The following interview presents my grandfather’s recollections of World War II.
A transcript of the interview, conducted in May 2005, is collected by the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s Veterans History Project (memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/bib/loc.natlib.afc2001001.52021). Omaha Magazine’s version of the transcript has been updated with minor edits for clarity and accuracy.
Robert Wesley Meigs was born Oct. 11, 1922. He graduated from Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho and was drafted on Jan. 16, 1943. After enlistment, Grandpa entered into the Army Specialized Training Program before the program was emptied to fill the 99th Infantry Division. He was honorably discharged on Jan. 6, 1946, after being awarded numerous distinctions, including a Purple Heart. Grandpa enrolled at University of Colorado through the G.I. Bill, graduated in 1950, became an engineer for Phillips Petroleum, and raised four children, including my father, John Meigs. All of Grandpa’s children would graduate from high school in Omaha.
Doug Meigs: Dad told me about how you were in the officer corps, and they were short on soldiers, so they emptied out the training colleges for infantry. Is that right?
Robert Meigs: Well, it was called ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program. We were never told that was what it was—it was understood. But before that, I went into the service as a clerk typist, I went to a clerk typist school. Then from there I went to the ASTP, and from there into the 99th Infantry Division.
D: Had you graduated from high school yet?
D: So you were just out of high school and thinking about college?
R: No, I was an assistant manager at F. W. Woolworth’s in Twin Falls, Idaho.
D: Why clerk typist?
R: Well, that was what I was qualified to do based on the entry tests. When I was inducted, we had a series of tests.
D: Aptitude tests?
R: Yes, aptitude tests, and they put me in. We didn’t know anything about what was going on. They took a big mass of people and then took their scores. I ended up in Camp Maxey, Texas.
D: Basic training was at Camp Maxey, Texas?
R: As soon as we got out of basic training, I went into the ASTP.
D: What would you have done if you were a clerk typist?
R: I would have been a company clerk. Well, I don’t know, actually. I was also in medical training. I could have also been a medical typist.
D: It would have been office work then?
R: Yes, office work: keeping records and checking on stuff like that.
D: Was there any sort of catalyst or reason why they emptied out the ASTP?
R: Oh, I don’t know. We had heard that they had closed the program down. That was about the time when we were into heavy casualties. I assume—but I don’t know anything about it—that it was for filling up the new divisions just being activated.
D: When you got in the 99th Infantry Division, did you have to be retrained?
R: Yes, we went from ASTP, clerk typist school at Camp Barkeley, Texas—where the typist school was—to Camp Maxey, Texas, which was for the infantry.
D: What was it like going through basic training a second time?
R: Just more involved. It was infantry basic training while the other was close-order drills, learning your general orders for the Army, getting acquainted with the Army, and indoctrination.
D: When they put you in the infantry, what were you thinking?
R: Oh my god!
D: I think I remember you saying a line about mushrooms and the infantry.
R: Well, that was not my quote. But some soldiers would say, “They treat you like a mushroom. They keep you in the dark and feed you B.S.”
D: So, you’re down in Camp Maxey doing infantry training, and these are the guys that you’re going to Germany with?
R: Yes, they had just activated a new division, the 99th Infantry Division. We were the fill-in for the people who were in there and had casualties, and we were put in the service of that company to fill out some divisions so that they could activate.
D: So there were a bunch of other people in similar situations?
R: Definitely. Most of the people in my squad or my platoon were ASTP people. We had enough of the original people who had been with the 99th for training and all, and some older people, but most of the group I went over with were in the same category I was.
D: What was the general atmosphere of the camp? Were folks scared?
R: No, it was just military training.
D: Was it frightening to know you were preparing to go into war?
R: No, because young people don’t have an idea what war is about. And it was the Army, and Army training was disciplined—a lot of discipline.
D: So, once you left Camp Maxey, did you go straight to Europe or did you go back to Idaho?
R: From Camp Maxey, we were sent to Boston where we departed for Europe as a unit.
D: Were there U-boats prowling the Atlantic when you crossed over?
R: Not that I knew of. They were out, but not in the area where we were. Some guys said they saw some. But I never saw any. We went over in a convoy.
D: Where did you land in Europe?
