World War II

Liberation of Ohrdruf

On 4 April 1945, members of the 4th Armored Division, supported by an attachment from the 89th Infantry Division, liberated the Nazi forced labor camp known as Ohrdruf.

Most Americans first learned of the atrocities of the Nazi camps in 1942, but it was not until April 1945 that US soldiers witnessed what happened firsthand when they liberated Ohrdruf.

914th Unit History p6 web[1]

I never thought I’d write about the documentation of a tragedy while living in the midst of another. It is hard to write about concentration camps at any time, and it’s harder now with the world currently facing Covid-19. This post continues the series on researching World War II service, recalling the efforts and sacrifices of the past, and presenting the evidence that tells us what happened. The past must be documented, and we, and succeeding generations, must learn and remember.

The 89th Infantry Division, of which the 914th Field Artillery Battalion was a part, has been commemorated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the US Army Center of Military History as a Liberating Unit. Their guidelines define a Liberating Unit as

  • Recognize units only at the divisional level;
  • Accord the honor of liberator status on the basis of unit records housed at the National Archives and Records Administration, not oral testimony; and
  • Accord liberator status to those divisions arriving at the site within 48 hours of the initial division’s encounter.[2]

I knew from reading the history of the 89th that some units were attached to the 4th Armored Division during a couple key dates, specifically 3 – 6 April 1945. These units were

  • 355th Combat Team[3]
  • 914th Field Artillery Battalion
  • 314th Engineers Combat Battalion, Company C[4]

The 4th Armored Division, like the 89th, was recognized as a Liberating Unit of Ohrdruf. It seemed from the general history of the 89th that my great uncle Irv Carl would have been a witness to the atrocities of the Ohrdruf camp. The unit histories of both the 4th and the 89th also document their presence at Ohrdruf, as does the history of the 914th. To learn the daily movements of each company of the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, and access every possible record available, I needed to review Morning Reports.

Morning Reports are the most granular of the documents available to WWII military researchers – they were created the morning after events took place. The reports are omission-based, meaning that if nothing happened to a soldier that day, his name would not appear, just some descriptive details of what the company did and experienced. Reports only show the names of men wounded, sick or who arrived/departed the unit on a particular date, meaning that the vast majority of soldiers’ names were not in Morning Reports.

Morning Reports vary in detail, and in preservation quality. Morning Reports were microfilmed by the National Archives and are housed in St. Louis. Some reels have fared better than others. The 914th Field Artillery Battalion reports have some gaps – days when the “buck slips,” the small slips of paper on which the reports were filed, were not received. The data was input on later dates.

The Morning reports for the 914th Field Artillery Battalion – for all Batteries – are missing buck slips for many days of the first two weeks of April. Even so, the Morning Reports for Battery C – the Battery to which Irv Carl belonged – provide details on exactly where and when. On 4 April 1945, after traveling more than 200 miles in less than three days, Battery C arrived 2 miles southeast of Meteback, Germany[5] at 1130. The next morning, 5 April, it was onward to take Gotha. Battery C arrived at Ohrdruf in the rain, at 1600 on 6 April 1945. They remained at Ohrdruf for several days, departing at 0630 on 10 April 1945.

A few days after the 914th Field Artillery Battalion departed Ohrdruf, General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived, along with General George C. Patton. In a letter to George C. Marshall written on 15 April 1945, Eisenhower described the experience[6]

6995916_042_Page_2 Eisenhower ltr to Marshall crop

Resources

First person accounts of Ohrdruf:

[1] Record Group 407: Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1905 – 1981, World War II Operations Reports, 1940 – 1948. Entry (NM3) 427, File 389 – FA(914) – 0.1 History 914th FA BN, 89th Inf. Div 2 Feb 1942 – 30 Oct 45.

[2] USHMM, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/us-army-units?parent=en%2F7836, accessed 30 March 2020.

