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Gerald R. Rees Papers: Transcripts - MS 1007
Germany, May 3, 1945
These first couple of days in May have been more like March, with brief flurries of snow and hail, but now it's warming up a little. I did quite a large washing but it's taking a long time to dry. The news of Italy's surrender and Munich's fall came last night an sounds the best yet. But it's a real shame the false reports of Germany surrendering had to be printed in the States' according to our paper-Stars and Stripes-people got unduly excited. They should realize that even if Germany did surrender it shouldn't make any difference in their daily lives. We won't be home for a while anyhow, and this is only half of the war. The other half is a long way from finished.
We are in a rich suburb of a good-sized city, and having running water, lights and a very modern home. The people we moved out spoke good English; told us to make ourselves a home and use whatever we wanted. We would anyhow, but it was nice of them to say so. There is a beautiful piano, large library, and a phonograph with a few good records. There aren't too many of us in the house, so we all have room to spread out. I live in the library, have a large desk to work at, even some English books on the shelf to read. There is a mammoth grandfather clock in the corner, when it strikes the hour it sounds like Big Ben. The food has been considerably better lately. Yesterday for the first time in months there was real beef steak. For breakfast we've been having fresh eggs, bacon and cereal. So as far as everyday things are concerned, I have no complaints to offer.
You asked about the people we dispossess. Well, most of them are forced to practice what there has been too little of in the world-good neighborliness. They move in with the people next door, or down the street or pack their belongings and start walking to Uncle Johanne in the next town. We generally give them time to carry out their clothes and a little food-so all they suffer from is hurt pride. We generally leave the houses in fair shape unless the owner was very rich or very Nazified. As much as a person has persuaded himself that all is fair in war, if he has had any kind of fetching up he doesn't go around smashing things up. In the long run it probably pays off; perhaps the German people will think a little more kindly toward Americans, and to democracies in general. I still have a little bit of an idealistic streak in me which believes that anyone can keep out of a war if they don't get too greedy, and maybe the Germans realize now that they were too greedy.
If the war conditions are such that we continue to have a little more time off, I think I'll try again to take a correspondence course in math. It looks like a new day is about to dawn over here and perhaps there'll be a chance to do some constructive studying instead of destructive. Let's hope so, anyhow. No pkgs. yet. Letters 69-70-71 within a day of each other. V-airmail isn't any faster.
Germany, May 3, 1945
Dear Hoffy [Erwin P. Hoffman],
I've got a job for you if you are still in a position to do it for me-it deals with the purchase of books, probably at the U.T. book store, or if not at a store downtown. And I'd appreciate it no end if you'd get them and mail them as soon after you receive this as is at all possible. Due to the present trend in world affairs I may be having a lot of free time, and would like to get my mind into some kind of shape after a long stagnation period. One book is a text in analytical geometry and, if both subjects come in the same volume, calculus. I think that's the way they are often published. The other book, if it is sold in Toledo, is "Loom of Language" which I just saw enough of to want badly when I was with you before. If you can't get that, send a good meaty text on anthropology or languages. Send the package by registered mail so it will come quick. Get the money from my dad, or else write and tell me the charge and I'll send you a money order. I'll write you a regular letter tomorrow.
Tot ziens, say yot
Germany, May 8, 1945
I suppose today was a day for wild celebration in the States after the Germans have finally decided to quit fighting. Actually I have been out of the war for over a week, ever since the army took Augsburg and moved on to Munich. We are in Augsburg now, a good-sized and modern city about thirty miles from Munich. On a clear day we can see the snow-capped mountains of the Bavarian Alps and needless to say, the Alps are a beautiful sight. Of all Germany, southern Bavaria is the part I was most anxious to see. I hope to get a glimpse of Munich and perhaps a little closer to the mountains before long. You were right when you figured I was crossing the Danube. It is not too impressive a river where we crossed. The banks are straightened and changed to such an extent that it looks more like a huge canal. Further downstream in Austria is where it becomes the inspiration for the waltzes of Strauss. The Rhine and the Main rivers were both more picturesque. The final surrender has been coming on so long that I don't feel any special jubilation about it. Of course it's good to know that the occasional plane won't come over any more-I'll never forget the visit they payed us on Easter Sunday-and there's a general feeling of relief and relaxation, but not anything sensational. There are generous quantities of wine for those who celebrate occasions by getting drunk, but I find it easy to stay away from for I think it has a very disagreeable taste. People over here drink it instead of water; a prohibitionist would find it very tough sledding.