R: We landed in Firth of Clyde in Scotland, and from there down to some resort area on the coast of England—I can’t remember the name of it—and we departed from there to the continent. And we replaced the 2nd Infantry Division on the front line.
D: And then you were in Belgium?
R: Belgium, along the border of Germany. We came to the Belgian city of Buchenbach first.
D: Do you remember your first day on the front line?
R: Not really. We were taken down, and it was snowy.
D: I know you were in the Battle of the Bulge. That occurred while you were in Belgium?
R: That occurred when we went on line. We went on line in December. It was
Dec. 16, 1944, the first night of the Bulge. The action started in the morning where we were. It may have started before, but when they came through our area, I think it was the 16th.
D: How long had you been in Belgium by that point?
R: Several weeks.
D: So it was pretty soon?
R: Oh, yeah.
D: Did you have much combat between when you got there and the Battle of the Bulge?
D: When you got to the front line, what was the atmosphere like?
R: It was in the winter, and we were in line. We had our positions. I think the division was spread out over several miles, 25 miles maybe. We were living in foxholes, and living on the edge of the woods. We had our company headquarters—units were out. And right across the valley were the Germans with a kind of stalemate—nobody would move. And in the Battle of the Bulge, they broke through our division and an adjoining division. They rolled right on back.
D: How many people are in a division?
D: So there were two groups of 15,000 and they broke through your lines? How close were you to the breakthrough?
R: I don’t know—pretty close. It was close enough that we were in a quasi-retreat. Then we got cut off, and we were behind enemy lines for a couple days as a unit. And going back up was, of course, after the first instants of the Bulge.
D: So, what was it like when you got surrounded?
R: Well, you didn’t know who was where.
D: Was there a lot of hiding? Or were you fighting? Could you see Germans marching by? It’s hard for me to even picture it.
R: It’s hard to describe because everything was so convoluted. We weren’t into any hand-to-hand; it was mostly artillery duels and patrols to find out where the other side was. On the morning of the breakthrough, it was just bedlam.
D: Did you wake up to gunfire?
R: Yes, we were under artillery most of the night.
D: So, did you basically not sleep while you were in combat?
R: We slept the most we could. We had four or five guys in a dugout, a foxhole.
D: How deep were these foxholes?
R: They were deep enough to where you had to stoop to get in—maybe 6 feet by 6 feet.
D: So when you were in the Battle of the Bulge, was the ground frozen or was it muddy?
R: It wasn’t frozen. There was a lot of snow, a lot of rain. It was extremely muddy. We were in the Ardennes Forest. The snow would pack in on the trees, and it would melt. But the water would be dripping off the trees for days. It could be a bright day but it would still be wet. The 99th Division was also called the “trenchfoot division.” Trenchfoot occurs from too much moisture on your feet and not enough circulation. They don’t really turn frozen, but they turn black.
D: Kind of like gangrene and frost-bite mixed together?
R: Yeah, there were a lot of amputees and toes lost.
D: Did you have any problem with trenchfoot?
R: Not trenchfoot. I think I froze my feet one time.
D: How did your feet freeze?
R: Just exposure.
D: Was it any particular incident when you were stuck or stranded?
R: Just living out in the winter. It was in December, with a lot of snow and a lot of inclement weather. One of the problems was the Air Force couldn’t fly to attack the Germans from the air because of the overcast.
D: You said prior to the battle it was just a lot of artillery. Do you have any personal stories, like the foxhole you were in being hit?
R: No, not a direct hit, but it came close. The first morning of the Bulge, we sent out patrols, and every company had a command post, and every command post along our regiment took direct hits. Before that, a lot of patrolling went on. We were patrolling on the enemy side, and they were coming back. So, they knew all the locations.
D: Were you on any of those patrols the night before the Bulge?
R: Yes, I was on a couple.
D: Was it like a different atmosphere, like you knew something was going to happen the next day?
R: Oh no. That patrol was days before the Bulge. We were trying to get prisoners and vice versa, but the Germans didn’t capture any of our men.
D: Did you ever capture any Germans?
D: What was that like?
R: They would give up since we had tanks. This was after the Bulge and we were beginning to move forward and advance. We’d find these pockets and then our guys would surround them and they’d take prisoners and we’d take them to the rear.
D: Were there any times when you were taking prisoners that you remember in particular?
