Pfc. William McWha, Serial No. 31305306, was a replacement soldier. He was one of the tens of thousands of American infantrymen from the “Repo Depot” who were put on the front lines in the heat of battle during World War II to replace killed or wounded soldiers. The life expectancy of a replacement wasn’t long. Sometimes it was only a matter of hours before his rifle was stuck in the ground, bayonet first, with his helmet perched atop the gun’s butt beside his lifeless body. McWha joined the fight in Europe at St. Lo, France, on July 13, a little more than a month after the Normandy Invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“We were on the outskirts of the town. The American Army hadn’t broken through at St. Lo yet,” the 79-year-old former infantryman recalled at his Englewood, Fla. home as Veterans Day drew near. “It was tough because of the hedgerows. The U.S. Air Force didn’t help thing either.”
He was in Company L, 137th Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. “The Air Corps sent hundreds of bombers over St. Lo, (a town) that was probably about the size of Englewood. When they were through, I don’t think there was a stone standing in the town,” he said. “The lead bomber let its bombs go early, and all the rest followed suit. The bombers nearly wiped out the 29th Division that was on our right.” He survived, and the 35th Division advanced farther into France. “I remember the Germans used a lot of Polish conscript soldiers. They would sneak across no-man’s-land and surrender to us at night. The only English they knew was, ‘Love you, sweetheart.” McWha and his buddies would hear the surrendering Polish soldiers sneaking toward them in the dark, repeating their English phrase of endearment. The conscripts were taken prisoner and sent on to POW camps behind the lines.
“At LaRoque, south of Paris, I was wounded the first time. The Germans were dropping mortar shells on us,” he said. “I dived head first into a nearby foxhole, and a fellow beside me jumped in feet first. I got wounded in the leg from shrapnel and he had a big cut under his jaw that ran down his neck.
“They were pumping blood into him as fast as they could. We both ended up back in a field hospital,” McWha recalled. “There was a minister who said, ‘Can I help you, son?’ “‘Could you get that piece of shrapnel sticking out of my leg out of there?’ I asked him. “He took a pair of pliers and pulled it out. They wrapped my leg up and I spent three days in a field hospital before being shipped back to the front. “I often wondered what happened to the other guy who had been in the foxhole with me that day. I never saw him again,” he said.
They didn’t see much of Paris. The Free French Army was allowed to liberate the “City of Lights.” McWha and the soldiers of the 35th Division were trucked through the French capital at night. “I saw Gen. (George) Patton alongside the road once as we were moving up. He had a shiny helmet on and was wearing his white-handled revolvers. He was a spit-and-polish soldier,” he said. On the other side of Nancy, France, they crossed the Moselle River near the border with Germany. “It was kinda tough crossing, because the Germans had pillboxes (machine-gun emplacements) along the river. There was also a lot of sniper fire as we went across in boats,” McWha said. “I can’t recall how wide the river was, but I remember our assault was early in the morning. When we reached the other side, our guys blew up the enemy pillboxes with satchel charges, and we moved on.”
By this time their division had spent 100 days on the front lines without a break. The fighting continued along the Western Front without interruption. The division had moved farther forward than any other in the 3rd Army, he said. McWha came close to death at Gremercy Forest, along the German border. The enemy controlled the high ground with their 88 mm cannons.
“A buddy and I dug a foxhole into the side of a big pile of dirt because the ground was frozen. It was too hard to dig down,” he said. “The Germans apparently thought our mound of dirt was a headquarters. When they attacked and broke through Company K’s line nearby, the two of us were in our hole. “I poked my head out and there was a German Tiger tank right behind us. The tank put a shell into our mound, but lucky for us the earth blew upward. Then the tank rolled over our mound. We moved to the far side of our hole, escaping injury. We played dead for the next six hours until it got dark and we could climb out of the hole and get back to our lines.”
McWha’s unit crossed the Rhine into Germany at Rheinberg.
He received the Bronze Star about this point in his military career. His commendation notes: “35th Infantry Citation — Pfc. William McWha was awarded the Bronze Star for military service connected with an operation against an enemy of the United States at Rheinberg, Germany 7 March 1945. As he was moving in a convoy he saw a German soldier run into a barn. Pfc. McWha and two other soldiers dismounted and captured the enemy soldier and 29 other soldiers in the barn. They prevented a possible enemy action behind American lines.”
It was also at Rheinberg that McWha lucked out. He ran into the officer in charge of the division’s intelligence unit. After telling him that he had been trained in intelligence back in the States, McWha joined the outfit and got off the front lines as an infantry soldier.
“I was very, very lucky, because a few weeks later, during the Battle of the Bulge, 235 men in Company L and K were wiped out by the Germans at Villers Bonne Eau, Belgium, near Bastogne. I had been in Company L,” he said. It wasn’t all that easy for him despite his transfer to the intelligence unit. I was up on the front lines once again in a radio observation post. My job was to watch for German troop movement and report it back to division headquarters,” McWha said. “I’d been up there all by myself in the basement of a house for two days when a couple of officers arrived. “In front of the house was a disabled German half-track. The officers started climbing all over the wrecked enemy equipment. I wondered at the time whether that was the right thing to do or not,” he said. “Two minutes later, German artillery started firing on the officers. I was hit in the lip by shrapnel and ended up in a hospital. As a consequence, I missed most of the Battle of the Bulge.”
When McWha returned to the front lines once more, the big German offensive on the Western Front had pretty much collapsed. The 35th Division began racing deep into the Fatherland aboard deuce-and-a-half Army trucks, facing little or no opposition. They traveled for miles across Germany in these trucks. At the same time, tens of thousands of defeated Germans soldiers walked in a never-ending stream along both sides of the road heading west. They were trying to stay out of the clutches of the Russian Army, which was advancing from the east.
“When we got to the Elba River, we were told we couldn’t go any further. We waited for the Russians to arrive. When they did, we partied with them and drank their vodka,” McWha said.
The war was over. The 35th Division had spent 264 days on the front lines. It had fought in five campaigns in Europe — Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, the Ardennes and Central Europe. Pfc. William McWha had fought in all five of the campaigns and was injured in two. A few days later, the soldiers of the 35th returned to France at Camp Lucky Strike near Le Harve. They were waiting for a ship to take them home.
“We put on a big parade for President Truman when he arrived. After the parade I was picked to be in the president’s honor guard at the airport,” McWha said. “I was there on the tarmac when the president, Gen. (Dwight D.) Eisenhower, Adm. (Ernest) King and their entourage came by. “Gen. Eisenhower stopped in front of me and said, ‘Where are you from, son?’ “‘Massachusetts,’ I replied. He nodded his head and walked on. It was quite a thrill for a young kid.
“When I got back home to Lynn, Mass., my father had a job lined up for me as a Brinks guard. I went down to get a gun permit for my new job. ‘You can’t have a gun permit because you’re not yet 21,’ I was told.” McWha never got the Brinks job. He took advantage of the GI Bill and became a school teacher. For 38 years he taught business and computer science in the Massachusetts school system before retiring and moving to Englewood in 1988.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2004 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.
Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.