Mr. Russell Cobb
Sept 28, 2007
Mr. Cobb: I’m Russell Cobb, originally from Fairfield, Connecticut. I was drafted, but went down after graduation from high school, went down for a physical in New Haven, Connecticut, and at that time they were taking people only for the navy. And I decided then that I could run a lot faster than I could swim, so I volunteered to go in the Army, the idea being that I would go in and join the Armored Forces School, because I thought tanks would be the way to go. Well, they didn’t promise me anything – it’s a good thing they didn’t because I didn’t get near a tank until I got over to Europe, but to back just a little bit I graduated from high school on June 21st in 1944. On July 6th I was taking infantry basic at Fort McClellen, Alabama. Infantry basic then was 13 weeks, and then you were supposed to be a combat efficient soldier. In maneuvers, I had a machine gun, 30 caliber, and had to jump out a second story window, with the machine gun – all part of the training – and I smashed a knee up. And there were no excuses, you know, I just had to… And the next day we had a 25 mile march, with full packs. I started on that, never finished. I ended up in the hospital with a bad knee so I couldn’t be shipped overseas because you had to go through the infiltration course, the 25 mile hike, all of this, before you could be shipped out. So I was put on cadre, so I was teaching combat squads how they act and work and so forth, and I did that. I thought, Gee this is pretty good, I’m not gonna end up going overseas. Well I did that about three weeks. All of a sudden I got traveling orders to go home for two weeks, this was near Christmas, and then I was to report to Fort Meade, Maryland for deployment overseas. So I went to Fort Meade, Maryland, and then we were shipped back up to New York to Camp Shanks. There we were quarantined, we could not leave the base, although I had somebody that gave me a pass, and I was able to come home because Fairfield, Connecticut was not that far away. So I got home a couple of nights, and the last night I was home I got back to camp just in time to say, “I’m here,” as they were calling the role, because they were getting ready to ship us out. And the one thing I always remember at that time was the fact that Joe Louis came there to talk to us and everything, and I just thought that was tremendous, and I’ve never forgotten it, how helpful he was. But we went from there, Camp Shanks, up to New York. And, course, we were all replacements, we were not a division or anything, we were all individual soldiers. So we get up there and we’re loading on this boat, or ship, as I was later told. I didn’t know what it was but it was sure big. We were on E deck, which was about 60 feet below the water level. There we had a small room, cabin. There were nine of us in there. You could lay flat in the bunks that they had but you couldn’t roll over. And we had a bathroom, we were fortunate. Well unfortunately, I got sea sick, if you can imagine that, because we had one meal at like four o’clock in the morning and the other meal at eight o’clock at night. ‘Cause, on the Queen Mary, I didn’t know this till after, they had like 17,000 men, so you can imagine. But, survived; we landed in Scotland, and we got on these like little dinghies and they took us into shore, and then we got on trains, but on the little dinghy a Scotchman was talking to me and to this day I don’t know what he said. I could not understand anything! So if it looked like I was supposed to laugh I laughed. But we got on a troop train and went to South Hampton. Got to South Hampton, and this was the, about the 2nd of January. Well we got on a LCI, which was a Landing Craft Infantry, for transport across to France. The interesting thing was that I met a guy who was in my high school class who was in the navy on the LCI. So he had me up there and I got a peanut butter sandwich and a very nice visit. Then when we’re getting near, they had to open up the bulkhead, and he said now you can go out and go down to Europe. Well, let me tell you, they open the bulkhead, you’re outside, you’re on a little tiny ship – I didn’t know where I was. I was scared to death out there! I couldn’t – I’m crawling along on my hands and knees to find the bulkhead where everybody was. Well obviously I did. And we landed in, and, at that time was the Lucky Strike, which was just being formed, the replacement depot. And we learned how to sleep outside on the ground in freezing weather – and soon learned that you sleep on the inside for so long and then you turn over and somebody else sleeps on the inside so you can keep warm. But anyway, we then took trains and we went to Liege, Belgium. Liege was the replacement depot for the area, and it looked like at first we were going to go into the glider thing – they were looking for infantry for gliders. Fortunately we didn’t get there. I was picked up by the 84th, which was stationed not too far from Liege. Got there about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and at 4:30 p.m. its pitch dark over there, at that time. So I was