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Germans in Our Uniforms

by Bill Armstrong, Service Battery, 263rd Field Artillery Battalion, 26th “Yankee” Division, Third Army

BELGIUM, 1944. Bob Zelmer (co-driver of our ammunition truck) and I had a chance to go back to Service Battery for a hot meal because the guns (105 howitzers) were not going to move that night. But, when the 1st Sgt (Laing) saw me, he told me that I had guard duty from midnight to 4 AM and to take “Porky” with me. (Porky was one of our cooks.) The temperature was well below zero, which meant I had to put on every stitch of clothing I had. Also, I knew that Porky wasn’t going to be very reliable—he’d often wander off, claiming he had to go to the toilet, but I’d find out later that he’d been hiding. (I knew he was afraid of the dark).

When I heard the sound of a jeep coming from the East, Porky said, “I’ll cover you from the barn,” and he hustled off. I knew he wouldn’t be able to see me from any part of the barn but it was too late to say anything—he had already disappeared. I stopped the jeep, but when I saw the American Officer’s uniform and the glint of medal on the
“Officer’s” shoulder, I knew immediately that they were Germans in our uniforms. Our officers never wore metallic symbols of rank in combat, because it would be too easy for a sniper to see. There was someone in the back seat, who had a cover pulled up to his neck and I strongly suspected that there was a gun under that cover—a gun that could be used on me. Knowing Porky was out of sight and not able to cover me, I was faced with either being a dead man or letting them go. But before I let them go, I needed to challenge them, because if they were truly Americans, they might think I was the German.

I first asked for the password. The “Officer” in the front seat said that he wasn’t able to learn it before he left “Headquarters.” I asked him who won the World Series in 1940, but he claimed he didn’t follow baseball. I was anxious to get rid of them before I got shot, so I asked him where he was from. “Oakland, California” he replied. “My gosh,” I exclaimed, I’m from right next door—Berkeley!”

For some stupid reason that puzzles me still, I asked him where the best place to go in Oakland for a hot dog. “Why?” he asked. Then he said, “Casper’s, across from the roller rink on Telegraph Ave, down by Lake Merritt and out on East 14th!” I knew he was right, because I had gone to those places myself. “Heck,” I said, “Go ahead, you’re Americans!” “What, did you think we were—Krauts?” Then they drove off. The driver never looked at me once. It was obvious he didn’t speak English.

Later that night, a bridge over a stream was blown up. I bet my Oakland “friend’ and his companions had something to do with that.

Also later that same miserable night, Porky thought he saw something coming toward us past the barn. I thought it was simply a fence post or a stump of a tree, but Porky kept insisting that it was moving toward us and kept saying, “Shoot it! Shoot it!” At night when there’s snow on the ground, dark objects really stand out. Finally, Porky had me believing that the thing was moving. I called out “Halt!” the required three times and then took aim and fired three shots. The dark object didn’t fall down!

Our Captain came running out of the farm house wearing his long johns, untied boots and with his ’45 in his hand. “What the hell is all this firing about?” he demanded. “Sir,” I replied, “We thought that object out there was refusing to halt at my command, so I shot it!” “You idiot,” the Captain shouted, “That’s a fence post! I don’t want to hear any more shooting tonight!” and he turned around and stomped off.

I got a lot of ribbing the next morning: “Yah, yah, yah, Armstrong shot a fence post!” I had the pleasure of pointing out that I hit it with all three shot—and in the dark too!—and from at least 100 yards! I was the only member of the Battery to ever fire his weapon in ‘combat’!