Pvt. Al Gaus was supposed to be an office worker in the 90th Infantry Division that landed on Utah Beach along the Normandy coast on D-Day plus two, June 8, 1944, with thousands of other soldiers.
His expertise was with typewriters, shorthand and paper clips — not rifles, bullets and mortars. He hardly reached the enemy shore before he became the third gunner on a .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun.
For the next 11 months, Gaus, who lives in North Port, Fla.’s LaCasa mobile home park, and the 90th fought their way across German-occupied France, Belgium, Holland and Germany itself. At first, his unit was part of Gen. Courtney Hodges’ 1st Army and later, they were with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army as Hitler and his generals tried to keep the Third Reich from collapsing around them.
“We got to St. Lo a few days after the beach landing,” he said. “We were in a farmhouse in a holding position waiting for the 4th Infantry Division to come up on our left side.
“I heard this noise outside and went to the door and looked out. Here was this little, two-man tank coming up behind the house,” Gaus recalled. “I thought at first it was a German tank, but I was told it was one of ours.
“I remember thinking I’d never seen a tank that small. As I stood out in the open watching a shootout between the tank and a German 88 gun, the 88 missed the tank but hit me,” he said. “I had shrapnel all in me from the enemy artillery shell. They took me back to the hospital at regimental headquarters.
“They put me on the operating table, but after looking at me the doctors thought I needed to be sent back to a hospital with better facilities,” Gaus said. “I was flown to a hospital in England to be operated on.”
Two months later, he had recovered sufficiently from his injuries to return to the 90th Division. By then, Aug. 1, 1944, Maj. Gen. Raymond S. McLain was appointed commander of the 90th and the division became part of the XV Corps which was part of Patton’s army in France. It had briefly gone through Paris and kept on advancing.
“A couple of the guys in our company received a two-day pass to Paris. I was one of the lucky ones,” he said with a smile. “We spent two days in Paris drinking and telling war stories to the new American pilots who had just arrived. For some reason we never thought about sex.”
By the time Gaus and his drinking buddies returned to the division, he found himself assigned to a .30-caliber machine gun mounted atop a deuce-and-a-half Army truck. He spent the rest of the war with the machine gun following the infantry from town to town running the Germans back to Germany.
Like many 85-year-old soldiers, much of the war he fought 60 years ago is a bit of a fog.
The 90th was involved in the slaughter of the German 7th Army attempting to escape to the east. American, Canadian and British forces surrounded the enemy as it retreated through eastern France. The 90th held a section of the escape route at Le Bourg St. Leonard. During the four-day battle, his unit captured 13,000 German soldiers and killed or wounded another 8,000.
Eventually the 90th was involved with taking the city of Metz, and then it crossed the Moselle River in France despite strong German resistance late in October 1944. By January 1945 the 90th was involved in containing a German salient southeast of Bastogne at the close of the “Battle of the Bulge” — the massive German advance that failed on the Western Front.
On Jan. 29, 1945 Gaus and the division crossed the Ruhr River into Germany. It faced heavy enemy resistance.
“I remember we were at the river and I saw this German plan fly over and I shot at it,” Gaus said. “The first sergeant gave me hell because we weren’t suppose to let the Germans know we were there.”
The 90th held an 18,000-yard front as it moved across Germany between Leiler and Winterspelt with the 4th Infantry Division on its left and the 6th Armored Division on its right.
It was late March 1945 when the 90th fought its way into Vacha, Germany. Soldiers from the division discovered Germany’s gold supply totaling 100 tons valued at 5 billion German marks, plus millions more in stolen treasure taken from European countries occupied by the Third Reich’s forces during the war. The gold and booty were hidden in salt mines in the area.
By the end of the war in Europe, May 8, 1945, the division had fought its way into Czechoslovakia. Gaus had survived.
“Because I knew shorthand I replaced another soldier as a court reporter for an American court operating in Czechoslovakia,” he said. “I was involved in three general court-martials of three American deserters who eventually were convicted, sent back to the U.S. and probably did time in prison.”
Since he lacked the points to go home, Gaus became part of the American occupation forces in Europe for a time. Eventually, he was discharged from the Army over there. He got a job as chief clerk for 200 German stenographers. They were part of the staff for the Neuremberg War Crimes Trials that began shortly after the war.
He rarely got in to see the trial proceedings. His job was to provide the functionaries that took down the official court testimony.
It was during this period Gaus acquired a blonde, German girlfriend named Helene whom he married. They had a child, Al junior. Together, the trio came to the the United States in 1947, two years after the war had ended.
For a soldier who went to war as a typist and stenographer, Al Gaus returned home with a Purple Heart and five battle stars signifying the five major engagements in which he had participated during the 11 months he served as a machine-gunner with the 90th Infantry Division in World War II.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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