We all grow old. In 2003, almost fifty eight years after the war ended, William Hansult Sr. (a.k.a. Bill), his wife, and I traveled back to Germany. We went to some of the places my father was during the war. Bill was another aging veteran of WW-II, and I was already past middle age.
Time masks these WW-II veterans’ youth. To the uninitiated eyes of strangers, they are old men. Even some of their grown children and grandchildren see them this way until suddenly the facade of time is cracked and they are there before us, the beautiful boys of innocence who not only grew up during the Great Depression, but also willfully shouldered the burden of WW-II. So it is this generation which shares more than a baptism by fire. Today, they look into each other’s eyes and the same question is asked: “Where has the time gone?”
During the war, a battle was fought by a team of men. Official records give the broader picture only; they do not keep the memory of all those individual acts of heroism which contribute to the final victory. The man who carries the ammunition is as important as the man who fires the gun, as well as the man who prepares the after action report for command.
We must remember the geopolitical significance of a world war. Yes, the obvious is in terms of its toll on human life. However, more importantly, is knowing how to avoid it in the first place. Thus, it is important for all of us to record and keep the stories of the men and women who participated in the war, not only for the historical references, but also for the personal experiences and sacrifices.
And, of course, their stories are important teaching tools for us now, and for all future generations, in this way, we will “never forget.” William Hastie, a lawyer and aid to the secretary of war during WW-II once said, “History informs us of past mistakes from which we can learn without repeating them. It also inspires us and gives confidence and hope bred of victories already won.”
WW-II was the largest war in modern history and took place from 1939 to 1945. The conflict included a majority of the world’s countries that generally split into two military alliances; the Axis and the Allies. More than one hundred million military personnel saw action. Four major events occurred during WW-II which were never experienced in a previous war and shaped the world as we know it today. These included the Holocaust, the advent of ballistic missiles, the dawn of the jet-age, and the use of nuclear weapons. WW-II was the deadliest conflict in recorded human history.
Seventy years of relative security and prosperity have opened up a gulf between our own age and the age of crisis and violence that propelled the world into war. While from today’s perspective the Allied victory might seem somehow inevitable, the conflict was actually poised on a knife’s edge.
The Allies won the war because of their people and of their material. The Allies were able to turn their economic strength into a valuable fighting power. Providing the material power was the food that helped turn the moral energies of their people into an effective will to win. The mobilization of national resources, in this broad sense, never worked perfectly, but worked well enough to prevail. Although materially rich, the Allies could have lost the war. The war made exceptional demands on the people of the Allies. In turn, those people made extra ordinary sacrifices in response.
As in WW-I, the United States Army’s Rainbow Division in WW-II made a significant and decisive contribution to turning the tide of the war in Europe in favor of the Allies. This culminated for the division in a nonstop moving battle from late March 1945, until late April 1945. This brief period would be one of the most difficult months of the war for an infantryman in any American Army division.
In March 1945, Adolf Hitler declared a last-ditch scorched earth policy that called for the complete destruction of Germany’s infrastructure. “No German blade shall feed the enemy, no German mouth shall impart information, and no German hand shall offer help,” Hitler said. “The enemy should find every little bridge destroyed, every road blocked; nothing but death, destruction, and hate will await him.”
By the end of Hitler’s six year war, more than seven million Germans had lost their lives - 5.2 million German soldiers and more than 2.4 million German civilians. More German soldiers lost their lives in the last ten months of fighting, than in the whole rest of the war.
From the American side, the most intense and fierce fighting also came near the end of the war. For many Americans, battles like D-Day (Operation Overlord), Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, Kasserine Pass, and Anzio may be familiar. Lesser known, are the battles in places like Würzburg, Hatten, Schweinfurt, Nürnberg and Donauwörth.
It started for the Rainbow Division in December 1944 in the south of France during the defense of the German offensive in Operation Nordwind. The fighting was intense and continuous for almost a month.
Then after taking the Siegfried Line and crossing the Rhine River, for an entire month during April 1945, the United States Army’s Forty-Second Division didn’t fight in a single place for a single decisive battle, but instead was engaged in a moving battle within the heartland of Germany. It began in Würzburg and worked its way south via what is called the “Romantic Road,” and ended at the Austrian border when the Germans surrendered in May 1945.
These “Rainbowmen,” as they were nicknamed, fought with little to no rest. They were on the constant move. Much of the infantry was on foot the entire time, traversing more than four hundred miles into the heart of Nazi Germany against fanatical opposition. The division wasn’t fighting cripples or old men, but fighting Waffen-SS, Hitler Youth and the true believers of the Volksstrum (“peoples-storm”). Although some were children, they fought the Americans with a ferocity not known before. Because the Forty-Second was ordered into parts of the industrial heartland of Germany, much of the remaining German elements were ordered to defend their posts to the last man.
During this month, the Rainbow Division had captured some of the most important cities in southern Germany. They had also cleared and captured more than five hundred towns and villages, conquered approximately six thousand square miles of the Nazi-occupied homeland, and taken about fifty nine thousand prisoners. However, there was a high cost in terms of divisional casualties.
For the Rainbowmen, if that weren’t enough, once the fighting finally began to wane at the end of April 1945, they were confronted with the discovery and liberation of the concentration camp at Dachau. The first camp of its kind, Dachau was one of the greatest atrocities in the history of the world. As one Rainbowman remarked, it was “the camp of walking shadows.”
Although the month-long battle happened in many different places in Germany, because it was nonstop, and it didn’t end until the war was over, it was the “Final Battle” to defeat Germany and secure a Western Allies victory in Europe. It was also a “lost month” in the lives of the soldiers, many of whom would spend the rest of their lives trying to forget it. In addition, it was a lost month for those following the war back home as it wasn’t much publicized. As a result, it became buried in history.
Many of the men doing the fighting were fresh recruits who joined the army at eighteen years old and were “the replacements.” The replacements who were often put on the front lines and thus endured the brunt of what the Germans threw their way. These boys became men literally over-night.
My father was one of these eighteen year-old “replacements” attached to the Rainbow Division in 1945. This is his story, together with the story of the men of the Forty-Second Rainbow Division in their “Final Battle” of April 1945.