[3] A Combat Team is a temporal fighting force, depending on the tactical situation. In the case of a Regimental Combat Team, it stays in the base unit (Infantry Regiment), allowing the Commanding Officer (Regimental Commander) to add heavy weapons, antitank assets etc. as needed for the situation. Many thanks to Patrick Brion, Förderverein “Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Walpersberg“ e.V., Sitz Kahla for assistance with the abbreviations and definition of a Combat Team.

[4] US Army Center of Military History, https://history.army.mil/documents/ETO-OB/89ID-ETO.htm, accessed 30 March 2020.

[5] There is more than one Meteback. The one mentioned here is located at 50.9698, 10.6091

[6] Eisenhower, Dwight D: Papers, Pre-Presidential, 1916 – 1952. Principal Files, 1916 – 1952. File Unit: Marshall, George C. (6), Letter, Dwight D. Eisenhower to George C. Marshall, 4/15/1945. Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kansas. To view the entire letter, see here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/12005711.

After Action Reports

On 26 March 1945, at 0200 hours, the 89th Infantry Division began crossing the Rhine on its march eastward. Imagine the coordination between the divisions, brigades, battalions, batteries to make this happen. As the crossing began, the 914th Field Artillery Battalion provided support to the 355th Infantry Regiment. The crossings were made near St. Goar and Oberwesel. My great uncle Irwin Carl, a corporal in the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, was there. He was one of 88 men in Battery C, positioned 1500 yards east of Niederburg. 12th Army map web[1]

How do I have such detail, down to his exact position? After Action Reports.[2]

After Action Reports typically comprise a narrative, plus S-3 and S-2 Reports and a Unit Journal. The “S” stands for “Staff.” The “3” refers to “Operations,” and the “2” to “Intelligence.” The After Action report is a high-level narrative, written in the weeks after events. It does not give names. For the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, the 10 – 31 March 1945 report was submitted on 1 April 1945.

Reading through the After Action report for 24 – 29 March provides much detail on the Battalion, and each Battery within the Battalion. It details the locations, and exact timing of movements of troops – even the type and amount of ammunition expended.

From reading the primary source material, I know that the Rhine crossing took days – the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, Battery C started crossing at 0130 hours on 28 March 1945 – 48 hours after the first troops headed across – and they finished at 0400 hours on 28 March 1945.

Primary source materials, and drilling down into the details, tells the soldiers’ stories. These documents helped inform this blog post:

914 FA Bn After Action Rpt WWII cropped web    914 FA Bn After Action S3 Rpt WWII cropped web

914 FA Bn After Action Rpt WWII Unit Journal web

Many thanks to Eric S. Van Slander, Archivist at National Archives, College Park, for his assistance locating a mislabeled box, without which this research would not be possible. See also:

Next in the series… Liberation of Ohrdruf

[1] Allied Forces. Army Group, 1. E. S. & United States Army. Army Group, 1. H. (1944) HQ Twelfth Army Group situation map: Battle of the Bulge–France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany. 26 March 1945. [England?: Twelfth Army Group, to 1945] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2001628569/, 26 March 2020.

[2] After Action reports are located in Record Group 407: Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1905 – 1981, World War II Operations Reports, 1940 – 1948. The 914th FA Bn: Entry (NM3) 427, File 389 – FA(914) – 0.3.

Soldiers’ Stories

914 FABn Unit History CoverHow do you tell a soldier’s story? By telling the soldiers’ stories.

Most documents available rarely provide more than a name on a list, and many don’t even have that. The majority of the documents available focus on a soldier’s unit, and once that is determined, the story can be traced.

My great uncle Irwin “Irv” Carl was a member of the 89th Infantry Division. During WWII, the size of an infantry division was about 15,000 men.[1] Within an infantry division, there are infantry regiments, artillery battalions, medics, reconnaissance and other special troops.[2] I could research and understand the story of the 89th Infantry Division, but learning what a soldier did? For that I needed a name on a unit list.

The 89th Infantry Division Historical Board published a history in 1947,[3] and the book included Rosters of Personnel. The 89th Infantry Division of WWII website alphabetized the lists, making it easier to find soldiers’ names: Carl I.; Cpl; 914th Field Artillery Battalion; Battery C. Telling the story of the 914th Field Artillery Battalion tells the story of 520 soldiers, 88 of whom were in Battery C.

