I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Sgt. Bill True. Bill enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, and served throughout World War II in a Parachute Infantry Regiment. He fought in almost every major campaign as the Allies advanced across Europe, including the Normandy Invasion, the invasion of Holland, and the Battle of The Bulge.
In this interview, he focuses on the role of Sergeants in the success of a unit.
Well, early on, I was a buck private rifleman in a mortar squad. That was my initial assignment for some months of training.
The sergeant that most impressed me and struck me from the very beginning was my first sergeant. I was assigned to F Company 506 parachute infantry regiment right after entering the military. And he was just such a sharp military guy in every way. Impressed me just more than any soldier ever had. And certainly subsequently, as far as that goes. He was a career military. He'd been in the service, I think 12 or 13 years. He was an old guy, 30 or 31 years old as a matter of fact. But the way he could bark out the orders and close order drill, “To the rear march! To the rear march!” These kinds of things really impressed me right off the bat. And he was so impressive that you just had to respond to him yes, sir, no, sir. But he wouldn't have it. “I am not a sir. That is for the commission. I am your sergeant soldier, you got that?” “Yes, sir, sergeant”, was frequently the response, but he was just that impressive that you had to respond that way.
His name was Sergeant Willie Morris. And when we first got our M1 rifles, they were brand new, still covered with cosmoline and he took us through the details of taking the guns apart and reassembling them and so forth. Matter of fact, clear down to the point of resembling them blindfolded. But I remember clearly that he said, “It's alright if you call this your rifle, but I don't want to ever hear any of you calling it your gun. It really is your piece. You can call it a rifle if you want to, but best of all, it's your piece. And that piece is going to be your best friend when you get to combat. So I want you treating it like your best friend at all times.” And early on, we had to learn the serial number of the rifle. And immediately you were assigned a rifle. That's your rifle, your piece, and you know the serial number of it and any lieutenant or any sergeant at any time could say, “What's the serial number of your piece there soldier?” And boy, if you didn't reel it off in a hurry, you were on KP or latrine orderly, or some extra guard duty.
The thing that really impressed me was his bearing. He was just the most military person I'd ever seen, just sharp and crisp. Everything about him said, this is a first rate soldier. And I was just totally impressed from the first time I saw him.
There was a little bit of fear of him at first, but I think it wasn't long before it wasn't so much that as it was just utter respect. This is a man who knows what he's doing and when he tells me something, I do it. That was him.
As a matter of fact, we were... Well, I hate to use the term, but very dear to him. We meant what he was all about, truly. That came through. That's why it wasn't just fear, but it was mainly respect because you knew he cared for you even when he was reaming you out good. You figured you deserved it. He was the kind of guy that just came across as totally in command. And rightfully so.
How did we know he cared for us? Well, I think some of the disciplinary actions revealed it, even when he was signing us to some extra latrine orderly duty and so forth. You got the impression that it was not so much to punish you as to remind you don't screw up like that next time. At any rate, that's the way you got the feeling.
As far as going into combat with Sergeant Morris as the top kick, I couldn't have asked for anything more. That was the ultimate I could hope for in terms of a top kick in the company.
The jump in Normandy, D-Day, for example, we were scattered all over the place. I don't think I saw him probably till at least the second or third day, probably, when the company gradually got together again. And by the time you're in combat, you're spread out. And I don't remember at any point of combat a direct order from him, because by that time, your platoon Sergeant is reporting the company headquarters and you're all spread out and even knowing what the next squad is doing is a little bit difficult. So I didn't have that much direct contact with him in combat, but everything I heard jived with my expectations based on our training.
Two tragic things occurred in connection with Sergeant Morris. In Normandy, on the 13th of June, my regiment had taken Carentan, the town of Carentan, which along with Sainte-Mère-Église least were two of the critical cities with the road junctions connecting all of the beaches. And we had taken Carentan on June 12th and on June 13th, there was a big military German counter attack. That was a real heated battle with the tanks and all on their side, and our tanks weren't with us at that point. But at any rate, it was a real hot fight. And I can remember a couple of guys in my platoon getting killed, Johnny [Supko] and Don Davis, and one of my very closest buddies, Bob Dubois Davis, Bob Stone was seriously wounded right near me.
