A life-long resident of Grand Rapids, Mich., Gordon L. Hansen (b. 1925) enlisted in the Army one week after his eighteenth birthday, and was assigned to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training. An avid soldier, Hansen realized that he was being conditioned "physically and psychologically" for warfare, and may have steeled himself better than the average young soldier. The jocular mood enjoyed by some recruits did not last long. "They issued gas masks, bayonets, haversacks, cartridge belts and tents to us," Hansen wrote, "I noticed the sobering effect it had on the men in the "hut." I think it was the realization that it was really war and not a summer camp for boys."
Hansen scored very well on the Army General Skills Test, and was assigned to Ohio State University in the A.S.T.P. early in December 1943, to attend classes. Immersed in a heavy course load that included plane trigonometry, algebra, analytics, calculus, military engineering, drawing, and physics, Hansen reveled in school: "This was a new and better environment. So much more civilized, cultured, humane than the recorded bugle calls from too loud speakers blaring into our eardrums and consciousness the signals that controlled our days absolutely." The A.S.T.P. days, however, were numbered. By early March, Hansen had been transferred to the 14th Armored Division in Camp Campbell, Ky., a hastily constructed base built soon after the United States entered the war.
Programs such as the A.S.T.P closed across the country in preparation for the massive land invasion of continental Europe due to the desperate need for men to participate in the invasion. The armed forces suffered in particular from a shortage of officers with combat experience; many officers were "90 day wonders" -- men who had completed Officers' Candidate School in three months. For his part, Hansen complained "I didn't want to be in the infantry and in the beginning clung to the hope that it wouldn't be so." Regardless, Hansen was assigned to a machine gunning outfit.
By mid-August, the 14th Armored Division hastened preparations to move overseas, and on October 14, 1944, it left from New York harbor aboard a captured German freighter, the La Jeune , that had been converted into a troop ship. Accommodations aboard ship were cramped; the men were stacked three and four deep in bunks with no natural light. "There was a total black out each night, so complete that even smoking was prohibited on deck." Told nothing about their destination, Hansen guessed that the ship was bound for France, and true to form, the La Jeune passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and landed to a joyful reception at Marseilles on October 29, 1944, where "the French brought wine, pears and fresh figs to us as we marched along." In less than two weeks, the troops were moving northeast on the "forty and eights" -- train cars that held forty men or eight horses. Near Epinal, the troops disembarked and prepared for battle.
On November 20, Hansen's platoon tasted its first combat in an engagement in the Vosges Mountains. The steep terrain made it difficult to see for any distance, and as Hansen noted, "Worse, even natural depressions provided little protection from "tree bursts"; shrapnel exploding down from artillery or mortar shells hitting trees overhead." The sight of his friends being cut down by shot and shrapnel made a deep impression on Hansen, who began to feel a sadness and an "anger that calls for revenge," but at the same time, the beginnings of a close bond with others in his unit. On the morning after the battle, Hansen volunteered to go on a scouting mission to try to find some of the missing, but was told that he was not needed. The men on the mission never returned.
After recovered from battle in Wickersheim, and awaiting the arrival of replacements, the Division received orders to move out on December 9, 1944. Although unaware of their destination, the 14th Armored Division entered German territory, penetrating eastward before being ordered to withdraw to shorten the front and strengthen the defensive positions. During the withdrawal, Hansen's squad, which consisted of nine men, "was ordered to stay behind, set up a road block and fight a rear guard action to protect our column if the Germans were following us... We knew this would become a suicide mission if they came." The squad waited for two tense hours, but the Germans never came. Later, the squad stopped to sleep and eat in an empty house. A sergeant asked Hansen to accompany him on a patrol:
I don't remember why the patrol was required. What I remember is the pride I felt to be asked to accompany him on this mission. I was not being ordered to go. The leader of such a patrol picked men he could count on in an emergency. He wanted willing comrades. Of course I went.
