Crossing the Sauer is a tough, vivid, honest, and tautly written memoir of advancing through Germany with Patton's Third Army.
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It was December 1944. We were a group of replacements traveling across Franceno, we were a group of replacements being shipped across France on our way to the front. We were shipped mostly by train, packed in narrow boxcars called 40 and 8s, designed, we were told, for 40 men or 8 horses. These boxcars moved very slowly with frequent delays and stops. But when they stopped and you jumped off to relieve yourself by the side of the tracks, you had to be alert because without warning the train could suddenly take off again and leave you behind.
We were in the boxcars for three days and sleep was a big problem. You had to sleep in a sitting position because if you stretched out on the floor, your legs would lie on top of the legs of the guy sitting against the opposite wall.
We fetched up, as the English say, late one afternoon at a repot depot (ree-poh dee-poh) in Fontainebleau. It was a large two-storied, armory-type building. The bunks were double, made of wood, with straw for the bedding, and with a board running alongside the straw so it wouldn't fall out. We carried our own blankets in our duffel bags. A Frenchman told me later that this building had been used by the Germans as a training center for officers. I wondered if I were lying on the same straw a German officer had slept on or had they changed the straw since?
Fontainebleau was great living. We had electricity, lights. We had heat. We had indoor plumbing. And we were to have threehot meals a day instead of cold K rations. Nobody was complaining.
That first night, just before ten o'clock, we were all lounging around on our beds. Lights were still on. Suddenly we heard the droning of a plane's engine in the black sky overhead. I was bunking upstairs. Near the top of the stairs, on the lower bunk, was a sergeant. He was permanent here, a member of the cadre that ran the building.
"Air raid! Air raid!" this cadre sergeant screamed. "Turn off those fuckin' lights!"
The lights were turned off. Somebody turned on a flashlight.
"Turn that fuckin' light off!" the sergeant yelled. The light was turned off before he said off. "I'll shoot the next stupid bastard who turns on a fuckin' light!"
Wow! That was pretty drastic. I guess he had a weapon. No replacement did. We hadn't been issued weapons.
"Put out your cigarettes!" the sergeant bellowed. "They can see those!"
I was on the bottom bunk. The guy on the bunk above me came hurtling down and frantically started putting his shoes and socks on. I was just about to do the same and then I thought, If we're going to be blown up, what good will it do to have your shoes on? My natural laziness took over and I stayed put.
This was our first contact with the enemy and he had the upper hand. We were lying here at his mercy. We listened intently to the droning and waited with pounding hearts for the bombs to drop. It was thrilling and scary.
And then all hell broke loose. There was a tremendous din. We jerked involuntarily when we heard it. Anti-aircraft guns were firing all around our building. They sounded like they were positioned just outside our walls. They filled the sky with exploding shells. We could no longer hear the droning. Then after a seemingly long time, the ack-ack guns took a breather. We could hear the droning again. They hadn't gotten him. It sounded like he was circling around. And then the droning faded away into the distance.
Whew! We could breathe again and murmurs broke the deathly quiet of the floor.
Subsequently we learned that the attacking force in the air raid consisted of a lone unarmed German observation plane. He came punctually every night just before ten o'clock. We called him Bed-Check Charley. When we realized he was no danger to us, we thought of him as a damn nuisance and cursed him because he disrupted whatever we were doing and caused us to turn the lights off. He must have been a damn nuisance for the anti-aircraft boys, too. Every night they fired away and missed.
Why did the cadre sergeant carry on so that first night? I suppose he wanted to have some fun with us.
And yet, even after we knew the plane posed no risk to us, we heard him with a certain unease. Hearing an enemy aircraft over your head states your vulnerability. Was this the night he would drop a bomb?
Our very first morning there, right after breakfast, we were all called together downstairs. The building was run by a cadre of four, the sergeant who slept upstairs, and a corporal and two PFCs who slept downstairs. This meeting was called by the corporal and the two PFCs. The sergeant had disappeared somewhere. The corporal stood on a chair at one end of the building. He was flanked by the two PFCs. We all stood close together in front of him in between two rows of double bunks.
"Fellows," the corporal said, "you probably have brought in some American currency with you from the States. Army regulations require that you trade in your American dollars for French francs. If you are caught with any American money on you, you will face an immediate court-martial. It's a very serious charge because you'll be accused of black-market operations. Guys have been getting sentences of five and ten years for that. So be smart. Protect yourself. Don't be caught with any American dollars.
"The commanding general has authorized this repot depot to be an official currency-exchange center. Line up and turn in your dollars. They'll be exchanged at the official rate of fifty francs to the dollar. This is your first and last chance. After today, it will be your ass."
The two PFCs unfolded a card table and the corporal took his chair and sat behind it. Two shoe boxes suddenly appeared on the table. One was filled with francs. The other was empty. One PFC stood at each side of the table.
