Combat Engineer Medic – New for Veterans Day

 IM000511  I started doing interviews for the North Dakota Veteran History Project in the fall of 2004.  Through this I started interviewing other veterans besides just the aviators.

 

     In January of 2005, I was asked to interview Bob Feland, a man I have known for many years but I didn’t know a lot about his WW2 experiences.  He used to farm and ranch south of Almont ND.  He is an old cowboy, a farrier and local brand inspector.  He now lives in Flasher ND.

 

                                                      This Is His Story

 

     Robert O Feland was born in Almont ND on January 2, 1921.  After finishing Grade School and completing one year of High School, Bob started to farm and ranch with his father south of Almont.  When the US entered WWII, Bob was drafted into the Army and entered the service on May 27, 1942.  He took his Basic training in Illinois at camp Grant for 13 weeks then went to New Jersey, then to South Carolina, then back to Jersey.  Bob was assigned to the 540th Combat Engineer Battalion as a Medic and boarded a Troop Ship bound for North Africa.  The trip across lasted 28 days.
 The 540th participated in the North African landings at Safi in French Morocco.  The landings began in the wee hours of August 7, 1942.  Bob was told to board Higgins boat number one (Landing Craft), when Bob got to #1, it was full, he was told to go on to #7, when he got to #7 he was told to go to #13.  Great thought Bob, how unlucky can I get.  Bob had quite a time getting down the ladder into the Higgins boat, the seas were rough and the boat kept rising and falling along side the troop ship.  Bob finally got off the rope ladder into the boat, landing right on his head in the process.  The landing craft pulled onto the beach under fire where everyone got off and dug in.  The next day Bob found out how lucky he was, Higgins boat 1 and 7 had taken direct hits killing all aboard.  Higgins boat # 13 had come in with hardly a scratch!  From this day on for all his life, number 13 is Bob’s lucky number!!  Another of Bob’s close calls happened on the beach after the landing.  Bob was standing talking to an Officer when he felt a tug on his sleeve, at the same moment the officer crumpled to the ground.  The tug on Bobs sleeve was a bullet passing through the material and on to shatter the knee of the officer standing next to him.  Bob treated his wound and he was sent back on a boat to a Hospital ship.
 After a 3 day battle they fought their way into Safi.  The fighting then continued on to Rabat, Casablanca and Algeria.  This took all fall, winter and spring.  From here the 540th was loaded on ships again and made their way to the 2nd landing Bob participated in, July 10th, 1943, Sicily.  After fighting through Sicily to Palermo, the 540th was loaded again on ships and went on to their next landing (#3) at Salerno, Italy, Sept. 9,1943.
     At Salerno during the heavy fighting Bob witnessed something that is not often talked about.  A Lieutenant came from the front lines with 5 German prisoners.  He said to the Sergeant there, “Send these prisoners to the rear, I have to get back.”  “Sure thing Lieutenant” the Sergeant said.  The Lieutenant jumped in his jeep and as soon as he disappeared over the hill the Sergeant turned his automatic on the prisoners and shot them all.  This shocked Bob, he knew what he just saw was not right but the Sergeant outranked him.  Bob turned and walked away.  The monsters weren’t all on the enemy side.
     They fought their way up to Naples then boarded ships again for the landing (#4) at Anzio, January 25th,1944.  Here they held a beach head, 18 miles long and 8 miles deep for 3 months.  It was here that Bob received a Silver Star.  He got another soldier to help him pull 12 wounded men out of a mine field under constant enemy fire.  He was awarded the medal by General Mark Clark.
     One day as they sat in their holes, (protection against the German artillery that was almost always coming in on the beach-head), they noticed a B-24 coming in low from the ocean side, obviously in trouble.  The plane came over the Allied lines then over the Germans and attracted lots of fire, the plane turned back toward the beach-head, gaining a little altitude and as soon as the plane crossed over the lines again the crew of the plane started parachuting out.  The last flyer had just cleared the plane when it nosed down and erupted in a terrific explosion right in a ration dump, tons of food and supplies were destroyed but no lives were lost.  Another time Bob looked up to see an American L-4 Piper Cub coming for the allied lines at tree top level with its little engine wound out for all it was worth.  Back behind the L-4 were two German fighters gaining rapidly on the little plane.  When the L-4 got to the American lines, it dived behind a row of trees and quickly landed.  The two German fighters (ME109s) kept coming on and ran into a hailstorm of Allied fire, both fighters were shot down.
