Testimonies from the Midwest

 

Sgt. Clarence Petoske, B 314 Engineers, 89th Infantry

          Division Patch                    Clarence Petoske, B 314 Engineers, 89th Infantry                 Division Patch

Clarence Petoske was born April 5, 1917, at his parents' home in Stanley County, South Dakota. After graduation from high school in 1939, Clarence helped his folks at farming and ranching. In 1940 he hired himself out to a contractor building roads and stock dams. Clarence was inducted into the Army in 1942 at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota. This is his story, told in his own words.

Service Record:   I took basic training at Camp Carson, Colorado, and later moved to Camp Butner, North Carolina for more training. In 1944 my unit shipped out to France.

The Crossing of the Rhine River:

On March 26, 1945, at about 0200 hours the 314th Engineers were marching down a long hill to St. Goar. We were marching under total darkness. Talking was kept to a minimum and in very low tones. About all that could be heard was the marching of troops. I hailed from Midland, SD, and was a sergeant and in charge of a squad of men. As I remember I was not briefed on everything that was going on. I did, however, know that we were marching toward the Rhine River where we were to make a crossing. There would be boats at the river in which we were to take the infantry across. 

As we grew close to the river there was artillery and small arms fire. At that time I did not know who was firing. As we marched down the street of St. Goar, more firing was evident. I then began to realize what was ahead of us. We took cover in stone houses next to the river. I remember looking out the window. Across the river the Germans were sending up flares so as to see what was happening on our side. German 88s and small arms fire was now quite prevalent. Our artillery was answering them back. We crouched in our shelter awaiting our orders. Finally a lieutenant told me that another Engineer outfit was assigned to take the infantry across. This was great news to us as none of us wanted to be in a boat when all of that fire [was occurring]. 

One thing I noticed, whenever the boats hit the water, a church bell would ring. I was told later the church bell was a signal for the Germans to open fire on the launching boats. After it had rung a couple times I heard it no more. I assume that someone took care of the German in the tower.

Heavy fire continued through the night. At last daybreak came. We were told that the preceding Engineer outfit had little success on crossing the river, that a number of boats were hit and casualties were heavy.

After daylight our commanding officer told me and others that the 314th Engineers were elected to take the infantry across. I was told that I would be the number one boat to hit the water. I was also told that if we made it across, I would come back for a return trip if necessary. If I remember correctly, there were ten infantry men and two engineers per boat. My buddy was to the front of the boat to guide it and I was in the rear to see that everyone rowed together.

As we picked the boat up, I remember I had a field jacket on. I took it off and threw it on the street as I didn't think it would be the thing to have on if I had to swim. At last we hit the water. We all piled in and started to row across. We were all so afraid it was difficult to get the men to row together. We finally got across and not one shot was fired. Infantry men unloaded, and my buddy, I wish I could remember his name, started back across. The current on the river is quite fast. We drifted, possibly a quarter of a mile downstream before we hit shore. Just before we hit shore a machine gun opened fire on us. Bullets were hitting the water all around us. It didn't seem to me that there were over three bursts of fire before, possibly, some of the men we had taken across took care of him.

We left our boat and started to walk upstream to the point of beginning. I think all our boats made it across without being shot at. I guess the reason we were so successful in crossing was that our artillery had laid down a tremendous barrage of fire. The Germans had abandoned their positions and were moving back.

As we walked back to the starting point I could see what had happened to the boats that preceded us. The shore was covered with human bodies, arms, legs, and human flesh was evident along the shore line. This was a horrible ghastly sight. I have so much to be thankful for, that I was not on the first wave of boats.

Soon after we got back to the launching site another Engineer outfit had started to build a foot bridge and were working on a pontoon bridge. I feel sorry for those that preceded us, for those who lost their lives.

Camp Encounter: I was not in on the liberation of this camp [Ohrdruf] but the next day my unit went through the camp and this is what I saw.

I saw a large number of buildings or barracks in which prisoners were kept. I saw what appeared to be a whipping post and a short distance away was a scaffold in which they hung prisoners. My unit went into a shed; there were perhaps at least 50 bodies that were stacked up like cordwood. My unit walked over to where they cremated the bodies; not far away was a place where they buried some bodies. There was evidence of tunnels, but we did not go in them.  My unit loaded in trucks and moved on. I will never forget how inhuman the Germans were.

 

After the War: Clarence Petoske was discharged on November 27, 1945, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He had this to say of his experiences.

I married Arline Nelson on November 2, 1944. at Durham, North Carolina. We have five children: four girls and one boy. After I was discharged, I worked in the Midland Post Office for awhile. I then bought some heavy equipment and started building dams again. In 1981 I sold my earth moving business to my son, James. He is still in the business as of 2001. I am 84 years old and am retired. 

 

Advice from a WW II Veteran to Today's Youth:

I hope there will never be another war, whereby we would send our youth to war. I pray to God this will never happen.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower listens as survivors tell him of atrocities committed by the SS in the camp; photo courtesy of USHMM

General Dwight D. Eisenhower listens as survivors tell him of atrocities committed by the SS in the camp; photo courtesy of USHMM

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and other U.S. Army officers view the bodies of executed

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and other U.S. Army officers view the bodies of executed
prisoners while on a tour of the Ohrdruf concentration camp; photo courtesy of USHMM

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