In 2012, Ruben Lehr, of Safford, shared his memories of his service in World War II with Eastern Arizona Courier.
I was inducted at Fort Logan, Colo., in June 1944, followed by 17 weeks of basic training at Camp Fannin in Tyler, Texas.
November 1944: Shipped out from Newport News, Va. Spent 31 days on a troop ship to Naples, Italy. We were torpedoed at the Canary Islands. The U.S. Navy saved the convoy from too much damage. Hitler’s propaganda radio, Axis Sally, reported us sunk.
Docked at Naples, Italy, in the muck and mire of the winter rains. No war was going on due to the weather, and Mussolini was giving up the war. Stayed there a short while. It was cold and miserable living in the tents. The tents leaked. Couldn’t get warm. Food was lousy.
Shipped out on an English troop ship to Marseille, France. They served mutton and plum pudding. The mutton was old and greasy, and the pudding was like glue, so we lived on our army rations. Landed at Marseille and had to climb over sunken ship hulls. We worked our way to Alsace Lorraine, France. There, I joined the 103rd Infantry Division, 5th Army, 411 Regiment, F Company, 1st Platoon, 1st Squad as an automatic rifleman. The rifle was a Browning automatic rifle (B.A.R.) Life expectancy in a fire fight was three minutes.
Now life was getting rough, cold, wet, scary, living in foxholes. The Battle of the Bulge was happening in Belgium. We had to help there. Mid-winter (December) my automatic rifle would freeze shut at the bolt, so I couldn’t cock it. When you fired it, it would get hot and sweat, and in just a few minutes it would freeze shut. There was no good way to keep it warm. I tried.
After the Battle of the Bulge, things quieted down some. We would go out on patrols to check out what the Germans were doing. At night we lived in our foxholes, which were close to the front lines. We kept hearing voices, hammering, sawing of boards for a few nights, so we thought the Germans were building a bridge across a stream not too far away. We kept reporting it to headquarters as to what was going on at night. So the artillery unit sent a piper cub airplane to investigate. They couldn’t see anything, so my squad had to do a patrol one night to check it out. The Germans set up a phonograph playing the sounds through a loudspeaker. The next night we put a big shell on the target. No more bridge building.
In February 1945, we were holding up in a Zutzendorf. It was beginning to thaw; mud was everywhere. The tanks and trucks couldn’t get off the roads, so we held up a few days. I got sick to my stomach. I had so many clothes on, it took me forever to get them down. A German woman wanted to do something to help. She wanted some sugar for two things. One was to make me hot toddy with some sugar and schnapps, then set it on fire. It was a hot toddy all right. It helped. We got some more sugar from headquarters. She baked me a cake. It happened to be my birthday. Since I could speak German, I got along well with most of the people. Then the final push started till the end of the war. Go, go night and day. Supply lines couldn’t keep up. Shortage of ammo, food, mail. Fell asleep many times just walking. Night guard duty not more than half-hour at a time. Lucky if you could stay awake. One night we had a German prisoner. There were about six left in our squad, so we sat around the outer walls of a small shed with the prisoner between two GIs. Each of us was to stay awake about half an hour, then the next, and so on around the room. The first guy did fine; the second guy didn’t stay awake, nor did the others. In the morning, I asked the prisoner why he didn’t escape. He said that the war was over for him. He was happy. We gave him some food. Got a hold of the MPs by radio, so we sent him down the road and the MPs took him to a camp.
We kept pushing. I talked a lot of Germans into surrendering. Also had some experience at the concentration camps. This was one part of the war that was difficult to take. I was sick days after. We captured the first jet airplane (MIG) on a runway in a grove of trees. We fought our way through the Black Forest region. Tough going, all the way. Since it was spring, I found some wild strawberries. I filled my canteen cup full — had a feast. The other GIs didn’t know about them.
We had to fight our way through the Siegfried Line, a concrete bunker-type fortification on the German-French border. This is where I got hurt. The Army engineers had the task of blowing these bunkers up. Most were connected by tunnels. These engineers, three of them, were making their way to the bunker via a trench that led to the bunker from a small burg. They were pinned down by machine gun fire from the bunker, so three of us worked our way toward the bunker with a rifle grenade launcher. I had a good position from the trench that was blind to the machine gun. “Good-shot” Lehr took care of that situation, but the explosion was heard and artillery (airmail as we called it) came in. Lt. Autry lost a lower lip, I was buried under a collapsed building, and the third GI and the Army engineers were killed and Jeep blown to bits. We had a radio and called for help. The Germans were pounding us, so Lt. and I found a root cellar filled with rotten spuds. We were there until about midnight. We were patched up and in a few days were at it again.
A few weeks later, we were pushing hard, wet, cold, dog-tired, scared. We hit a crossroads. The Germans were hitting this hard with some big guns and 88” (an anti-aircraft gun used on us). I dashed down this trench into a bunker. Lo and behold, there were two German soldiers in there. They knew I was a GI. “Comrade,” they yelled. This was their way of giving up. We sat in the bunker half an hour or so chatting. They hadn’t eaten for a while, so I shared my rations with them. The MPs picked them up later.
As we moved south toward Austria, we were capturing hundreds of prisoners. Most were glad the war was over. The Nazis and the Hitler youths were the bad ones. Just about had to kill them.
The war had ended about a week before we got any word of it. An Austrian man told me. We called headquarters and they confirmed that it was over. They said they couldn’t find us, not sure where we were. Then I started to get my mail, some six months old, then some later. This was when I found out that I had a set of twins, born Dec. 6. Got a letter from my parents, which it was good to hear from them, and some other friends.
Being in a war then was a very lonely place. Being scared, cold, wet, hungry, alone, even when you had others like you in the same mood, some crying, young — first time away from family. Some that had no faith in God, some found it, others didn’t believe, and mine was strengthened. I guess loneliness was the worst, and being numb tired.
In June, I started my trek home. Spent several days in R & R hospital being deprogrammed, a week in Paris, several days in a spa resort, then the rest of the time on troop trains going nowhere. Finally, in September, we went to Camp Lucky Strike, an embarking center.
In October 1945, on a ship (Blue Ridge Victory), spent 10 days in the North Atlantic Ocean. Rough seas. Won’t describe the voyage. Most everyone got seasick. I passed on that. Landed at Newport News, Va. Outfitted with new clothes, some good food that I wasn’t able to eat — too rich. My stomach had shrunk too much. I tried to eat a malt, but only about a half a cup.
On a train to Fort Logan, Colo. Was there about a week, and then discharged in October 1945. Went to Fort Collins, Colo. to my folks, then to Miles City, Mont., to see my family. Raymond and Ruthie were nearly a year old, also Sandra — they only knew me by my picture.
I earned a combat infantry badge, two oak leaf clusters for being in the European Theater and Mediterranean Theater of War. Also the Purple Heart. I felt good for what I could do for my country. Never asked for anything back. It was good training and I could use it for survival. Plus I had a good guardian angel.