Part 17: The fighting 45’s awesome reputation
By: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek
In World War II, each soldier who was upfront fighting had the right to think his division was the best one in the entire war. This episode tells you more about the fighting 45th Division. This does not mean that other divisions were any less important. Let others tell you about those divisions; Dad and I are telling you about the Thunderbirds.
As mentioned in an earlier episode, the 45th Division started with the Oklahoma National Guard as its core. As a result, more members were from Oklahoma and West Texas than any other region of the country.
When this war started, the United Sates was just coming out of the Great Depression. No area of the country suffered more than Oklahoma. Great dust storms swept across the state from the north. Many residents fled to other states like California to find work that usually wasn’t there.
Those who stayed had a terrible fate. The dirt from Oklahoma and other farms from northern states was at times so thick one couldn’t see his own two feet. These storms buried the land and many buildings in thick, black dirt. Most people think it takes water or some other liquid to drown a person, but the Dust Bowl, as it was called, proved this wasn’t true, as many people literally drowned with lungs filled with dirt. To survive the Dust Bowl, one had to be tough. He or she had to find ways to survive. When we look back on these terrible conditions now, we have to wonder how anyone could have lived through this at all.
Many of these men from Oklahoma had a unique crudeness about them. Many were hillbillies, but not quite like hillbillies from other regions of the country. Living close to the land and dirt under miserable conditions was nothing new to them.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The very next day Hitler declared war on the United States. Hitler thought of Americans as weak and lazy. He did not think they would put up any kind of fight when they met his “invincible” war machine. The British thought much the same way. Americans had not suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Americans had not been killed and abused by them. Why should Americans fight in a war they had nothing to do with?
It makes me very proud to say that Hitler and the British were wrong. To say they underestimated the fighting spirit of the American soldier is an understatement if ever there was one.
I have one story to tell you now that just might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up: Dad told me that he was glad the Arabs in North Africa were on his side. There was a story going around that Arabs would sneak into the German camps and slit the throats of the Germans as they slept. Bill Mauldin and Dad have a very similar follow-up story about this in Italy. I’ll tell you Dad’s version, you can find Mauldin’s version in his book, “The Brass Ring.”
As the story goes, one of the hillbilly members of the 45th Division was out on patrol when he came across two Germans in a foxhole sleeping close together for warmth. The hillbilly soldier slit the throat of one of the Germans while leaving the other one fast asleep. When the sleeping German woke up he found himself drenched in his comrade’s blood.
Apparently, this event had a terrible effect on the moral of the German Army. They wondered, what kind of animals are these Americans? According to Dad, from that day on the Germans were terrified of the 45th Division. How would Americans know how the Germans felt, you ask? The answer is simple: Americans knew this from what the German prisoners told them.
Speaking of German prisoners, when they were fed the same rations our troops were fed, they complained they were being tortured. (It was a treat for our soldiers when they captured German food supplies.)
If you watched the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” you might remember the scene where Butch and Sundance are being pursued by an elite posse that tracked them over bare rock at night. Butch and Sundance are watching from afar when Butch turns to Sundance and asks, “Who are these guys?”
In Italy, the Germans must have asked the same question of Dad’s 45th Division: “Who are these guys? They come into our camps to slit our throats; they climb over the tops of these rugged mountains; they go through our best defensive lines; they live on food and conditions not fit for a dog; and they just keep right on coming! Who are these guys!?”
Dad told me that Hitler singled out the 45th as the one he most wanted to destroy. Hitler would be given the chance to do just that at Anzio. Stay tuned for that story.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the members of this division were a bunch of dumbbells. To the contrary, many of them were extremely skillful, and some were downright brilliant. Dad told me of one member who asked to see a copy of “Readers Digest” that Dad had received in the mail. The soldier turned the pages looking at each one for no more than a second. He then handed the magazine back to Dad. Dad thought he had just glanced through it, but then the soldier started talking about one of the articles. Dad soon discovered that this soldier had a photographic memory and used his mind to take a mental picture of each and every page.
“Wow,” I exclaimed, “What happened to him after the war?” Dad told me sadly, “He was killed two weeks later.” What a waste.
Cowards in the 45th Division were few and far between, but there were some. Before they were sent overseas, some who showed great promise as leaders for the upcoming combat turned out to be the meekest. In Sicily, for example, a Colonel of great promise retreated back to the beachhead where he was found hiding. Dad found that, in general, those who bragged the most about how brave they would be in combat, turned out to be the biggest chickens. Throughout the war, and even after, those who saw the most action tended to talk about it the least.
The Army leaders soon found out who was brave and who was not. Even though they knew it was unfair to do so, the same men were given the most dangerous tasks over and over again. Not only did the officers know these hardened soldiers could be trusted, they also knew they would suffer far less casualties. This was especially true for beachhead invasions.
When soldiers saw their first real action, they were probably all scared. But, after a few bloody battles there is no doubt that many of them lost all their fear. Veteran soldiers would often say, “When your number’s up, it’s up.” They accepted death, not just as a possibility, but as a probability and knew there was no way they could be sure they would live another day. Dad talked of death as some sort of spirit that hung over the battlefields. Many, like Dad, survived again and again by only the grace of God and pure luck. If you were in a rifle company, your odds of surviving from the beachhead invasion of Sicily to the end of the war were less than five percent.
I had a very interesting phone conversation with Gerry Maschino from California. Gerry found one of the Silver Star episodes online. He is the executive director and spokesman for the Ernie Pyle Legacy Foundation and in charge of national publicity for Ernie Pyle. The United States Congress has set aside August 3, 2018, as National “Ernie Pyle Day” in honor of Pyle’s birthday and his many achievements. A celebration is planned. I will tell you more about Ernie Pyle and his extensive relationship with the 45th Division in World War II in an upcoming episode.