I recently read Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece A Farewell to Arms and it brought back fond memories of my time as a soldier stationed in Germany. While Hemingway’s brilliant novel takes place in Italy nearly seventy years prior to my deployment it was easy to draw many similarities.
At one point during the story, Hemingway’s unit is in full retreat and he and his cohorts sought shelter in an abandoned barn. My company commander and I (I was his driver) held up in a barn over the weekend (with the invitation of the farmer of course) during Operation White Fox, which was a winter war-game played in the German countryside and cities.
It was a brutally cold while we were out on the war game, especially for a kid that grew up in Florida but the farmer and his family took amazing care of us. They allowed us to break open bales of hay to sleep on, fed us and kept us well supplied with hot coffee.
On Saturday morning the family decided to butcher a hog in our honor. The farmer noticed the knife on my web gear and asked me if I wanted to help. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity so I had the honor of shooting the pig and then got a chance to test the edge on my knife and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not a job I’d want to do now, I’d rather take a picture of an animal rather than shoot it but it was good life experience.
There was another time that my company commander and I were out selecting new observation posts along the Czech border before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We had been going pretty hard for a couple of days and stopped at a local gasthaus (restaurant/pub with a couple of rooms for rent) to have a hot meal as we had been eating MRE’s (Army field rations aka Meals Ready to Eat) for the most part. An old woman who happened to be in the gasthaus drew a picture of me and brought it over to our table. She said that I looked too young to be a soldier and that I reminded her of her brother who died during WWII.
Another similar incident occurred when we stopped to have dinner a few days later. This small town had a population of less than a hundred people but in typical German fashion, had a gasthaus and their own brewery. My CO and I were well taken care of by the family that owned the gasthaus and offered us a room for the night, hot showers and breakfast in the morning. They would not accept any payment, they were just grateful that we were there to protect them.
I also remember my first REFORGER which was a war game which simulated the Return of Forces to Germany in the event of a Soviet invasion. This battlefield simulation was also played on city streets rather than a training area. After more than twenty years, the name of the town fails me but our recon platoon took over this small community for several days. At the time it wasn’t a ton of fun because Deutsch (my APC crew mate) and I had to relocate several times. We were a two-man crew which made it difficult for us to put up the camouflage netting over our armored personnel carrier by ourselves. Like all soldiers we bitched and complained the whole time and maybe caused a little needless damage when we moved but the property owners were well compensated.
Believe it or not but we actually set up right in some family’s front yard. They were good-natured and friendly about the situation. We also received treats from some of the locals who understood that without America, they would probably still be living under Hitler’s tyrannical regime. Of course the kids loved to come check things out, we always gave them a little tour, let them climb around a little bit, and check out the .50 Cal machine gun. The kids loved to trade things and were always thrilled to receive a little tidbit from our dreadful MRE’s.
Later in the exercise we lost a simulated battle and Deutsch and I were sitting on top of our APC, no helmets on with our uniform shirts off. We were chowing down on cold Chef Boyardee right out of the can and drinking warm Cokes. One of the advantages of being mechanized is that you can carry some goodies that the ground pounders cannot which helps to break the monotony of field rations. Right on cue, the Sergeant Major of the Army began making the rounds, chatting with the troops, our platoon sergeant in tow. Then he gets to Deutsch and I and we can both see that our platoon sergeant is walking on egg shells because he knows that we are both smart asses. He made the mistake of asking what we thought about the exercise? We said “that REFORGER was a big dog and pony show so that the generals could get their jollies.” Our platoon sergeant turned beat-red until the sergeant major laughed in agreement and then started yucking it up with us.
Our final crowning achievement of that REFORGER was in the closing days, our platoon had set up a perimeter and just down the hill from where Deutsch and I were set up was schwimmbad (a huge outdoor pool) that had not opened for the summer months. Deutsch and I promptly jumped the fence with soap and shampoo in hand and took the mother of all baths while our platoon mates had to wait until we returned to base in a few days.
Deutsch and I always had a good time and we were the reigning spades champions to boot. To this day he is one of the funniest people I have ever known. Our recon platoon was such an amazing group of guys; Hatcher, Deutsch, Ammenheuser, Kosinski, Haacke – all great men, all true patriots, all incredible friends.