In the foothills of the Vosges on December 23, Hansen and his friend, Ray Justice, dug a foxhole in harsh soil that took them nearly a full night to complete. In the darkness, they heard troops milling around them, and assumed that reinforcements had arrived and were digging foxholes themselves. At dawn, however, he realized that the "reinforcements" were actually German troops. "Our foxhole was deep," he wrote, "and we were safe from rifle fire but so were the Germans. Our immediate concern was that a grenade might be thrown into our hole." The German soldier in the next foxhole wanted to surrender and Hansen shouted for him to come over. As the German came out yelling "Nix shiesen!" one of the Americans down the line, thinking him a threat, shot him.
The many tragedies of war left Hansen "fatalistic." He and his friends joked about "when they would get their 'wooden overcoats' -- coffins." Near Rittershoffen in early January, 1945, all but two of his squad were killed in a skirmish, after which, the company stayed in Saessolsheim to await replacements from the "repo depo" (replacement depot). Both Hansen and his friend, Ray Justice, were happily billeted with an Alsatian family, but the replacements were not happy about joining a squad that suffered such heavy casualties. The seasoned soldiers, however, set about making them feel part of the company. Being out of combat and participating in the leadership of the company increased morale considerably, and the Russian advances in the East were also heartening. Hansen believed that "after seeing so much desolation and misery, it was reassuring to be in a community, however small, that was still functioning; to be close to a family that was coping." These conditions contributed to Hansen's conviction that he would make it back home safely.
The object of American attention early in 1945 was the Siegfried Line, once thought to be invincible. The advance of the 45th Division into Germany was stalled only by the destruction of roads and the bridge over the Rhine. Yet in a feat of some ingenuity, they crossed the river on two pipes a few feet above the water, carrying only weapons and emergency rations. The last town before the Siegfried Line had been completely evacuated while the Germans continued shelling. Hansen's company participated in an assault on Steinfeld, discovered when they arrived, that the German army was beginning to unravel. All of the remaining German soldiers eagerly surrendered; having been left behind only to stave off advances by the Allies, they were happy to be taken prisoner.
As the company continued to advance through late March 1945, they overtook massive numbers of demoralized German troops trying to retreat farther into Germany. Hansen writes "I remember clearing bunkers and pill boxes and taking so many prisoners that we might have outnumbered 50 to 1. We guarded them at night by encircling them with our half tracks pointed in with the lights on." The Germans could easily have overpowered the Americans, but psychologically, the war was over.
After V-E day, Hansen remained in Bavaria as part of the allied occupation forces. Hansen's company was billeted in Burghausen, a village near the Austrian border, fifty miles east of Munich, and was assigned to guard a synthetic rubber and gas plant. The occupation forces spent much of their time on guard duty, but also had plenty of time for recreation. "Ray and I have been going swimming almost every afternoon," he wrote, "and I'm beginning to tan up a bit. What a life!"
The inactivity of the occupation duty soon began to wear: "More and more I'm developing the idea that I'd rather go back to the states, have a good long furlough and then help polish off the Pacific war... With God I can take it as tough as they can dish it out and a lot more." Instead, Hansen's company was divided and transferred into different units, with most merged into other infantry units. Hansen was transferred into Co. H of the 179th Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division. Company H was a heavy weapons company that was scheduled to move to Rheims, France, and then to the States for furloughs, retraining, and deployment in the Pacific. This outfit, Hansen writes, "is practically rear echelon compared to old H company of the 62nd. During the fighting in France and Germany the entire company has had only one fatality!"
In late July, Company H arrived in Rheims, and by the end of August, had been transferred to Camp Phillip Morris in LeHavre, France. At Camp Phillip Morris, Hansen was promoted to personnel sergeant which exempted him from drills and guard duty, and the end of the war in the Pacific rendered further activity unnecessary. By early November, Hansen was back in the States and deployed to Camp Grant, Ill., a separation center, and by early February, 1946, he was at home, planning his college career at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.