The Last Kilometer: Marching to Victory in Europe with the Big Red One, 1944-1945

The Last Kilometer: Marching to Victory in Europe with the Big Red One, 1944-1945

by A. Preston Price


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Presented in cooperation with the Association of the U.S. Army, this is the story of life as an infantryman during the final phases of World War II. Having served as an 81-mm mortar forward observer with the 1st Infantry Division (the"Big Red One"), the author skillfully recreates this military combat experience through both personal recollections and excerpts from his letters home. The gripping and straightforward narrative leads the reader through the processes of preparing, marching, attacking, digging in, sleeping, defending, and moving out again to the next objective. These descriptions of everyday heroism highlight the plight of ordinary men as they valiantly battle the enemy even in the face of their own probable demise.

From the Battle of the Bulge to VE Day, A. Preston Price takes us through France, Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. We are there as troops cross the Roer River, clash in the Remagen Bridgehead, attack the Ruhr and Harz regions, and fight for the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Nazi rule. Devoid of overly dramatic descriptions, this is a clear and precise eyewitness description of war and of the American soldiers who fought in the name of the United States and freedom. It will appeal to everyone interested in American history, military history, strategical analysis, and historical biography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781557504340
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 03/12/2002
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.28(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

A. Preston Price, a retired U.S. Army officer and Citadel graduate, taught military science at The Citadel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


It is late in November 1944, the twenty-first to be exact, and I am sailing from New York Harbor aboard the SS China Mail. I am one of twenty replacement officers, all second lieutenants, headed for the European theater of operations, or ETO. We are lucky in that we are not crossing on one of the large troopships but riding the "gravy train" in the form of a new and fast diesel cargo ship. There are few restrictions aboard ship, and knowing that we will soon be in combat, I hasten to drink in all of the beauty an ocean voyage can bring.

    Most of the voyage I spend on the decks, and though the weather is bad, and most of the other officers take to their bunks, or the rails, with various states of seasickness, I find that, as in the past, I do not succumb to that horrid ailment of the sea. Instead, I spend my time alone, sitting on the poop deck, reading with immense delight, and resting my eyes by staring out across the water, swirling and turbulent where the ship's propeller disturbs it, to the other ships in the mighty convoy, or looking in the opposite direction at the horizon, broken with the irregularities of the waves. On stormy days, I take a curious delight in standing at the very bow of the ship as it plunges up and down, feeling the wind tear at my hair, watching the bow sink deeper and deeper into the green froth until it finally drives me from my perch with the tremendous floods of water that pour over it. No drenching can dismay me, for this is the life. Why worry about the future when here all around me is the immensity of the present, the mystery of thesea?

    All too quickly the trip ends, on December fourth, and we make landfall off the port rail—Ireland. I watch the distant, misty outline of that country with mixed emotions. Here, in the midst of all this turmoil, with the whole world threatened by an arrogant people, is a land that seems to take no heed of the millions suffering. But such thoughts soon leave my mind as I realize that tomorrow I will be on land again, in Europe. I must confess that I am greatly worried, and the uncertain future holds a not-too-rosy picture for me. As an infantryman, I am aware that soon I will be in the bitterest part of the war. Altogether too soon I will find out the sort of stuff of which I am made.

    It is interesting to note the various attitudes among the lieutenants as we near Europe. Some of them are quiet, and worried; in fact, one almost has a nervous breakdown. On the other hand, there are a few who brag loudly of what they are going to do, and the usual lot who have a soft job "all lined up." None of that combat stuff for them. I do not know how I appear to the other lieutenants, for though I have always been able to analyze the personalities of others, I am unable to analyze myself. I become absorbed in studying my shipmates and draw many conclusions about them at the daily German classes I give during the voyage.

    I think these classes in the fundamentals of German are good indications of the state of mind one falls into on a sea voyage. Knowing that I will have a hard time occupying myself, on the third day out I offer to teach some simple German to the officers. At first there are only a few takers, but as the second day rolls around, I find my class growing, and soon all but a few of the diehards are hard at work on ich bin, du bist, er ist. Toward the end of the trip, attendance drops. As the soldiers become increasingly occupied with their own worries, many find the language routine galling and tiresome.

    A lieutenant who came aboard the ship when we landed in Wales tells us some of the most unadulterated tripe about combat, morals, and the value of a bottle of liquor in the ETO. This from a man who probably has never been any nearer to combat than a western port in England. Then there is the chap who takes us off the boat. Apparently he has but one duty in life, one sole, single purpose for existence. He is to take us to a train, put us on the train, and see that we get started for the Southampton port of embarkation. He succeeds in the first two tasks magnificently; in the third, he fails rather miserably. The train in which we find ourselves can take us to almost any point in southern England except Southampton. At dawn, and through the courtesy of many agencies, we are at last at the Port of Southampton. We stare with all the curiosity of the novice at the signs of the bombing raids that have laid waste to most of the city.

    Impressed as we are, we still have no idea of the holocaust of war, because most of Southampton's damage has been cleaned up. Where formerly stood three blocks of houses, now there is only a field, and none of us can imagine what the three blocks looked like, say, ten minutes after the raid. Yes, we have a lot to see, and a lot to learn. We are taken to a tent city that has been set up in one of Southampton's loveliest parks, and there we sit shivering for one day. By this time all of us are moody and quiet.