The National Archives at College Park stores Unit Histories and After Action Reports. Morning Reports are at the National Archives in St Louis. Reviewing these resources, plus photographs from the Army Signal Corps collection, tells the soldiers’ stories – where they fought, slept, celebrated and wept.

In March 1945, the 914th Field Artillery Battalion entered combat. The Unit History, page 3:[4]

III. GERMANY. It was on 10 March 1945 that a long awaited event occurred. Underfoot was enemy soil. The town of Wilschbillig was the first German town to be occupied by the battalion. It has already been captured in the previous fighting by the Third Army. Patenburg was the next stepping stone toward the enemy. It was about 35 miles travel from Welschbillig, being occupied on 11 March 1945. The next day was one of rapid movement. 3rd Bn 355th Inf was assigned the mission of capturing the towns of Litzerath and Driesch. The 914th F.A. Bn. displaced to positions in the vicinity of Gillenfeld to support this action.

Next in the series… After Action Reports

[1] Schilling, Warner R. “Weapons, Strategy and War,” Units in WWII illustration. http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/services/dropoff/schilling/mil_org/milorgan_99.html, accessed 8 March 2020.

[2] Order of Battle of the US Army, World War II, European Theater of Operations, 89th INFANTRY DIVISION. Office of the Theater Historian, Paris, France, 1945. Placed online by U.S. Army Center of Military History, https://history.army.mil/documents/ETO-OB/89ID-ETO.htm accessed 8 March 2020.

[3] 89th Infantry Division Historical Board, The 89th Infantry Division, 1942-1945. Washington, DC: Infantry Journal, Inc. 1947. Original at the National Archives, College Park. Scanned online, available at HathiTrust, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015049794889&view=image&seq=7 accessed 8 March 2020

[4] Record Group 407: Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. Series: WWII Operations Reports, 1940-1948, Entry (NM3) 427, 389-FA(914), History 914 FABn.

75 Years On

Understanding the past through the lives of our ancestors helps give a personal look at history. Documents of all sorts can explain the politics, the employment opportunities, the weather, even what’s on sale at the grocery store, but rarely, if at all, do we learn what our ancestors and relatives thought. Those lucky enough to have letters, diaries or oral history gain a different perspective, but this is uncommon. Most of us have to hold back on the “did he think; did she know” type ponderings, and focus on what story can be told from the records that do exist.

My great-uncle Irwin “Irv” Carl, the youngest of his siblings and one of two children born after the family arrived in the United States, enlisted and served in World War II. At the time of his enlistment in May 1942, he had a wildly successful nightclub, the Empire Ca-BAR-et, and according to the St. Louis Star and Times, had a III-A Draft rating,[1] so the choice to serve came from another reason lost to time.[2]

Researching Irv’s war-time experience taught me a lot about the military, and preparation for war. Irv trained. And trained, and trained. Mostly at Camp Carson in Colorado, and there are some great photos he took out there. Then Louisiana, California, and Camp Butner in North Carolina. It wasn’t until 1944 that it seemed he would end up in the war theatre, and it wasn’t until the Spring of 1945 that he did.

In the coming weeks, I’ll present the research I conducted on the 89th Infantry Division, and specifically the 914th Field Artillery Battalion, as they marched across France, Luxembourg and Germany. The 89th, the 914th (and others) were part of the liberation of Ohrdruf, and they witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities committed there.

Rolling Ahead Publication Map[3]

Irv served more than three years in the Army, and returned to St. Louis in time to celebrate the Japanese surrender while at a “lock in” at his brother’s bar – Carl’s Cocktail Lounge.[4] Irv returned to the nightclub scene himself, operating the Orchid Lounge, and died in 1955.

I interviewed those who knew Irv when he was alive, and no one recalled him ever speaking of his Army experience. I have the documents, I have the photos, and in all of that, I only have these words written by Irv: “No sleep for 3 days & nites.  Mighty tired.  Leichenstein [sic] Germany

Next in the series: Researching the soldier’s story.