But anyway, I was working by that time as a second gunner on a machine gun. We'd lost our mortar on the jump, and Ray [Abshire] was operating the machine gun. And we watched for the flash from the gun on the tank and duck down behind the hedgerow we were on. And then Ray's up and we're shooting these rifles and 30 caliber machine guns at a tank out there. But anyway, about that time, the first gunner Ray [Abshire] spotted a group five or six Germans crawling up a gully. And I still remember he was one hell of a gunner. He just stitched up that ditch and got all of them.
But at any rate, it was a real pitch battle, both ways. And about that time, an order came down the line to fall back to the next hedge row. Apparently our company commander and first sergeant had not cleared this fallback with battalion headquarters. So after we got back to England later, we were in Normandy from June 6th to the middle of July sometime, and after we got back to England, probably sometime in August, both Captain Malvie and Sergeant Morris were relieved of their command and transferred out of the company. But the thing that really wrangled, captain Malvie kept his bars. He remained a captain, transferred out. Sergeant Morris was busted to buck private and transferred out. That really, really wrangled as a distinction that didn't seem right at all.
ll of us rather resented it at the enlisted man level, certainly. If one or the other of them was more responsible for that retreat, surely it was the company commander, the captain, and we liked the captain. The resentment of the situ was not because we didn't like the captain. We liked him very much too. I had a great respect for him, but the fact that as a commissioned officer, he got to keep his bars whereas this career military man who had worked his way up to a top Sergeant is now a buck private. It just seemed the most disgraceful discrepancy in the treatment of these people. So yeah, we resented the heck out of it for quite some time.
I think it was really simply that commissioned officers were treated differently than enlisted men. There was a very, very great distinction there. I never got close to a commissioned officer. And I think there was an intentional separation there that was part of the separation. You were treated differently.
At Bastogne, I think we'd been there about a week. At any rate, I recall it was the first day that the weather cleared and the C47's were able to resupply us, which was a very happy occasion and also our pursuit planes were able to strafe the German lines. Unfortunately they strafed too close at one point and friendly fire killed Sergeant Morris. As a matter of fact, he was a Sergeant again by that time. He'd worked his way up to Staff Sergeant in charge of a platoon, but he was killed by friendly fire. Sad ending to the finest soldier I'd known.
A lot of things in war are inappropriate, of course, but that just didn't seem right. Especially friendly fire.
I think the fact that I eventually did take on the responsibilities of a Sergeant myself was part of the respect I had had for him and what I had observed about him and learned from him because for a long time, I didn't want the responsibility of a Sergeant at all.
I first went into the service when I was 18 years old, and most of the fellas were a year or two, or even more, older than I was. And I just didn't have the self confidence that would allow me to figure I could be telling these guys what to do and chewing them out if they didn't do it right. And as the training went on, there were a couple of occasions when I was quite capable. I did everything very well. I was made acting squad leader on at least two occasions. But each time sooner or later, one of the guys in the squad would mess up pretty bad and I wouldn't do much about it. And so back I'd be to a Private again. So it was a long time and it wasn't really until after we'd been in combat for some time. And a lot of the old timers had been either killed or wounded. And gradually as replacements came in, they were guys younger than I was. When we jumped in Normandy for example, I was 20 years old and we had some 18 to 19 year olds with us by then. So I began to feel the responsibility that I know I'm capable of being in charge of this kind of a unit and finally gradually felt that I should. And so by the time we got to Bastogne, I was a squad leader and a Sergeant. That was very slow. That's over two years in the service before I finally accepted that kind of responsibility.
