Interview with Fred Werrell


Q:  When did you go into the armed forces? 


A:  I was 18 years old when I went into the service.  We had 16 in our family and my father had passed away when I was 16 years old.  I did not enlist because there were five of my brothers who were already in the service.  I was home supporting my mother and the rest of our family and finally the draft board said I had to go, and so I went.  That was the end of 1943.  And I went to North Carolina for basic training.


Q:  Which branch of the service were you in?


A:  In the army I trained on 155 howitzers.  It is quite a large gun and it has a shell that weighs 95 pounds and can shoot 9 miles accurate.  In those days you were out in the field and you had to dig a hole by hand about as big as this kitchen, three feet deep.  The camouflage nets would go over top of it so you couldn’t see it from the air.  The Sergeant was in charge and there were ten of us.  My job was to fire the howitzer and to put the powder in.  There were seven or eight bags of powder, all attached together.  To fire the gun a shorter distance, you just cut off some of the bags.  The most we ever fired at one time was about five bags of powder.  That would go four or five miles.  The shell had a fuse on the front that you screwed on. You can set the fuse to explode when it hits the ground or hits what ever you are firing at.   You can set it to explode in the air, especially when you are firing at troops.  Then you get pieces of shrapnel and it all breaks up.  You would have to open and clean what they called the breech.  It’s kind of like a little pan, which had oil in it, and you had an oil rag that you would wet and use to wipe off the breech.  It would get black, very black.  The reason I can hear today is because every time you fired you were supposed to open your mouth.  If you kept your mouth closed the noise of the gun recoiled back and it is so large that if you stand in the way, well that would be the end of you.  Having your mouth open does protect your ears. 


Q:  Did you fire any guns besides howitzers?


A:  I used to fire a bazooka too.  There is no recoil at all from bazookas.  You put it on your shoulder and the shell goes in the tube and one fellow is in back of you and he wraps the wire around that little coil, where you make electrical contact, and then he hits you on the shoulder.  That meant he was out of the way and that you could fire.  When you do fire, there is no recoil, but what comes out the back is just a mass of flame.  In fact we put up sheets, regular bed sheets on 2 x 4s and put them in back of us and it burned them to a crisp.  There were fellows who did get hurt when they were practicing.  They burned their hands severely.  It is a very simple thing to fire.  There is a trigger on it and you actually just squeeze it.  I don’t know exactly how accurate it is, but when we fired at the German tanks, the shells just bounced off.  They had such good tanks.  To knock the tanks out you had to hit the tracks and then they couldn’t move.  That’s what we aimed at most of the time.


Q:  Had you ever handled a gun before going into the military?


A:  Not until I got in the army.  I had what they call a carbine.  That has a clip of 15 rounds, but when we got overseas, we welded two clips together so that we would have 30 rounds.  It was illegal to do, but it was nice to do because you just hold your finger on the trigger and it would go pow pow pow pow pow….  And it was a nice gun, I mean if you want to call guns nice.  It was a light gun.  It wasn’t like a rifle, which is a lot heavier.  At the rifle range we shot 200 yards.  After that, I went to Fort Bragg, Kentucky.  There I met a nice family from Evansville, Indiana that took me in on furlough weekends and so forth.


Q:  What happened after you were in Kentucky?


A: The Battle of the Bulge started as the German Army broke through the American lines and began an offensive in Belgium.  Our group left Kentucky seven months early because we were needed to help push the Germans back into Germany.  We got on a British ship, to go over, that held 10,000 soldiers.  All of our equipment was in the bottom of the ship.  There were 600,000 soldiers that fought in that battle. 


Q:  Were you worried that the ship would be attacked on the way over to Europe?


