Part 16: WWII mules and foxholes
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
As you have been reading this series, you know that I was but a boy when many of these stories were told to me, although some were added when I was an adult on hunting trips out West with Dad.
When I was very young, these stories were hard for me to understand and my visions of them were those of a boy. For example, when Dad told me about the wounded and screaming mules, I asked him, “What’s a mule?”
Dad explained that a mule was a cross between a horse and a donkey. I knew what a horse was, and I had a picture of Jesus riding a donkey in my Bible. Dad talked about German horses used in the war and donkeys in North Africa. In my imagination, I thought of these German horses wandering down the Italian peninsula and meeting up with African donkeys coming up from the south.
I asked Dad, “How did the donkeys get across the sea from Africa to Italy?”
“People brought them,” he explained. In my mind, this meant that people brought them to Italy and let them go so that they could travel up the boot of Italy to meet up with the German horses. Because the horses were bigger, I thought of them as the daddies and the smaller donkeys as the moms. Since the mules were the babies, I thought of them as smaller than the mama donkeys and it made perfect sense to me that these babies would scream when wounded in war. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that the horses were probably the mothers and that the mules were as big as the horses.
Another question I asked Dad was, “What’s a foxhole?” Dad had talked extensively about digging and living in foxholes. When he told me these stories, he was skinning and stretching fox pelts, so I asked why he dug holes for foxes.
I then got an explanation. “A foxhole,” Dad explained, “was just the name of a hole in the ground dug by men in the war.” I asked more questions, and Dad told me a lot more about foxholes. He explained that the purpose was to get his body below the level of the ground so that it was safe from bullets and artillery fire. Usually, two men dug the hole, so it was dug big enough so that they could both sleep in it. The bottom was covered with hay, straw, or anything else to try to keep them off the dirt or mud at the bottom. They would cover the top of the hole with logs and dirt or anything else they could find to make a roof. The longer they were in one place, the bigger and better the foxhole was dug. On rare occasions, when the men were very tired and stopped, the holes would be just a pit with no roof and no bottom covering. When they woke up and were given time for improvements, the men would work on the holes. They often did this even though they knew they would be marching again before the holes could be slept in again. Dad never knew when the next orders to move on would come, and many holes were dug that were never slept in. Dad joked that he dug a string of these luxury motels all across Europe.
At one time at least, the Army issued what they called half-shelters. The idea was that each man would carry one and they could be put together sort of like tents. These half-shelters were extra weight and were soon left by the side of the road.
Dad explained that, even when they were very, very tired, they tried to dig a foxhole or at least find shelter of some kind. Sometimes, some of them would sleep in buildings or barns or the ruins of these. But there was seldom room for all of the men in these places. Besides, veterans preferred the extra safety of a foxhole. Buildings, even ruins, could be easily targeted by the Germans. Foxholes also gave the men the opportunity to spread out.
Dad told me that one time in Italy, several new recruits refused to dig and sleep in the muddy foxholes. Some of them were killed the very first night outside the safety of the holes. There was no way a bullet could penetrate a finished foxhole unless fired from directly above (this did happen sometimes), and artillery shells were ineffective unless there was a direct hit. Being willing to live in a foxhole was, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
The preferred spot to dig a foxhole was where the ground was slightly higher so the water wouldn’t run in, and where there was a clear field of fire in case your position was being overrun by infantry. There had to be a way a rifleman could raise his rifle out of the hole to shoot.
I tried my best to describe these all-important foxholes. If someone has anything to add or correct, that would be very much appreciated. I saw a picture in an old “Life” magazine where soldiers on the Normandy beach were dug in only up to their waists with the upper halves of their bodies sticking straight up and completely exposed. These must have been very green troops led by a very inexperienced commander. I can’t imagine why they would do something so foolish! I wonder if any of them lived.
There is one very sad story involving foxholes I will add here. At least once, German tanks were used to overrun an American position where the men were in their foxholes. Behind the tanks, there were hundreds of German infantrymen. As the tanks passed over, German soldiers shot and bayonetted the Americans right in the foxholes. Why didn’t the Americans run when they saw the tanks coming? That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer, and I don’t even know which division this story is about. Overall, this battle was won by the Americans. One thing I will tell you is that all through the European campaign, the 45th Division was never, and I do mean never, defeated. At the Battle of the Bulge, the 45th was the only division not forced to retreat by the Germans. They did pull back later to even-up the lines, but they were not forced back. Veterans of the 45th are very proud of the fact they always won their battles. Besides the beachhead at Salerno, the closest case I know of them being defeated was at Anzio where an all-out German assault pushed the lines back perhaps half a mile, but there the lines held, and it was the Germans who eventually retreated. That story is coming up later.
When I see a picture of an American flag with an inscription that reads, “These colors don’t run,” I proudly think of Dad’s Thunderbird Division (see the picture of Dad’s bumper sticker). Hitler and the Germans soon thought of the men of the 45th more like animals than men. There were stories about the Thunderbirds that absolutely terrorized the Germans. Keep reading, and you will find some of these (sadly, I’m out of space for this issue).