D: Back to the Battle of the Bulge, when every command post had direct hits, how did you know what to do?
R: At first, we didn’t know what to do, but we just followed our officers, and the leaders. After that was when they pulled on by us, and left us behind the lines. That period of time is kind of fuzzy, hazy in my memory,
D: What was the hierarchy of units, in terms of division, platoon, etc?
R: It goes division, ahead of the division is the corps, then it goes into what you called “triangular divisions,” and each division had three regiments, and each regiment had three battalions, and each battalion had three companies, and then you have your squads.
D: Were the companies broken up?
R: No, we were pretty much all together as a company. But people were all over the place trying to find their units. You’d meet a guy and he’d want to know where the unit was that was in that area, and they’d try and direct him to where they were located now.
D: Did you ever get separated?
R: Not really. We stayed together as a unit.
D: Then you guys got up to some sort of elevated or mountainous area? Dad told me you had taken refuge there.
R: Our division was in what you call the Elsenborn. Our unit was in reserve, at Elsenborn Ridge. We weren’t directly on line; we were waiting to replace somebody.
D: What was the process? You got up to the ridge, and could you see the German Army trudging forward?
R: No, we knew they were on the edge of the forest, they had their gun emplacements and they had their troops there.
D: Was the Bulge like they had a huge mass that just broke through all at once and then you saw the mop-up coming while your guys tried to regroup and find each other?
R: Pretty much. Our groups would try to hold up the main elements. In fact, it wasn’t our particular unit, but a lot of units in the 99th Division held up the German advance. You read an awful lot of history, and you read about the 99th and how keen they were in holding it.
D: Were there really heavy casualties in your area?
R: I used to have statistics, but I’m not certain. We probably had 20 to 30 percent casualties.
D: What was your role in your unit?
R: I had the Browning Automatic Rifle.
D: Once you realized the Germans were coming through, did you guys set up and put your tripod down for the B.A.R.?
R: No, it wasn’t that kind of fighting. They ran through. And we more or less retreated. Why? I wasn’t in on the decision-making. While we were on the line, it was kind of interesting; we had built corduroy roads for evacuation.
R: We cut out trees and used the trunks for roads to keep out of the mud and the snow. And while we were on the line before the Bulge, that was mostly what we were doing and stakeouts, setting up ambushes, and patrols.
D: When you say “on the line,” you guys were at the very front?
R: The very front.
D: Up at the Elsenborn, when did you know the tide was turning and the Germans weren’t going to breakthrough and get the oil and all that.
R: I’m not sure, but at some point, all the units that could move were put up in trucks, and we were rushed to the Remagen Bridge.
D: So, you had already been put under Gen. George Patton by that point?
R: You know I’m not even sure, but that’s what I heard later. I didn’t even realize we were under Hodges’ command, but somebody told me we were under British command for a while, too.
D: So, you go from the Elsenborn Ridge on trucks to the Remagen Bridge?
R: After the German breakthrough with the Battle of the Bulge in December, we started north, then they trucked us south to the Remagen Bridge in March. We made the Rhine crossing at Remagen. In fact our unit, I think, was the very first unit across the Remagen. Our platoon was about 30 or 40 guys.
D: Where would you be in the placement of men crossing?
R: Somewhere in the first 50.
D: Could you see the first guy going across?
R: Yes, I think I followed him.
D: What was it like? Were you in groups waiting for artillery bursts, and just ran you across the bridge?
R: What happened was the Germans were trying to blow up the bridge, but the artillery couldn’t reach it. It could reach the west side, the side away from Germany. Then somebody, a sergeant or someone, timed it and figured out they were coming in bursts. And those bursts would hit the entrance to the bridge, so when we got that worked out, after a burst, they would shove people across, and once you got on the bridge you weren’t in any danger of artillery fire, but you were in danger from small arms fire.
D: The artillery was landing where you would get on the bridge?
R: Close enough.
D: Was that where you got shrapnel in your shoulder?
R: No, I got shrapnel on the other side, after I crossed the bridge. I don’t remember if it was a day or two after crossing, when we were going forward.
D: While troops were crossing the bridge, were there a lot of casualties?
R: Yes, but like I said, because of the position of the artillery, to my knowledge I don’t think we lost that many people there. But once we got in on the other side, then we were in the rear of the retreating German army, and they hit us with small arms fire.