     The 540th Combat Engineers were almost always toward the front near the fighting.  As the Germans retreated, they destroyed docks, roads, bridges, or anything else the Allies could use.  The engineers had to be right up there, rebuilding the docks, roads, bridges even if it meant being in the middle of the fighting.  The Germans had also sown large areas with land mines that the Engineers had to clear.  Losses were high and many were wounded.  By the time they had reached Anzio, Bob had treated many casualties, some made it, some didn’t.  The main thing was to get the bleeding stopped and get them to the aid station.  Bob would give morphine shots, throw some sulfa powder in the wound, wad up a bunch of gauze and push it in the wound, securing it with tape, applying a tourniquet if needed.  By this time many of Bob’s friends that he had started out with had been killed or wounded.  New green troops came in and many of them also ended up killed or wounded.  It got to the point that Bob didn’t want to get to know anyone very good anymore because eventually they would become casualties.  Bob figured it wouldn’t be long before he would be a casualty.  He had had too many close calls and one of these times his luck was bound to run out.  In one instance, Bob and another soldier were sitting in their hole during a German mortar barrage when, THUNK, a mortar landed right in their hole practically between the knees of the other soldier and only a few feet from where Bob sat.  The mortar round turned out to be a dud but the other soldier jumped strait up out of the hole and ran down the hill screaming, Bob never saw him again, he had lost his mind and was removed from the fighting.
     They finally broke out of the beach head and headed for Rome and on June 4th Rome was taken by the Allies.  June 6 was the ”D Day” landing at Normandy in France. From here on Italy was a holding action to keep German units busy so they could not be pulled up to the Normandy front.  It would have been nice to stay in Italy but Combat Engineers are always needed elsewhere, the 540th were loaded on ships again.  August 15th, 1944 found the allies hitting the beaches between Nice and Marseilles, France.  This was to be Bobs 5th and final amphibious landing.
     All through the fall of 1944, the 540th fought and worked their way up through France towards Belgium and Germany, repairing roads and bridges as they went.  A poignant incident happened during this time.  One day Bob was assigned ambulance duty driving up to the front, loading up wounded, and then taking them back to the clearing hospital.  Some of the areas he was driving through had just experienced heavy fighting, bodies lay along side the road and by this time in the war, Bob hardly noticed them any more.  As Bob was driving along he saw a dead woman in the ditch ahead of him, beside the woman was a little girl, and she was ALIVE!!  Bob hit the breaks, opened the ambulance door and motioned to the little girl.  The girl left the dead woman, who Bob believed was her mother, and ran for the open door, she crawled up in with Bob and sat beside him as close as she could get.  Bob judged her to be about 3 or 4 years old and she didn’t know a word of English, and Bob knew very little French but they were able to communicate on a limited basis.  Little Girl (that’s what Bob called her) rode with Bob for the rest of the day and when Bob went back to camp that night she stuck near Bobs side through the chow line and Bob lined up a plate and food for her and did she EAT!  Bob said she put away food like she was full grown.  When Bob went to his tent, Little Girl came right along and when Bob crawled in his blankets, Little Girl snuggled in beside him and went fast to sleep.  Next morning at breakfast there she was right beside Bob with Bob helping her with her plate.  All that day, she rode with Bob in the ambulance.  When they got in that night, there were two French nurses waiting for them.  Someone must have gotten word to the French authorities.  Bob gave Little Girl over to the nurses and turned to leave.  Little Girl started to cry.  Bob looked back, one of the nurses was holding her back but her arms were stretched out toward Bob.  She wanted to go with him!  That was the last time Bob saw Little Girl.  She was such a pretty little thing, long dark curls that fell down on her shoulders.  She would be about 64 years old today.
     As Bob treated American wounded, he also came to the aid of German casualties.  One time he came on a mortally wounded German Officer.  The Officer was conscious and laying on his back and could move his right arm but vary little.  The Officer looked at Bob and feebly pointed toward his billfold in his left breast pocket, Bob took it out and the Officer beckoned him to open it up.  Bob found a picture of a young lady with a baby, the Officer reached for the picture and Bob gave it to him.  The German Officer took the picture and looked at it briefly, laid it down on his lips, closed his eyes and died.  This left Bob holding the Officers billfold and he looked inside and found it full of French money.  Bob took the money with him but didn’t say a word about it to anybody.  He figured if the others knew he had it they would be trying to get it from him.  Bob didn’t feel comfortable having this money and the first French town they came to Bob found the bank and went in, he found a banker that could speak English and explained what had happened and asked what he should do with the money.  The French banker smiled and said “Well I guess the moneys yours”.  Bob said “What should I do with French money?”  The banker said “Lets see it”.  After some figuring he handed Bob American money.  Bob walked out of the Bank with four to five hundred dollars, this at a time when Bob was making $20 a month.  He went to the PX, made out a money order and sent it all home to his folks.  Spoils of war!!
