A story by Cyrene Slegona from World War II
My father asked my mother to destroy the letters that he had sent while in Europe during World War II. He wanted to put the trauma behind him and get on with living. He refused to tell anyone about a back injury he sustained during combat because it would mean a delay in getting home. The first letter that Rene received after Frank was shipped overseas survived by mistake as she had tucked it away and forgot about it. It surfaced years later and was then protectively saved, treasured by the family.
He was a man with a tremendous heart, gifted hands and mind. His war experiences were with him every day of his life.
The letter that follows is as he wrote it except for a few commas added for text clarification.
Our letters are no longer censored so I’m taking this first opportunity to describe my entry into the E. T. O. as you no doubt know by now stands for European theater of operations but for me it means the nearest thing to hell.
It was that Sunday I was supposed to meet you at Tessie’s house that we finally did get the bad news. Our sergeant told us that we were alerted and will not leave the barracks, and here I had been all set to see you and my mother once more. It was sure a bitter disappointment for all of us. No one hardly spoke a word for hours afterwards.
We left by truck at 1 AM to a rail depot, at the depot we were met by a large brass band which play all sorts of patriotic music. We arrived at the 42nd St. ferry in Weehawken at about 3 AM…I still recognize the place…Only a 20 minute walk from there to where you were waiting for me. I got a big lump in my throat I thought of how disappointed you would be when you finally realized I wasn’t coming. I was so close to you and yet so far away, I was wondering how long it would be before I would see you again and perhaps maybe never. I felt like an old beaten-down man that night.
We crossed over the New York side to a pier where another met band met us and the Red Cross handed us some chocolate, coffee and donuts. There beside the pier was the thing we hated to see, a “troop ship.” I never realized how many men could fit into such a small compartment but I had a lot of things to learn. We have small canvas bunks about 5 bunks one on top of another & the aisle was so small we had walk sideways to get in and out. Most of the time we just layed in our cots half seasick. The ship was the “Il de France” a French ship but an English crew. The chow was the most terrible I’ve ever tasted, it was just plain slop….I often wondered if they really expected us to eat it…It took us eight days before we got to Glasgow, Scotland. From there we were loaded into a dinky train and rode for 23 hours in cramped compartments, we didn’t even have leg room. We rode through England from one end to the other or so it seemed. We arrived at Southampton and they marched us onto another troopship which seemed like 10 miles because we had no sleep for a long time & our equipment was very heavy.
In two days we arrived at Le Havre, France. That place sure was a mess. Half of the city was in ruins, the harbor was just a pile of stones and rubble, ships were sunk all around. We could see masts and smokestacks protruding from the water. The place showed signs of ta great battle. It even had a dead smell.
We unloaded into barges because no piers were left, then rode about 3 miles to a place that was just one great pool of mud with new tents just pitched a few hours before we came and as tired as we were, we stood up on our feet all night long because the floor was made of 4 inch deep nice gooey mud. It sure was a relief to us when dawn finally came.
From there we were loaded into a 40 & 8, a nickname for a French freight train which originated in the first war from a sign that’s on all the cars which reads, 40 hommes 8 cheveaux, meaning 40 men or 8 horses. I thought the troop ship was crowded, but I knew then that I was wrong. We spent 40 hours traveling on that contraction 7 the best position to sleep we could get was to lay down and have about three men lay their legs on top of yours or vice versa. The truth is we never got any sleep. We ate see “C” rations cold on the whole trip and we also darn near froze…All the French people would cheer us & wave madly as we would pass through a town.
We arrived at Givert, France but we only stayed there a few days, three to be exact, it just rained continually and mud galore.
From there we loaded into trucks and road for a whole day through Belgium, into Germany, a small place called Hurtgen Forest where one of the bloodiest battles of this war was taking place. We could hear the booming of our big guns… I knew that it would be a matter of hours before I’ll be up in the front lines. We unloaded off the trucks and marched through about 3 miles of mud to a place just behind the lines and there we were assigned to different companies. I was assigned to a heavy weapons company…The next day after spending a sleepless night we marched off to the front. I was loading down with rifle ammunition and hand grenades. We were all scared stiff, on the way we saw a dead Germans scattered all around and wounded men being brought to the rear. Some were all bloody and messed up others unconscious etc. We are all pretty scared but we were yet to learn the real meaning of fear.
We finally did reach our outfit under cover of darkness. There happened to be a few vacant fox holes which we occupied for the night and golly what a night that was. The Jerries sure did give us a hot reception with a long-range railroad gun. We were up on a wooded hilltop but after the shelling there was hardly a tree left. I won’t go into too much detail because I’ll be writing this letter for a whole week.