given a BAR, which is a Browning automatic rifle. They do this to people who are big and dumb, because it’s the heaviest weapon you have to carry, and I was an expert shot on a lot of the items so they thought this would be good for me. And I met Coats who was an ammo carrier, who was going to be my ammo carrier. Because with the BAR the clips were heavy, and you couldn’t carry that plus the weapon plus all the other things, so you had an ammo carrier who went with you. Well, we were pushed up onto the line, snow about up to our waist. We didn’t know where anybody was, they didn’t know who we were or anything, and then we got into a firefight. And, I – I was firing but I didn’t know where or what or anything – I couldn’t see anything! Well anyway, we went through that, and I became, that we were fighting for Houffalize, and about three weeks later, we’d retaken Houffalize course it was pretty flat by then. And I was on the outskirts of Houffalize – on the road to Bastogne, was a big park, garden, and it had steel picket fence. And I was hanging on the fence – exhausted, what have you – and a Jeep pulled up. This fella gets out of the Jeep, and said, “Soldier, where are your galoshes?” I said, “Galoshes? We don’t have galoshes – nobody’s got galoshes!” “Soldier, give me your name, and I’ll have your galoshes.” And I said, “Get the galoshes for the whole company, we all need ‘em.” Guy got back into the Jeep and the driver came over and he said, “Do you know who that was?” And I said, “No and I really don’t care.” “That was General Patton.” Then from there we went up to the Ruer River, because we were, originally the 84th was with the 9th Army under Montgomery. So we – by then we had gotten our uniforms, and everything was mud, so the white uniforms did not really go as camouflage, so we got rid of them. But we went up to Holland and spent a week there, and pulled out to the Ruer River, they got places getting ready to cross the Ruer. We sat there for about 3 weeks. I shouldn’t say sit, we were in foxholes. We’d watch the Germans on one side, as they were going to lunch and stuff and everything, and they’d sit and watch us as we’re doing the same thing. We were not – nobody was firing at anybody, because you didn’t want to start that. Well, we got a new lieutenant, and I’m – I’m just a private, and the lieutenant came down to me and he said, “I want to set up a 30 caliber machine gun on the end here. You’re the automatic weapons guy, so you do that.” I said, “We don’t have a 30 caliber here.” He got one and he came over and he says, “Now I want you to set up an azimuth.” An azimuth is the direction you’re gonna fire. And he said, “And I want you to fire out there to take it out.” I said, “We don’t wanna do that.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “The Germans are not coming this way, we’re going that way. You open up with a machine gun here and we’re gonna have mortars or 88s all over the place.” “That’s an order – you will do it.” So I put out a short burst, and then I went into a foxhole. About fifteen minutes later we had a few mortars dropped in, just to let us know that they were still there. And I never saw the lieutenant again until we were getting ready to cross the Ruer. We were not the lead company, but we were in reserve, so we were going in right after the lead company. And the lieutenant came down there and… it – it was tough, you know, you had your little boats, and the Germans were sitting on the other side, even though the artillery had gone on for like twelve hours to eliminate anybody on the other side – and of course it never worked ‘cause they were all in foxholes, or pillboxes, which they had. But anyway, it – it was bad, you could see guys getting hit, and – and hurt. And all of a sudden the lieutenant said to me, he says, “I’ve got to go back and get something, I’ll be right back.” Never saw him again. And the captain came down and asked me what happened to Lieutenant Clark. I said, “I don’t know.” But, then, you know, we crossed the Ruer, went all the way over to the Rhine River. And we got to Crefeld, Germany, we took that, and we took an apartment house, ‘cause Crefeld was a pretty big city, and the apartment house still had running water, electricity, and we hadn’t had a shower or washed in like four weeks. It was just delightful to be able to shower, and we listened to Axis Sally, Glenn Miller, the Dorthies, all this. Oh it was just – it was wonderful! But we were training in ducks to go across the Rhine River. The ducks were run by the Navy, and we trained, got ready to go, and when we were to cross the Rhine, the ducks weren’t there. We found out that Patton’s 7th Army had pulled the ducks to go across the Rhine down below. So we had to go across in our little rubber boats or anything else we could. We got over, and went from the Rhine to the Elbe. I was one of the – one in a million, I guess. I didn’t get hit or wounded, all in three major combat areas – just lucky. I did get frostbitten hands… Oh yeah, I did end up during the Bulge. It was, you know, below zero, we were knee deep in snow and that’s where