The transactions began. Each man in turn announced the amount in dollars he had, laid it down on the table, the corporal counted it out, then reached in his francs box for the correct equivalency, pushed it toward him, then put the soldier's money in the dollar box.
I studied the corporal. Coal-black-haired, glittery-eyed, with the skin pulled tight over his high cheekbones, he had a big-city rat face and a cold, hostile manner to go with it. I didn't trust him. I wouldn't believe him if he swore on ten Bibles.
I looked at the two PFCs. They were watching us like bank guards. And there was an air of suppressed excitement about all three of them, both Rat Face and his two henchmen. They were taking too great an interest in what was going on. Nobody does the Army's work with this kind of intentness. They were personally involved. I didn't know what their game was, but there was something fishy going on. Of that I was certain. I didn't know where that money was going, but I knew where it was not going. It was not going to the Army. I felt we were sheep, being shorn.
American money wasn't any good to us in France. I would be glad to get more francs. But I didn't want to be played for a chump. I slipped unobtrusively out of line and went upstairs. But I was observed. A short time later one of the henchmen appeared at my bed.
"You don't have any American dollars?" he said insinuatingly.
"No," I said. "I lost them all in a card game."
I looked him straight in the eye. Fuck you, Jack. I didn't come all the way over here to be jerked off by you.
He looked at me, unbelieving, and nodded.
They could find out my name and it's never a good idea to fuck around with guys who run things, and I would probably live to regret it, but I was sore.
That night I went out to a café and I was sitting by myself at a table, sipping a cognac, when a soldier approached me.
"Do you mind if I sit down?" he said.
"No," I said. "Go ahead."
There were empty tables in the place so he clearly didn't have to sit here.
"Are you at the repot depot?" he asked.
"You fellows just get in?"
"Yes. Last night."
"I'm a truck driver. I'm with the Quartermasters."
"Oh," I said politely.
"Say, do you have any American money?"
"No, I don't," I said quickly.
I was alarmed. What kind of a question was that to ask a guy out of the clear blue? Was he an undercover agent working for the Army and tipped off about me by Rat Face? Had he followed me from the repot depot? I saw a court-martial ahead.
"If you had any, I'd give you eighty francs on the dollar. The official rate is fifty francs on the dollar."
"Why do you want dollars? What do you do with them?"
"I sell them to the French."
So that was the cadre's game!
"What do they do with them?"
"They put them under their mattress. To the French, dollars are like gold. They have no faith in their own currency. They think the franc is gonna be worthless so they want something that's gonna hold its value. They go crazy for dollars."
Jesus. Those cadre guys really made a killing on us. And without any doubt they did the same thing with every group that passed through.
"Look. I'll be straight with you. I'll give you eighty francs on the dollar but I'm gonna turn around and take that dollar to Paris and I'll get a hundred and ten francs for it. But I can get to Paris and you can't. So I'm taking advantage of the situation. I go to Paris all the time."
"Well, I wish I could help you out, but I don't have any."
"I tell you what. Even if you don't have any dollars, you can still make a little money. Spread the word around to your buddies. Every dollar you bring me, I'll give you a ten-franc bonus on top of the eighty."
"So that's ninety francs on the dollar?"
"How will I contact you?"
I'll come by here tomorrow night."
I nodded. I was thinking. I was thinking this guy was not an undercover agent.
"So that's ninety francs on the dollar?"
"How much would sixty dollars be?"
"That's fifty-four hundred francs."
"Okay. Let's see the fifty-four hundred francs."
"Why? You got sixty dollars?"
"Great," he said.
He immediately pulled out a roll and peeled off fifty-four hundred francs.
I took out my wallet and gave him my entire supply of greensixty bucks.
"Ask around," he said. "See what you can come up with."
"I will. How much can you handle?" I was just curious.
"I'll take as many dollars as you can get. I'll buy any cigarettes, too."
I wasn't going to sell him my cigarettes. I didn't have that many.
"A hundred francs a pack. That's two bucks a pack."
I didn't tell the fellows about this guy. What good would it do? It would only make them feel bad. And it would look like I was crowing.
The next night the truck driver showed up. I had to tell him I had been unsuccessful. He took it in good spirits and even bought me a drink. We parted on good terms.
LE LIT DE MARIE ANTOINETTE
I liked Fontainebleau. I liked wandering around its streets.
Before I entered the service, I hadn't done any traveling to speak of. The Army made it possible for me to see a number of cities for the first time. And it's strange. When you go into a city for the first time and walk around and look at the buildings and the people, that city affects you like meeting a person for the first time. Cities have an aura. In some cities you feel buoyant and hopeful; in others you feel gloomy and depressed. What does this? Is it the way the streets are laid out? Is it the buildings? Is it the presence or absence of greenery? Is it the look on the people's faces, their manner of speaking, their apparent contentedness or their lack of same? Is there something in the air? What makes one city pleasing and interesting and another not? Does it come down to charm? Boston had charm. Chicago had charm. San Francisco, my favorite, had the most charm of all. Oklahoma City had no charm. Detroit made you want to sprint to the bus station for the first bus out of town.
