Sunday, October 13, 2013

Fighting children

My dad did share one thing about the war: Near the end of the war, they found themselves in combat with teenagers as young as 14. Of course, at 18 and 19, some of the American soldiers weren't much older. One man from my father's platoon tells of coming under fire by a group of "young kids, 14 to 16 years old."
"Nobody wanted to shoot at the kids," he adds, "but their rifles could kill us just as dead as those manned by 30-year-old men. The kids refused to surrender. That wasn't a good day."
 Lt. Joe Borkowski told of another incident that involved a boy.
"This boy came up out of a foxhole with his rifle," said Borkowski, "and I yelled at him in German, 'Don't shoot!' That confused him. The boy looked about 14 years old, and he dropped his weapon and began to cry. I took his rifle and the guys gave him candy and gum. He ran off and I told my men to hold fire and let him go. Maybe we shouldn't have, but we're the ones that would have to live with it after the war if we shot him. To this day, my conscience is clear. I'd sure like to know what happened to that boy."
Martin Lohmann, a teacher in Murnau, Germany, interviewed Gregor Dorfmeister of Bad Tölz, who had been one of those boys. I thank him for sharing this story.
Gregor Dorfmeister was 16 years old when he was drafted into the Volkssturm, a national militia set up by the Nazi Party. During the last months of the war, this militia drafted males between the ages of 16 and 60 who were not already serving. 
Dorfmeister says that they were quickly trained with the German standard rifle K98 and the panzerfaust, a very efficient anti-tank weapon. However, neither standardized weapons and uniforms were issued. He and his comrades received an assortment of weapons, including World War I rifles and modern assault rifles.
Their training was cut short when the U.S. troops approached Penzberg, which is only a few kilometres from Bad Tölz. Dorfmeister and his six comrades were sent at night to cover a small wooden bridge near the village of Bichl. Defense of the bridge was critical, they were told, and they had to "take a stand to the very last round."
When they arrived, they found a trench dug into the riverbank next to the small wooden bridge they were to defend. Clearly, the local Nazi leaders who had issued the orders knew little about warfare. If the boys needed to retreat, they would have to climb the river bank under fire. There was no second line.  
Eventually the boys all fell asleep in the trench. They had posted no sentries--another sign of their poor training--and woke in the early morning to rumbling engine and clattering tracks of approaching tanks. The only experienced soldier, a private, told the boys to stay low and not to do anything stupid. 
Although fear gripped the boys, no one wanted to show it. They checked their rifles over and over and repositioned the panzerfausts as the tanks drew closer. 
Suddenly, a lone Sherman tank approached the bridge. When the operators realized the bridge would not hold the weight of their tank, they turned, showing its broadside to the Germans. The boys at once opened fire with all of the available panzerfausts. Five of the seven panzerfausts hit the tank, and it burst into flame. Dorfmeister's weapon had hit the vulnerable spot between the turret and the hull. At this point, the top hatch flew open and the commander slumped out of the hatch halfway, his body smoking. This gruesome sight horrified Dorfmeister, and he never forgot it. 
Seconds later, massive small arms and heavy caliber fire drove them into the trench. Trapped, with bullets whizzing overhead and grenades exploding, they knew they had no hope of escaping. Most of the boys broke down, sobbing and crying for their mothers.
 During a small break in the firing, Dorfmeister and another boy took their chances and ran up the embankment. They were the only ones. As they ran across a snow-covered field, they were strafed by one or two fighter planes. They dove for cover. With their camouflage uniforms, they clearly contrasted with the white snow. For the second time in one day, Dorfmeister believed his life was over. But both boys managed to escape into the trees at the foot of a mountain and walk back to Bad Tölz, completely exhausted. 
When they crossed the bridge at the gates of Bad Tölz, they were stopped by soldiers, who told them to take positions in order to defend that bridge. There was a machine gun nest, which they were supposed to man. Dorfmeister tried unsuccessfully to talk his friend out of staying; Dorfmeister headed home. 
Before arriving at home, he threw his gun on an abandoned truck parked near his house. His mother was thrilled to see him unscathed but also very concerned about his state of mind. He slept all through the day. The next morning, he went back to the bridge, hoping that nothing had happened to his friend. When he got there, he saw two boys lying face down, with bullet holes in their backs. Next to them, an American soldier was leaning against the parapet, having a smoke.  
In 1958, Dorfmeister dealt with his horrible experiences by writing an autobiographical novel about a group of boys defending a bridge, Die Brücke (The Bridge). Published under the alias of Manfred Gregor, the book became an international success. Today, the movie based on his book is one of the most awarded German movies ever produced.
When I read this story, I wondered if Dorfmeister and members of the 101st Cavalry ever crossed paths. It is certainly possible. I know that on May 2, the 101st was delayed at Bad Tölz, waiting for a new bridge to be built. But I don't know if they were ever close to the bridge at Bichl. I know my dad's troop, Troop B, 116th Squadron, got into a skirmish near the end of April at a bridge somewhere between Landsberg and Weilheim, north and west of Bad Tölz and Bichl, and that they fought for a number of other bridges before they reached Murnau. And I know that it was here, in Bavaria at the end of the war, that members of the 101st Cavalry were horrified that they were at war with boys.

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