Cecil R. Palmer

(The Following is the story as recorded by Cecil R. Palmer in December 2005. – Source: K. Palmer)
My name is Cecil R. Palmer, and I am a veteran of WWII. I served with the 99th Infantry Division, 394th Infantry Regiment, Company F, of the United States Army, serving from December 3, 1942 until November 26, 1945. As a combat infantryman, I was a squad leader in charge of a 12-man rifle squad. I served in Scotland, England, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. I was awarded the Purple Heart Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Victory Medal WWII, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, American Theater of Operations ribbon, and 3 bronze service stars for the European-African Theater, and Middle Eastern Theater of Operations ribbon. I re-enlisted from January 5, 1948, to May 6, 1949 and was responsible for escorting deceased soldiers back to their families for burial on American soil.

You would think after 60+ years that the memories of war would fade, but they never do. Sometimes flashbacks and nightmares creep up. They don’t seem like dreams to me, they are so real, I can smell the smells of war…burning flesh, gun powder; I can see the flash from the tracers, hear the “snapping” sound when a bullet flies near my head, watch my buddies suffer after being hit. My heart races, everything seems so real. I remember jumping out of bed once following a nightmare, diving for my foxhole; I remember my wife yelling at me awaking me from a nightmare after I had jumped on top of her strangling her, thinking she was the enemy. Winter is the worst time. I hate winter. The cold reminds me even more of my war-time experiences. The Army did not provide us with the proper clothing or boots; so many men got trenchfoot or froze to death. I myself suffer from Peripheral Neuropathy due to battle conditions. Each time I shave, I can not help but think of Capt. Goodner making the men in our company shave every day no matter how cold it was, tears freezing in our eyes from the pain of the cold. Other companies were allowed to grow beards but not ours. But Capt. Goodner did it out of concern for our safety; having a beard would not allow for a good tight seal if we needed to use our gas masks.

For over 40 years I seldomed talked about my war-time experiences with anyone except maybe another buddy from my company—they are the only ones that can understand. Life goes on, and you try to forget the horrors of war, try to forget that I was involved in a kill-or-be-killed mode for many months. Was I scared I would die and never see my wife or my parents again? Or never get to see my daughter that was born while I was overseas? You better believe it. I prayed hard every night that God would bring me through this hell hole and bring me home safely. I prayed for the casualties from our gunfire and artillery. It is not pleasant to know you sometimes have to take the life of another human being in order to defend yourself from being killed. It is awful to watch your buddies get hit and see them suffer, often dying a slow death, or having to leave their side because I had to protect myself. Their moans and cries for help are vivid, and the feeling of helplessness that there was nothing I could do to help them always bothered me. I live with regrets that I could not do more. I took a trip back to the battle sites on the 40th anniversary of the war, hoping to see where I had fought battles in a more peaceful time. It was good to see the battlefields in peacetime but it made me sad that the destruction from the war are still with those countries after so many years. I visited Henri-Chapelle, Luxembourg, and Ardennes cemeteries; the number of the white crosses was so shocking and unbelievable. I cried for those lost. I cried because but for the grace of God one of those crosses could have had my name on it.

After the 55th anniversary of WWII, I finally began to open up and share some of my experiences with my daughter and wife. At times it is gut-wrenching. I was scared to death for my life each and every day I was overseas.

Being in battle, I had to kill or wound the enemy. I had to watch my buddies get wounded or killed. Those memories have never faded. In November, 1944, we made our way from England through France toward Belgium. Along the way we experienced some “light” battles, but nothing of the magnitude of what was to come. It was a very cold and rainy season, and the roads were basically impassable due to mud, even to 6×6 vehicles. We were deployed into different forests to cut pine trees to make logs…these were laid side-by-side crossways on the road to create a passageway for the trucks. This was called a corduroy road. We were then ordered toward Wirtzfeld. Since we were still considered relatively new troops, our Regiment had been sent to the Ardennes because it was thought to be a reasonably “safe” area that was not expected to see much action. Because of that misconception, we ended up in the middle of the biggest battle that would help determine the outcome of WWII. We were given the nickname “Battle Babies” because of our inexperience.