you slept. The raincoats, or the wool topcoats that we had were just fine until they got a little wet, then they weighed about twenty pounds. They’d get stiff when they froze so we’d never used them. So we had very little clothing. But I was worried about trench foot like everybody was and I kept changing my socks and doing all that, and, forgot all about my hands. And they turned a little grayish in color, but they were all right. Then it was on the other side of the Rhine River, uh we were pinned down. When we crossed the Rhine River the idea was to – we were to get to Berlin. That was it, we were going to be as mechanized as we could, any vehicle at all that you could do to put the guys on the go. Well we started that way, and then we got an order to stop. The Russians were gonna take Berlin. So the 9th Army was held up. Well, we got pinned down, and we had a tiger tank down below us, and I was firing. I lost my ammo carrier and a couple of other guys. And I got up to move, ‘cause being pinned down, you’re gonna get killed or severely wounded ‘cause they’re just gonna keep you there and keep throwing in mortars from the tank, and a 20 milliliter on that would keep you pinned down, so I got up to move, just to get around, and I took a shell right straight across my chest, just enough to burn all the way along. But uh, so, and that was, it’s a good thing I had turned ‘cause it would have been my heart. ‘Cause the sniper was pretty good. But anyway, we, and the other fellows got up and started following me, and we got out of there. Many years later I got the Bronze Star for doing that. That’s why we got up the Elbe River, and we met the Russians up there. We had, were cut off like 3 weeks. The Germans behind us still wanted to fight. The Germans on the other side of the Elbe were being pushed by the Russians. They wanted to join us so we could all fight the Russians. Well, we spent three weeks there being hemmed in, we couldn’t get out of there, we didn’t have any food or anything. Then we met the Russians, and found out the war was ending. And one of the biggest thrills I had was they brought up a delousing outfit ‘cause we all had lice and everything, and showers. We hadn’t had a shower in months, and it was just wonderful. So after the end of the war we were in occupation, and came back to Hannover, and we had taken Hannover. The people there did not really appreciate us. We had a little difficulty with guys being killed on the outskirts of the city, so we were then taken out of there and went to Heidelberg, Germany to be the division for the National US Army Headquarters. At that time, you had to have so many points to come home. Well I had been in three major campaigns, that gave me fifteen points, I had a Bronze Star, that gave me five points, and I think you needed like 130 points to get out of the Army at that time, to be discharged. And the only people who had anything like that were all the guys in the Air Force ‘cause they got a Battle Star every time they flew somewhere. We didn’t. So I figured I was gonna be in the Army about a hundred years, before I… But I got transferred to a quartermaster company and then came home.
Jim Triesler: What was your career after you came home?
Cobb: Well, I didn’t know what to do. I came home in July and I just fooled around a lot, didn’t do much. Then I went down to Waterbury, ‘cause I was living in Lakeville, Connecticut at the time, down to Waterbury and took the exams for the University of Connecticut, and I was surprised I passed them all. So I was freshman at the University of Connecticut, along with two thousand other GIs or what have you from WWII who had applied at the University of Connecticut. Almost all of us were from Connecticut. Well they didn’t have room for us at the main campus, so we were put at Fort Trumble, down in New London, Connecticut – an old merchant marine base. So there were two thousand of us there, and went from there. The VA – I was going as a disabled veteran - they told me, you’d take an exam, occupational, that sort of stuff, you know what can you do, and I was studying civil engineering. And they said you are not going to be an engineer, you’re not gonna do that. And I’m stubborn, I said oh yeah I am. Well my junior year I flunked out of engineering. My wife was – I met my wife in high school. She was a cheerleader, and I played football so there you go. She was working in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the University of Bridgeport had just started four years – they had been a two year college. So I transferred down to the University of Bridgeport. Married my wife, ‘cause she supported me, you know I had to keep that up. And, graduated from the University of Bridgeport with a degree in marketing, which is what the VA told me I should have done four years ago. And, was president of the marketing club at the University of Bridgeport. Had people in from GE, and they asked me to work for GE, when I graduated, so I did.
Triesler: When the war ended and you were still in Europe, did you believe that you would be headed toward the Pacific to fight there?