     Several times as battles raged in the area of Belgian, truces were formed between the combatants so the dead and wounded could be taken care of.  Bob remembers vary well working shoulder to shoulder with German medics and soldiers, these were some of the most heroic and humanitarian truces of the Second World War.
     The Allies pushed all the way to Germany’s doorstep but had stretched their supply lines nearly to the breaking point.  The Allies dug in and held the line until the supply situation could be rectified.  It was thought the German Army was on its last legs with no fuel to run its Panzers, thus they thought there was very little chance of a German counteroffensive.  The Allies held a thin defensive line and waited for the supply lines to catch up.
     At exactly 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944 an American sentry in the Ardennes reported numerous flashes along the German lines, moments later the Allied lines withered under a heavy artillery barrage.  These were the opening shots in the Battle of the Bulge.  December 16 found Bob and the 540th in southern Belgium, south of the main German offensive.  Miles of constantina wire was laid out in the valley below the camp and positions were reinforced.  All the fighting was going on way up north-west of the 540th, around Bastogne and towards the last of December it looked like the Allies were finally getting the upper hand with reinforcements coming in.  The Germans momentum had slowed tell it was stopped.
In the early morning of New Years Day the Germans hit the line where Bob was, tanks came tearing across the valley and were piled high with German troops wearing white battle dress.  German soldiers tried to get across the wire in the valley and were cut down by American machine guns positioned on the slopes but they just kept coming, wave after wave were cut down, finally so many bodies fell on the wire that the following troops could run right over the top of the wire by stepping on the piled bodies.  On and on they came, supported by armor units.  Finally it was realized that the Americans could no longer hold the line.  The order was given to fall back.  It was a rout, every man for himself, every one started running for the hills.  It happened so quickly that everything was left behind, trucks, jeeps, tents, rations, equipment.  Bob himself lost everything he had.  The only thing he had was the clothes on his back and his aid kit.  Bob was in with 7 other guys, and as they climbed higher up into the wooded hills, they could see the Germans moving in through the valleys.  This German attack was called, Nordwind (North Wind).  It was a diversionary scheme to lure American Third Army troops away from Bastogne.  The group of  8 American soldiers were now behind enemy lines.  They walked all day in the snow avoiding the Germans and trying to get back to their lines.  Late that evening Bob said they were cold, wet and hungry.  They were walking along a rock wall next to a road when they came to a house and met a Belgian.  He invited them all in his house to warm by his fire.  He then gave them some bread and wine.  This house was right beside the main road, Bob said they tried to get some sleep but all night they could hear the German tanks and trucks going by.  They also heard hundreds of enemy soldiers marching past the house with their hob nailed boots.  The next morning they got bread and wine for breakfast, then snuck out again along the rock wall and headed back up into the hills.  As they were wondering which way to go to get back to their lines, they noticed the sound of gunfire coming from different directions.  Bob could tell by now where the Americans were by the sound of the machine guns.  German guns buzzed!  The American machine guns went off with a methodical “chuk chuk chuk”.  The small group of Americans walked toward the sound of the American gun fire.  The days were short this time of year and it got dark before they could reach friendly lines.  They again were cold, wet and hungry so they just kept walking.  It was really dark now and from out of the darkness they were startled by a shout, “Who goes there!”  From Bob’s little group, one individual (who shall remain nameless) let out a string of cuss words that would have made an old army cook blush!  We’re cold and hungry and have been walking for two days!  Come forward and be recognized, the challenger said.  The weary soldiers walked up to a machine gun emplacement and one of the guys manning it said, “We were ready to shoot but when we heard all that cussing, well we knew no German would be able to cuss like that!”  Bob and the others were able to get back to their Battalion that was in a state of disarray with soldiers coming in from all over.  The Battalion was trying to reorganize and reequip.  Bob himself had to be issued all new clothing and gear.  Although nothing would replace his personal effects,  Bob felt lucky not to have been captured or killed.
     The Battle of the Bulge was finally over (officially) on January 28th, 1945 with 81 thousand American casualties.  The Germans lost around one hundred thousand men.  A terrible price to be paid by both sides.