We are living more happily here than in any place in our travels. There are only ten of us in a large double house-two bathrooms with shower and tub, well decorated rooms with large windows and lots of flowering plants. There are lilac bushes in the yard which are coming into bloom, and the last couple of days have been ideal May weather. Up until that time the weather had been pretty disagreeable, but now it's making up for lost time.
Glad to hear that Lee came to Germany instead of going to the Pacific. Your letters of April 22nd and Pop's of April 16th are here but comparatively few letters have been coming, and no packages.
Germany, May 9, 1945
Today I had a trip such as one might dream about as a civilian but never in the world expect to get as an ordinary soldier. I took the top off of one of my trucks-it was a perfect spring day-and took my trusty road map and just started driving. Not a care in the world, at least temporarily, and a day's food supply and several good buddies for company. We got onto the autobahn between Augsburg and Munich, which looks for all the world like the turnpike out of Pittsburg. Drove first to Dachau, which I had heard much about and will remember as long as I live. I wish every person in Germany, England, Russia, and the U.S. could see it and remember it. It's a huge concentration camp which I couldn't begin to describe adequately. It is systematic, cold-blooded mass-production murder. I saw human bodies piled against a wall like sacks of wheat, several feet high and along the entire side of a building.
In an area next to this were huge, neat piles of clothing and shoes-clothing of many thousands of people who had been deliberately annihilated. I saw men dragging bodies from the pile with huge tongs, to be put in the crematories and burned. It has been ten days since the camp was captured and working continuously since then, they still have hundreds of bodies to dispose of. They have spread chlorinated lime over them to try to keep down the smell but it still is nauseating. I'm not writing this because I take any pleasure in hashing over the gory details, but rather to remove any shadow of pity which you might have had for any of the German people. This camp is only one of many in the country, all equally bad or worse. I saw box-cars--fifty or more--which had been crammed with people, two hundred in each or ten thousand altogether, and simply left on a siding at the camp till they all died of starvation and disease. Then they were to be cremated.
There are a lot of American doctors and nurses at the camp now trying to save the lives of the thousands of people still alive in the place. They are keeping everyone there even though it is pretty overcrowded, because of the danger of spreading epidemics all over the country. The place was very complete and self-supporting, with large garden plots and several factories where the inmates worked till their turn came to burn on the Nazi altar. I saw the crematory-long brick coffin-shaped ovens.
Well, enough of that. You may think that would spoil my day, but I have a cast iron stomach for such things. From there we went to Munich and saw the shambles of what had once been a beautiful city the size of Cleveland. In all the driving around there, we saw only one or two undamaged buildings-that's no exaggeration-and they were occupied by American troops. There are several large parks along the Isar River which flows through the city. We ate a picnic lunch and walked along the river. There were a number of people swimming or sunning along the bank. The water was a peculiar milky grey color which puzzled me till I remembered that we were near the alps and melted glacier streams have that color. We saw a couple of large museums but the exhibits were all destroyed or else packed away in the basement. So there was actually very little to see of Munich. Coming back we took a southern route along a large lake called Ammersee. It was bordered by pine forests and the snow-covered mountains loomed up behind it to form one of the best views I've ever seen. Then through Landsberg, another old walled and turreted town, and up the Lech River to Augsburg. The roughest part of the trip was crossing the river south of Augsburg-there are no bridges expect a railroad bridge, and we were thoroughly shaken up driving on the ties. Speaking of bridges, I was certainly surprised the day we came in sight of the Danube and saw a large bridge still intact. Over here it has been usual to assume that all bridges are blown out. It is really remarkable, though, to see how quickly the engineers find a way across. If the river isn't very wide, they generally put in a large pipe to drain the water through, and then simply fill in the river bed with a bulldozer to where it is solid enough to hold heavy traffic. Then later they put in a regular wood and steel bridge. The Rhine bridge at Worms was different, though; a pontoon bridge made by planks laid across a continuous string of boats tied together.