Cobb: Well, the division was supposed to start jungle training. And I told the Captain Ty… Oh, I was a sergeant. Uh, I should back up a little bit. After the Rhine crossing, we lost a light machine gun section. And since I was an automatic weapons man, had been there – lasted longer than anyone else – they made me a sergeant and put me in charge of the machine gun section, light machine gun. This was after the incident with the tiger tank and everything, ‘cause that’s when we lost, those guys, all of a sudden I had three guys and a machine gun, so.
Triesler: They did start training, jungle training – How could they do jungle train in Europe?
Cobb: Well, I don’t know they were gonna do this, get us ready, and I told Captain Ty, I said, “You better lock me up now ‘cause I’m not going.” And there were a lot of us who said that. But the division did not come back as a whole division. They shipped it back in parts.
Triesler: Were you upset when you heard the Russians were going to take Berlin instead of the 84th?
Cobb: No, we were just so surprised because we had been pushing so much to get there, and we were twenty miles from Berlin. And I think it was Simpson who said you have to go back. And, course you couldn’t go back, ‘cause we had spearheaded through the German army, in particular the Panzers, they were all behind us. So if you tried to go back, we had to fight like crazy to get back. Well, the 29th division was stuck the same way.
Triesler: Were the Panzers still pretty formidable toward the end there?
Cobb: Oh yeah, yeah they were. The only ones that we ran into that were not were those that were being pushed out by the Russians across the Elbe. The Russians when we met them, you know you’ve heard of the Cossacks that ride the horses and all this – they had the Cossacks. And if you got wounded the most then you were able to lead their charge. And they all carried machine guns, you know like the Thompsons, but they were Russian-made type. We all looked at them and said no, no way are we ever gonna fight these guys!
Triesler: Well that’s what I wondered, if – you know when you heard rumors that the Germans wanted to turn and fight the Russians alongside the Americans, did you think there was any credibility to that rumor, or not?
Cobb: We thought maybe there was, because as you know Patton was the one that said we can’t trust them, we don’t wanna stay with them. Hey we were, at that time we were so beat up, it was just – it was nice to be able to get out of there.
Triesler: Did you get to shake hands with any of the Russians or meet them in person?
Cobb: Oh yeah, oh yeah – oh we tried their vodka. But it was like 200 proof! One of the guys went blind. Oh it was terrible! But it was better than what we had!
You know after the war you had displaced people all over, so we had to take these people back to France or Russia, or wherever they came from. Well I was assigned then to take a group back to Russia, and we had regular railroad cars, and we also had the six-bys, you the uh… what am I trying to say – boxcars, boxcars. And we had, I don’t know how many, Russian women and older people on this train to go back.
Triesler: Would a Browning work against a tank?
Cobb: Oh no, but the killing range was about 1700 yards. They were very, very good and the Germans when you opened up with a BAR, and I learned this the hard way. All of a sudden you drew all the fire, because they were going to get rid of you. I learned how to roll and run and fall. Something [that always] kept me going was the fact that I’d get up, I’d run. He sees me, he’s aiming and then I’d hit the ground. And I don’t know why. I always did that, whether it helped me or not.
Triesler: Did you having something in particular that you’d normally set up behind whether it was from a fox hole or a wall or a shrubbery. I mean what did you look for …Did you have a favorite place to fire the Browning from?
Cobb: No. Because we were moving around so much that there was… I would try to find something that had a little coverage. But I knew as soon as I did they were [right there]. That’s like every third rung was supposed to be a tracer. I did that the third night in Belgium. I found out what a tracer does. It tells everybody where you are. And I got all kinds [of answers]. So from now on, I never had a tracer in my clips. Oh I made sure of that. But of course I lost three of the ammo carriers.
Triesler: Would they have a tendency to, you know, if you’d roll occasionally. Would your ammo carriers do they same? [Or] were they just so weighted down?
Cobb: Well, no. ‘Course they carried an M1 plus the ammo. I don’t know if they could move fast or not.
Triesler: Were they even stronger and bigger in person even than you?
Triesler: I suppose both men had to be strong in that type of war. You mentioned you were sick on the Queen Mary, but you didn’t tell me how long it lasted for.
Cobb: Well, we were on the Queen Mary only three days. At that time they made their run from NY to Scotland, three days. I was sick just one day.