Looking for information on

[1] “Kid Regan’s Column,” The St. Louis Star and Times, Thursday, 21 May 1942, p23.

[2] Men with dependents, not engaged in work essential to national defense. This refers, most likely, to Irv’s aged mother, with whom he lived and supported. https://www.swarthmore.edu/library/peace/conscientiousobjection/MilitaryClassifications.htm accessed 24 Feb 2020.

[3] Map insert, Rolling AHEAD! The Story of the 89th Infantry Division.  Major General Thomas D. Finley and staff, Orientation Branch, Information and Education Division, Hq., USFET, no date. Collection of the Carl Family.

[4] The story of the lock in to celebrate the Japanese surrender was relayed to me by Jack Carl, who occasionally worked for his Uncle Max at Carl’s Cocktail Lounge. Jack was 19 years old in 1945.

Pages of Testimony

Portrait of Ilja BortzI’m sitting with a blank Page of Testimony in front of me. Seventy-six years after Hitler attempted to rid Latvia of its Jews, I’ve been asked by Yad Vashem to complete this form about my grandfather’s first cousin and his family.

In early July of 1941, the Germans occupied Riga. In the process, they shot several thousand Jews and by August of that year, the Riga Ghetto was established. Between 30 November – 9 December 1941, the Germans and their Latvian auxiliary counterparts murdered 26,000 Latvian Jews in the Rumbula forest, five miles from the Ghetto. About 4,000-5,000 Jews remained in the Ghetto; some organized resistance efforts but were discovered in 1942. By summer 1943, the Germans were deporting inhabitants of the Ghetto to Kaiserwald concentration camp, and they destroyed the Ghetto in December 1943.[1]

Records were not kept. Names were not placed meticulously on lists. The fate of my cousins will likely remain forever unknown, lost somewhere between the walls of the Ghetto and the trees of Rumbula. Before the war, 40,000 Jews lived in Riga. Approximately 1,000 survived, but not my cousins.

Today, as I complete the Pages of Testimony, I remember:

Chaim Elijah “Ilja” Bortz, born 3 February 1906 in Daugavpils, the only child of my 2nd great aunt.

Keila Malatsky, married to Ilja. Keila was born 2 June 1897 in Riga.

The children of Ilja and Keila:
•    Nechama-Lea, born Riga 16 December 1930
•    Esther Frade, born Riga 26 January 1937

Ilja’s father, Srol Bortz, born about 1875 in Druya.

 

[1] Dates and statistics from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
[2] Photograph cropped from Ilja’s confiscated passport, courtesy of Yad Vashem and the Latvia State Archives.

Researching World War II Service: Beware the Unknown Unknowns

Irv Carl in WWII uniformMy great uncle Irwin “Irv” Carl served in the Army during World War II but that’s about all any family members knew. My search began with his enlistment data, and then I found a copy of his Application for a Headstone or Marker for a Military Veteran. That application matched the enlistment data, plus gave me a lot of new information. On most applications, you will find:

• Enlistment date
• Discharge date
• Service number
• Grade (rank)
• Medals
• Branch of Service, Company, Regiment and Division.

While these two documents were useful, I wanted to try and learn more, and placed a request for Irv’s military service record.

The service record request signaled challenges ahead: the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroyed approximately 16-18 million Official Military Personnel Files, and 80 percent of Army records for personnel discharged between 1912 -1960. I was not surprised when I received a letter explaining that there were no records available for Irv, other than his final payment document. Something is always better than nothing!

The final payment roll confirmed the company, regiment and division. Or so I thought. I started to put together a report on Irv’s war experience based on the headstone application and final payment document, both of which placed him in “Headquarters Battery, 8th Infantry Division Artillery.” The 8th Infantry’s members wore a shoulder patch featuring an upward pointing gold arrow piercing a silver figure “8,” all on a blue shield.

I looked at dates, maps and locations, plotting where Irv might have gone or seen action. But then I received a box of photos from a relative. In that box were photos Irv had taken while in training and then in the European Theatre of Operations. A few images had information written on the back, some had identifiable landmarks, and others showed enough of Irv’s shoulder patch that the questions started.

