Technician Fifth Grade Elmer Arthur Besler, Co. H, 334th
Infantry, 84th Division
Elmer Arthur Besler was born on October 28, 1925, at Bison, South Dakota. Of
German ancestry and raised in the Lutheran faith, Elmer was a farmhand and
a high school student before entering the service in August 29, 1944. The
following is his story, told in his own words.
Service Record: I was inducted into the US Army at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota in
August of 1944 and was sent to Camp Blanding, Florida for basic training.
I was assigned to a heavy weapons company and trained with 30 cal.
water-cooled machine guns and 81 MM mortars. We were just beginning our
11th week of basic training when the big breakthrough came in the Ardennes
Forest in Belgium, also known as, "Battle of the Bulge."
Reinforcements were needed immediately to replace the heavy casualties
suffered in the first days of that battle. So we were pulled out of
training and given our orders for deployment overseas. While in basic I
had volunteered for paratroop training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, but that
went out the window too.
At first, we were not even going to get a leave to go home and
say farewell to our families. But then as the situation stabilized
somewhat in Europe, our orders were changed somewhat and those living east
of the Mississippi would be allowed a 3-day pass.
Needless to say, this evoked an outcry, as it was so unfair to
most of us. The army again relaxed our orders and allowed us 3 days at
home and in addition would fly us to the nearest air force base, which in
my case should have been Rapid City. However, my orders were to fly to
Minneapolis, MN and I couldn't get them changed so I had a long ride on
the train, taking a whole day. I then had to go back to Minneapolis and
from there flew to Ft. Meade, Maryland.
We were processed in a couple of days and then boarded a ship
for Europe. I sailed aboard the Queen Elizabeth, the largest ship
in the world at the time, along with 18,000 other troops. We had no escort
ships until we were a half-day out of England, as no other ships could
travel fast enough. Incidentally, we were reported sunk in the Atlantic by
"Axis Sally" in her daily news. While we made the trip okay, the
crew did drop depth charges several times, as they thought we were being
attacked by submarines. We took just 3 days to cross the ocean and were
zigzagging every 7 minutes to avoid U-boats from getting a bead on us.
We dropped anchor in the bay at Glasgow, Scotland. We were
ferried to the shore on barges and immediately were loaded on trains. We
traveled non-stop through Scotland and England to the port of Southhampton.
There we boarded a French ship called the Republic and crossed the
English Channel to the port, or should I say what was the Port of
Cherbourg, France. By this time it was the first week of January 1945. The
weather was cold and it was raining cats and dogs. We marched in the rain
for a couple of miles, no raincoats or overshoes and needless to say we
were drenched to the skin.
We spent one night in a replacement depot and the next day we
were loaded on to freight cars, about 40 to a car, headed to the front
lines in Belgium. These cars were called "40 and 8's" and that
meant either 40 men or 8 horses. Several times, we were held up while the
tracks were repaired after a German air raid. Anyway, when we arrived in
Belgium, I and one other fellow I trained with were assigned to a machine
gun squad in H. Co. 334th Inf. Regt. of the 84th Infantry Division. The
men who were manning the machine gun upon our arrival had been on duty
around the clock for quite some time. So the squad leader immediately sent
us out to relieve them. We were forewarned that the Germans had dropped
some paratroopers behind our lines and that we should be especially alert
as we could be attacked from any direction. Fortunately, this didn't
happen; however, it did make for some scary moments for this rookie
soldier. This was hedgerow country and the snow was about 18 inches deep.
During the night, we could imagine the enemy sneaking along behind the
hedgerows to attack us.
After the bulge was secured we were sent north for a 2-week R
& R in Holland and were then assigned to the 9th Army next to the
British. While in Belgium we were in the 1st Army. After the rest in
Holland, we were again committed to action. This time it involved the Roar
River crossing and the dash to the Rhine. We were originally scheduled to
make the Roar crossing on the 3rd of February; however, the Germans
blew a dam on the river and on the morning of the 3rd, the entire valley
in front of us was under water. The crossing was delayed until the 23rd of
February. The 84th Division was chosen to spearhead the drive from the
Roar to the Rhine. A softening up bombardment was prepared and everything
in our arsenal was fired to the opposite bank of the river for 45 minutes
and then the crossing was made. It was like a continuous volcanic eruption
and I couldn't believe anyone could survive, but it was amazing the number
of enemy soldiers that were still able to resist when we did cross.
After 3 days of intense fighting, we achieved what was called a
breakthrough. The infantry loaded on tanks and the race was on. Whenever
some strong resistance was encountered, the troops would dismount and
clear out the problem. As I said earlier our division was spearheading the
drive and many times we were 2-3 miles ahead of the units on either side.
As we neared the Rhine, our objective was to capture a bridge across the
river and establish a bridgehead on the east side. We were in sight of the
bridge when the Germans blew it. We spent a couple weeks resting and
refitting at the Rhine and then again we were committed to the front. This
time we didn't make the assault crossing, but took over from the airborne
unit on the other side. At this point, the war was going rapidly in our
favor and we were making as much as 50 miles in one day.
Shortly after the capture of Hanover we reached the Elbe River
where we were ordered to stop and wait for the Russian army coming from
the east. We were at the river about 2 weeks before the Russians arrived.
The war was now over in Europe and those of us who were late comers to the
service were reclassified for duty and redeployment to the South Pacific
and prepare for the invasion of Japan. Fortunately for us, the A-bomb was
delivered in time to prevent this from happening. After V-J Day, our
mission was again changed. This time to occupation duty in Germany which
for me lasted until June of 1946.
I was very fortunate in not one time being wounded or captured
but had several very narrow escapes. I shipped home on the victory ship Montclair.
It took 10 days versus the 3 that it took to go over.
Awards: European African Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon, 3 battle
stars--Ardennes, Rhineland, and Central Europe, Bronze Star, Combat
Infantryman's Badge, expert heavy machine gun and M1 rifle medals, Good
Conduct medal, Army of Occupation medal, Victory medal, Presidential Unit
Citation, 3 overseas unit bars.
After the War: T/5 Besler was
discharged at Ft. Sheridan, Illinois on the 28th of June of 1946. He
returned to South Dakota and took over his dad's ranch and then later
bought his father-in-law's ranch near Reva, South Dakota, and still owns
it. Elmer married his wife, Ellen, on March 11, 1955, and they have two
sons and a daughter, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Advice from a WW II Veteran to Today's Youth:
Never take your freedom for granted and always support a strong
military to deter any adversary from trying to take our freedom away.
Five Jewish survivors pose for a U.S.
Signal Corps photographer in front of Block 2 in the Hannover-Ahlem
concentration camp, a sub-camp of Neuengamme; photo courtesy of USHMM
A view of the Neuengamme concentration camp; photo courtesy of USHMM
A sick Polish survivor in the
Hannover-Ahlem concentration camp receives medicine from a German Red Cross
worker; photo courtesy of USHMM
female slave laborers cheer troops of the US Ninth
Army in the streets of Salzwedel. The women had been forced
to work in a German munitions factory that was a sub-camp
of Neuengamme; photo courtesy of the USHMM and Salzwedeler Museen