A:  You’re scared.  Anybody who says they aren’t scared, they are lying.  We were concerned about German submarines so we went over in convoys and we had ships protecting us.  At night we slept in canvas cots, eight or ten deep, and not very comfortable.  They were chained to the wall.  We ate beans for breakfast and I know there were hot dogs there.  The British cut up hot dogs in something.  It wasn’t too good taste wise.  We landed in Glasgow, Scotland, and our ship was too big to go into port so we had to be transported onto tugboats and then we got into Glasgow, they put us on freight cars, I mean really freight cars, not like American ones. They’re boxes. 


Q:  What was it like riding in the freight cars in Scotland?


A:  We were headed to Wales, to where our guns were.  When we were on these freight cars, we were cooking our sea rations on one of these little Bunsen burners and all of the sudden, the train jerked.  The trains were always jerking.  My hand went on this can, and I have this scar, see that.  And it was funny, ‘cause they wanted to give me a purple heart ‘cause I was wounded in action.  It was bleeding so badly, you know, we threw the powder in there, put special powder on there and put gauze on it.  It wasn’t that bad.  When it cut, I didn’t even know it was cut until it started bleeding, because the edge of the can was so sharp.  So we got word to three cars ahead of us, where all the medics and the doctors were.  They had me get off the train and run along the tracks while the train was going.  The funny part, although I didn’t think it was funny at the time, was that they couldn’t stop the train.  If they stopped the train, they felt you were a target, because you could be bombed.  But anyway, I’m running along the tracks and finally I catch up to the car and they had the door open and they pulled me inside, and finally the guy sat me down on the floor and he’s taking his needle and he says he was going to do the best he could.  Every time he would go to put the needle in the train would jerk, and they didn’t give me anything for pain.  I’d say that the train was going maybe fifteen or twenty miles an hour.


Q:  What happened after you got to Wales?


A:  So then after we got into Wales, we got our guns ready and they called our division to get into Germany and eventually we got up to the Rhine River and it was cold.  The hardest part for the American soldier was the cold - the snow, the cold, the sleet, frozen feet, frozen fingers, stuff like that.  There were a lot of cases of frostbite there.  And then when we decided to cross the Rhine River and they were building pontoon bridges and we had…I’m trying to think of the name of it…it is not a tank, it’s a tractor, and like a tractor it had regular tractor steel, with seats up top which pulled our gun. The back part of the gun opens up like a Y.  The back part has like a spade that digs into the ground, which you push into the ground so that it wouldn’t coil back.  Well, some of it is welded parts; they have to weld the things together.  Anyway, when we started across the Rhine River, it was kind of scary because soon as the engineers got the bridge built, the Germans would bomb it.  And in certain parts of that river, especially where we were at, it’s very swift and if you got caught in it you’re almost a goner…


And another sidelight, that’s where I met my brother, he was in another outfit.  I saw some soldiers with his patch, from the group that he was with and I said, you know Paul Werrell and finally we got together.  Before we crossed the Rhine, he came and ate lunch at our place and I went to eat lunch at his place.  They were stationed at this big zoo, and in the zoo they had this big cafeteria, and these guys are eating with table clothes on and we’re sitting on the ground eating with mess kits!  I couldn’t believe it.  And the food they fed me in that place was unbelievable, because he was with the headquarters division.  A lot better treatment, yeah. 



Q:  How did the German citizens treat you?