Julius Houk was perhaps the most aggressive of all of our raw recruits when we arrived at Toccoa, Georgia, where we had our basic training in August of 1942. And every morning we had quite a, oh, at least half an hour or more of rather strenuous calisthenics. And I think partly as a way of assessing the men and seeing which one of them might be potential non-com's. Whichever Lieutenant was leading the calisthenics that morning would ask, all right, who'd like to come out here and lead another exercise here? And Julius Houk, he was... Rusty was his nickname. He was the first one and he'd been a skier apparently. And he put us through some kind of a ski exercise that just twisted your legs into pretzels, it seemed like. It was a miserable exercise. And the officers called him out to give that every single day after that. So you could see right on that this guy was probably going to be a non-com. And he did, but before our three months basic training was over he'd PFC, Corporal, and Sergeant right off the bat.
Houk became a Sergeant very early on for obvious reasons. He was a very aggressive self-confident guy. Exactly what you look for and exactly what the lieutenants were looking for as a guy who'd become a squad leader or even higher rank. So he fit the bill perfectly. I did everything, I think as well as anybody in the company, I was a good soldier. I mastered everything. I was an expert on the rifle. I did everything very well, but I didn't want the responsibility of anybody else. And that's not who they were looking for. They were looking for the guy who was willing to take on the responsibility, had the self-confidence to know, hey, I can tell people what to do and I can chew them out if they don't do it right.
I did not resent Houk becoming a Sergeant so fast at all. As a matter of fact, I was happy to see one stepping forward and taking that responsibility, which I did not want. No, I never resented him in any way. And he was a fine Sergeant and he did his job well.
But on D-Day, we had just loaded onto the planes and we were so heavy, as probably most people who know about the paratroopers on D-Day recognize, we were so loaded with equipment and ammunition, supplies and everything that we couldn't get on the planes on our own. We had to be helped up the stairs. But at any rate, after we were on the plane and were seated, one of the crew members had a camera and he wanted to get a picture of our stick. And he did. And Sergeant Houk was fairly near the camera. I'm further away and barely visible in the picture, but he's right up near the camera and he's making a big V for victory sign. And what is so ironic, within five or six hours after that, the next morning, he's the first man I saw killed in Normandy.
He wasn't the first man in our company killed in Normandy. A number of the guys were hit by machine gun fire as we came down, some of them never even got to the ground, ended up in trees, but he was the first man I had seen killed. We had scattered all over on the jump and groups got together and he was with a group of, I don't know, 20 or 25 men as I was, but my group was behind his 50, 100 yards or perhaps even more at first.
But at any rate, his group was attacking some big gun emplacements. And I can remember seeing him out in the open throwing hand grenades. And I thought ‘Don't expose yourself like that, my god’. And just about the time I'm thinking that, there was a burst of machine gun fire that got him right in the chest and he was dead right there, but it was so typical of him from day one. He was the leader out in front, and it came to a very sad end because of it.
Sergeant Houk was just a very aggressive outspoken kind of person who had no self-doubts. He was as self confident as anyone could be, I think. And that's how he ended up being a Sergeant. And that's how he ended up acting the way he did. If he had survived that early combat, I think he would've learned a little caution, but this being that was probably his first opportunity to encounter the enemy. And by God, he was going to be out there in front encountering them. So he's right in a wide open lobbing grenades and unfortunately it didn't work.
He was more aggressive than most. I would say most sergeants would have exercised more caution than that. And most everybody would have, as a matter of fact, I'm sure. Although to become a noncommissioned officer, a person had to be somewhat aggressive and somewhat assertive and self confident, but he went a little further than was called for at least at that time.
Sergeant Gordon Mather was another one who was quite aggressive early on at Toccoa, perhaps not quite the same as Rusty Houk, but nevertheless, quite aggressive. He was three or four years older than I was 21, 22, something like that at that time. And he was from Indiana, but at some point in his career, he had worked in Africa someplace in a diamond mine, and apparently had been some kind of a crew chief or headman. And I can remember, he loved to use some of the African language that he remembered that he used with his crew. And so I can still remember some of the terms, [foreign language] and phrases like that he'd throw around, but at any rate he was another or one that was obviously an excellent soldier. Did everything extremely well and was aggressive and sufficiently self confident that he also became a non-com very, very early on.