If Irv was a member of the 8th Infantry Division, what was he doing wearing a patch for the 89th Infantry Division? The 89th Infantry Division patch is a distinct, stylized “W” inside a circle, black on khaki, nothing like the gold arrow of the 8th. There was no mixing up the two. Was he really a member of the 89th? If so, it would explain a few things: photos of Irv training in Colorado (the 89th trained at Camp Carson, Colorado), and some of the locations the 89th fought in Germany matched place names on the photos.

Why did the US military have the “wrong” information for the final payment roll and the headstone application? Actually, the information obtained in the two documents was accurate because at the end of World War II, Irv was briefly part of the 8th Infantry Division. Here’s why: when the war was over, the U.S. military in Europe needed to relocate more than 3 million service members, and get them back to a separation center close to the soldier’s final destination. It was a giant logistics puzzle. Attaching Irv to the 8th Infantry Division got him to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a separation center about 130 miles southwest of St. Louis, Missouri.

Irv Carl with 89th Inf Div Patch

Irv Carl with 89th Inf Div Patch

Without the photos of Irv, and examining the shoulder patch, I would have identified his WWII service incorrectly. But at the same time, I would have been working with the documents and the evidence available to me. When researching the veteran in your family, beware the unknown unknowns.

On this Veteran’s Day, I’m doubling down on my effort to identify any of the people in the photos my great-uncle took, as well as share the photos in the collection of the Signal Corps at the National Archives. Follow this link and take a look.

There are more photos from the National Archives to scan and add to the collection, and the next step for the family photos is to geo-locate them. I also need to start digging through World War II Operations Reports to see if I can determine the company and regiment to which Irv was attached. Much more research ahead!

Do you have any old letters or documents? Vol. 1

When I started working on my family’s history, I reached out to cousins of my parents‘ generation, interviewing them, asking them questions, and more questions. I also requested copies of photos that they had, looking on the backs of the images for clues. And I asked if they had any old letters or other documents.

One of my dad’s first cousins reponded to my document query with a note

[Your grandmother] sent me some correspondence from 1940 from family in the Ukraine which apparently requested some  money or clothing material or both. The correspondence is written in some kind of script, possibly Yiddish. I once had attempted to get someone to try to translate it, but not very successfully. However, I was told that the letter and a postcard were from “Sure” (which I was told meant Sarah) Mordche-Leibovna Schnaider ….. She may have been a sister-in-law of [my grandmother], or possibly a sister of Samuel.

Wow. 70-something year old letters from a heretofore unknown relative. This cousin was kind enough to scan all the letters, envelopes and bit of paper. I had them translated from Yiddish, and they were an eye-opener.Yiddish postcard August 1940

The letters detail requests for money and goods to be sent to Sore Mordeche Leibnova Schnaider on Rakovaya Street in Medzhibozh, Podolsky Gubernia [present-day Medzhybizh, Khmelnytskyi Oblast, Ukraine].  Sore addressed the envelopes in English, wrote the return address in Cyrillic, and the text of the letters in Yiddish, indicating that she had the ability to write, and possibly understand, at least two languages.

Comparing the data in the letters along with other family information, I determined that Sore was a sister to my great-grandfather.

Meanwhile, Sore’s sister-in-law responds to the requests, sending both a money order and a package of wool suit and coat fabrics, but the letters indicate the package did not arrive.

According to the translator, the letters sound pleading. A widow of 21 years, raising her children on her own, the notes seem to indicate a woman a little desperate and forgotten at a time when most of Europe is moving closer to chaos. The letters were sent from March through December 1940. Whether she sent additional letters is unknown. The Nazis arrived in Medzhibozh on 8 July 1941, placing all the Jews in a ghetto. The ghetto was anihiliated beginning on 22 September 1942, with the liquidation lasting three weeks.

Why Sore chose not to leave Russia, or if she had a choice, is unknown. Her fate, and the fate of her children are also unknown. I have initiated an International Tracing Service search through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Perhaps someday, I will have the answer.