Friday, July 30, 2010

TOP STORY > >Battles of WWII still fresh in mind

Leader staff writer

Second World War veteran Samuel Laird was a 19-year-old Army mortarman on the front lines blasting artillery shells at the Germans in the snowy Vosges mountains of France in the winter of 1944-45.

He spoke last week about his war experience during the Jacksonville Museum of Military History’s lecture series.

Laird, 85, of Hot Springs Village was a private first class with the 100th Infantry Division, 399th Regiment, I-Company.

He arrived in France in November 1944 to enter the war.

Laird, a mortar-squad leader, was a member of the American forces who pushed the German army east out of France and back into Germany.

As a mortarman, Laird fired artillery shells at the enemy to support the riflemen advancing the front lines forward.

Laird was born on Jan. 18, 1925 in Pawnee, Okla. He was 17 years old when he graduated from Perry High School in Oklahoma in 1942.

Laird attended a year at Oklahoma City University on an art scholarship before being drafted for the war by the Army in June 1943.

“I always wanted to be an artist,” he said.

Laird went to basic training a Camp Hood, Texas, then was sent to New York University for the Army’s specialized training program.

He was placed in the engineering program and was put in higher-level math classes. In high school, the highest level he had taken was 10th-grade math.

Laird said he tried but flunked out and was put into the infantry.

He said, “The men were all sent to Army units in preparation for the big push and D-Day.”

Laird left the U.S. in October 1944 from New York on the USS George Washington. He landed at Marseilles and went through the Alsace-Lorraine area and the Vosges Mountains in eastern France.

Laird battled frigid temperatures while fighting alongside the rifle companies in the pine and hardwood forests of the French mountains.

The weapon Laird fired was a 60-millimeter mortar. He carried over his shoulder a 40-pound mortar tube, which was three inches in diameter and two-and-a-half feet high. The legs were attached to the tube.

Soldiers would set the tube onto the base, set the legs, take aim, drop the shell and fire at the target.

A second gunman carried the steel base plate. Two ammunition carriers hauled eight rounds.

“I don’t remember ever having a dud,” Laird said.

Laird said that during the first attack outside Epinal, the company of 187 soldiers had lost 32 men. More soldiers were killed as the replacements were not trained properly.

“We lost more ‘green’ soldiers standing up, climbing over a hill and exposing themselves to the enemy,” he said.

Laird said, “The best defense was a foxhole or lying down flat on the ground. You walked bent over, ready to hit the ground.

“Most of the time we were fighting in snow up to our knees. Many got trench foot. My feet were nearly frozen,” he said.

The soldiers wore shoepacs, high-top leather boots with rubber bottoms that kept the water out but held the perspiration in.

They carried a change of socks under their arms to keep the socks dry.

Laird said, “Now, I can’t stand being in the cold.”

The soldiers wore long underwear, a wool shirt, pants, a sweater and then field jacket or a raincoat. When it snowed, they wore a parka. Laird carried a .45-caliber pistol.

The soldiers dug foxholes in the frozen ground. If they had time, they cut limbs and branches to place to cover the top of the fox- hole to keep the sharp German artillery fragments from raining down on them. Three people were to a foxhole.

“We would dig in overnight and moved on,” Laird said.

Laird said the German 88-millimeter heavy artillery had a high velocity. It could do a lot of damage. Soldiers had no warning when the artillery was coming in.

“Heard a ‘whish’ and an explosion. The German 88s were tearing up the mountain,” he said.

Laird recalled on New Year’s Eve 1944, the Americans were going to shoot some artillery shells into the air at midnight to celebrate, but the Germans beat them to it.

“The Germans made a last big push, called Operation Nordwind, Hitler’s last push to the south in France. They were dressed all in white. Their helmets were covered with white materials. They wore white parkas and trousers.

“They were either drunk or on drugs. They kept on coming and yelling,” Laird said.

He continued, “We pulled back to our former position and we held, and they didn’t break through. We were the first army to defeat another army in the Vosges Mountains in the war in that area.”

Laird received a concussion during the war from the artillery fired outside the French border town of Bitche. Laird spent a week in the medical area behind the lines to recover.

“The Germans came around the hill with a flak wagon, fired into the hillside and drew back,” Laird said.

“Harry Lampert, a fellow soldier, carried me up a big hill and put me on a Jeep with the litter,” he added.

The 100th Infantry Division liberated Bitche in March of 1945 from German occupation. This was important as it allowed American troop lines to move into Germany.

Laird said, “At the end of the war, the German general opposing us wrote a letter to the command, commending the 100th Division for the way they conducted themselves in battle to defeat them.”

The town of Bitche erected a monument to commemorate that victory. The soldiers of the 100th division were known as the Sons of Bitche.

Laird talked about what the Army diet during the war.

“We would get a hot meal one to three times a week depending on the terrain.”

He said soldiers carried K-rations that contained non-perishable pre-packaged meals eaten during combat.

“Breakfast ration contained a small can of scrambled eggs with mystery meat in it. A wafer type dried toast, candy and always cigarettes. Everyone learned how to smoke,” Laird said.

The second type of ration was a dinner containing a potted meat, powdered lemonade, which was very bitter and a waxy chocolate candy bar that would not freeze or melt. Both breakfast and dinner ration contained Nescafe powered coffee.

“All were welcomed. We were happy to get what we could get,” Laird said.

Laird contracted hepatitis in the spring of 1945 from a bad needle while getting a booster shot. He was sent to a hospital in England and learned about the war ending in Europe. Laird received a medical discharge.

“My skin was yellow, my eyes were yellow, my liver swollen,” he said.

Laird returned to the U.S. in June 1945 and was discharged from an Army hospital in Palm Springs, Calif., in September 1945.

He was awarded the Bronze Star and the European Theater ribbon with two battle stars.

“I lost so many close friends. I didn’t want the memories that come back from being there,” he said.

Laird has preserved his story for his family’s history. He still has his uniform. “I wrote a small booklet about my war experiences with pictures and letters for a record of what I had done for my grandchildren,” he said.

After the war, Laird went to the University of Oklahoma, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in commercial arts. He was a commercial artist and then purchased a printing company, which did printing, design and advertising.

In 1984, Laird and his wife Betty and close friends took a trip to Europe. They went to the towns, but he did not go to the actual battlefield areas.

Attending the Jacksonville Museum of Military History war-stories lecture were students from Alma High School’s Naval Junior ROTC.

The group toured the museum earlier in the day.