Triesler: And other members of the nine, there were nine in your room. Others were sick too?
Cobb: Yeah, yeah. One gets sick [all of] the others [do too]. Of course the air was dead. It was hot. You know, and not eating the way [we were used to]. And of course it was British food which was fat and greasy.
Triesler: Could you go above deck at all, to get some fresh air?
Cobb: No, we were supposed to. But of course they had no elevators. So you had to walk. And you’d have to go all the way down the Queen Mary to one end and come all the way back to the other end to get up. And the Queen Mary, I didn’t know it until I got off it, how big [it] was.
Triesler: For food then, did you take turns going to the mess hall or did they have food in packages in your room? Or were you not interested in food on the Queen Mary?
Cobb: No, you had to go wait in line in the hall. And they just came by and gave you whatever the meal was.
Triesler: It had to be a tough job to feed 17 000 people in such a confined space.
Cobb: Yeah, well that was the whole thing. That’s why you got two meals a day.
Triesler: I always ask about letters, writing letters and censorship. Would you ever try to write things in a way where people at home would understand it but the censors wouldn’t pick up on it? Or what was that like for you, writing and receiving letters?
Cobb: I didn’t write home very often. We just never had [the time]. I was on the line for 130 days so I couldn’t get back to a rest area to write letters. So really I didn’t.
Triesler: Did you receive letters?
Cobb: Oh yeah! We got letters, ‘course they were all addressed to an APO. We got them. But we might get three weeks at a time in one. You know whenever they caught up to us.
Triesler: Were you encouraged to get rid of the letters?
Cobb: Oh yeah. We couldn’t have pictures or any identification on anybody anywhere else. In other words, you had your dog tags and that was all you had really. If you had a picture, it would have to be just a picture.
Triesler: Just curious, I interviewed a man, who was an African American man who drove Ducks over at Normandy. And you were talking about the Ducks over there. And I was wondering, was that traditionally an African American job, or mixed? Did you come across any African American units while you were there?
Cobb: No, I didn’t. Not the ones we were working with.
Triesler: [Did you ever come] across any [concentration] camps?
Cobb: I was right outside of Hannover and I was in the 333rd Infantry Regiment. It was the 334th that went in and got the concentration camp. We were supposed to be with them, but there was a terrible firefight outside of Hannover by the airport. We met the people after, but we didn’t go in. They’ve given us awards and everything else. The people came and visited us. We have a reunion every year. When we were in Albany, New York, they all came and told us how much they appreciated us. It was on NBC.
Triesler: What were the people like when you first encountered them?
Cobb: Most of them probably weighed about 80 pounds, and they were some of the better treated. Dehydrated, everything you could think of.
Triesler: Do you know if they were primarily Jewish people or political prisoners?
Cobb: They were Jewish and Polish for some reason. Whether they were Jewish or Polish, I don’t know. We didn’t spend much time with them. You’ll have to get one of the guys from the 3-3-4.
Triesler: Were they in hospitals by the time you saw them?
Cobb: No, this was ten hours after.
Triesler: So they were still at the camps?
Triesler: What about American prisoners? Did you come across any of those?
Triesler: I’m really curious; the tiger tank seems to be really big in your memory. I’m having trouble picturing it. What was it like for you? Were you in a forest? Can you describe that scene a little bit more?
Cobb: It was a flat field, like one you’d have in the Midwest or something. The grass was maybe six inches high, it was open. And there was a brook running along one end. And there was a bridge and the tiger tank was sitting on top of the bridge. So he could look down on all of us out there. The bridge was elevated maybe ten feet off the ground. We were coming down. We were mechanized on the road. And all of a sudden, he knocks down a couple of trucks. We got down, got out of there. And then the Germans in the tank opened up, they had Automatic Weapons, very unusual for all of them. So they had us pinned down, so if you stuck your hand up, you were going to get hit.
Triesler: So you were beside the road then, where the road dropped off?
Cobb: Yeah. And we were in a flat area, like this parking lot out here except no [pavement]. And it was clear, there were no trees around. If you could get flat enough, you’d be alright.
Triesler: And you didn’t have a bazooka person who could take them out?
Cobb: We were wondering where the hell everybody was who was supposed to do this.
Triesler: And did you call for air support?