This is as good a time as any to clear up a few things you have probably wondered about. We landed at Southhampton on Dec. 4th and went about forty miles straight west to a little seaside resort town called Swanage. If you can't find that on a map, it's right next to Poole and Bournemouth and near Weymouth and Dorchester. We lived in a resort hotel on a little bay overlooking the channel, and if the weather was clear, could see the chalk cliffs of the Isle of Wight in the distance. The surf rolled in and rained constantly and the beach below us would have been very inviting in the summertime. I have many pleasant memories of hikes along the shores and watching the convoys coming up the channel to Southhampton or London. We were about a four-hour train ride from London, but the trains were always crowded and uncomfortable. In January I went to Cardiff through Salisbury, Bristol and Bath, to attend a British school in first aid, bomb disposal and general emergency measures, none of which I ever had occasion to use. That's where that picture was taken. None of the people in it mean anything to me-I just bought it as a curiousity. Incidentally, all those postcards are of Swanage, and if you'll look closely you'll see our hotel in several of them, a large building high on the end of the bay standing quite conspicuously by itself. It was a ten-minute walk into the main part of town, along the bay. We left Swanage on Feb. 2nd, went to Weymouth and put our trucks on an L.S.T. The next day we embarked, were aboard for over 24 hours although the crossing didn't take that long. Landed at Le Havre which is completely devastated, and went to a camp near Rouen, midway between Le Havre and Paris on the Seine River. We cooled our heels there till Feb. 20th when we drove clear across northern France through Soissons, Reims, Toul, Nancy, to a little town in Alsace near Forbach and south of Saarbrucken. That's where we started working, helped shell the living daylights out of Sarrbruciken; then when the third army broke thru to the Rhine and the Saar was taken, we started on the rat race which has just now ended. Went east through Bitsch and the Siegfried Line to the Rhine, then on to Wurzburg. They put up a little fight there along the Main River, and we did a little work and saw some beautiful country. Then we turned south through Rothenburg, crossed the Danube at Dillingen-that's below Ulm-and ended up here. There have been a very few bad moments; on the whole I've enjoyed it very much and have been glad for the opportunity to see as much of Europe as I have and thankful to be in the outfit I was so that we could live and travel in comparative comfort.
In order to avoid writers cramp I hope you'll send this chronicle on to Eleanor and Johnny; also if Pop still sees Mr. Hoffman on his way to work perhaps he could relay it to Hoffy temporarily. I'm hoping devoutly that all eight (new record) of these pages come through together, and find you well and happy.
Germany, May 17, 1945
Very glad to report that the dictionary came and already has been a big help to me. Putting on the oilcloth cover was a good piece of work and will save it from a lot of rough wear. Another package also came with very welcome soda crackers and cheese spread and handkerchiefs. Thanks to your efforts my handkerchief supply is up to normal again for which I'm very glad. Only serious shortage now is undershorts, and I doubt very much if you'd be able to find any of those that would be serviceable and still not cost a fortune. The soda crackers were not broken at all and everyone was glad to see them-we almost always have a little cheese or sandwich meat on hand from someone's packages from home, but very rarely are there any crackers or bread to eat them on.
The enclosed snapshot was taken in such bright sunlight that it was impossible to have a natural facial expression but at least shows clearly enough that this rough and tough existence hasn't proved fatal so far. We went swimming (Sgt. House and I) in the river the other day; it comes right from the mountains and fairly took our breath away at first, but the sun is very hot and it was a refreshing combination. I was getting quite attached to our home in Augsburg, but today we had to move. We came back across the Danube and are in a small and uninteresting town north of Ulm. You are probably wondering just as hard as I am what will happen next.
