Angus Merrill, 41st Rainbow Division, Ft. Lewis, 1941; 205 Coast Artillery; Pattonās Third Army hauling tanks for Patton at the historic Battle of the Bulge.
Editorās note: Angus Merrill, 88, is a former Colville resident with some strong ties to the Colville valley (he is related to Colvilleās 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.
āThere are a lot of stories,ā Merrill says of his life in and out of the military. āA lot of things happenedā¦I could write a book.ā
Here is Merrillās story about his military serviceāin his own words.
āI havenāt 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 Cainās 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 didnāt 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 ulĀ¬timately went ānutsā and was sent back to the United States. We missed getting shot (firing squad), but we were court-marĀ¬shaled 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 considĀ¬erably more expensive.
We left Seward and headed for the Aleutian Islands. We landed on Shemya. They didnāt have a dock, so they broadsided the ship and we all jumped off. We built a small runway for airplanesāwe had P-38s at that time.
From Shemya, we went to Adak Island. We built docks there. The next day, they were all goneā¦the 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 āto the Third Army.ā That was General Pattonās 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 tendersāthey 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 Triangleā¦this 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 wasnāt a good feeling.
When we got to Mannheim, no one was allowed to take picĀ¬tures 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, āSo, you are the BAR manā¦why not some night shoot (Bed Check Charlie) down and be a hero.ā
One night, we were parked and we could hear (Bed Check Charlie) coming, so I got readyā¦he was flying low and not really easy to seeā¦so 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.
Editorās note: Bedcheck Charlie or Washing Machine CharĀ¬lie were names given by Allies (primarily U.S.) to Imperial JapaĀ¬nese aircraft in the Pacific Theater during WW II or in Europe.
In the Pacific, Japanese aircraft, usually flying solo and nocĀ¬turnally, 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 isĀ¬land, 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.
āOn the second occasion when I met the tough old S#4!##h (Patton)ā¦as 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 couldnāt climb it to get it (the tank) where Patton wanted it. He was furiĀ¬ous, 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.
Editorās note: Patton, referred to as āOld Blood And Guts,ā was best known for his leadership while commanding corps and armies as a WW II general. He was well-known for his eccenĀ¬tricity 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 Pattonās 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.
āI remember that late in the war, German soldiers would sometimes wear U.S. Army uniforms. There was a way to disĀ¬tinguish them. He said that if the soldiers were wearing black shoes, to cut them down with our Tommy Guns because our Army doesnāt 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 earĀ¬drums. 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 didnāt 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 kidsāand they were hungry.
And I would tell you that my life was saved by those SS solĀ¬diers.
Editorās 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 WaffenāSS, formed in 1940, was the distinct military formation of the larger SS. The WaffenāSS would become an elite miliĀ¬tary formation of nearly 600,000 men by the time WW II was over. Its units would spearhead some of the most crucial batĀ¬tles of WW II and its men would shoulder some of the most arĀ¬duous combat operations of all the units in the German miliĀ¬tary.
āThe 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 openā¦that 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 donāt 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 unĀ¬der Patton.
Editorās note: There was still a little fight left in Nazi GerĀ¬many on a cold winter morning of Dec. 16, 1944. Over 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitlerās 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 ChanĀ¬nel 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 inexperiĀ¬enced 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 linesā¦of English-speaking German soldiers, disguised as Americans, capturing bridges, cutting communication lines and spreading rumors.
The war in Europe wasnāt over yet.
But it wasnāt 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 solĀ¬diers doing what they needed to do to āHold The Fort,ā slow the German advance and ultimately prevail against a desperate enemy. There were key deĀ¬fenses 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. āCheck their bootsā¦and ask them some questions about arcane AmeriĀ¬canaā¦they wonāt have a clue.ā
Amercan tankers and paratroops held off a critical road juncĀ¬tion 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 counterĀ¬part to surrender or be wiped out. The U.S. commanderās reĀ¬sponse is etched in history:
No, the Germans didnāt have an easy translation, but they figured it out soon enough.
Within days, General Pattonās Third Army had relieved beleaĀ¬guered Bastogne and to the north, the 2nd U.S. Armored DiviĀ¬sion stopped enemy tanks short of the Meuse River on ChristĀ¬mas day, 1944. Through January, American troops attacked the sides of this German āBulgeā (by now a rapidly shrinking one) until they had restored order to the front. It was the Germanās 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.
āThe things that happened between these occasions I could write a book about, but it probably wouldnāt be very interesting to people that kissed WW IIā¦as the greatest generaĀ¬tionā¦goodbye 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 aliveāand he lived to tell about this and other WW II incidents that, indeed, are worthy of a book.
āI 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 Merrillās 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 harrowĀ¬ing, story lines.
āIām still here,ā Merrill said in a phone interview recently when asked if he considered himself fortunate to have survived his war experiences. āYes, a lot of us didnāt make it back.ā
The aforementioned stories are still vivid in Merrillās memory bank. Some of them are too eye-opening not to be indelibly etched in a veteranās memory bank.
āThere are a lot of storiesā¦a lot of things happened,ā Merrill says. āI tried to explain some of it (in his personal recollections to the S-E).
āThere were a lot of close calls.ā
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.
āThose prisoners said they could have killed us with their maĀ¬chine gunsā¦but we helped feed all those starving German kids along the roads in several towns. The kids would pass the word around.
āThose soldiers said they had us dead to rightsā¦several times. But they recognized us as the soldiers who fed the kidsā¦we had all those tank retrievers.
āThey helped us and we helped them. It was just one of those very rare cases where there was some humanity.ā
Merrill estimates the U.S. troops fed hundreds of German youngsters every night for nine or 10 months. C rations arenāt so bad when youāre starving.
āIt was a mixture of beef and something ground up in itā¦weād open up those cansā¦the kids would dig in, eat and disappear into the night.ā
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 werenāt so lucky.
Medical personnel just thought he was dead.
āThey were patching me up in the morgue,ā Merrill, who had been brought to the morgue in a hearse, recalls. āThey thought I was dead.ā
There was a close call with a German mineāand those three meetings with bigger than life General Patton.
āHe could really cuss,ā Merrill says of Patton, who was killed in a Jeep accident in Europe. āHe used the damndest language you ever heard. No, he didnāt take any crap from anyĀ¬one.ā