Cobb: You could, but by the time they got there, you don’t know. It wasn’t like before when we were advancing and we had an Artillery Observer with us where you could get stuff. This was just to go, and that’s what we were doing. And after that, it sounds crazy, We got streifed by a German jet. We had no idea where any of our trucks were. And this German plane comes by, and it was so fast. ‘What the hell was that?’ Then he opened up, and he had been trained. But when he opened up with his machine guns, he was hitting way in front of us because he was going so fast. It lasted about 20 minutes until he went down and ran out of fuel.
Triesler: So you were backing away from the tiger tank, forced to find another way around?
Cobb: Oh yeah. Well somebody pulled up and we did get the tiger tank. I don’t know who did it. ‘Cause we were getting out of there.
Triesler: I was going to ask you about the air raids and when you were in the foxholes, did you have to worry about the German air planes, or were they not around much?
Cobb: No, we worried more about the US airplanes. Particularly on the Ruer River, because if they couldn’t get to Berlin, they’d be coming back to go to England or some of the areas they’d opened up in France. And of course they can’t land with all their bombs, so they’d drop them. Unfortunately they’d drop them on the wrong side of the Ruer River. They’d drop them on us instead of the other side.
Triesler: I know when they reenact battles on Band of Brothers, they do a lot of fighting through the forests, there always seems to be a concern about shells hitting trees and splinters and stuff. Did you have any experience with that?
Cobb: Oh, tree bursts, yeah. The Band of Brothers was good. But tree bursts, we’d have an awful lot of guys hit by shrapnel because it would blow up. The Germans, after a while, had what we called timed fire. The .88’s would come up and 50 feet off the ground, the shells would blow up and pepper you with steel. And in that area, I was trying to figure out how I could get all of my body under that helmet so I wouldn’t get hit. Of course, that’s not going to happen. We lost a couple of guys, but I got out of it alright. We got the squad into a house, [and] then had a direct hit on the house. Of course we were under the stair wells so we didn’t get hurt.
Triesler: Have you ever read Company Commander by McDonald, I believe. It’s a nice book. I forget what unit it is, but it follows Germany and the troops in the race to get to the Rhine. It was interesting because he mentions being pinned down in house, and half the group would be in the barn and half would be in the house, and they’d sometimes lose communication. It’s very interesting because it’s the closest I’ve been able to get a feel for everything that you might be worried about at that time. It’s not a tremendously thick book, but I enjoyed reading it.
[pans camera to Mrs. Cobb]
Triesler: Could you tell us something about yourself and what it was like on the home front, waiting?
Mrs. Cobb: Russ and I went to High School together, so I’ve known him since before he went into the service. One thing I remember, when his family and I were seeing him off at the Railroad station, his mother and I were weepy, waily, and his sister, who was eight years younger was like “What are they all so sorry about?” But we had no idea. He did come home for the one short visit, but we knew that he’d be going…somewhere. We hoped that it would be the European Theater and not the South Pacific. And then we would hear occasionally. What annoyed me the most was I’d get a letter. I used to write every night. He’d say, “I haven’t gotten a letter from you in three weeks, what’s the matter?” One thing our local newspaper did was they published a list of all the casualties everyday. And with much trepidation, his mother and I perused that list everyday. And fortunately, his name was never there. It was a kind of hair-raising experience not knowing where he was, just hearing about things going on. It’s not like today. When the war was over, our next great fear was that he’d be shipped off to the Pacific. Of course we found out later he was supposed to be. Then he came home and we got married. I supported him for two years, and things just went from there and it’s been 58 whole years.
Triesler: Was rationing a problem?
Mrs. Cobb: You know, you didn’t really think too much about it. We had rationing. We didn’t own a car, so that wasn’t a problem. And my mother, being Swedish, everything had to have butter. Well forget it, so we didn’t use butter, and if we did use it, it was very meagerly used. But you got used to it. You had your Food Stamps and if they were gone, they were gone. You had your Fuel Stamps. And I remembered we used our Fuel Stamps up more than once because we had a nice big fireplace that we had roaring most of the time. But if you were just careful, and didn’t think about yourself but thought about what was really going on. We’d see some of the News Reels of the Displaced Persons, DP’s they called them, over in Europe. We’d think, we don’t have it so bad really. So I think you can live with anything, if you try.