Dear Mom & All–WWII Letters from Herb (part 22)

My dad, Herbert Miller, was trained as a replacement troop during the fall of 1944. After he arrived in Europe he was assigned to Company L, 333rd Regiment, 84th Infantry Division. The 84th was known as the Railsplitters. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and later in parts of Luxembourg, Germany, and France.

Herbert M. Miller, WWII.

I have been transcribing and posting the letters my dad wrote home during the war but today I am going to take a break from the letters and write about some war stories my dad told me back in the late 1990s.

After the Battle of the Bulge my dad, Herb, fought in the German towns of Aachen and Linnich before crossing the Rhine River and arriving in Koln.

Herb volunteered to be in a task force under General Church. The task force was one of several and consisted of groups men who rode on the backs of Sherman tanks, plowing northward through Germany from the Rhine River to the Ruhr River. There were several tanks and 5-6 men would ride on the back of each tank. The infantry would follow, riding in trucks behind the tanks.

84th Division Sherman Tank, Germany.

Some of the German towns Herb fought in during this time included Koln, Lindern, Baal, Dulken, Krefeld, and Duisberg.  He said there was not much fighting at this time and that German troops watched as they went by. Sometimes they would find German officers in homes, sitting down to eat. At night he would help guard and protect the tank and wasn’t able to get much sleep.

When they reached the Rhine River Herb traveled by truck, moving toward the Weser River. During that time period he fought in the German towns of Wesel, Lembeck, Munster, and Bielefeld.

When they arrived at the Weser River he guarded a bridge there for 3-4 days. The Germans tried to bomb the bridge with a German jet, the first German jet Herb ever saw. After that they fought in Hannover and Haardt [Hardt], where he said there was some very tough fighting.

Reichsautobahn. The beginning of the German autobahns, under the Third Reich.

My dad said that his fox-hole buddy was an American-born Serbian who could speak several languages. Some German citizens told his buddy that they were forced to dig a very large grave and that many bodies were buried there. The soldiers alerted their commanders and they did find a mass grave.

Soon after that they liberated two German Jewish concentration camps–Ahlem, close to Hannover, and Salzwedel, by the Elbe River. At first they thought the people there were prisoners of war. The prisoners were very thin and he saw rows of wooden shelves for sleeping and saw some gas chambers. He said they de-loused those who were held there and gave them some of their rations. He also said the Army had no trouble taking over the camp and that a few Jews helped overpower some German guards when they knew the Americans were coming.

I found several links to the Ahlem Concentration Camp on-line and there are a couple accounts describing its liberation by the 84th Infantry Division on 10 April 1945. [The 84th]…discovered an undetermined number of starving and ill Jewish prisoners. Reports range from 30 to 250 persons. The SS guards had abandoned these prisoners when they evacuated the camp, taking with them some 600 “healthy” prisoners. Of the prisoners sent on this death march, only 450 made it to the Bergen-Belsen camp. The SS guards had shot many of those who were unable to maintain the pace of the march… [1]

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger also served in the 84th, in Company G of the 335th, and he was there at Ahlem. Kissinger described what he saw as “…the single most shocking experience I have ever had…” Another account called the camp a horrific sight. [2]

The 84th liberated the concentration camp at Salzwedel on 14 April 1945. Conditions there were also deplorable. [Salzwedel was] …a camp formed by the SS in July 1944 to supply forced labor for a German munitions factory. The unit found some 3,000 female inmates, mainly Jewish women who had been transported from the Auschwitz camp complex, and several hundred political prisoners. The US Army reported that sanitary conditions at the camp were poor because of overcrowding and a lack of water. Some 100 of these prisoners were seriously ill and 33 of them required immediate medical attention at a local hospital…  [1]

The war ended for Herb when he was in Wittenberg, by the Elbe River. They took a farm house there and met the Russians. He said said he shook hands with a few Russian soldiers.

Russian Soldiers & 84th at Elbe River.

Russian Soldiers & 84th at Elbe River.

But my dad did not have the 85 points that were needed to return home, so he was put on Occupation Duty at Weinheim, Laudenbach, Oberlandenbeck and Schriesheim. During his occupation time he took part in destroying train-car loads of Luger weapons. Later he was appointed money order clerk at the military post office in Heidelberg.

You start to get a feeling of why so many WWII veterans did not talk much about their war service. I can’t imagine what they went through and what they saw. We must never forget, but always remember the sacrifices made for freedom and humanity.

[1] 84 Infantry Division, Holocaust Encyclopedia, on-line.

[2] Liberating Ahlem Concentration Camp: The Vernon Tott Photographic Collection, on-line.

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