The beginning of the Battle of the Bulge was on December 16, 1944. The weather was cold and damp. Three German armies launched a surprise attack through the fields and forests in this part of Belgium and Luxembourg. They started shelling us with artillery from about 5:00 a.m. until about 7:00 a.m. Then waves of German assault troops, supported by tanks and assault guns, assailed our thinly-held American front line positions. Most of the troops stood our ground. Our company was completely surrounded by the German army on all sides for approximately 3 days. Our Battalion leader wanted to surrender the whole outfit intact to the Germans (he was later court-martialed for that). The other company commanders would not hear of it, and turned the entire outfit over to our company commander (Capt. Goodner), who formed an escape plan. On the third night of being pinned down, we made our escape through a patch of woods. It was so dark that you had to hold on to the pack of the guy in front of you because you couldn’t see (there was no moonlight). We picked up a lot of stragglers from the 106th Division (who had been posted on our left); their unit was almost completely annihilated, and those that were left joined us as we marched. We were in a big valley, and could see a big light in the sky….it was obvious that behind a hill a town or city was on fire; occasionally we could see silhouettes of people on the hillside. We were ordered that if we were fired upon, we were not to return fire so as not to give our position away. Even though we could see the enemy’s silhouettes against the fire-lit sky, we were pretty confident that they could not see us in the black of the night. When we got back to our own lines we set up our defense at Elsenborn Ridge in Belguim. There was deep snow by Christmas. It was extremely foggy; occasionally it would break and you could see a short distance, but for the most part you could only see about 30-40 feet in front of you. It was so foggy that the Air Force could not fly their planes. Until Christmas Day. That day broke with bright sunshine. U.S. bombers appeared in the sky, in groups of three, hundreds of planes as far as you could see in any direction. What an awesome sight! They were headed toward Germany for a counter-attack! This break in the weather enabled the American and British fighters to strafe and bomb German columns, inflicting massive losses on our enemy. The American troops had stopped, then reversed the attack at the “Bulge.”

We made another attack in January. January 31, 1945 to be exact. I remember because it was the day that I was pinned down by the enemy for hours—they thought I was dead and if I moved I would have been. Scared, pinned down, and unable to move for fear that I would be killed or even worse wounded and left to freeze to death. I stayed in that position alongside my buddy Kenny Lane waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. Our company was under intense automatic weapon and sniper fire. We lost many men that day. I was lying prone on my belly with my helmet propped up and a white sheet over me so I could look around but my helmet stayed still. One move and I would have been dead as the enemy had us in their sites. I watched in horror as my buddy Frederick Woody (we called him “Woody”) was shot. I watch him fall, and yell “I’m hit” and reach around toward his left hip, I think he might have been trying to retrieve his first aid pack. Then he was hit by a second shot. He lay moaning in pain. I called for the medics to come help him. One knelt beside him, probably giving him a shot of morphine. Then the medic got up to run back to safety—but he never made it, he was shot in the back. Woody never made it out; he died on the battle field. I never knew if he died from his wounds or if he froze to death. Either way, it was horrible watching a close buddy die, knowing there wasn’t anything I could do…if I moved, I would have been killed. I have such deep regrets about Woody. Those regrets have haunted me since January 31, 1945. Woody had gotten a ring from his parents. He had asked Kenny Lane that if anything happened to him to get the ring and return it to his parents. Kenny wanted to get the ring from Woody after he had been shot but we were still pinned down, unable to move. But I told Kenny that it would be impossible to remove the ring without cutting off his finger because he was frozen. I promised myself that I would look up Woody’s parents after the war to tell them about my experiences with Woody. But I never fulfilled that promise; how I have regretted that. That bothers me a lot and there is nothing I can do about it now. That same day that Kenny and I laid trapped by enemy fire I watched Lt. Woods, S/Sgt Wilson, “GI” Palmer, and S/Sgt Flathe crossing a little ditch; they began to stumble and fall—but they all fell different ways. I knew then that they had been shot. They were all killed that day. I believe that eight men from my company were killed that day. Kenny and I laid for hours waiting for an opportunity to escape. When our opportunity finally came, we couldn’t walk. We crawled to a spot and dug in the snow to try to get some cover. A couple guys finally came looking for us and pulled us out on sleds. We were then transported out of the area by weasel to the first aid station. Kenny and I stayed there a few days thawing out; Kenny was evacuated to I believe France and then England to a hospital and returned stateside. I wanted to return to my men and after a few of days I did just that—I left the first aid station on my own since they wouldn’t release me (I was listed as AWOL from the first aid station, but I returned directly to my company on February 5, 1945—I was reprimanded by Capt. Goodner for being AWOL).

