By Danny Crownover
America entered France in World War II with the D-Day landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944. Two months later on August 25, the Allies liberated Paris.
In the skies over the Third Reich and the occupied countries, Allied air power wreaked havoc on the Wehrmacht, German industry and all lines of communication. Three Allied army groups stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland, poised for the final assault against the Nazi homeland.
On Dec. 16, 1944, The Germans launched a large attack in the Battle of the Bulge. A loss to the Allies would seal the fate of the German army. The Rhineland Campaign was soon about to begin.
Ed Gamblin served in the 317th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army during World War II. It was one of three infantry regiments in the 80th Infantry Division. Gamblin served with Company L, 3rd Mountain Infantry Regiment.
Gamblin wrote on the back of a map that he eventually sent home:
“Well, it is a long, long story. In fact, it is too long to tell. I also am really glad I came in as late as I did. I did not sweat as much as some of the boys I know. They were in the battles through France and Germany. What is left is to tell the story.
“I left New York Harbor to sail for Scotland the 17th of February (1945). As well as I remember, we landed on the 22nd of February. We went by train for a long trip, maybe a couple or three days. Then to cross the English Channel, on the water for maybe another couple of days.
“Then we came through England, part of London. I believe that is where they have two-story busses (ha, ha) and they drive on the left side of the road. It once was a beautiful city. As [with] many, many others, it was pretty well flat on the ground.
“Well, then we came into France, where we stayed for maybe a couple of weeks in Metz, which is shown on this map. We were fed very well. The chow was really good and we could eat all we wanted. We could get passes to go downtown. I don’t know what for. The tower was also flat on the ground and we could not talk to anybody except soldiers, and we could talk to them anywhere.
“Well, then it starts getting nervous for us, as we could see the flashes on clear nights of shells and so on. We also would freeze at night when we would ride maybe all night on the trucks. Then the next day we would ride again. Of course, we were still many, many miles from action.
Some days we were told we were 200 miles behind [the front lines]. The next day they would say we were 50 miles. The next day we would be 150 miles, and so on and so forth. We were getting shaky all the while.
“Then one night we pulled into a very small town. We could see the lights again from the thundering shells, and this time it was really close. By that time, we were really getting shaky in the knees. We then were told to make very little noise and make no fire or lights at all. It was really quiet and dark. By this time, we were with the company we were assigned to. Well, as luck would have it, luck was also with us, as the company pulled back a few miles to a little town for a very short rest (ha, ha).
“The next day or so another outfit came through the town. We were in with tanks and heavy armors, which really made us feel good in a way. I really had sympathies for the boys. I could feel for them but could not reach them (ha, ha). Well, so on and so goes in a few more days we pulled in behind the tanks and armors.
“It was really getting close now. We could see all kinds of German tanks and so on blown up, not so very much of our own, which made us feel somewhat at ease.
“Well, it is too long of a story to tell, so I will just wait until I come home and finish up, that is, if you all are interested. This is where it really is something to face or walk into. I already have said more than I intended to, but as I said, I will finish when I come home if you want to hear it, so keep this if you get it. I think I will get a frame for it and keep it.
“So, with love to all as I close this letter, as a story, and good night. – Ed”
Ed never got to finish his story, even though he came back home. War records, however, showed what he experienced and saw.
On March 23, U.S. Gen. George Patton arrived at the pontoon bridge his engineers had constructed over the Rhine River. Showing his contempt for the enemy, Patton made good on an earlier pledge. He went halfway across the bridge before suddenly halting.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” Patton said as he unzipped his fly and relieved himself into the river in full view of his men and news cameras while an U.S. Army photographer recorded the moment for posterity.
On March 28, the U.S. Army completed the crossings of the Rhine without much difficulty and headed on. Patton later wrote that by the end of the day, the 317th seized numerous towns in the area, an aircraft factory, landing field, six en-emy aircraft, an ordnance repair depot, artillery pieces, 20-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, a German military hospital, approximately 900 prisoners of war, and, most notably, a champagne factory with over 4,000 cases of champagne. Every soldier near the factory “liberated” several bottles. The regiment also accounted for over 1,000 prisoners.
After crossing the Rhine, the 317th played a significant role in the final Allied advance through Germany. Enemy resistance faded, and the soldiers knew it was only a matter of time before Germany surrendered.
The first of these post-Rhine battles was for the city of Kassel. The 317th traveled north on the Autobahn out of Frankfurt. The resistance was feeble, and the U.S. infantrymen simply bypassed many of the Germans they encountered along the route.
On April 1, the 317th moved into an assembly area south of Kassel in preparation for the attack. The battle lasted for two days. One of the strange vignettes of the battle was the phoenix-like regeneration of the enemy tanks. As soon as the soldiers destroyed one, several others would appear and take its place. Afterward, the Americans discovered that the Germans had built an underground tank factory nearby and the crews came to move the new Tiger Royal tanks forward into battle. The effect was a seemingly endless supply of tanks.
On April 4, the 317th liberated its first concentration camp.
“I walked into the building and the stench of death hit me with unexpected force,” one officer wrote. “The building contained several rooms, and each of them had tiers of wooden bunks along the walls. The tiers were four or five bunks high, and most of them had an emaciated human being in them. These starving people were in every stage of dead and dying, and some were even beginning to decay. Most of those still alive could barely sit on the edge of their bunks. A few shuffled around on spindly legs whose muscles had seemingly wasted away to nothingness. Some of them were naked and totally disoriented. Others had defecated or urinated onto the filthy floor. A few who still remained healthy or were clearly newcomers to the facility showed the deep emotion of being freed.”
Beginning on April 11, 1945, the U.S. Army began a drive eastward toward Erfurt. At the end of the next day, the 317th had captured over 2,600 prisoners. This was the day that Ed Gamblin was injured. It is not known exactly how. It is possible he fell or jumped in a ditch and/or he was shot. There is nothing in the official records of how he was injured. According to Gamblin’s map, he stated that he was injured between Gotha and Eufurt. That would have been around Tottenstadt or Tiefthal. He was taken to Frankfort to the hospital.”
Next week Part II