    The next morning, December sixth, we march about three miles to a pier, and there we board a channel steamer manned by a British crew. We are all greatly impressed by the sloppiness of the kitchen, and, indeed, the mutton-stench in the galley is nauseating. There is a great deal of speculation as to our final destination, but we are pretty sure that we will land near the site of the invasion. We are told that submarines and floating mines are a serious threat, and as usual we are outfitted with life jackets—this time the English type that one inflates by blowing into it. Also we are issued hammocks, which delights me, as I spent much time in a hammock when I was in the Philippines and know that there is no better way to endure a choppy sea.

    I laugh watching some of the attempts to mount the hammocks. Many of the chaps pile luggage up beside the hammock, then carefully place one foot dead in the center of the canvas. When they throw their weight on that foot—well, there can be only one result when one movable object is pushed by another. All of the officers are placed on two-hour guard shifts in the various troop quarters in the ship. It is our duty, I suppose, to be there with the men so that if we are struck by a torpedo or happen to nudge a floating mine, we will drown in a military manner, because it is an awfully long way up to the deck.

    We sail the following night, and on the following day, the eighth, late in the afternoon, we make out the coastline of France. I can imagine how some of the Normandy invasion troops felt on first viewing the low coastline in the distance. I am very thankful the ground we are to land on has already been captured. It is dark when we are told that this is the harbor of Le Havre we are approaching, and in the light of some floodlights on the shore we begin to see signs of a more recent conflict. We can barely discern the outlines of buildings, torn and gutted, with a black background that seems to hold all evil in store for us. This is France.

    There are no harbor facilities left at Le Havre, so a landing craft puts out from the beach and heads toward us. As it comes nearer, we see that there is a problem, for the craft seems ten stories below us when it comes alongside our ship. But in no time at all the British sailors rig a gangway down to the barge and a slide affair to slide the baggage down. Then begins the long and tedious unloading. For four hours, men pour off the ship, one at a time, down, down, down. Finally, when it seems that there is no more room, it is our turn, and then I begin to work my way down the lurching steps. About halfway down we hear a tremendous splash in the water between the two ships, and the cry goes up that one of the footlockers has slipped from the slide. I am sure that each of the officers feel, as I do, that his footlocker is now at the bottom of Le Havre Harbor. We have to wait until the landing craft comes ashore to find out whose locker has fallen.

    The beaching of a landing craft is a very weird and mysterious thing. Our beaching is out of this world. As we near the shore, a sarcastic American, standing on the tiny deck of the vessel, gives the packed throng below instructions. "We gotta take this goddamned thing at full speed," he shouts. "If we don't go in at full speed, you'll hafta swim ashore. So hang on, damn it, and brace yerselves for a shock. Now watch it, watch it!" We cling to each other for dear life and spread our legs about two yards. After waiting an interminable time, we hear the bottom touch ground, and without the slightest shock the vessel comes to a graceful stop. Rather sheepishly we look for our baggage while the curses of the king of the bridge assault our ears. "Jesus Christ, hurry up! I gotta get this craft outta here. The tide's goin' out. Hurry up, or I'll be beached all night! God damn it, shake it up!"

    With a great feeling of relief I discover that my footlocker is still among those present, and by carrying several heavy loads, and with much cooperation, we get our possessions up on the rocky beach. No sooner has the last soldier left the craft than, true to his word, the skipper swings the bow gate up and backs off the beach. We pile our gear onto trucks and ride through the dead city There seems to be no life; just street after street of jumbled junk, rubbled masonry, and stones.

    We finally pass over the moat of a fort high above the city and though a sally port. Inside we unload and are told to go to a big barracks building, looming black and foreboding. Someone turns on a flashlight, and there are immediate cries of "Turn off that damned light!" and "What d'ya want to do, get us bombed?" After exploring the building from top to bottom, we spread our bedding rolls on the floors of the barracks and, by huddling close to one another, manage to sleep in the miserable cold of a building from which every window has been blasted.

    The next morning we are awakened by someone running breathlessly into our rooms, saying, "Say, I forgot to tell you men last night that nobody has been in this building. It hasn't been cleared and there are probably booby traps all over the place!" When dawn comes, and with it a small portion of sunlight, we look around with a great deal of interest. The first thing we do is warily find tar paper and boards to patch up our windows in an effort to keep warm. Then in due time comes the trick I will see so often during the war. Those who are just too cold to stand it any longer decide to build a fire. They find any type of metal container and proceed to burn anything inflammable. In such cases there is only one thing to do: throw open the windows and doors and come back in about two hours, when most of the smoke has left the building.

    During the day we find out many things. We are staying in Fort Ste. Addresse, which a few days earlier was occupied by the Germans. There was quite a fight for it; all of the barracks are riddled with bullet holes and shell fragments. German and British equipment is strewn about, and there are German artillery and antiaircraft pieces standing on the parapet surrounding the fort. In the afternoon a group of us walk through the town and speculate on the length of our stay. We also wonder at the cold and hostile attitude of the people of Le Havre. We later learn that it was necessary for our forces to bomb the city heavily during its occupation by the Germans and again during the invasion. To top things off, it was bombarded by units of the Atlantic Fleet when the British captured the city from the rear.

    The next morning, after we decide we will be here for about one month, we suddenly are told to pack and be ready to leave in fifteen minutes.

Excerpted from THE LAST KILOMETER by A. Preston Price. Copyright © 2002 by A. Preston Price. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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