As a matter of fact, by the time we'd been in training probably 6, 8, 10 months, he pretty much had the reputation of being the best soldier in the outfit. Well, we wouldn't compare him with our first Sergeant, of course, but as far as we people who came in as raw recruits for basic training at Toccoa, he was generally considered the top of the line. And that was true after we'd been in combat as well. And by the time we were at Bastogne, we had been through... Well, we were in Normandy from June 6th to the middle of July, and then in Holland for about three months. So we'd had quite a bit of combat by the time we got to Bastogne and his reputation still held. He was considered one the best.
We'd been at Bastogne just a day or so. As a matter of fact, we got into Bastogne at night. The call for us to move up to meet the German onslaught there for the Battle of the Bulge, we came early one morning, as I recall, and we were on trucks and headed for Bastogne by that afternoon and got into Bastogne that night. And we moved through the town into the outer perimeter to up a perimeter defense. And the next day, my platoon, I was by then a squad leader in the first platoon. And Gordon was another squad leader in that platoon. And we were going out to set up a defense line and we were going through some woods and suddenly a machine gun opened up. And it was obviously a [Kraut] machine gun because there was never any question. The distinction between a German machine gun and an American machine gun was so distinct. The German machine gun went *brrrt*, it was rapid fire and compared to ours, it seemed like ours was going *rat tat tat tat tat*. It was really that kind of distinction. So no question what kind of a machine gun that was and as we're heading for the ground, I remember seeing a little depression, maybe three or four inches, not very much, but it was a little depression and I can remember going into it. And I'm sure that really saved my life because those machine gun bullets were the closest I had ever encountered either before or after. You could not only hear them popping over your head, but I think I felt the air whistling over. And we were just digging into that ground as hard as we could.
At any rate after seemed like an eternity, probably 20 or 30 seconds, the firing paused. And I remember thinking at the time, I bet they're changing the belt in that machine gun now. And I raised up to look over and see what Gordon Mather and his squad were doing, and just about that time, he also raised up and I could see him hollering back at his squad and another burst hit him right in the middle of the helmet. And there was another of our best soldiers. And that one, I remember the thought just sweeping across me. What in the world can it mean our best soldier is now killed? It just seemed so meaningless.
Sergeant Mather was so impressive as any really impressive non-com is because of their self confidence. They convey to you that they know what they're doing. And he was that kind of a guy. There was never any question. If he said do this, the squad did it because that was the right thing to do. And I didn't develop that for a long time. So it wasn't until by the time we got to Bastogne, which was our third major battle, that I developed that kind of self confidence and the men under me respected me in the same way. I'm sure by then, these were mostly new recruits. Most of the old guys were gone. Maybe I had two or three of the old timers still there, but most of the rest of them would be replacements and young guys. And I had no question, but that I was capable of providing the leadership they needed and they didn't question that I could do it, but I was a long time developing to that point.
I think Sergeant Mather, Sergeant Houk, Sergeant Morris, all of them really felt it. I think it would be hard to fake that kind of self-confidence. I think some people are born with an innate self-confidence about themselves and they end up being the ones that lead and that's appropriately so. I think they truly felt that they were the right person to be doing what they were doing.
I think all of the sergeants that I knew, and certainly that's the way I felt, felt a great responsibility for their men. As a matter of fact, that was their second goal or their first goal. The first goal being to defeat the enemy, second keep your men alive, or maybe the other way around. I'm not sure which took top priority at what time, but yes, I think any non-com worth assault sees the lives of his men as one of his very, very vital responsibilities.
As I indicated, by the time I became a Sergeant, I was among the more mature people in my squad. There were a couple, three guys, maybe a little older than I was, but basically I was the mature person in every way, certainly in terms of experience and combat. And by that time, I didn't have any doubt that I should be telling the people what to do. I was the one best prepared to do it. And that confidence that came over a period of time that that was so was what permitted me to be, what I believe, I was also an effective non-com at that point.
Most of the names that I remember are men that I trained with from Toccoa and was with all the way through, and by the time I made Sergeant, most everybody in my squad was a replacement and it's difficult. I don't remember. And as a matter of fact, sometimes replacements, a couple of three times, replacements would've been killed or wounded.
