Claude Williams, Jr., ‘44, ‘48
The following is a passage from the experience Claude Williams, Jr., '44, '48 shared.
After graduating from North Georgia College, a two-year military school, in 1942, I entered UGA as a junior in the Infantry ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps). There were about 30 of us in this program along with several hundred more enrolled in similar colleges around the country.
During the summer of l943 we were inducted into the army at Fort McPherson in Atlanta as privates and returned to UGA while the army decided what to do with us. This was very fortunate for me because the army allowed me to continue my education and paid my tuition, room and board. The army rented the Bickerstaff Boarding House on South Lumpkin street across from the university cafeteria where we had our meals. The cafeteria was affectionately known as “The Beanery” by the students. This building is now the School of Environmental Design.
Our only military duty was morning calisthenics in the street next to the Bickerstaff house. Otherwise we continued our class work including military science and tactics and we wore civilian clothes except for military training, parades, etc. This was enjoyable for us because the university at that time was mostly girls. Enrollment was about 4,000.
In the spring of 1944 the decision was made to send us, along with others at colleges around the country, to Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. near Columbus. At that time I had over 200 hours (185 required for graduation) and received my AB degree in history in absentia at the June graduation.
Following completion of my OCS training at Fort Benning, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant of Infantry and given two weeks leave with orders to report to Fort Meade, Maryland for shipment to the European Theater of Operations as a replacement officer. I sailed from Boston in early January 1945 aboard the “Santa Rosa”. This was a Grace Line cruise ship that had been converted for military troop transport. We traveled in a very large convoy so the trip took nearly two weeks because our speed was determined by the slowest ship and constant changes of course were made to avoid German submarines.
When we arrived off the British Isles our ship went up the English Channel at night to avoid German planes and we disembarked aboard a LST landing craft and went ashore near Le Harve, France. This was a scary experience even though we did not encounter enemy action.
After going ashore on the beach we walked some miles inland where trucks were waiting to take us to an assignment center. I was able to get a seat by the driver in the cab of the truck. During the drive I fell asleep and was awakened by the driver when we reached our destination. As I hurriedly left the truck I failed to get my rifle which every soldier is taught to keep and protect at all costs. It was soon apparent that spare rifles were plentiful and I was avoided the embarrassment of arriving in the war zone with no gun.
I made several stops at various staging areas in France and was finally assigned to the 63rd Division. The division was in a defensive position along the French-German border adjacent to Switzerland. Upon reaching the 63rd I was assigned to Company L as a platoon leader. We ran daily patrols to probe the German lines and were shelled almost daily by German artillery, but fortunately suffered few casualties.
In early March 1945 the final push into Germany began. My company was part of the 254th Infantry Regiment which on the morning of March 16, 1945 was spearheading an American drive to crack the southern sector of the Siegfried Line, Germany’s so-called “Impenetrable West Wall,” and overrun the Saar River in Germany’s heartland. We encountered heavy fighting for serval days but were finally able to breach the Siegfried Line and begin our push through Germany and into Austria.
(Note: A more complete story of how the 254th broke through the vaunted Siegfried Line has been told in an article entitled “The Private who cracked the Siegfried Line” written by Charlie Ball, a fellow officer in the 254th. Charlie and I served together in Frankfurt after the war and have remained friends through the years. He is a native Texan, graduate of Texas A&M and lives in Amarillo, Texas.)
Late March and April was a month of grueling combat with some casualties almost daily as we raced on foot, on our own and borrowed wheels and on the back of tanks to capture Heidelberg, move on through Wurtenberg and Bavaria, and after crossing the Danube river to within sight of the Bavarian Alps.
When the war ended in May, 1945 the 63rd division had crossed the Danube river and was near Landsburg, Austria. Within days my unit was ordered to return to Germany and take up a position in the army of occupation. A few days after my return to Germany I became ill with what turned out to be yellow jaundice. After about two months in an Army General Hospital in France I recovered and received orders to report to Headquarters Command at US Forces European Theater in Frankfurt, Germany where General Dwight D. Eisenhower was commander. With this assignment I had gone from a line infantry company to Supreme Headquarters. This turned out to be an interesting assignment.
As Special Services Officer for Headquarters Command, USFET, I was responsible for training and supervising the work of over 100 military personnel and approximately 500 German civilians. Special Services operated and maintained five service clubs, three swimming pools, one golf course, baseball and football stadiums, three gymnasiums, one hotel and a winter sports area for use by our troops in the Frankfurt Enclave.
During my ten months in Frankfurt I was able to travel all over Europe including trips to Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Switzerland. The US military operated bus, train and air transportation systems throughout Europe, as well as hotels in all the major cities and resort areas. This made leave travel and accommodations available for all our military in Europe.
As Special Services Officer I got to meet General Eisenhower and to know several of his staff quite well. Two situations that involved the General will always stand out in my memory. The first came in a call to arrange for General Eisenhower to play a round of golf at the Frankfurt Country Club. I met the General and his party when they arrived and learned for the first time of his passion for golf. After he became President he was invited to become a member of the Augusta National Golf Club and visited there on numerous golfing vacations.
In November, 1945 General Eisenhower invited General George Patton to be his guest for General Patton's birthday. A member of the General’s staff called and told me the two Generals would like to attend the European Theater Championship football game between the Third and Seventh Army teams. I told him I would make the necessary arrangements and would like to have the band play Happy Birthday to General Patton with all the troops attending to join in singing. He said, “O.K.” So at halftime I announced over the PA system that General Eisenhower and General Patton were in attendance and that it was General Patton's birthday. I then asked everyone to please join with the band in singing "Happy Birthday." This was a great thrill for me and everyone - including the Generals.
On December 9, 1945, some three weeks after his visit to Frankfurt, General Patton was injured in an auto accident. He died 12 days later on December 21, 1945. The General is buried among the soldiers who died in the Battle of the Bulge in Hamm, Luxenbourg.
In June of 1946 I finally received my orders to return home and be discharged from the Army. When I arrived in Le Havre, France a shipping strike had been called by the unions, so I became one of hundreds of G.I.’s who had no way to return to the States. While I was waiting I read in the Paris edition of the N.Y. Herald-Tribune that President Roosevelt’s plane, the “Sacred Cow,” was bringing Secretary of State Jimmy Burns and his delegation to Paris and would carry returning soldiers back to Washington.
Colonel Henry Myers from Tifton, Ga. was pilot of the plane (the first presidential pilot) and my parents were good friends of the Myers family. I called the American Embassy in Paris for help in reaching Col. Myers and see if I could get on the plane. Unfortunately by the time I reached him the plane had already been assigned a full load and so I missed my chance to make history by returning home from World War II aboard the President’s plane. I did sail some weeks later aboard a converted cargo ship that took all of two weeks to make the crossing. This was all forgotten when we sailed into NY harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, docked and set foot on U.S. soil.
My three years and three months military service ended on September 12, 1946 at Fort Bragg, N.C. I was discharged with the rank of Captain and given a train ticket back to my hometown of Gainesville, GA.
As is the case with many military veterans who survived the war, we wouldn’t take anything for the experience, however, we wouldn’t want to have to do it again. Selah!