Herschel Raymer contests that in his 88 years, the best night’s sleep he ever had was on a feather bed mattress in a deserted German home.
Cold European weather, the lack of provisions and inadequate heat in the staging tent city Cigarette Camps in Le Havre, France, were part of an estimated 3 million American troops’ experience in World War II. Raymer, like many others, just considered it part of his duty.
“We rode on the USS General Bliss for 13 days to France,” Raymer said. “We were zigzagging through the ocean to avoid torpedoes. We arrived to knee-deep snow in January in La Havre, France. I thought I should go and serve my country like everyone else then.”
Raymer is one of six brothers who served in the military. Raymer and four of his brothers all served during World War II and one during Vietnam. Drafted at 18 in 1943, Raymer started active duty in 1944 and entered the European Theater of Operations at Camp Lucky Strike.
The Cigarette Camps of World War II served as a staging area for troops entering the war. Camps had cigarette brand names like Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Philip Morris, Old Gold and Pall Mall. The military named them, like the city camps, for security reasons. Enemies listening in on radio and cable transmissions couldn’t discern the camps’ geographic location, or for those less familiar with English, thought the allied forces chattered about American cigarettes.
“We lived in big tents, it must’ve been 100 feet long, and we slept in all of our clothes except our shoes just to stay warm and still froze to death,” Raymer said. “There was a small woodstove at the head of every tent, but the French wouldn’t let you cut any wood unless you found an old tree root or something that you could knock a few slabs off and let it burn for a little while. That’s all . We almost froze to death. The food would freeze in your mess kit. We were glad to go up front (to battle) because it couldn’t be no worse”
Trench Foot, an infection from unsanitary conditions where the foot is exposed to wet conditions in water logged areas without removing boots or socks, was still common during World War II. From January to April, Raymer said soldiers almost froze to death.
“I still have trouble with my left foot from frostbite. Some of the boys lost their legs and feet from Trench Foot,” Raymer said. “We were just one big happy family if you could call it that. Everyone was there for one reason, to get it over with and go home.”
Raymer served in Company D 354th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division in France and Germany known as the Rolling ‘W’. The division would be a part of the XII Corp of Gen. Patton’s Third Army.
The 89th proceeded into combat crossing France into Luxembourg where the German front, according to the 89th’s website, had become chaotic and frayed lacking contact with other military units. Minefields and bridges the Germans destroyed made the advance slow. The division negotiated the Moselle River with a few skirmishes but proceeded without much resistance.
Raymer carried the barrel of a 30-caliber machine gun into combat as part of a six-man team. The crew also carried the responsibility of maintenance, placement of the gun and effective firing on enemy positions. When asked about the experience of carrying heavy equipment under enemy fire, Raymer considers his survival and fortune no bit of chance.
“It ain’t funny. The good Lord took care of me that’s all you can say about it,” Raymer said. “We were strafed and bombed and everything happened to us.”
The division’ biggest battle occurred crossing the Rhine River at night.
“We went across the Rhine River at night in a paddle boat,” Raymer said, “and the Germans were waiting for us on the other side. That was one our biggest battles and our biggest loss. When I went across in the boat it was probably about 3 in the morning. An engineer took us across and when we were across there they shot at some of us. When we got out of the boat, the Germans threw a grenade or something in the boat and killed him and he floated on down the river. A lot of people died that way.”
When Raymer and his fellow soldiers crossed the riverbank, the Germans were hidden across a bank by railroad tracks. The troops heard noises. A corporal in the company could speak German and he said three words Raymer will never forget.
“I guess he was trying to figure out where the Germans were,” Raymer said. “He said, ‘Was ist diese’ in German, which is ‘What is this’ in English and when the Germans answered him it all broke loose. They might’ve thought we were Germans. They threw grenades and everything else. That’s three words I never did forget. All of us were scared. You can’t tell me that anybody that’s in a battle and isn’t scared. You can tell me that, but I can’t believe it.”
The division fought into the rest of the day setting up in a defensive position during the push. By May, the 89th was near the Austrian border when the Germans surrendered. According to Raymer, enemy troops started walking down roads in the division’s location. German troops walked with their hands across on top of their heads.
“The Germans surrendered to us. They didn’t want to surrender to the Russians,” Raymer said. “They hated one another. The Russians would’ve killed them and that’s why they came to the American side. A lot of the German people were good people just like here. They didn’t want that war, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it.”
A German civilian talked with Raymer and a fellow soldier showing them to a weapons cache.
“We were up in this little old town one time and this old German fella he came up to the corporal and said something to him,” Raymer said, “he took us out to the woods where he had buried a bunch of guns. He didn’t want any more war. That’s my opinion.”
Wartime conditions like not being able to change their clothes for several months and finally taking a hot shower or traveling 30 to 40 miles back from the frontline in the night for a wooded Easter Sunrise Service still dominate Raymer’s memories. The suffering, the cold and lack of food were part of the sacrifices Raymer thinks many Americans may have forgotten.
“The best sleep I ever got in my life and I’m 88 years old, was when we were in this little town and the German people had gone ahead of us. They would leave when they knew we were coming,” Raymer said. “I went into this bed and it had a feather pad underneath it and one of the same thickness you pulled over top of you. I slept that night. Buddy, I mean I slept. I was worn out and cold and we done a good sleeping that night.”
Raymer came home on furlough after the Germans surrendered and before he would go to Japan again for combat. But the war ended before he was shipped out. Like many in the country, he was glad it was over. He had had enough of war.
“I wasn’t no hero. I did what I had to do and that was it,” Raymer said. “There was plenty more with me that did just as good.”