Since I last saw you I have seen a big part of the world, strange land, strange people, strange living customs, people who haven’t washed for at least five years, miserable looking people who walked around barefooted, dirty and hungry. Little children begging for chocolate bars, pitiful little beggars they were. The American soldier has won many friends with his ration of chocolate, both young and old. The people haven’t seen any chocolate or candy out here for six years. Some of the younger ones don’t even know what it is. I saw one G.I. give a little girls some gum and she didn’t know what it was. First she examined it with curiosity then smelled it, after a little coaxing she tasted – with a little bit of suspicion. I’ve seen things out here that would horrify the average American citizen.
I always wanted to come to Europe, God forgive me I don’t ever want to see any part of this land again as long as I live. There are many beautiful forests out here but all they ever held in store for us was death as the infantry had to route the enemy out of them. I got to fear and hate all forests out here. I even feared the open fields because snipers and machine guns would almost always without fail open fired us as soon as we came out into the open, but we couldn’t turn back even if some of us were hit because we have a job to do. I have seen men died bravely, I have seen cowards, good soldiers and bad soldiers, also heroes.
I’ve come to know that life was sweet and precious. Our boys would much rather capture then kill but we had to kill or be killed. We’ve done things we’ve been brought up & taught not to do, things that were against our religion to do. Things that now prey on my mind for I was responsible for German dead. I try to forget and say it’s not my fault but my conscience still bothers me. I hope someday I’ll be able to erase those memories from my mind.
I’ve been bombed, strafed and shot at so many times I can hardly begin to count them. At times I had to run through the woods with a heavy load of machine gun ammunition on my back while enemy machine bullets ripped through everything around us, killing and wounding our men. I often hoped I would get wounded so I could go back to some nice warm hospital for a rest. And also hoping that if I was to get it, I get it so fast that I wouldn’t know anything about it.
You always thought I was hard but you were wrong. I have been so scared I couldn’t open my mouth, I’ve hugged the good old earth in and out of foxholes while artillery shells & mortar shells crunched all around me wounding and killing. I prayed more in a short while, more than I’ve ever prayed before. I’ve jammed my fingers into my ears so I couldn’t hear the screeching of the shells passing through the air. But I could always hear the ones that were coming in at us no matter how hard I press my ears. I’ve been scared so bad that I would shiver and tremble with fear. I got to know the meaning of being scared stiff. So far God has been good to me and spared my life, I don’t know why that should be. But I know that men out there seek and find God in true religion. I know that it makes man finer and nobler, that all men are pretty much alike in their hearts. I never knew there were so many unselfish people in all my life as I know now
I have seen men go laughing and shouting into battle against the Nazis and die. I have seen them go crazy with the urge to kill Nazis because they have killed some of their buddies. It all sounds crazy doesn’t it? I’ve seen men get dazed in battle and had to be led by the hand to the rear because they didn’t know who they were, what they were, or even where they were. They just had that white empty stair in their face. I have sweated in the middle of winter, and fainted from long marches over rough terrain with a heavy machine gun on my back. I was a machine gunner through a big part of this scrap, now I am a squad leader. I have carried stretchers up steep mountains with wounded men because our medics were wounded and helpless themselves. I know the evil smell of dead, I’ve seen the bodies of many of our quiet, still comrades lying about in the woods after an attack. I even had to step over some. I’ve seen men with their heads completely off. I know what strangling cold feer can really be. I have seen hundreds of Nazis lying about dead, some face down in mud. I’ve heard the pitiful cry of wounded in the night still of the night when shelling would quiet down some. I know that most men are brave and encourage is given us for the time when trial comes. I have sat for days, even weeks, listening to the shriek of shells from our big guns passing overhead day and night, listening for their crash, glad they were killing Nazis. I have known the quiet inner satisfaction a man has when under fire he discovers that he can take it. But most of all I know that the best thing on earth is the love of a man’s wife and the thoughts of coming back home to her someday.
The old days of civilian life and peace time living seems very far off. I’ve been in actual combat now for seven months and I know that war is hell. I know that I want to come home to you real soon, I may not be a better man but I am a much wiser man.
Today I heard a rumor that we sail for the US sometime this month for a furlough but then that’s only a rumor. I really hope it’s true… Please overlook my last letter I kind of lost my head a bit but I’m not really mad at you I love you too much.
Lots of love
Your husband Frank