Angus Merrill, 41st Rainbow Division, Ft. Lewis, 1941; 205 Coast Artillery; Pattonâs Third Army hauling tanks for Patton at the historic Battle of the Bulge.
Editorâs note: Angus Merrill, 88, is a former Colville resident with some strong ties to the Colville valley (he is related to Colvilleâs well-known Merrill clan).
The longtime Big Sandy, MT resident has fond memories of his early years in the Colville valley.
Born in St. Maries, Idaho in 1923, Merrill remembered living in Colville as a youngster and later in the China Creek and Bossburg areas.
Married to the former Ruth Rutledge, a life-long Montana girl, Angus moved to Big Sandy in 1947 where he worked as a farmer on the expansive Rutledge family ranch.
âThere are a lot of stories,â Merrill says of his life in and out of the military. âA lot of things happenedâŠI could write a book.â
Here is Merrillâs story about his military serviceâin his own words.
âI havenât been asked where I served and what unit of the Army I was in. I went in April 11, 1941 to the end of the war. I was with the Coast Artillery from Fort Lewis (the former 41st Rainbow Division).
We were in Alaska for five months before the war. We built our own log cabin and placed our sound locator and searchlight over Resurrection Bay near Seward. The Japanese were on the Aleution Islands when they ran into trouble on the way to Cainâs Head (the main straight to Seward).
Our unit was paid Dec. 6, so we decided to go up the road a few miles to a roadhouse to get a beer or two. To get our truck back from Seward, we waited until Dec. 7, 1941. At that time, we didnât have to wear our Army uniforms.
When we got on the road, we got stopped and arrested for being spies in time of war. The full colonel that arrested us ulÂŹtimately went ânutsâ and was sent back to the United States. We missed getting shot (firing squad), but we were court-marÂŹshaled for being four in an Army truck. We were fined $18 a month for four months. At that time, we were paid $30 a month as privates.
I never mentioned that we were paid in $2 bills. The reason for this was that the Army had a line in Seward with 32 girls and they charged $2.
How times have changed from 1941. Everything is considÂŹerably more expensive.
We left Seward and headed for the Aleutian Islands. We landed on Shemya. They didnât have a dock, so they broadsided the ship and we all jumped off. We built a small runway for airplanesâwe had P-38s at that time.
From Shemya, we went to Adak Island. We built docks there. The next day, they were all goneâŠthe Army said the docks were built on a shelf and it had broken loose and sank. Luckily, no one was hurt.
Japanese had left the area
At that point, we were headed to Kiska, but our ship turned back because the Japanese had just left the area in submarines and ships. After the war, it was said that they (Japanese) were afraid of the flame-throwers the Army had. The Japanese were underground and had supplies to last five years.
From there, we went to Seattle and then on to Fort Hood, Texas. I had a choice of where I wanted to go and I said âto the Third Army.â That was General Pattonâs outfit.
I trained as a tank mechanic.
We left Camp Hood, as it was called during the war, and got on a railroad ship headed for Cherborg, France. That ship had 48 wheelers and tendersâthey were on four layers of tracks. One broke loose, and another buddy and I went down and got the engine tied down. This happened on the way to France and we were in the Bermuda TriangleâŠthis was due to a big storm. We were in the Bermuda Triangle for 10 days while our ship was being repaired.
We got on a train headed to Mannheim, Germany. It was called 40 by 8. The reason: It held 40 men and eight horses.
We rode on this damned thing for three days, sitting on the wooden floor the whole time. We all had slivers in our asses, which wasnât a good feeling.
When we got to Mannheim, no one was allowed to take picÂŹtures of what came next. Thirty-two of us lined up with our bare asses showing while the medics pulled out the slivers. What a sight.
I was no longer a tank mechanic, but a truck driver hauling tanks for Patton in the Battle of the Bulge.
I met Patton three times. His biggest concern was the fuel in the tanks. They had to be full. From the first day in the Army, I was a BAR man. It was a WW I trench gun, but a very good one.
The second time I met Patton, he said to me, âSo, you are the BAR manâŠwhy not some night shoot (Bed Check Charlie) down and be a hero.â
One night, we were parked and we could hear (Bed Check Charlie) coming, so I got readyâŠhe was flying low and not really easy to seeâŠso when I finally saw him and pulled the trigger, the first one was a tracer. I was rolling under the truck when I felt something hot hit my hip. It was a ricochet from (old Bed Check Charlie). We moved out soon, and a roadside medic unit cleaned and bandaged the wound. It was the first Purple Heart I was going to get.
But I turned that Purple Heart down because I had seen a lot worse wounds at an Army Hospital in Temple, Texas. I was supposed to go to Mannheim to recover, but I never did. I still drove a tank retriever for the rest of the war.