But I liked Fontainebleau. I was comfortable there. I felt at home. The town was somewhat threadbare from the secondary effects of the war but the war itself had bypassed it. There was no war damage, no forlorn piles of bricks.
In one of my first afternoon sorties into town, I saw a group of five or six French people walking down the street. They were talking animatedly to one another. They seemed to be going someplace. On a hunch I followed them at a discreet distance. They led me to a very imposing building. I followed them up the steps. We waited just inside the door. Several American servicemen joined us. They were not from the repot depot.
It turned out we were waiting for a guided tour and we were in a castle where for centuries French royalty had lived.
The guide showed up shortly. He was a small, white-haired, frail old man with erect posture. I wondered if he had been a soldier in the First World War.
We started off. The names rolled off his tongue. This place gave me an overwhelming sense of history. Louis XIV had once sat here surrounded by his courtiers. Louis XVI had once slept here before they dragged him off to the guillotine. Napoleon had once walked on this very same floor where I now stood.
Two things impressed me the most. One was a room with beautiful tapestries on the wall. The second, and most impressive of all, was the Salle de Bal. This was a ballroom with a magnificently decorated ceiling but the ceiling did not affect me as much as the breathtaking perfection of the inlaid wooden floor.
We walked on.
"Le boudoir de Marie Antoinette," the guide intoned.
"Le lit de Marie Antoinette."
We stood before her bed. It was protected by a velvet rope on stanchions that kept everybody several feet from the bed. The bedspread was paper thin. One more washing and it would disintegrate.
Suddenly a fat-assed sergeant broke from the group, stepped over the velvet rope, and lay down on Marie Antoinette's bed. He grinned stupidly at everybody. All I could see were his big dirty clodhoppers on that delicate covering. His buddy had a camera and took his picture.
"Monsieur! Monsieur!" the guide remonstrated but he could do little other than be distressed.
When the sergeant got good and ready, he got up and joined the group.
What an asshole. Why was it that so many Americans were assholes?
It was a brief tour. The guide took us to only a few rooms. The castle was an immense, sprawling structure. It would have taken hours to do it justice.
There was no charge for the tour, but the guide stood by the door as we filed out, hoping to be tipped. I gave him a good tip. I noticed that the fat sergeant gave him nothing. That figured.
I had a favorite café. I went there every night. It was where I had met the truck driver. It was run by a husband and wife. All the work was done by the wife. She was the bartender, waitress, and cashier. He did nothing but play the accordion.
Everyone called her Moo-moo. She was an attractive woman of about forty. She was lively, cheerful, friendly, energetic, indefatigable, and intelligent. She maintained her good humor no matter what, despite all the sexual innuendoes from the soldiers who didn't seem to understand that she was a virtuous married woman.
All the customers were American soldiers. They sat around the tables in the large front room. The front room was where the bar was and this was Moo-moo's territory. I used to go in and get a drink from Moo-moo and then take it to a table in the backroom. This was a smaller, more intimate kind of setting. Here in the backroom her husband sat at a table playing his accordion. I loved his playing. I was starved for music. I wasn't much of a drinker. I could nurse a drink for quite a while. I wasn't here primarily for the drinking. I was here for the music and to get away from all the double bunks. I always ordered cognac, at one hundred francs a glass. I could have had anisette or a peach or apricot brandy.
Excerpted from Crossing the Sauer by Charles Reis Felix. Copyright © 2002 by Charles Reis Felix. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
|3||The Artillery Replacements||25|
|4||The First Week||38|
|5||Crossing the Sauer||44|
|7||Nobody Gets Out||74|
|8||"Ich Spreche Deutsch ein Wenig"||80|
|9||The Assault Platoon||84|
|11||Jelich and the Roll||96|
|14||A Dirty Trick||112|
|18||The Priest Protecting the Furniture||151|
What People are Saying About This
Felix's is one of the most honest, unforgettable memoirs of the war I've read.
He pulls no punches...
Paul Fussell, author of Doing Battle and Wartime
This is absolutely the best volume I've ever read on the GI in World War II. True to life? Wow! Every former GI will love this one. Get out of the way, Mr. Ambrose. Sorry, but here come the ghosts of the real ones.
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., former editor, American Heritage, and author of The Long and the Short and the Tall
There are no heroes in Charles Reis Felix's memoir....The reader is left with a feeling that this is how it was.
Edwin P. Hoyt, author of The GI's War