My Hero of World War II

As a kid, I was not in a good home.  There was a lot of abuse in the home and whenever I could, I would get together with my best friend Bob.  His father was a hero to me and a surrogate dad.  On this VE Day, I would like to remember another aspect of his heroism when he fought in Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II in the life and death struggle to defeat the evil of Nazi Germany.  His story is so typical of the heroism of the infantryman of the US Army during that conflict.

Richard B. Wehling Jr. was a Tech 5 (analogous to a buck sergeant or specialist 5 today) in the 376th Infantry Regiment in the 94th Infantry Division. He was 18 years old when he was drafted and turned 19 when fighting in the war. Basically, he was hardly yet an adult. However, that changed quickly in combat.  He was a radio man and that war demonstrated how important the radio was, as was his job.

Dick was a crack shot with both the M-1 carbine and the M-1 Garand rifle. Bob told me a story about an incident that may have ultimately saved his dad’s life. Dick was showing off his marksmanship skills by shooting ravens off of a telephone wire.  His commanding officer saw it.  Impressed, he ordered that Dick be assigned as his personal radio man.  This placed him close to the communications platoon commander of the 2nd Battalion and may have saved his life.  While he saw plenty of action running around the battalion fixing radios, at least he was not at the tip of the spear hitting the Nazis first.  In the communications platoon, since he was a good shot, he was asked to take out snipers when needed.

Because of its large size, the Garand was not the weapon of choice for troops such as communications platoons.  This is where the carbine came in.  It weighed only 5 pounds and packed a lot of firepower in a small package, especially when quickly dismounting a vehicle during combat.   I can imagine it must have been a shock to any cocky German sniper participating in an ambush on US troops to realize in the last second of his life that he had been dispatched by a communications platoon member with a .30 caliber M-1 carbine.  These weapons at most normally had a maximum effective range of about 300 yards and the designers expected that its high rate of fire would be effective at this range.  It is incredible to think of someone hitting a target with such a light caliber weapon at 200-300 meters with a single shot, let alone without a scope, no preparation and without someone acting as a spotter with binoculars so he could adjust his fire.

Due to the horrors he saw, Dick did not talk much about his experiences except to his children years later, just as many of his fellow veterans suppressed the horrors of the war. A lot of it had to do with seeing so much action and suffering during that time. Such horrible incidents included a story about fighting in a forest that could have been the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge (Bob is not sure).  Dick was fighting along side his buddy from his unit and he remembered hearing bullets whizzing or whistling past this ear like bees.  A few minutes later he looked over and saw that this friend was shot dead.  This horrible incident shook Dick to the core.  He saw a lot of death like this.

Dick said that he was given a Bronze Star for having to travel several miles parallel to the front line during the Battle of the Bulge. It was dangerous but he made it to the troubled unit under fire, fixed the radio and returned safely, thereby renewing their coordinated movement with the rest of the battalion. He saved a lot of lives by doing that. Dick should have earned a second Bronze Star for capturing a German pill box by himself toward the end of the war during the battle of Ludwigshafen. Unfortunately for him it was so near the end, it seems his commander never completed the paperwork. Bob thinks Dick was a little angry about that.

The war was a terrifying experience for Dick as he also saw the sufferings of the enemy.  For instance, he told a story about being chased by a German soldier and he could hear the enemy’s footsteps behind him. Dick was running at full speed and so was the German.  Dick cleared a wire, just scraping the top of his head. The German was taller and the wire hit him right in the neck. Dick said it broke the German’s neck.

A lot of his stories were about how bad the food tasted, especially the C and K rations. Some of the meat still had feathers and bones. He would never eat SPAM after the war. He explained C rations as follows: a can of meat, like a cat food can; 1 Hershey bar; 3 hard tack crackers; lemonade or a packet of coffee; 3 cigarettes. This was called an M unit (meat).  Soldiers also ate B units (bread made up of biscuits).  These rations were issued in breakfast and supper versions for some variety. Toward the end of the war, they even were issued in decorated boxes to boost troop morale.

K rations were used in the beginnings of operations during a campaign and were never meant for soldiers to subsist upon because the meals only provided about 900 calories.  Soldiers eating them for a long time frequently lost anywhere from 30-70 pounds of body mass.  Some video links below will give you an idea of camp life for the 94th soldiers, as provided by re-enactors.  I included some links to videos about C and K rations.  It is doubtful you will find them appetizing to the pallet.

Dick told his daughter Jeannie about how the French were great to the US troops.  Dick remembered being allowed to stay in French barns to stay warm early on in the war.   The French would light fires in the barns to keep the soldiers warm.  Dick said that he once lay down on his blanket and saw thousands of red eyes staring down from the rafters.  They belonged to rats and in the night when the fires burned out, the rats would run all over the soldiers and get into their bags and supplies.  Dick hated rats from that day on.  He said he chose to sleep outside in the cold rather than be inside with the rats.

Dick did basic training at Fort McCain, Mississippi. He shipped out to Camp Shanks New York and on August 6, 1944 boarded the Queen Elizabeth. For the passage the Red Cross gave the soldiers a bag with a bar of brown soap, a toothbrush and a razor along with a book (all 15,000 soldiers got the same one – a Perry Mason mystery). The passage took 5 days and they arrived in England/Scotland on August 11, 1944. Dick turned 19 on August 15, 1944. Dick conducted rigorous combat training in England and boarded a an LST landing craft and arrived on Utah Beach in France on September, 14 1944, approximately 94-95 days after the initial invasion. He said there were still dead bodies on the beach and in the water.

