An Interview with a WWII Army Veteran
Russell Scott, Sr., PFC
802nd Field Artillery Battalion
3rd Infantry Division
Truck driver, ammunition train.
9-26-40 to 9-16-45
Medals: European Theater of Operations, with 4 stars
WWII European Campaign
Army of Occupation - Germany
The 3rd Infantry Division, and its units, including the 802nd Field Artillery Battalion, was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their involvement in military action from January 22 - 29, 1945, during which the division and its units were in constant military action, withdrawing from a winter offensive in the south, and attacking German units, in falling snow, along the corridor to and around Bastogne, Belgium. During this time, they were responsible for destroying 3 infantry divisions, partially destroying 3 others, capturing 4000 prisoners, and inflicting 7500 casualties.
This is Mr. Scott's story as told to Bill Copeland.
I enlisted at Fort MacPherson in Atlanta, at the old post office. I was fourteen. I had left home when I was thirteen, hitchhiking and bumming around, working what jobs I could get. I was big even then, and could work as hard as any man. I guess they thought I was old enough.
I was sent with a bunch of others to Fort Benning [Columbus, GA] and was trained. My daddy wrote a letter to the battalion commander, telling him my age. I was sixteen then. The colonel called me in and asked what I wanted to do. I told him the unit was my home. I didn't have any other place to go, and I wasn't going back with my daddy. He said okay and didn't let it go any further.
We stayed at Benning until we got in trouble. Got into a fight and they thought we weren't setting good examples for the infantry soldiers. We went to Fort McClellan, in Alabama, then to Fort Rucker. But we got in trouble at those places, too. They finally sent us on maneuvers in Tennessee. Seventeen weeks, and we thought they were going to leave us there.
Finally, we went to Fort Gordon [Grovetown, GA] then to New Jersey. From there we went overseas. All we wanted then was to get off that boat. Fourteen days and nights and we were sick of it. I remember seeing the coast of Ireland, and knew it wouldn't be much longer. We landed at Glasgow, Scotland, 1944.
What did I think about the war? I didn't. This was my unit, my family, and I was going to go wherever they went. I didn't think about the war. I did later, though.
We talked a bit about the war, of his unit's missing the D-Day invasion force by a week, only to land in France as the 3rd Army was breaking out of the bridgehead. He talked about the run across France and his unit's involvement in the relief of the Bulge, of the cold and furious pace as they met Germans, unit after unit, no longer backing down, but pushing the Germans back, a real army. He talked of the cold too, of the thin blankets and poor equipment, so unsuitable for fighting in Winter. He talked about the soldiers whose toes turned black, frozen feet, and harshness of the Belgium Winter, and I then asked him about the work camps he had liberated.
The first camp we came across was near Nancy, France, I think. I don't know who they were; could have been Russians, or Poles, or Jews, I don't know. They moved us out with the infantry, moving fast, letting the rear echelon units clean up the camp.
What did I think when I saw them? I vomited. [He holds his hands together to form a circle about three inches in diameter.] Their legs weren't any bigger than this. I didn't know people could live like that. It's sickening to this day.
The worst was Nordhausen, near Halle, Germany. It was a death camp, with the bodies stacked like cord wood. That was sickening, and the local people said they didn't know it was happening, but they knew. They couldn't have not known. They knew.
Three weeks later we reached the Elbe River. We lined up on one side and the Germans were on the other. The wanted us to come across and march on Berlin, but we sat there waiting on the Russians. We waited six weeks for the Russians to meet with us and complete the encirclement.
When they got there it wasn't what we expected. They didn't seem all that happy to see us. They were standoffish. They acted like they had done it all themselves.
My unit had to deliver the Russian POW's to the Russian lines. We took them in by the truckloads, skinny, beaten men. They weren't sociable, but I could understand the reasons, the circumstances. I would drive to the line and let them unload. I had an empty feeling, but I had done my job. I felt sorry for those men.
When I looked them in the eye, I could see something. Fear. I don't know, but considering the circumstances, joy, maybe. They seemed doubtful of the future. Doubtful. Unsure. There were some smiles, but some seemed dead already. I live with this. I have dreams of this. It hasn't ever gone away.
If I could have said anything, if they could have understood what I was saying, I would have told them what I was feeling, that we should have been there sooner; that I was sorry we didn't work harder to get there sooner.
I had planned to stay in the army for thirty years, but after this, after Nordhausen, after all of this, I figured I had about used up my luck and decided to go home.
On the way back to his house, Mr. Scott talked about other things, remarking that during the war, his unit, equipped with twelve guns, fired 82,000 rounds of ammunition, and accompanied the infantry division wherever they went, and, at times, his unit was out front, waiting for the others to catch up.
Mr. Scott told me a couple of years ago, that he was nineteen when he saw Nordhausen. He didn't know a Jew from a tadpole, but he knew no one deserved to die the way those people had. He talked about the snow on the bodies stacked up like firewood. But that's all he has ever said, a little too close for comfort, and like the Russian POW's, too much to remember.
An historical note: Due to the incredible hardships faced by the Russian people in the war, Josef Stalin demanded the right to take Berlin. Eisenhower complied with Stalin's wishes and held back Allied forces. Thus, the American armies sat on the Elbe River for six weeks while the Russian forces took Berlin.
After the war, it was learned from German sources, that the approaching American and British armies could have marched on Berlin with little resistance, as the Germans feared the Russian army. As a result, some of the bloodiest conflict occurred in the last six weeks in and around Berlin, inflicting tremendous casualties on both sides, prolonging the war.
However, little or none of this was known to the soldiers in the field at the time. Mr. Scott and the rest of the American troops did not understand why they did not cross the Elbe River, and many Russians, it is believed, wondered the same thing. It is this, perhaps, that made the Russian troops seem standoffish to Mr. Scott, as they paid a greater price than was necessary, and fought a battle alone.