A:  You didn’t see too much of them.  When we were going through Belgium, I met some Belgian people who were very nice. We liberated Belgium.  War is cruel and it’s sad and a lot of people suffered in that war.  At the time, I think that most civilians over in Germany weren’t thinking about taking anything. They were just trying to protect themselves. There were towns where there were no houses left.  They were just wiped out, bombed out.  People were killed and children…we saw it in Germany and in Belgium.  Some places were bombed by us, because there was military going through those places.  You don’t know how many civilians were killed because they would set up in an area.  The Americans were more or less after the factories, where they made their ammunition and trying to bomb them out and of course by doing that you are bombing civilians and so…After the war was over the transport planes crashed not too far from us where Germans were trying to escape and so we had to go through this town to try to find these soldiers who were in the transport plane so we went from house to house to house and we got into this barn and I saw the hay moving and they gave us orders to shoot and don’t ask questions. So by the grace of God, that the only thing I can say, I just hollered, “Get out!” and a little boy and a little girl, 7 or 8 years old, walked out and I said, “Oh thank you Jesus, for not letting me shoot those kids.” And another time, during the war actually, we were in this apple orchard, and the farmhouse was quite a way up on the hill and we were sitting on this wall, there’s a lot of rock walls over there and a little boy and a girl came down, they were 7 or 8 years old, and my buddy and I were eating and we just had left in our mess kit was a half a peach, a canned peach, and they came and sat down beside us and the little girl looks up in my eyes and I look at Ed and I said “Ed, I can’t eat this peach, can you?” He says “No” and we gave it to the kids to eat and actually we could’ve been court marshaled for it because the reason is, they would tell their friends that they’re giving food down near the guns, and at the time, I was sitting on this wall, and across the street the shells were coming in. You could see the artillery shells coming in. It breaks your heart, you know, children are children.


Q:  Did you have any problems with mines?


A:  Oh yes and then there were mines on the ground where we were. We had after we got across the Rhine, after the tenth time the bridge was blown up the following day we got on that, cause we fired all night long before we went across.  There were ten of us to actually run the gun, but we worked with five men and five guys slept and believe me, you could sleep with all of that noise you were so tired and they had a rack which you put the shell on. It was a rack about 2 foot or 2 ½ foot and you lay it on that rack and two guys carry it up to the gun and they had a ramrod and they would ram the shell in.  Well, we bypassed that.  We just took it in our arms like this here and threw it in and the guy in the back would catch it.  We never missed. If we did miss, I don’t think the impact would be… they tell you not to do it that way, you know, you improvise, just to let somebody get some rest.  There are times when you go and you don’t sleep for days.  It is just unreal.  So anytime you would see a place that is cold, you lay it on a log or a bunch of snow and you just lay down and went to sleep like that. Snow was up to your hips. Then as you were moving there were mine fields.  I felt sorry for those guys. They both just got married before they went over and two sergeants.  They were trying to clear a mine field so we could go over this field and they weren’t supposed to do it.  They were supposed to call the engineers in to do that, they had the metal detectors.  The best way to describe the mine is, you have a cheese box, not the 3lb cheese box but about a 5lb cheese box like the stores used to get, like at the deli, but they don’t put them in boxes anymore it is all in plastic now.  It is a metal box, that big, and it has a cover on it.  And it has two handles.  The cover, if you step on it with enough weight, if I step on it it wouldn’t explode, or if you took the cover off to try to disarm it, it would explode and these guys were not trained to disarm it.  What the engineers do, after these four fellows were killed, it is just a sad sight…it is sad to say, we just had to go and collect parts.


Q:  What was inside the boxes?


A:  I don’t know what it was made of.  And the, some of them are round, metal.  So what the engineers do is they go in and take a little garden tool and scrape around it and take a rope and put a rope on the handle and if the mine is where I’m sitting, they would go up to where the RR track is and they would pull them all into a big pile, like where the this table is, and they would set it off themselves.  Just to blow them up so they couldn’t be used again.  It is sad.  I think the hardest thing was the cold weather.  I think I dug so many holes in Europe that is why I don’t like to garden, maybe?  Just to keep warm and shovel snow, just to keep warm. Because if we weren’t firing at night we would have to be on guard duty.


Q:  Did you have tents?


A:  No, we didn’t have any tents.  Well we would dig a whole and after a while we would have tents and it was almost a waste of time putting them up.  The thing that was funny was you dug a hole and it is almost like digging your own grave.  You lay down in there. Today you would think that it was very uncomfortable.  You throw leaves and twigs that were there just laying around and then you’d put over the top, logs, pieces of wood and stuff.  Then it would snow that night.  Then the next morning the sun would come up and you are down there with all that water dripping on you from the snow melting.  That is the most uncomfortable feeling of all.  Yeah, you were wet all the time.  I never got a cold.  Never got a cold.  It is funny.  When you talk about it now, you say, how did you ever do it.  You were just there and you had to do it. I think god had made our bodies so strong and so intricate that we could put up with these things. You think you can’t but you just had to keep going. 


