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Letters from the Front, Part 8

The 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion was conducting "rest and maintenance" at Stolberg-Muhle in early December 1944. The rotation plan for the unit had scheduled one officer and four enlisted men to have 30-day furloughs to the States. The basis on which the recipients were hosen was "first priority, two wounds; second priority, two awards." Among the men selected for the furloughs was Corporal Dillon Summers with two awards and one wound.

It surely was a joyous time when Dillon arrived home. It was not so joyous when it was time for him to return, as a photo of him with his sister Hazel, my mother, attests.

When he got back to his unit, the Battle of the Bulge was history. Thanks to his furlough, he had missed that cold, dangerous battle, but his unit had been involved in it. The 3rd Armored Division had been rushed southward to blunt the German counterattack, and the 391st was on the division's right flank. They had encountered enemy troop infiltrations the size of patrols but had repulsed them. Perhaps the furlough had saved Dillon's life.

The furlough should have ended in early- to mid-January, but there apparently had been some delay, for he was still not back with the 391st when on March 9, 1945, he wrote the following letter (not a V-Mail) home.

Dearest mom & family.
Just a line, I am in England. I am well & O.K. hope everyone there is the same.
Had good luck crossing the pond. Since I was home I am very home sick the news is very good today, we have crossed the Rhine River. Maby by the time I catch up with them we will have met the Russians.
I havent been paid as yet. I have $30 on me, I sent Dorothy $75 before left the states.
I want that roll to grow & grow more & more, & she sure can do it.
Well I will write more soon. I am pretty much on the move so dont be alarmed if you dont hear very often for a while
Love & best wishes to all.
You Son Dillon

Two days after Dillon wrote that letter, the 3rd Armored Division entered Cologne. By the time he rejoined his unit, they were closing in on the Ruhr Valley north of the now-famous bridge at Remagen. As they launched their attack on the heavily industrial region, they had to deal with "difficult terrain, minefields, and enemy fire from small arms, self-propelled guns, and tanks," but they slogged on, the Spearhead of the First Army. They captured Marburg and began to close in on Paderborn, where they faced increasingly intense enemy resistance. The Germans threw thousands of SS troops against them in an effort to keep open a small gap for escape from what was being called the "Rose pocket" after the commander of the 3rd Armored Division, Major General Maurice Rose.

Rose had led the division since D-day, and the men loved and respected him because he led from the front, not from the safety of a rear headquarters. In fact, he was killed while so leading. Traveling in a jeep at night, he was trying to untangle a traffic jam of tanks and artillery while under close enemy fire. He rounded a curve and found himself facing a German tank. Realizing that he had no means of escape, he and his driver were trying to surrender when the Germans opened fire, striking him in the head and killing him instantly.

3rd Armored Division headquarters issued the following communique on April 4:

It is with a heavy heart that I assume command of this great division, stepping into the shoes of our lost leader and my very warm, personal friend, Major General Maurice Rose. The high standards that General Rose set are ingrained in the Division. Our record, known throughout the world, is a result of his exacting demands upon every individual and every part of our team. His faultless tactical handling of all troops under his command; his personal drive which instilled in us the desire to close with the enemy and ruthlessly destroy him, regardless of the cost; his personal bravery and insistence that commanders be with their forward elements in order to better maintain the forward impulse; all, should inspire us to even greater deeds, as a tribute to him--our fallen leader. With complete confidence in every member of our Division, I know that, individually and collectively, we are resolved to maintain our glorious record and the standards set for us by General Rose, in order that we may the sooner destroy the Nazi armies opposed to us, and achieve the victory and peace for which we are all fighting--for which General Rose made the Supreme Sacrifice.
Doyle O. Hickey,
Brigadier General, U.S.A.,

The division captured Paterborn and pressed on. On April 10, they captured Nordhausen and witnessed a sight that would remain forever in their minds: Dora-Mittelbau slave labor camp, where political prisoners from many nations built V-bombs. The 391st unit history describes the scene:

"The dead far outnumbered the living." Thousands of bodies were lying unburied and decaying "in the partially destroyed barracks, . . . the fields, or stacked at the crematory, waiting to be burned. . . .Most of the dead had died of starvation. The living were practically dead. . . ."

The account continued, "[I]t's just a mass of putrifying humanity. Bodies are stacked in the cocrners like firewood. The living lie among the dead unable to move out of their own refuse, and the dead are luckier. . . . What looked to me to be an old, old man tried to kiss my hands and feet and couldn't speak for crying. . . . There are no young men in Nordhausen. . . . [A]s I was leaving, . . . a man approached me, barely able to walk, old and thin. . . . He took my arm, threw his hand out to indicate the room with its living dead and dead and said simply, 'This is Germany."

The Americans forced all male citizens of Nordhausen to dig graves and bury the victims of Nazi inhumanity.

The 391st pressed onward with the 3rd Armored toward the Mulde and Elbe Rivers, capturing Carlshafen, Lingenau, Dessau. On April 22, they fired a 21-volley artillery salute to the oncoming Russians. Representatives of Mildensee came to surrender the town to the Americans, hoping to escape the Communists, but the U.S. commanders refused to accept the surrender, telling them instead to wait for the Russians. That did not sit well with the soldiers who had fought so long, losing many friends and family members, to free the German people from tyranny.

The last round fired by the 391st left the barrel of an M7 Priest on April 24, 1945. It was the 170,100th round fired by the battalion since Normandy. I wonder if Dillon's FO might have called in that final blow to the Third Reich?

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