Reflections from the front: One man's service in World War II

Editor’s note: Angus Merrill, 88, is a former Colville resident with some strong ties to the Colville valley (he is related to Colville’s 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. “There are a lot of stories,” Merrill says of his life in and out of the military. “A lot of things happened…I could write a book.”Here is Merrill’s story about his military service—in his own words.“I haven’t 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 Cain’s 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 didn’t 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 ul¬timately went “nuts” and was sent back to the United States. We missed getting shot (firing squad), but we were court-mar¬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 consid¬erably more expensive.We left Seward and headed for the Aleutian Islands. We landed on Shemya. They didn’t have a dock, so they broadsided the ship and we all jumped off. We built a small runway for airplanes—we had P-38s at that time. From Shemya, we went to Adak Island. We built docks there. The next day, they were all gone…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 areaAt 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 “to the Third Army.” That was General Patton’s 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 tenders—they 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 Triangle…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 wasn’t a good feeling. When we got to Mannheim, no one was allowed to take pic¬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, “So, you are the BAR man…why not some night shoot (Bed Check Charlie) down and be a hero.” One night, we were parked and we could hear (Bed Check Charlie) coming, so I got ready…he was flying low and not really easy to see…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. Editor’s note: Bedcheck Charlie or Washing Machine Char¬lie were names given by Allies (primarily U.S.) to Imperial Japa¬nese aircraft in the Pacific Theater during WW II or in Europe.In the Pacific, Japanese aircraft, usually flying solo and noc¬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 is¬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. “On the second occasion when I met the tough old S#4!##h (Patton)…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 couldn’t climb it to get it (the tank) where Patton wanted it. He was furi¬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.Editor’s note: Patton, referred to as “Old Blood And Guts,” was best known for his leadership while commanding corps and armies as a WW II general. He was well-known for his eccen¬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 Patton’s 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.“I remember that late in the war, German soldiers would sometimes wear U.S. Army uniforms. There was a way to dis¬tinguish them. He said that if the soldiers were wearing black shoes, to cut them down with our Tommy Guns because our Army doesn’t 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 ear¬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 didn’t 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 kids—and they were hungry.And I would tell you that my life was saved by those SS sol¬diers.Editor’s 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 Waffen—SS, formed in 1940, was the distinct military formation of the larger SS. The Waffen—SS would become an elite mili¬tary formation of nearly 600,000 men by the time WW II was over. Its units would spearhead some of the most crucial bat¬tles of WW II and its men would shoulder some of the most ar¬duous combat operations of all the units in the German mili¬tary. “The 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 open…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 don’t 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 un¬der Patton.Editor’s note: There was still a little fight left in Nazi Ger¬many on a cold winter morning of Dec. 16, 1944. Over 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitler’s 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 Chan¬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 inexperi¬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 lines…of English-speaking German soldiers, disguised as Americans, capturing bridges, cutting communication lines and spreading rumors. The war in Europe wasn’t over yet.But it wasn’t 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 sol¬diers doing what they needed to do to “Hold The Fort,” slow the German advance and ultimately prevail against a desperate enemy. There were key de¬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. “Check their boots…and ask them some questions about arcane Ameri¬cana…they won’t have a clue.”Amercan tankers and paratroops held off a critical road junc¬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 counter¬part to surrender or be wiped out. The U.S. commander’s re¬sponse is etched in history: “Nuts!”No, the Germans didn’t have an easy translation, but they figured it out soon enough.Within days, General Patton’s Third Army had relieved belea¬guered Bastogne and to the north, the 2nd U.S. Armored Divi¬sion stopped enemy tanks short of the Meuse River on Christ¬mas day, 1944. Through January, American troops attacked the sides of this German “Bulge” (by now a rapidly shrinking one) until they had restored order to the front. It was the German’s 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. “The things that happened between these occasions I could write a book about, but it probably wouldn’t be very interesting to people that kissed WW II…as the greatest genera¬tion…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 alive—and he lived to tell about this and other WW II incidents that, indeed, are worthy of a book. “I 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 Merrill’s 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 harrow¬ing, story lines. “I’m still here,” Merrill said in a phone interview recently when asked if he considered himself fortunate to have survived his war experiences. “Yes, a lot of us didn’t make it back.”The aforementioned stories are still vivid in Merrill’s memory bank. Some of them are too eye-opening not to be indelibly etched in a veteran’s memory bank.“There are a lot of stories…a lot of things happened,” Merrill says. “I tried to explain some of it (in his personal recollections to the S-E).‘There were a lot of close calls.”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.“Those prisoners said they could have killed us with their ma¬chine guns…but we helped feed all those starving German kids along the roads in several towns. The kids would pass the word around.“Those soldiers said they had us dead to rights…several times. But they recognized us as the soldiers who fed the kids…we had all those tank retrievers.“They helped us and we helped them. It was just one of those very rare cases where there was some humanity.”Merrill estimates the U.S. troops fed hundreds of German youngsters every night for nine or 10 months. C rations aren’t so bad when you’re starving.“It was a mixture of beef and something ground up in it…we’d open up those cans…the kids would dig in, eat and disappear into the night.”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 weren’t so lucky.Medical personnel just thought he was dead.“They were patching me up in the morgue,” Merrill, who had been brought to the morgue in a hearse, recalls. “They thought I was dead.”There was a close call with a German mine—and those three meetings with bigger than life General Patton.“He could really cuss,” Merrill says of Patton, who was killed in a Jeep accident in Europe. “He used the damndest language you ever heard. No, he didn’t take any crap from any¬one.”