     It took a short time for the 540th Combat Engineer Battalion to reequip and reorganize and as soon as the Bulge was over they were on the move again repairing bridges and roads and pushing the Germans back into Germany.  One day Bob was assigned to a 12 man search and destroy patrol whose job it was to find and eliminate German squads that were roaming the allied lines.  That night they camped in the forest.  Bob and another soldier dug in and set up their shelters halves, crawled into their sleeping bags and fell into a deep sleep.  During the night and the next day a very heavy snow fell and when Bob and the other soldier woke it was late the next day!  The rest of the patrol had left!  The tents had been widely dispersed and the others must not have been able to find their covered tent in the deep snow.  The snow had fallen so heavy that there weren’t even any tracks to show which way they had gone.  The two headed out on there own to find their way back.  They walked the rest of the day into the night and as usual it was pitch black out.  They were going to stop for the night when Bob caught the smell of bacon on the cold night air.  Bob fallowed his nose and the bacon smell got stronger.  They couldn’t see a thing but the bacon smell kept them going.  All the sudden they walked right into the side of a tent, they got inside and here it was the mess kitchen for an infantry unit.  Bob and the other soldier took on a feed of bacon, eggs and pancakes!  The next morning they made it back to the 540th.
     They fought on and by March they finally reached the Rein at Manhiem.  The fighting at Manheim was such that the city was virtually destroyed.  The bridges over the Rein were demolished by the Germans so the engineers had to get to the river to set up pontoon bridges.
     At this time Bob was driving ambulance from the aid station at the front, back to the clearing hospital in the rear.  One place Bob had to drive through a railroad tunnel and at the point where he had to come out of the tunnel, the Germans had this area zeroed in with their artillery, the place was cluttered with wrecked tanks, jeeps and trucks.  Driving through this area was like playing Russian Roulette, you just hoped you could make it through between the bursts.  The noise was horrific, then it was driving into the aid station, stop, load up as many wounded as possible – at times Bob even had wounded soldiers laying on the floor under his legs as he drove.  Then it was back to the clearing hospital.  After the wounded were unloaded it was back to the aid station again.  Bob drove ambulance in the Manheim battle for 48 hours straight.  When he was finally relieved he fell exhausted in his tent and went immediately asleep.  Bobs ambulance was so shot up and damaged by shrapnel during the Manheim battle that they had to give him a new one.
     Another thing that happened in the area of Manheim was encountering German women soldiers, probably belonging to the SS.  These women soldiers worked as snipers against the Allied troops and some were captured.  Bob said these gals were really good looking but you really had to stay clear of them, they would shout all sorts of threats and curses, if you got close enough to them they would throw something at you or spit on you.  Most of the German prisoners were easy to get along with, many were glad not to be fighting anymore, but not these women!  Bob had to treat several of them and really had to watch it around them!!  They may have been prisoners but they weren’t ready to give up!
     The end of the war found Bob at Munich and finally the end of the fighting.  Bob had survived and finally was preparing to go home.  They were pulled back to Marseilles, France.  From here they boarded B-24 bombers outfitted as transports.  They flew down across Spain and Gibraltar to Casablanca, North Africa.  Then Bob boarded a twin engine C-47 for the flight across the ocean.  They flew to the Azores, then on to Bermuda.  On the way to Bermuda, a fire started in the right engine. This plane was not outfitted for a water ditching, no life rafts and no life preservers among the thirty plus soldiers on this plane.  Bob thought, here I am, I’ve just survived three years of some of the bloodiest fighting in the Second World War without so much as a scratch and when I’m finally coming home I’ll be lost in the ocean.  Luckily the pilots got the engine shut down and the fire out so they could limp into Bermuda on one engine.  After being in Bermuda for several hours with mechanics working on the troubled engine, it was declared good to go so everyone boarded again and took off for Miami, Florida.  When they were nearing the Florida coast the right engine caught fire again.  About this time Bob was wishing he could have gotten on a nice slow but safe boat to get home!  This time the pilots could not get the fire put out so they just pushed the throttles on full and headed for the Miami airport.  They finally landed and the hot molten metal coming off the wing and engine bounced higher than the plane as it rolled down the runway, but they made it.  This was the last time Bob ever set foot on an airplane!  From here Bob got on a train to Wisconsin where he got his discharge.
     Bob served over three years as a Medic with the Engineers.  The only time he ever carried a weapon was the first landing at French Morocco and he never even fired it, he said it just got in his way when he was trying to take care of the wounded, he refused to carry one from then on.
In addition to the Silver Star, Bob received seven Battle Stars for the 7 major actions he participated in, (Five amphibious landings and two land battles).  The only major battle Bob missed in Europe was the Normandy invasion.  His rank at discharge was Corporal Technician, 5th grade

Sources: Personal interview with Bob Feland, The Complete History of World War II by Francis Trevelyan Miller, Time Life Books: The Battle of the Bulge.