USA Today Opinion. MY BOODIE ALBERT by Hal O’Leary.
The fact that returning soldiers from war are often reluctant to speak of their experiences is certainly understandable. To do so is to relive them. As a veteran of WWII, I recall a sergeant who was temporarily attached to our outfit after returning from the horrors of Guadalcanal in the Philippines at the beginning of our involvement in that war. The only thing he had to say was, “I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experiences, but I wouldn’t go through them again for a million dollars.” I took that to mean that even to speak of the horrors he encountered, he would, in a sense, “go through them again.” While we justifiably register sorrow for the amputee, we often fail to take into account the mental anguish some veterans will carry with them for life. However, I was not one of them. Seeing action in but two battles in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations), I was extremely fortunate, and as a result I have a story of war that I would very much like to tell.
In one of Patton’s famed “Spearheads” when the hostilities ended, we found ourselves in the town of Schwabach in Bavaria. As one might imagine, things in Germany at that time were a little less than orderly. One of the problems our military faced was how to handle the thousands of former German soldiers wishing to be taken prisoner. The situation was made worse by the number of those soldiers fleeing to the west to avoid capture by the Soviet forces. Such capture was feared as a fate worse than death. I remember our GI “six-by” trucks with quarter-ton trailers attached, packed with standing prisoners being moved to the rear just to clear the roads. Chaos reigned.
We were billeted in a schoolhouse in Schawbach and there came to our outfit a young German looking for something to eat. We thought it odd for a man of his age not to be in uniform, and he soon confessed to having been a soldier. He had discarded his uniform, and he, like so many others, was desperately trying to avoid capture by the Russians. His name was Albert Alfred Rupee, and when he volunteered to work for his fare, our Mess Sergeant was only too happy to oblige. So industrious was Albert that in the following days he made himself almost indispensable. He would do anything asked of him by any member of the Battery. I soon noticed that the demands on his time became more than he could handle. On one occasion I, as a corporal, intervened when a private insisted that Albert carry his duffle bag. With a goodly portion of the Battery assembled, I informed the private, et al, that Albert was to be no valet to a hundred men and that his duties would be defined by the Mess Sergeant only. This incident endeared me to Albert, and over the next few weeks, I became his “Boodie.”
In the evening hours after his duties in the kitchen, he would seek me out as the only company he seemed to enjoy. At those times I was held spellbound as he related his war time experiences. He was born in the Alsace Lorraine of a German mother and a French father whose national allegiances brought about their separation. It mattered not to Albert for he had more immediate concerns. When the Germans invaded, and determined that Albert and all males his age were eligible for military service, he was drafted and assigned to the German Navy. He hadn’t been on his ship long until SS officers came aboard and asked for volunteers for the Eastern (Russian) front. Although Albert did not volunteer, he was chosen, and off he was sent off to what was to become a most horrible fate. He found himself an infantryman in the frigid climes of the Soviet Union. With inadequate English supplemented with the most vivid of gestures in reenacting the events, he left little to the imagination.
I, on one occasion, with Patton’s Third Army, had experienced the combination of being both cold and hungry at the same time. My experience, however, was mild compared to what Albert encountered in the sub-freezing, snow-covered clime of a Russian winter with shortages of food and ammunition in the face of hordes of well-supplied Soviet troops.
It was one of the more horrific events that Albert described in agonizing detail of how he had lost the three fingers of his right hand. With the shortage of ammunition, the German soldier was required to rise from his foxhole and take careful aim before firing, in an effort to conserve ammunition. This would, however, expose him to fire from the enemy, who would simply raise his rifle from the foxhole over his head and fire indiscriminately in all directions. It was one such burst of fire that took Albert’s fingers, but rather than relieving him, the field hospital hurriedly patched him up and returned him to duty. With the rapid Soviet advance, the battle lines vanished, and his rapidly retreating unit found itself in such disarray that Albert was able simply to abandon the fray along with his uniform and make his way westward, so that with the ending of hostilities he found himself near to where we were billeted. So it was that through the exchange not only of wartime experiences but also fears and aspirations, we came to realize the insanity of war, and that rather than enemies, we were brothers.
Shortly after VE Day, our Battalion was deactivated, and the cadre of non-coms that had come from the old New York 69th Division in Hawaii to train us had enough service points to be immediately sent home. I (along with all the other corporals) was made sergeant to fill a resulting vacancy; happily, Albert remained with us as we became known as “Troops of Occupation.” As such, we were moved from town to town, and upon arrival at each one, it became Albert’s duty to intercede in any dispute that might arise with the local citizens. Then, too, he would reconnoiter for any loose wine and/or women. Speaking German, French and Italian fluently, and not at all unattractive, he was ideally suited for this rather questionable undertaking. Such escapades only served to draw us closer together, and by the time I was to be finally sent home eleven months later in May of 1946, our friendship was well established.
A month or so after coming home, I did receive one letter from Albert. It was very brief, and with a combination of the best English and German we had finally managed to master, he said that with my departure, things were not the same and he felt it was time for him to move on. I tried to respond, but with no luck. I can assume that with no home to return to, he could be almost anywhere. But wherever that may be, I’m sure that he, as I, will carry with him fond memories of two former enemies who became fast Boodies.