Testimonies from the Midwest

 

Technician Fifth Grade Elmer Arthur Besler, Co. H, 334th Infantry, 84th Division

      Technician Fifth Grade Elmer Arthur Besler        Division patch       Photo of Elmer Arthur Besler

 

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.

Camp Encounter: Just outside of Hanover, we liberated Ahlem Concentration Camp. I was with the lead elements that took the prison but merely passed by the barbwire enclosure. Our follow-up troops actually went in and freed the prisoners and cleaned up the camp. This took place in the wee hours of the morning on April 10th. It was still quite dark and also foggy, so the visibility was not good. However, I still recall the terrible stench of the death that came from the camp as we passed by.

We captured Hanover, the 12th largest city in Germany, the next day with very little difficulty. The other slave labor camp that the 84th liberated was in the town of Salzwedel. One of our other regiments freed the camp which consisted of over 3000 women, mostly Jewish. They were forced to make ammunition for the German army. The only connection I had with this was later when we took over the processing of them for shipment home. I remember delousing them with DDT powder and moving them to better quarters.

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.

 

http://www.grunts.net/army/84thid.html

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

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

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

A sick Polish survivor in the Hannover-Ahlem concentration camp receives medicine from a German Red Cross worker; photo courtesy of USHMM

Liberated female slave laborers cheer troops of the US Ninth

Liberated 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