Editorâs note: Bedcheck Charlie or Washing Machine CharÂŹlie were names given by Allies (primarily U.S.) to Imperial JapaÂŹnese aircraft in the Pacific Theater during WW II or in Europe.
In the Pacific, Japanese aircraft, usually flying solo and nocÂŹturnally, would fly over Henderson Field, Guadalcanal during the Guadalcanal Campaign. During the campaign, the Japanese sent these solitary aircraft on nighttime missions for various reasons: scouting, dropping flares over Allied positions to assist Japanese Naval or ground forces operating on or near the isÂŹland, to bomb the airfield or Allied installations, and to harass the Allied troops and disrupt their sleep. Later in the war, night fighters were developed to help stop Charlie, which was also a familiar sound and sight in the war in Europe.
âOn the second occasion when I met the tough old S#4!##h (Patton)âŠas he was known to all of us in the Third Army, I was unloading a tank and the general wanted it in a certain place. There was a snow-covered hill about 20-feet high. I couldnât climb it to get it (the tank) where Patton wanted it. He was furiÂŹous, which was common for him.
I remember pushing pontoons ahead of me as we crossed the Rhine River. Patton let out a string of cuss words. We never found two tanks in one spot.
Editorâs note: Patton, referred to as âOld Blood And Guts,â was best known for his leadership while commanding corps and armies as a WW II general. He was well-known for his eccenÂŹtricity and for his gruff and controversial outspokenness.
In WW II, General Patton commanded corps and armies in North Africa, Sicily and in the European theater of operations. In 1944, he assumed command of the U.S. Third Army, of which Merrill was a member. Under Pattonâs leadership, the U.S. Third Army advanced farther, captured more enemy prisoners and liberated more territory in less time than any other army in military history.
âI remember that late in the war, German soldiers would sometimes wear U.S. Army uniforms. There was a way to disÂŹtinguish them. He said that if the soldiers were wearing black shoes, to cut them down with our Tommy Guns because our Army doesnât wear black shoes.
The second Purple Heart I turned down happened when a bomb went off close to our truck and broke both of my earÂŹdrums. I was deaf for about 30 days.
I will move onto something I will never forget because it saved my life during the war.
I had five German prisoners at the time. Four of them could speak English. Those Germans had a nest of machine guns that could have gotten us all shot full of holes. But they didnât shoot us.
These prisoners told me why they never fired even so much as a round at our tank retrievers. It was because we had fed the hungry German kids all across Germany.
When we would stop at night to eat, the kids would gather around us and we would give them Type-C rations. It was war-time and we were feeding the enemy, but I would do it again. They were kidsâand they were hungry.
And I would tell you that my life was saved by those SS solÂŹdiers.
Editorâs note: Of all the German organizations in WW II, the SS is by far the most infamous and the least understood among average historians. The SS was a complex political and military organization made up of three separate and distinct branches, all related, but equally unique in their functions and goals. The WaffenâSS, formed in 1940, was the distinct military formation of the larger SS. The WaffenâSS would become an elite miliÂŹtary formation of nearly 600,000 men by the time WW II was over. Its units would spearhead some of the most crucial batÂŹtles of WW II and its men would shoulder some of the most arÂŹduous combat operations of all the units in the German miliÂŹtary.
âThe only souvenir I got from Germany was a dress bayonet that I cut off a German SS officer. The Russians had them hanging (soldiers) and they would cut them openâŠthat is how they died.
I also had a ring made by one of the SS prisoners I had. It was made from a downed German bomber. I gave the bayonet to my grandson, Nathan Merrill. I donât know who will get the ring.
Years after the war, the Army sent me a letter that my Third unit had hauled 105 tanks to the Battle of the Bulge. My outfit at this time was the 474th Evacuation Ordinance 3rd Army unÂŹder Patton.
Editorâs note: There was still a little fight left in Nazi GerÂŹmany on a cold winter morning of Dec. 16, 1944. Over 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitlerâs last effort to reverse a tide that had started when Allied troops landed in France and the shores of Normandy on D-day.
The goal of German forces was to drive to the English ChanÂŹnel coast and split the Allied armies as they had done back in May 1940. The Germans struck in the fabled Ardennes Forest, a 75-mile stretch of the front characterized by dense woods and very few roads. This remote territory was held by four inexperiÂŹenced and battle-worn American divisions that were stationed there for rest and seasoning.