If nothing goes wrong (as it very conceivable could) I'll be on my way to "gay Paree" for a three-day pass tomorrow. The boys who have already been are very enthusiastic about Paris and I have my fingers crossed. Had hoped to get a trip down to the Alps but that fell through.
If I get to Paris I'll try to send a letter or cablegram; expect to cram a lot of sight-seeing into three days.
American Red Cross
May 21, 1945
The lucky break came through without a hitch and I'm writing this from Paris. Many large cities are very much the same and not very interesting, but no place is like Paris. I think it is more beautiful than New York or London ever thought of being. We left on Saturday morning, going by truck through Stuttgart and part of the Black Forest region to Strasbourg, crossing the Rhine there on a pontoon bridge. That evening we took a special army leave train, going through Nancy, Toul, Chateau-Thierry and arriving early Sunday morning. I have a private room in a fairly nice hotel taken over by the Red Cross. We pay 40¢ for the room and 20¢ for a good meal in the hotel dining room, with a little string quintet playing dinner music and typical French waiters to serve us. The Red Cross and the army between them make things as nearly ideal as they can for soldiers on leave from the front. The streets are massed with French, British and American flags left from the V-E day celebration they had here. The town seems untouched by war as far as the sight-seer is concerned, except that the famous shops have pretty inferior goods at ridiculous prices, and we can't eat at the restaurants with their traditional excellent food. The sidewalk cafes are still here, the buses and subways run, and everything seems strangely civilized and peaceful after the desolation in the German cities. The subway system is excellent and free to American soldiers in contrast to London where one was always carrying pockets full of those cartwheels they call pennies to buy subway tickets. I feel that if I had the time and inclination I could write a book on what I've seen just in these two days-the Louvre, the Tuilleries, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, etc., but I have neither and won't even attempt to describe them. Yesterday afternoon on a sudden hunch-we had only been in for a few hours-I went to the Academy de Musique where the operas are held, and by pure luck happened to get a ticket right down front and saw "Boris Goudonow". The Academy is a very old-1669-and very beautiful auditorium, full of baroque decorations and a decided Louis XIV atmosphere. If you saw "Phantom of the Opera" you'll remember the scene where the phantom is sawing the chain supporting the huge chandelier above the opera house; well, that's the chandelier that I sat under for several hours. I had forgotten that the show had taken place in Paris till I glanced up and saw the chandelier. The boulevards, especially the Champs-Elysees, are magnificent and show a city that takes pride in beauty as well as size and wealth. All of the public functions are in huge palaces-I've never seen so many palaces in my life. The Louvre palace is 6 blocks long and has been built in part by three different kings. Tomorrow I plan to go out to Versailles and see the palace gardens I've read so much about. The Eiffel Tower is much bigger and more impressive than I had thought. Many of the bronze statues around down have been melted down by the Germans, but they overlooked the huge dome of Napoleon's tomb, which is covered with solid gold leaf and is quite awe-inspiring. The Seine River is crossed by bridges at every block so that one almost forgets the river even exists. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is on the island in the Seine and is very dark and gloomy and didn't impress me much. Many signs are printed in both French and English and lots of natives speak English so language is not a serious handicap. The Red Cross map is enough to enable anyone to find his way easily although the angling streets and strange names are confusing.
More to say as soon as I find time.