D: You get across the bridge, then they get your platoon across, and then the company, then the Luftwaffe bombed the bridge, but the engineers built another bridge. Is that right?
R: Yes. When I was wounded, we went back to the hospital in, I think it was Liege, Belgium, and we crossed the river on a pontoon bridge. I came back to the hospital for some time, and then I rejoined the unit. By the time I rejoined, they had started mopping up what was called the Ruhr Pocket.
D: What was the Ruhr Pocket?
R: The landscape was pretty much the plains. We were like pincers—going around and surrounding German troops, getting all the Germans. The Ruhr Pocket was a big area. The U.S. captured thousands upon thousands of prisoners.
D: What exactly happened when you were wounded?
R: It was artillery. There was shrapnel. There were two other guys—two or three other guys who were killed. And I got small shrapnel in my arm, which is still there.
D: What were you guys doing, doing mop-up activities or patrolling?
R: Going forward, we were pushing the Germans back.
D: So, were you firing at the time, running and firing?
R: Just going forward, having the artillery fire at me.
D: Were you aware that artillery was firing at you at that point?
R: Oh yeah.
D: Were these two guys people who had been with you since ASTP, were they clerk typists too?
R: No, they were in our unit. That’s the thing—I don’t recall their names.
D: Was that a really traumatic incident, when the artillery hit you, was it really destructive on your bodies, were you really close together?
R: They shielded it.
D: So, you were on a corner?
R: I was on the outside, they were just advancing.
D: When you got hit, did you retreat with your wounds, or did somebody come and get you?
R: They sent a medic, a medic came up and looked at you, and they sent you back to the medical evacuation.
D: Were these other two guys in really bad shape?
R: I heard that they were gone.
D: You guys didn’t have any conversation after being hit?
D: Were you close enough to speak to one another or were you spread out?
R: Spread out. I’m not even sure of the number of casualties, I just know there were casualties.
D: Do you remember lying on the ground with a shrapnel wound?
R: I remember when the shrapnel hit, and somebody called the medic up.
D: Were you standing at that time?
R: No, crawling on our hands and knees.
D: Oh, so you were advancing on your hands and stomach and it hit you in the left arm?
R: Previous to that when we were on the line, we had some casualties, but have you ever heard of a buzz bomb? They were ram-jet powered bombs Germany fired mainly at England. The engine would stop and it would glide. The target was London but they didn’t have the sophisticated guidance technology. One day, one broke over our line, and their warheads were wrapped in wire. When it exploded, it spread shrapnel. I remember poor old Ned Potter, and he was on line, and he was hit, right across here, and it made a couple marks across his penis.
D: Was it deadly for Ned?
R: He had to go back to the hospital, and he wasn’t in the hospital I was in. This happened before I was there. But he finally came back and he was telling about it, and they put a curtain around his bed, and all the nurses and everybody would come over because they wanted to see the guy with the wounded penis.
D: Were those buzz bombs pretty heavy-duty then?
R: Oh yeah, they were huge, and I’ve heard that was what it was that hit us. But I couldn’t even tell you. If it was, it was one that didn’t reach its destinations. It just fell short. But when it hit, it really exploded.
D: How much of an area would it have taken off?
R: Oh gosh, I have no idea.
D: So, after you got wounded, troops took you across the pontoon bridge. Then, after you recovered and returned, heavy fighting still raged?
R: Oh yeah, we took a lot of our casualties then. There we were destabilizing pockets of resistance.
D: In the Ruhr Pocket, what was the largest group of Germans you captured?
R: I didn’t have to force any of them to surrender. I think the most I had to take back to the rear was two or three.
D: What was it like walking with these Germans as prisoners? Were they tied up?
R: No. You had your gun pointed at them out in front of you.
D: Did you ever have any try to take off or some that wanted to escape?
R: No. They were pretty anxious to get out of there.
D: Any Germans speak English over there?
R: Oh, probably in some of the camps. I don’t remember. Some of them spoke pidgin English, some of us spoke pidgin German.
D: Were many of your friends injured in the mop-up?