After hitting Utah Beach, soldiers of the 376th regiment boarded trucks and were taken to Lorient in Brittany France/St. Nazaire where they contained a pocket of 60,000 surrounded Germans on September 10, 1944.  From there, the unit battled its way across France in Patton’s dash to the German frontier. The unit participated in Patton’s counteroffensive during the Battle of the Bulge on 12/16/1944 when the Third Army had to pivot 90 degrees to the North.  Three divisions, including the 94th raced 140 miles in 2 days through a blizzard to relieve the besieged 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne.  The regiment was then assigned to the Saar-Moselle-Triangle, also known as the Siegfried line. The 376th fought over a ten mile stretch across the base of the triangle that faced the fortified Siegfried line guarding the Rhine in order to prevent further German attacks.  Patton’s infantry and tankers were known as Roosevelt’s butchers because they had to stack dead Germans in burned out buildings.  The terrified Nazis thought they were fighting ex-convicts, in other words, thugs like themselves.  In reality, the soldiers were simply moving so swiftly that they could not spare the time to bury the dead.  I the freezing weather, the bodies would keep until others came to conduct the burials.

The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle of the war on the Western Front, rivaling the casualties on the Russian Front. The winter was the worst in memory.  Dick got frost bite and was sent to the hospital – his toes were black. He recovered and was sent back to the front. He said he felt that he should have gotten a Purple Heart but the Army said that it was not a combat injury. It was in the Bulge that Dick got his Bronze Star. On February 22 1945, the 376th took heavy German fire but crossed the Saar and to establish the Ockfen Bridgehead. While many of his subordinates wanted the crossing delayed, Patton would have none of it.  The crossing was typical Patton.  He felt that taking casualties in the short term would prevent more later on.

On March 3, 1945, Dick’s regiment was part of Patton’s dash to the Rhine and the 376th pushed 100 miles from March 15, 1945 to March 22, 1945 and arrived at the German industrial city of Ludwigshafen. The unit helped secure the city on the 24th and captured over 5,000 prisoners. It was in this battle that Dick captured a German pillbox single-handedly and should have received his second Bronze Star.

The fighting for Ludwigshafen rivaled the fighting for Cologne in intensity on the 3rd Army’s left flank.  The German strategy was to use the rubble of Ludwigshafen to good advantage as the German troops made the 301st, 302nd and 376th regiments of the 94th Infantry Division pay dearly for every inch of territory.  The city had been bombed mercilessly by the Allies in an attempt to knock out the Third Reich’s industrial capability to make war, causing the Germans to surrender without having to engage in as much bloodletting.

Unfortunately for the Allies, the Ludwigshafen’s factories recovered in the months up to D-Day. This was due to Allied air elements being tasked with numerous other missions in preparation for the Normandy invasion, making the factories more productive than ever before.  Even though Ludwigshafen was massively bombed after D-day in 1944, Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer had decentralized, reorganized, moved or rebuilt armaments factories underground, restoring a good amount of the destroyed German manufacturing capability.

While many German units had retreated across the Rhine from Ludwigshafen to Mannheim in boats, the Luftwaffe’s 9th Flak Division was left behind to use its various guns such as the dreaded 88s in strong points and pill boxes.  These, in addition to others such as those in 20 and 50 mm calibers were pointed at zero elevation to engage US troops at point blank range.  Additionally, scattered remnants of various decimated Wehrmacht, SS and Volksturm units streamed into the city to be led by a hard core of Wehrmacht and SS officers/non-commissioned officers that intended to turn the city into another Stalingrad and prevent the Third Army elements from crossing the Rhine to Mannheim.

Hitler believed that the US-Anglo alliance was an unnatural one and was trying to buy time until his wonder weapons such as the V-1 and V-2 could terrorize and divide the British and Americans, forcing them to sue for peace.  This would allow him to throw all of his remaining resources East against the Russians.

Jeannie remembered that her dad talked about liberating concentration camps or a concentration camp toward the end of the War.  Dick’s kids think it was Dachau because he was in Southern Germany.  He told his kids that the survivors were very hungry.  Soldiers would give the dying prisoners K rations and candy-anything they had.  They felt so sorry for them.  Dick talked about the camps where he saw the desiccated, piled up bodies of the people starved to death or shot by the Germans before they fled the camp.

On April 4, 1945 the 376th was assigned to keep the Germans isolated in the Ruhr valley and to assist in the establishment of military government in the US sector of occupied Germany. Dick was assigned to the occupation army in Wuppertal around May 8, 1945-V-E Day.  After this, the regiment was sent to occupation duty in Czechoslovakia. Dick said he was sure he would be sent him to Japan. He believed that Truman’s dropping of the atom bomb likely saved his life.

Dick went over to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth and sailed back aboard the Queen Mary. He was stateside and discharged from the army on Christmas Eve 1945. He said you could tell who saw a lot of action not just by the combat infantry badge alone but also by the oak leaf cluster.

You can see all of Dick’s awards below.  On Dick’s European campaign medal, he has all four stars, indicating that he participated in all 4 major battles in Europe on the Western Front:  Northern France – Invasion; Rhineland; Ardennes-Alsace; Central Europe.  The Jewish people owe veterans like Dick for rescuing them from the Hitler’s grip and certain extinction.

About the Author
Akiva ben Avraham is a former community college adjunct, US Army intelligence analyst and officer, and a caregiver.