them back across the river and they lost their bridgehead.
I forgot to mention: Along with the other goodies on Christmas Day, we were each issued a bottle of beer. But I didn't want to drink mine then, so I put it in my pack. It must have been powerful stuff, when I got it out to drink it a few days later, it was frozen solid.
In the overall scheme of things, I know the foregoing is not really important and of no interest to anyone else. But, I shall always remember because having been in war over two years, Winifred gave me what I needed to feel human again.
I shall never forget.
Carl Schlegel lives in Hays with his wife, Darlene. They both grew up in Otis. He worked 40 years for the Bureau of Mines managing a helium plant; Darlene worked as a nurse at Cimarron Memorial hospital. They moved to Hays after retirement.