After a day of hard fighting, the Germans broke through the American front, surrounded most of an infantry division, seized key crossroads and advanced their spearheads in the direction of the Meuse River, which would ultimately give the battle its name. Stories spread of the massacre of soldiers and civilians at Malmedy and Stavelot, of paratroopers dropping behind the linesâŠof English-speaking German soldiers, disguised as Americans, capturing bridges, cutting communication lines and spreading rumors.
The war in Europe wasnât over yet.
But it wasnât early war and German-style Blitzkrieg of 1940 either. The allies rushed reinforcements to hold off this last gasp German penetration. And within days, General George S. Patton Jr. had turned his U.S. Third Army to the north and was counter-attacking against the German flank.
But this battle was also about often isolated American solÂŹdiers doing what they needed to do to âHold The Fort,â slow the German advance and ultimately prevail against a desperate enemy. There were key deÂŹfenses to stall German Panzers, by this time, in desperate need of fuel, which was often moved or burned by U.S. forces. There was the creativity of U.S. troops who had been warned, like Angus Merrill, about Germans disguised as U.S. troops. âCheck their bootsâŠand ask them some questions about arcane AmeriÂŹcanaâŠthey wonât have a clue.â
Amercan tankers and paratroops held off a critical road juncÂŹtion at St. Vith and the fabled Bastogne, fighting off repeated attacks. One of the most enduring and endearing comments of the war came when the acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne was summoned by his German counterÂŹpart to surrender or be wiped out. The U.S. commanderâs reÂŹsponse is etched in history:
No, the Germans didnât have an easy translation, but they figured it out soon enough.
Within days, General Pattonâs Third Army had relieved beleaÂŹguered Bastogne and to the north, the 2nd U.S. Armored DiviÂŹsion stopped enemy tanks short of the Meuse River on ChristÂŹmas day, 1944. Through January, American troops attacked the sides of this German âBulgeâ (by now a rapidly shrinking one) until they had restored order to the front. It was the Germanâs last gasp, at least in significant measure. The Third Reich would fall soon after.
The Battle of the Bulge, in terms of participation and losses incurred, is arguably the greatest battle in American military history.
âThe things that happened between these occasions I could write a book about, but it probably wouldnât be very interesting to people that kissed WW IIâŠas the greatest generaÂŹtionâŠgoodbye forever.
For the record, Merrill was arrested as a spy Dec. 7, 1941 in Alaska. That was the same day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Merrill was saved by SS troops in Germany and actually woke up in a morgue with 18 dead troops in France.
Yes, Merrill was still very much aliveâand he lived to tell about this and other WW II incidents that, indeed, are worthy of a book.
âI imagine that if the Guinness Book of World Records had a book of rare things that happened to you (particularly during time of war), Angus Merrillâs tales of trial and tribulation would be a contender.
Merrill remembers Colville fondly and still has a quick and easy recollection of his experiences during WW II and those interesting, if not harrowÂŹing, story lines.
âIâm still here,â Merrill said in a phone interview recently when asked if he considered himself fortunate to have survived his war experiences. âYes, a lot of us didnât make it back.â
The aforementioned stories are still vivid in Merrillâs memory bank. Some of them are too eye-opening not to be indelibly etched in a veteranâs memory bank.
âThere are a lot of storiesâŠa lot of things happened,â Merrill says. âI tried to explain some of it (in his personal recollections to the S-E).
âThere were a lot of close calls.â
He remembers those captured SS soldiers and feeding those hungry German children as the U.S. Third Army advanced through Germany with Patton-esque speed.
It is a truly remarkable story.
âThose prisoners said they could have killed us with their maÂŹchine gunsâŠbut we helped feed all those starving German kids along the roads in several towns. The kids would pass the word around.
âThose soldiers said they had us dead to rightsâŠseveral times. But they recognized us as the soldiers who fed the kidsâŠwe had all those tank retrievers.
âThey helped us and we helped them. It was just one of those very rare cases where there was some humanity.â
Merrill estimates the U.S. troops fed hundreds of German youngsters every night for nine or 10 months. C rations arenât so bad when youâre starving.
âIt was a mixture of beef and something ground up in itâŠweâd open up those cansâŠthe kids would dig in, eat and disappear into the night.â
Then there was a bad Jeep wreck Merrill was involved in. Merrill lost a fair amount of skin in the accident, but he was alive. A handful of fellow troops werenât so lucky.
Medical personnel just thought he was dead.
âThey were patching me up in the morgue,â Merrill, who had been brought to the morgue in a hearse, recalls. âThey thought I was dead.â
There was a close call with a German mineâand those three meetings with bigger than life General Patton.
âHe could really cuss,â Merrill says of Patton, who was killed in a Jeep accident in Europe. âHe used the damndest language you ever heard. No, he didnât take any crap from anyÂŹone.â