Germany, May 25, 1945
Back safely, I'll try to describe a little more of the Paris trip, although the things which made the trip most memorable are hard to put into words-the way the people talk and act, the atmosphere, the strange feeling of standing in the Place de la Concord where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had their heads lopped off (and Sidney Carton; I thought of "Tale of Two Cities" many times.) Monday night I saw "Rose Marie" and the music was familiar and good but there were a lot of speaking parts that of course were lost to me. But the French is fun to listen to even if you can't understand it. Tuesday it rained a little but in the afternoon I went out to Versailles. I'm sending pictures and a little book which can show the place much better than I can tell it. The grounds are not quite as well kept as in peace times, but the gardens are still beautiful and so big that although I walked for quite a while I didn't reach the end, and nearly got lost getting back to the palace. The greater part of the palace is open to service men and I joined a large group who had an English-speaking guide. The paintings and art work are brilliantly colored and cover both ceilings and walls of most of the huge rooms. I saw the famous hall of mirrors where the treaty of Versailles was signed, Louis XIV's bedroom where he held his audiences at morning and night, the balcony where the mob stormed the palace and took the king and queen to be guillotined, and the rest of the historic spots. Versailles is about a 20-minute train ride from Paris and has good service, much like the commuters' trains from New York. Tuesday night I saw "Mme. Butterfly" which was a high point of the trip. The leading soprano was a little French girl who did the part to perfection and, I thought, was as good as any they have in the Met. I had a good box seat; theater tickets are one of the few things whose prices have not gone completely berserk, so that I could afford a good seat. Wednesday I went around to a large museum and then up in the Eiffel tower. Service people were allowed up to the platform at the two-thirds mark; there are radio towers and things at the top so we couldn't go all the way up. But even part way up was high enough to get an awesome view of the city and countryside.
A gory sort of accident marred the trip back Wednesday night. A soldier somehow got up on top of our coach and just before we got into Chateau Thierry the train went through a tunnel and he was killed. That delayed us for a few hours while they were investigating and taking care of the body, and we were all pretty tired when we got here Thursday night.
We are in a town called Schwäbische Gmünd (pronounce it if you can) east of Stuttgart and have very fine quarters-even a gas water heater. At our Augsburg home we had to stoke up the heater with wood or coal; this is the best arrangement we've had yet. It's the type where there is no tank and the water heats as it comes through the faucet. Another big help is laundry service, which we are finally getting regularly.
The roads are sprinkles with German PW's on their way back home now. I guess the army figures it's easier to send them home to raise their own food than it is to feed them in the PW camps. In Stuttgart the street-cars are even running and although the streets are lined with ruins, the city seems to be getting back to normal. Germany still has a staggering job to do yet to recover itself, but at least they are getting a start.
Your letters through #81, May 13th, have arrived. Don't fret about birthday presents-you send me presents every few days; just keep sending me that kind. More soon.
May 27, 1945
'Tis a fine sunny Sunday afternoon, and there is a strange serenade going on under our front window. A group of little girls is gathered there singing to us, hoping for some chocolate or a bit of chewing gum. Their ages range from about nine to fourteen and their voices are clear as a bell. Some of the songs are even in harmony, and they all have a good sense of rhythm and tune. There's a sort of charm about these old German songs, and they're really pretty when they're sung by young voices. These kids are completely natural and uninhibited, and I like to believe that they don't know what a cruel and decadent people their elders are. I see by the paper that new text books are being printed for them and schools may soon be re-opened. That is the brightest outlook in this whole country, for certainly their parents can't be re-educated.
Our only real job these days is guarding a nearby DP camp (displaced persons) full of Russians and Poles being held till they can be transported home. They like to get out and burn houses and cause trouble so we have to keep them penned in pretty tight. Otherwise our time's our own. There are American films shown almost every evening, and the other night a U.S.O. show was in town, but I didn't get to see it.
My room has a fine little reed organ in it which I am assiduously trying to learn to play. I wish you had this one at home; I know you'd enjoy playing it.
Pops letter of May 18th just came; some day I'll surprise him and write a real letter to him. Don't seem much in a writing mood now.
May 31, 1945
May 31, 1945
The second half of your Mother's Day letter came and brought very good news. Vernon has been sweating out his commission for so long that he must have been getting pretty discouraged-and he deserved it long before it came. Also glad to hear that the flowers came when they were supposed to. I had to arrange for them way back in April and even then wasn't sure they'd come on time. You keep mentioning my birthday as if it were really important-well, there have been so few packages coming that one wouldn't have arrived on time anyhow, and I wouldn't have known what to ask for. We'll make it an extra special joint celebration next year.