R: Several of them were. A guy lost an eye. While we were going forward, I saw this sergeant crouched in front. He’d direct the guys where he wanted them and about that time I heard a “kerplunk.” There was a sniper who had got him right in the gut. He just begged for us to shoot him. We called the medics, but he didn’t make it back. Then, I think the same sniper shot at my unit. They missed me luckily but finally one of our guys figured out where he was.
D: Dad mentioned how you were out with a platoon, and a sniper was picking off guys and you had to play dead until nightfall.
R: Well, that was the same time with this sniper.
D: So it started with the sniper hitting your sergeant in the stomach, then did you guys all fall to the ground?
R: Yes. We were all down, trying to get where we weren’t targets.
D: So, you got down and got away to the edge of things?
R: Yeah, after they had neutralized the sniper, then they came out and evacuated.
D: That sergeant got hit, and he was down a couple hours, and the medics came but he had to wait?
R: There was some wait I don’t remember how long it was. We were moving so fast, the memories go. What I should have done was kept a diary.
D: Did you send letters to Grandma Maddy?
R: Oh, yeah. There was a special mail that you could send back.
D: About how often did you mail her?
R: Madeline said it wasn’t very often, but it seemed to me like it was quite often.
D: So, what was the last German city you remember?
R: Wurzburg is where we ended up. It was on the Main River. And that was after the war was over, and we were occupying. We were there for about two months after March of 1945. We also spent a lot of time occupying the town of Randersacker waiting to be transferred to Japan.
D: And that’s where you heard about the bomb?
R: And when Roosevelt died.
D: What was it like occupying the town?
R: We did guard duty.
D: Were the residents unhappy?
R: Yes. We would take over homes for billets. We’d take over two or three buildings to sleep, like barracks, and we had our mess hall. And we’d go into Wurzburg for assigned duties. After they dropped the bomb, the war was over as far as we were concerned.
D: So, what happened next for you?
R: From there we went to what they called “cigarette camps,” where we were deployed back to the U.S. They were back in France. Before the bomb, we were told we would be shipped from Germany through the Panama Canal to Japan. But that was only rumor. So when the war was over, we were redeployed to the cigarette camps. And from there we were assigned points according to how many days we were in combat, how many days we were overseas, and they added them up until you could be shipped back overseas.
D: Did you have to wait around long?
R: I must have waited around. The war ended in the spring—May 8, 1945—and I got back in November.
D: Were you eager to get home?
R: Sure, everybody was. I wish I kept a diary. We didn’t do much of that. I didn’t, at least, and I don’t think many of the guys did.
D: Did you run across any concentration camps while you were in Germany?
R: Yes. Our unit relieved one. We came in and opened it up. They made the mistake of opening the gates, and these inmates went nuts over the countryside and were going into farms and picking up rabbits and anything they could get. I remember one had a rabbit by the neck and a bayonet. It was pretty horrible. Then, at night, you’d see all these little fires around where they were squatting.
D: Was it like a refugee camp all around?
R: Eventually, when they rounded them up again. For a while they were on their own.
D: Were you aware of the concentration camps?
D: What was your role on the liberation of the camp?
R: Support troops.
D: What was the atmosphere when you heard the first atomic bomb was dropped?
R: Relief. The war was ending for all practical purposes.
D: Was there a different attitude from the first to the second bomb?
R: I don’t remember. It just meant there was a good chance we wouldn’t be going to Japan. When the war ended in Europe, the war was still going on in Japan, and they were still sending troops in to meet the Japanese. After the bombs dropped and they surrendered, there was no need for the big armies of Europe to go to Japan. Then the problem of redeployment came up, and we went from Germany to the cigarette camps in France before we were shipped out and landed in New York. When you think of it, there were 12 to 13 million people in uniform. There was always something going on. There were huge movements of people.
D: You have a lot of medals. What are they from?
R: Most of those were for campaigns and a Purple Heart. We also got a unit citation from Belgium for our defense of Belgium before and after the Bulge.
D: Was it pleasant in France after the war ended?
R: No. It was cold. We had these big barracks and cots. Are you familiar with meat wrapping paper? We’d sleep on these cots, and the cold would come from underneath, and it was bitter. So, we’d go down to the meat market and get rolls of the meat wrapping paper and make them a pile thick to insulate the cots. I remember that, but everything moved so fast.
Doug Meigs is the executive editor of Omaha Publications.