No man likes to look in the eyes of another man and be faced with a decision to wound or kill him. It becomes survival though. I now have to live with the regrets and the nightmares that I had to kill men. I’ll never forget the time I shot the arm off an enemy soldier–blew it off right below the shoulder and above the elbow. The bone left below the shoulder was jagged. I yelled for the medics to come treat him. But I am sorry that I didn’t retrieve the man’s arm and give it to the medics. I wish I had done that. It was laying right there, all I had to do was pick it up and take it to them. Maybe they could have reattached it. I don’t know why I didn’t do that. That has always bothered me.

One day we were ordered to take over a village, I don’t recall the name of the village now. We were going door-to-door looking for enemy. We came upon a house and there was a door off of the porch. We knocked and yelled for anyone inside to come out. The door was locked but we could hear people inside. When no one came out, I ordered one of my men, Clarence Cullignon, to shoot the lock off. He did, and there was all kinds of screaming and crying coming from inside. We opened the door and there were a bunch of women and an old man huddled together; the old man was bleeding. The bullet had ricohcetted and hit the old man in the forehead above his eye. I still feel bad that the old man got injured.

Another thing that I hate is that we had many troops killed by “friendly” fire. It didn’t seem so friendly to me though. There was one town we were in, there was a tank sitting beside a church firing down the middle of the road. A soldier from our platoon was coming up the road and the tank was firing. They shot him right in his mid-section. The soldier was literally cut in half. I didn’t know him, but oh what a haunting memory. Someone called for air support, and our planes flew in and dropped two bombs toward the tank; I thought for sure the bombs were going to hit us, they were so close. I thought for sure we were as good as dead. I turned to my buddy and said “if you’ve never prayed, pray now!” But the bombs hit the tank. The church was hit too and there were fires. We then learned that the tank was an American tank. Damn shame. It is terrible enough to watch the enemy get killed but to watch your own troops get killed by other American troops is horrific.

After the “Bulge” the 99th crossed the Rhine River on March 11, 1945. This is another day that stands out in my memory because I was wounded by shrapnel and ended up spending 28 days in the hospital. We were in Belgium and my company was getting ready to cross the Rhine River into Germany on the Loudendorf Bridge in Remegen. We were marching down along railroad tracks preparing to cross (the bridge was a rail bridge). Jeeps and trucks were lined up beside us ready to cross. I remember 5 guys in a jeep beside me; they were pulling a trailer full of backpacks. Just as I got to the front of the jeep an artillery shell came from nowhere! There was a big flash of light then I don’t remember anything till I came to—I was on the other side of the railroad tracks. The jeep with the guys in it was destroyed; I was so scared, I thought for sure this was it, the day I would die. I had such pain in my right knee (the Army records indicate it was my left knee, but I know which knee it was—and I still have problems with it to this day). I couldn’t walk. I saw a big building and I crawled to it trying to get some protection. There were a lot of people in the building doing the same thing. There were lots of wounded there, mostly American soldiers. A couple medics came by and told me that I was lucky I made it to the building—they were transporting the wounded from this staging site. They said they would be back to get me. I was in a bus terminal. I found a place inside the building where the bus mechanic would work on the buses…I crawled down into a pit where the buses would drive over and mechanics could work on them from underneath. I figured it would be safer down there, but it was so dark I couldn’t see much. The building had a glass roof. With every artillery shelling the glass would rattle, then finally it shattered and showered us with glass and debris; people were screaming and crying. I stayed there for what seemed like hours, scared to move for fear I would be killed. Finally I heard someone yelling if there was anyone in the building and I yelled for help. Two medics came with a liter to rescue me but then another round of artillery shelling came and they took off—without me or the liter! I never saw them again. Eventually some other medics came and transported me to an ambulance. I was covered in dust from the destruction of the buildings. Lt. Neberezny was transported in the same ambulance as me. He had been wounded as well. The ambulance was driving all over the road trying to avoid the debris in the road and the artillery shellings that kept coming. I didn’t think we would ever make it out alive. But the medics got us to first aid station, and I was then transported to a hospital in Leige, Belgium, where I stayed to recover from shrapnel wounds for 28 days.

My combat experiences are well documented in the history of the 99th. Our Regiment received a Presidential Unit Citation (General Orders #58), on 19 July 1945. The Citation doesn’t describe or do justice to the horrors of war that I experienced. These are just a few of my vivid memories—there are too many to document. I am proud of my service to my country, but my life was never the same after the war. I went to war as a boy, and came home a man.