Q:  Now you would shoot it but you couldn’t see where it was going to land?  You could hit a house, you could hit anything.


A:  No, they have the little cub airplanes flying around out there, I think that was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.  They were telling you where to fire.  And usually in artillery, the first round you fire it’s over.  The second round is short and sometimes you even hit your own men.  There is a percentage of your own men that get hit.  And then they take the coordinates between the two shots and usually the middle coordinate is where you have got your target.  When we crossed the Rhine, we fired all night long to try to push them back more so that we could get across.



Q:  After the Battle of the Bulge what did you do the rest of the war time?


A:  Well, after that Germany surrendered, they broke our division up and then they were sending people home who had enough points to go home,  that meant how many battle stars you have.  I fought in three major battles.  One is the Ardennes, the Battle of the Bulge, I can’t remember the other one.  It might be in my book here.  They broke us up and I didn’t have enough points to go home and they put us in what you call these tent cities. You had these big tents where maybe 24 guys would sleep in with a stove in the middle and whoever slept closest to the stove was the warmest.  As young guys they did crazy things and you had to watch out.  You were inside your bedroll most of the time and you zip that up when you sleep, you had to sleep holding your top zipper, because you always had comedians amongst you and they would come and unzip the bedroll while the guy is sleeping and put a mouse inside just to see him jump all over the place, just for the fun of it. The mouse was more scared than you and even when we were in the field, we used to see, we’d be laying down and the mice and rats would run over you. 


Q:  What did you do after Germany surrendered?


