Wartime reflections of PFC Kenneth Aaron Falber, WWII
During one of my frequent long nights when sleep evades me, I allow myself to relax in the quiet of the night so that thoughts long hidden in the deepest cells of my mind bring the past to the present.
Of late, I have experienced thought regression taking me back to June of 1944 and shortly after D-Day. I was an infantry replacement assigned to the 357th regiment of the 90th infantry division, third army. My home for the time being was a two-man pup tent in a muddy field surrounded by hedgerows somewhere in Normandy. Our shoes allowed the dampness to seep through and the toilet paper was damp and stuck together.
Tension ran high with the unknown before us and time hung heavy on our hands as we cleaned and oiled our weapons over and over and the V-mail letters that were written to mothers, wives and sweethearts.
After a dinner not worth writing home about consisting of spam, powdered eggs, a slice of white bread and strong coffee, we decided to turn in to avoid boredom, anticipating an early wake-up call. The distant rumbling of artillery was a constant reminder of where we were and where we were headed.
After a trip to the slit trench to relieve ourselves (the infantry on the move did not have the luxury of a latrine), we crawled into our pup tents hoping that sleep would give us a short period of mental peace; however, none of us could erase the scene several days previously at the American Military Cemetery where many of our troops were being prepared for burial – a reality of the horrors of war.
Gratefully, sleep came quickly due to exhaustion as the distant rumbling of the artillery seemed to subside. The orders of the night were a blend of cigarette smoke, dampness and cordite from explosives wherever recent battles were fought.
For a period of time, all was quiet until we heard what sounded like children’s voices both giggling and whispering that lasted for just a few short minutes and then faded away. Those who were on guard duty gave no alarm and so I relaxed once more into a deep sleep treasuring every moment of rest.
Gradually, the odors of the night became intermingled with a most foul and nauseating smell that drifted into our tents; but still we slept through until sunrise. By this time, the disgusting smell had become overpowering and we scrambled out of our tents hoping to escape the sickening odor, and there, in the early light of day we found the source – the corpse of a German soldier with his face missing had been dragged from his shallow grave by a rope around his legs and he was propped against a tree.
We were all so nauseated that breakfast was the furthest thing from our minds. Several shovels were produced, the shallow grave was enlarged and several of us dragged the corpse back to its last resting place and covered it with soil.
While this was taking place, we heard high-pitched voices coming from the other side of a hedgerow. Several of us climbed up to the top, peeked over and there we saw a group of eight very young boys and girls ranging in age from about ten to fourteen years of age. Their clothes were tattered and two of the boys wore G.I. shoes while some of the others wore German soldier’s boots. They were unkempt and disheveled with filthy hands and faces.
When the children saw us, they began to chant almost in unison, yet again “Allo Joe! Cigarette pour papa – chocolate pour mama?” over and over again.
My pup tent partner spoke some French and invited the children to join us for breakfast. They eagerly climbed over the hedgerow and our cook fed them. They ate with voracious appetites all the while looking about to see what they could steal and then, without speaking they disappeared over the hedgerow, not before two of them were caught trying to abscond with several mess kits.
We could only assume that this gang of youngsters were responsible for unearthing the German soldier’s body. When the French speaking soldier questioned them about it while they were eating, they professed innocence with arched, raised eyebrows.
Our platoon leader was a young second lieutenant fresh out of college and it was his plan that on the following night guard duty was to be doubled in numbers and our vehicles were to be arranged in a semi-circle about 100 feet away from the shallow grave with a driver in each one. In the event of a repeat performance, a signal in the form of a flare was to be fired off and the lights of the vehicles turned on.
It was well past midnight when the full moon revealed to one of the guards the guards the gang of children climbing over the hedgerow, making their way to the shallow grave and began to unearth the corpse with their bare hands. At the sight of the flare, the vehicles turned on their headlights in unison and the gang of “children of the war” was rounded up. Our Military Police was summoned to bring a “paddy wagon” and the children were kept in there all night under guard.
It was our company commander’s idea to contact the local civilian police and he dispatched a motorcycle messenger for this and within the hour, they arrived to take the children into custody. The police were accompanied by the town’s mayor who, I learned later, also owned the local grocery store. I have since forgotten the name of this small town, half of which was destroyed when the German army made a stand there.
All through this, I noted that the children did not cry or seem upset in any other way. In fact, they appeared quite stoic and unemotional all through this episode.
When questioned about this affair by our French speaking interpreter, the mayor explained that these children had lost one or both parents in the fighting or had been shipped to slave labor camps and their homes had been destroyed. He further explained that there were a number of such gangs called “children of the war” (les infant de la guerre) who banded together for survival with the eldest in each gang as their leader.
He went on to say that they did not commit high crimes, but resorted to stealing food, clothes and anything else that they could carry away for themselves or to be sold on the black market. They were now on their way to a children’s shelter where efforts would be made to locate their relatives or foster homes. In departing, he added that in all probability at least half of this gang would be back in the streets and fields within the next few weeks.
As the children were taken away in vans by the French police, I couldn’t help but wonder what will become of those without parents. I later learned from another soldier who fought in Italy that this problem existed there too.
I thought to myself – how fortunate for our children back home that the war was fought in other lands and they would not know of the hardships as experienced by these children of the war. Better to carry the war over there than over here.
Originally published in the Pesach 5782 Jewish-American Warrior