I certainly felt that leading them, giving them the kind of orders, doing what I had to do to give them the best chance of not only killing the enemy, but preserving their own lives, that was my reason for being, and I felt it deeply.
I think I was a pretty good Sergeant. It took me a long time to get there, but I think once I did, I was well qualified. I knew what I was doing and acted appropriately.
I don't remember having any particular style. I suppose I learned from all of the sergeants that I observed and admired, certainly from Willie Morris and I think from both Houk and Mather. I surely absorbed some of what I saw in them. And I knew that I needed to exude the kind of self confidence that would inspire the men to have respect and regard for me, so I don't think it was any particular style, but it was just probably an amalgam of all the things I had learned from these other people. And plus perhaps a bit of my own personality, but mainly I was doing what I saw worked.
During the time that I was a private and a PFC, which was over two years, I recognized that probably someday presuming I survive all of this, that I will take on these responsibilities. And that was of course reinforced by the fact that I'd been made acting Sergeant on a couple of occasions. I was recognized as a very capable soldier. All I was lacking was the self confidence to assume command and tell other people what to do. I knew what to do myself, but telling other people what to do was the ingredient that was needed. But I felt I was growing as the training went on. And by the time I was made a Sergeant and squad leader, I knew it was appropriate. And I knew I could do the job.
As a Sergeant, the toughest thing, even after I recognized that it was my responsibility to take on this authority, I was still reluctant to be the disciplinarian that is really called for. I would tend to chew out a man a little less, assign him to KP or something less frequently. I was probably a bit easier on the men than some sergeants, but I don't think that detracted from my ability to do the job well, but just my personality was not such that... It always hurt me to discipline people severely. And so that was just part of the way I operated.
We lost men after I was a Sergeant. It's never easy to take, but as you endure more and more combat, you realize more and more that this is inevitable. And while you can mourn briefly the fact that you've lost one of your men, you have to move on and you do. It wasn't until visiting graves many, many years after World War II, that it really hit me real hard, men that were under mehad died in combat. When you're fighting, that has to take a back seat to what you're doing and what you're thinking. And then it comes fairly naturally, as a matter of fact, to move on and get over it to losing men.
By the time I became a Sergeant, it was not difficult for me to give orders at all. I felt completely capable of knowing what was the right thing to do. Well, there would be occasions when there wasn't any real good option of what to do, but at any rate among the available options, I was sure I was choosing what was as good as anything else. And it was more or less the old infantry adage to do something, even if it's wrong. When you're in combat, the worst thing is to do nothing. And so that had sunk in with me. And so I didn't have reservations about my ability to call the shots at that point.
When I visited Sergeant Mather's grave, Sergeant Houk's grave, and one of the privates who'd been quite close to me all the way from Toccoa, Johnny [Supko], when I visited their graves, Houk and [Supko] are both buried at the American cemetery in Normandy and Gordon Mather's at the American cemetery in Luxembourg. When I visited their graves, I think the reason it really comes home is because it really sinks into me what a wonderful life I've had. I've lived to become a father of four children, I have six grandchildren. I've had a successful life. I've been happy. And I think of these boys that never lived that, and it just touches me in a way that in combat you can't possibly feel that kind of grief that comes to you only much, much later.
I would like to think that some men are perhaps alive today because I did a good job as a Sergeant. War is a very chancey thing. And who did what at what time that made what difference is hard to nail down, but yes, I like to think that I provided some good leadership that helped some people survive.And that gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
Anytime a sergeant is lost, someone has to assume charge. And I think we really worked on that. As a matter of fact in a squad there would always be a squad leader and an assistant squad leader. So obviously if the squad leader was lost, the assistant squad leader took over, but there were always men in the squad who were somewhat more capable and recognized that their own responsibility would be if I had to, I could take over. So I think there was a general feeling among American soldiers that I'll take over if I have to, and as sergeants at various levels would be knocked out, there was always someone who felt, well, I can move in this case. And generally the other men recognized whichever one of them had the self confidence and the aggressiveness to take the charge.
