Medical Support of the Fifth Division in World War II (Part 3)
By Harold L. Potter (1998); Presented to the Sojourners group, near Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Edited and audio recording by Jim Potter
We went across France south of Paris. We went through Fountainebleau, Rheims, and Verdun. Paris was saved from bombing by the Air Corps more than any other city that I know of. Paris was given special treatment by the Americans. They wanted to let the Germans continue to feed the French people for a while but the F.F.I. (Free Forces of the Interior) was in a hurry to get started to make the Germans pay! In any event, the Germans did not give much resistance in Paris—they surrendered the city on August 25, 1944.
We were finally stopped at the Moselle River near Metz. Actually, we ran out of gas.* There was a political fight going on between Bradley and Patton on one side and Montgomery on the other. Ike had his hands full trying to keep peace in that family. Bradley was commander of the U.S. 12th Army Group. Patton was under Bradley but head of the 3rd Army. Monty was head of the British 2nd Army and the Canadian First Army up north of the American forces in Belgium. Montgomery, a good military man, was very confident and he felt he was entitled to be in charge of the whole operation. General Bradley, especially, was irked when Monty was temporarily assigned first Army for logistical reasons. Another American Army which was prominent at this time, was the 9th under General Simpson. Also at this time, Adolph Hitler had sent the majority of his troops to face the Russians in the east, thereby becoming less effective in his offensive performances in the west.
When we ran out of gas at the Moselle River, the Germans stopped their retreat and reestablished their defensive position at Metz, a fortified city of 85,000 people. It had never been taken by storm and was protected by about 75 forts. The cement walls were about ten feet thick, and the soldiers were able to extend their guns out of the fort for the purpose of firing, then mechanically bring the guns back inside. The 11th Infantry Combat Team, fortified by the many successes over the previous two or three months, attempted to cross the Moselle on or about September 4, 1944.
The battle continued for about a week and was the roughest I’d seen, as the Americans attempted to cross the river into the forts upon much higher ground. One company of the 3rd Battalion of our Division had a 100% replacement that week. Of course, that didn’t mean they had lost all of their men. They were constantly receiving replacements. This was known at the Battle of Dornot and, in no way, received the publicity warranted. General Patton did not like to publicize his defeats. After a week, we had a strategic withdrawal and crossed the river later at Pont a Mosson ten miles south. Metz was finally taken November 20th and we headed for the Sauer River and Germany—our first day was at St. Avold.
When the federal building at Oklahoma City was blown up on April 19, 1995, I immediately thought of a building at St. Avold. We had temporarily set up there without having the engineers make their usual check to see if the building was wired for time bombs. They checked later and found that it was wired through the heating systems. We were able to evacuate the building before any bombs went off. As I recall, there were explosions shortly thereafter. That was the last time we didn’t have the building properly checked before entering.
The month from mid-December to mid-January 1945, covered a period which started with German victories in the Battle of the Bulge. This took place mostly in Belgium. It did not take the Americans long to reverse the early German victories which exploited a temporary advantage of American weaknesses.
The Fifth Division had just crossed the Sauer River and was starting to make headway on German soil. This change in direction did slow down our advance and we had to enter Germany through Luxembourg and Trier instead of the Sauer basin.
After the Battle of the Bulge was decided, it was clear who the winner would be. The Germans still managed to put up some opposition. It was enough to continue the war until the eventual surrender in May 1945.
In the meantime, our Division was leading the Third Army in the race to the Rhine. We had been hearing about the Rhine River for months. Knowing how much larger it was than the other rivers across France and Germany, which had been most difficult, the Rhine sounded “impossible.” It was about noon on March 22nd (1945) and we still hadn’t reached the west bank of the Rhine when the word came to us that General Patton was ordering the Fifth Division to cross the Rhine that night. It was like electricity going through the troops, however, they were confident and certainly ready.
The Rhine River travels 820 miles before draining into the North Sea. Germany’s primary defense barrier west of the Rhine is the concrete dragon’s teeth tank obstacles, which they began constructing in about 1940. It stretches 400 miles to the Dutch frontier and proved to be a formidable barrier. This defense of the West Wall is also known as the Siegfried Line and consists of concrete dragoon’s teeth two to five feet high. The Germans had neglected the maintenance of the West Wall since 1940 until 1944 when they resumed the maintenance work. The Rhine had become a very important military supply route and important in the overall defense of the Reich, but for Ike the need to take the Rhine was as urgent as Germany’s need to hold on to it.
The reason General Patton wanted us to cross that night is because he knew that the First Army was going to attempt a crossing the next night (on the 23rd) and he wanted to be first. Without benefit of the usual artillery or aerial bombing, at 10 p.m. we made a surprise crossing of the Rhine. The Germans couldn’t have known about it because we didn’t even know. We crossed at Oppenheim which is about 10-15 miles south of Mainz in grape vineyard country. We crossed with assault boats and rafts. It was such a surprise that we found only one platoon of Krauts guarding the east bank, so the landing was very simple. Of course, the Luftwaffe showed up in force the next day. By that time the Engineers had some bridges working for us. While we were located on Oppenheim, I was part of a little incident which I will relate to you.
*”It was about here that I broke my glasses. Being from Kansas, I wasn’t familiar with bottled wine. So when I opened a bottle, I had my face over the bottle and caught the cork right in my glasses and broke them. I had to use my gas mask glasses until I received the replacements from home.”–Hal Potter
– TO BE CONTINUED –
Harold L. Potter was born near Rolla, Kansas, in 1920, the son of Clarence and Cleo Crandall Potter. He lived in the center of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and moved to Hutchinson with his family in 1934. Potter graduated from Hutchinson Junior College prior to his military service, and earned a BSBA degree from Washington University, St. Louis, in 1947. He was a U.S. Army veteran of World War II. He entered active duty as a private in December 1940 and transferred to the reserves after the end of World War II. He was discharged as a major in 1964.
While stationed in Illinois at Mayo General Hospital in 1943, “Hal” met Nell Armstrong of Galesburg. She was a civilian employee in medical supply. Hal and Nell married in July 1945 after Victory in Europe (VE Day), prior to Lt. Potter being trained for the Pacific theater, including the invasion of Japan.
Happy writing and reading,