A:  After the war was over I got sent to what was Metz, Germany, but it is Metz, France now.  I got hooked up with a military police outfit.  I had a horrible job the first night and I got off of it and I praise the Lord for that.  There were Americans who were stationed in Metz and there was a beautiful park and at midnight my job was to go out to the park and chase all the soldiers out, with their girlfriends, from the park.  I met this Captain Otto, who was a friend of mine, and I said boy you have to get me a different job.  I can’t handle this. He says, “Can you type?”  I said hunt and peck and he said you got another job.  So I worked in the MP station and the sergeant would write up everything that happened during the day and then they would give me the book and then I would type it on this form, put it in a big brown envelope and jump in the jeep and take it to the general, everyday. That was nice.  That was kind of a soft job I had for two months or so.  I used to work 24 hours and have 72 hours off and we didn’t have to sleep in the barracks.  We were in an apartment over the MP station and the fellows were all together.  Right next door was the Red Cross with coffee and doughnuts there for the soldiers. And then while we were there, my buddy Ed, who is a Jewish fella’, The thing of it is there were two Catholic orphanages in this town.  I said, you know, we ought to give these kids a party or something because right next to the Red Cross place there was a big hall where the soldiers danced at night and we would play pool and ping pong, so anyway, I had to get permission.  They wouldn’t let me have the girls and boys together.  I had to have two parties.  The boys had to be separate from the girls.  Of course we took the girls first. All of their parents were killed in the war.  And they were from two years old to about nine or ten so we had about 30 to 40 children there.  We had German prisoners there, making the coffee and serving us and all that stuff.  We had them  make a birthday cake and also we made 5 gallons of homemade ice cream and I collected a lot of candy bars from all the other soldiers to give to the kids when they left and we had a party for them.  We played games.  It’s interesting, the best game they liked, boys and girls alike at that age was when you were in a big circle and you would take a handkerchief and you would stand and they would drop the handkerchief in the back of you and then you would chase  them and get back in that spot that was open and they would always put them in back of Ed and I and ‘course we’d go real fast but we’d never catch them, ya’ know, we could never catch them. It was a fun time and then when we got the boys, ‘ course the boys were a little more excited because they could ride in the army truck. They thought that was really neat.  We took the sisters [nuns] in the jeep and one of the nuns spoke English but my Jewish buddy, he could speak French.  He could talk to the kids and it was kinda neat, too. And then I was carrying this two year old after the party was all over.  We gave them all a bunch of goodies to take back.  And I was carrying this two year old little girl and she said something in French that I didn’t understand and the sister said she wanted to go home with me.  I started crying.  After that, there used to be a lot of stuff sold on the black market and the military police would go and confiscate a lot of stuff and this one night they brought in, I think it was 48 or 50 boxes of Hershey Bars and each box contained 48 bars of candy. They were big boxes. And so I said to Captain Otto, “Oh, I  know where thats gonna go and he said, “Oh, I can’t give ‘em to you because if I gave them to you they’d think you were going to sell them but, he says if you get Nancy, who was the Red Cross lady next door to take her jeep and to put them in her jeep you can take them to the orphanage. I said, “Okay, that’s no problem.” The soldiers would sell them to the people for an extraordinary amount of money. And a Hershey Bar wasn’t what you get today. I mean, they were Hershey bars. I mean big! We got Nancy to drive us over and we divided between both orphanages.  I said to the sister that these are for the children.  I said that you sisters can have some, too.  But I want you to take the same amount as you give to the children. She said to me, “Well, I’ll break a piece off each bar and then give some after lunch and after dinner. Give them a piece about this big.” So it would last. And I said, “Yeah, okay, that sounds good.” She said yes, she would promise me that they would do that. Any time I could get any food or anything, I would bring it over to the orphanage.  And it was very interesting, she would say to me, “I don’t understand you two guys. You’re protestant, your buddy is a Jew, and we are Catholic.  Why are you helping the Catholics?” I said, “I’m not helping the Catholics, I’m helping the children.  What difference does it make it we are Catholic, Jew or Protestant and these kids have gone without [basic necessities].  They had a little to eat and the big thing is they lost their mom and dads and even their grandmothers and grandfathers.”  So, she said, “Well, I never looked at it in that light” and I said, “Well, that’s what God put us here for, to help each other.”  That was a fun time for me during the war.

So we stayed there a couple of months and then after that I got another soft job which was nice.  The weather got nice and they had what they call a battalion baseball team so I tried out for that and I made that so in the mornings, for two months in the mornings we would practice and no duties and in the afternoon we would hop in the truck and go from one camp to another camp to play the other soldiers so God was very good to me after all that hard time. So that was a fun time and I felt so proud of myself because there was a pitcher from the Philadelphia Phillies that was pitching against us and he was terrific.  I missed the first two pitches and then all of the sudden I hit the ball right over the third baseman’s head for a triple.  Oh boy, I hit it off a professional.  That was an exciting time for me and we had a fun time doing that after the war.  Then I finally got enough points.  You see if I took the purple heart in the beginning I would have had five more points and I could have gone home earlier and then after they got me ready to go home they said that if I would stay, I was a corporal then, they said they would promote me.



Q:  You knew Mary the whole time you were over there.  Did she keep writing to you?


A:  Oh yes, she still got my letters. In fact, the sergeant used to get mad at me because I used to write her every time that I could and it was funny, there was a like even during the war they had a p.x. where you could go in and buy stuff like watches and stuff like that but during the war they didn’t have the px here so for a hundred soldiers they would have like two watches and two pens and so you had to take a lottery ticket for who gets it.  It was kind of funny, I won the pen and my sergeant says oh no. I only wrote a little bit on those v mails but they had to cut out stuff during the war which was where you were located.  Sometimes I would put the name of a town and there would be a hole in the paper when she got it.  Everything was read.  They even cut out some of the parts that said it was bitter cold and snow and ice.