As for Lee's brief letters, they are easily explained. He has probably been in a replacement camp waiting for orders to come through, and if there is any place that is more discouraging to a letter-writing mood, I don't know what it would be. Probably a pretty nondescript crowd of people, indifferent food and, uncertainty. It is the direct opposite of the way I am situated now. We are a well-knit, established outfit in a more or less fixed location, and have all sorts of extra services now-books and magazines to read, a theater showing a different show every other night, ample PX supplies, fairly regular mail service and most things one could desire except being in the U.S.A.
Last night I saw a show that was a treat and I certainly hope you saw it-"A Song to Remember", being the life of Frederick Chopin. It is filled with wonderful piano music-so much that it's almost as good as having gone to a recital of Chopin music. One of the great shows of the past several years. Last week while I was in Paris I just missed Jascha Heifitz, who was here on a U.S.O. tour.
Johnny writes that Eleanor is coming back for a visit, which you must be eagerly waiting for. There's always that little hope in the back of my mind that I'll get home sometime soon for a furlough, but I have nothing to base the hope on except endless rumor and speculation. Perhaps they'll tell us before too long what's going to happen.
One of our pastimes lately has been developing pictures. One of the kitchens in our apartment house makes an excellent darkroom, and we've managed to accumulate the supplies by devious methods. The enclosed samples are enlargements from miniature camera size, made with an improvised enlarger that seems to do pretty well.
One picture enclosed bears close examination-the one taken at Dachau. You have probably seen enough pictures of Nazi atrocities already, but this one might carry more weight because it's what I actually saw there. I don't know how many bodies there were on that pile, but even those are just a small portion of the number they had at the camp. Some time just for curiousity, show that picture to Rev. Haslam and ask him what his reaction would have been if he had seen the place.
The picture showing a tower in Rothenburg gives a good idea of what these old walled cities are like. The streets pass through archways right under the towers. We came into Rothenberg just after it was taken, and many of these narrow streets were blocked just from piles of brick dust-there weren't even recognizable parts of buildings left in some places.
The two views of the church at Höchstädt were taken the day before we crossed the Danube. It's one of the most beautiful small-town churches I've seen.
Several of the shots were taken at our home in Augsburg. Many a pleasant evening was spent sitting on the little front porch there sprinkling the lawn. That's where we were when the guns were roaring and the rockets shooting off to celebrate V-E day.
The weirdly-dressed fellow with the accordion is one of our boys in a whimsical mood. The accordion is part of our standard equipment although no one can play it very good. The costume is through the courtesy of whosever house we were in at the time.
The snap of Goehring was taken at a little airport at Augsburg where he was brought the day after he was captured for questioning. One of our boys happened to be there and recognize him.
Slight pause while the mail was being distributed. Your package of April 17 with olives, cheese, cookies and nuts arrived in good shape. The cookies still tasted good as ever. Bless your heart, you sent things I really was hungry for, especially the nuts and olives. I'll tell you something else that I'm yearning after-wonder if you'd send some pickles of some sort, especially the mustard kind that have bits of pickled cauliflower, mangos and small whole onions. Maybe you can't buy them in cans, but I believe they wouldn't break in a glass jar. Or how about dill pickles? Boy, how I could go for a big dill pickle now. Or some sliced bread-and-butter pickles. That's a suggestion anyhow. If you can't get any, olives are still a good bet. Right now I have a very sharp craving for fresh vegetables-lettuce, radishes, etc. They just don't get any in the army, and most of the civilians are existing just on what they can grow in their garden, so we can't get any there.
The April Reader's Digest came today also, making very good time. That's one item the army slips up on-very few current magazines. They're all these little condensed overseas issues and always a couple of months old.
Methinks this is enough for one envelope. You're doing a fine job keeping me in touch with things and I appreciate it.
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