I think the other men recognized he's the right guy to do it. You get to know each other over a period. See, we were in training for nearly two years before we had our first combat. I went into the service in August of '42, and it was D-Day June of '44 before we had our first combat. So we'd been together and worked together for a long time. And I think you knew everybody well enough that whoever took over was pretty well recognized as the one that ought to. So that really was not a major problem that I saw.
I've heard that the German army, the hierarchy and the way they had had things set up, and I guess it worked all the way from Hitler himself clear down to the front lines, if your guy above you didn't tell you what to do, you didn't know what to do, and you were stuck. At least that's what I understand. Worked right down to the combat level. If a lieutenant or sergeant or something was knocked out, the German soldier, I think, was at a disadvantage compared to the Americans. We make do.
We had a lieutenant at basic training, Lieutenant Havorka. He ended up with a health problem and never went overseas with us. So I never saw him in combat, but he had been to military school. And the military school had a former master sergeant from the German army, a German who had been a first sergeant in World War 1, was one of the instructors at this military school where Lieutenant Havorka had gone. And he learned the bayonet training from the guy. And so he used some German expressions in connection with bayonet training. And one of them related to a command that Lieutenant Hovorka would give... He wasn't the Lieutenant in charge of my platoon, but he was the bayonet trainer for the whole company. And I still remember during bayonet training, during what was called the long thrust, which was you lunge forward with your rifle, take a big step forward and lunge out, shoving your bayonet as far as you can right through the enemy's chest, right through him. And he'd have us do the long thrust, and then he'd make us take our left arm away from our piece, which meant we were holding 10 pounds of rifle and bayonet here with one hand with the rifle stock under the arm here. And he'd make us hold that for what seemed like 15 minutes, but your arm would be breaking. And then he would say, “Schlap dat piece!”, meaning we hit the piece with our hand. And ‘[schlap dat piece]’ was the way the German would say, ‘slap that piece’. Meaning you had to ‘[schlap dat piece]’ to shake that bayonet loose from all those bones you had driven it all the way through the enemy, and it was stuck on the bones and he had to ‘[schlap dat piece]’ that piece so you could jerk it out. And I remember that training so well. Fortunately, I never had to ‘[schlap dat piece]’.
My role as a sergeant was critical. I knew that. Vital. I was at that point of where the combat occurred. So I knew it was a critical job. I only grew to the responsibility and authority slowly, but by the time I was a sergeant and knew I could capably carry out those duties, I knew I was a very vital link in the combat action. Whatever happened way up the line, it finally got done out here by the foot soldier, the infantrymen out there immediately confronting the enemy. So I took my job very seriously, and I believe I did it appropriately.
The fact that in combat life and death decisions are being made can't deter you from making them, combat is life and death. And again, the old infantry adage, do something, even if it's wrong, was ever present in your mind. We must do something. And the self confidence that had built over time and my ability to do that, to select options among sometimes all options are pretty miserable, but to select the best I believe I was doing appropriately. And so I felt a satisfaction. And whether I lost some men or felt I perhaps saved some, I felt I was doing what had to be done in as good a way as it could be done under the circumstances. So I had a satisfaction from my job.
In combat, of course, the life and death decisions down at the squad level, there's not much distinction between whether the private or you are more at risk. In a sense the squad leader is somewhat more at risk because he's got to be in front and leading. But I felt responsible for myself. I wanted to survive also, but certainly the lives of my men were the vital responsibility I had. So I can't remember ever making any distinction between my life and their life. It was us. We were a group and we functioned accordingly. And I just tried to help us as a group, do our thing as good as we could do it.
Well, certainly luck has to be considered a major part of it. When I stop and think of all of the fine men like Sergeant Morris, Sergeant Houk, Sergeant Mather, who died, you have to know luck was a big element, so hopefully I did some things that helped men survive, but in the big picture luck was a big, big factor.
I really believe that the fullest appreciation of a good life that I've had with children and grandchildren and successful career and everything, and still alive at almost 77 years old, I think to really appreciate that you have to look at comrades, people you loved, who never got past being boys. Visiting their graves has got to be the most fulfilling moment in terms of gratitude for my own life that a person could possibly have.
That was Sgt. Bill True
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