CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Henry Bednarski was born in Bayonne, New Jersey in August 1919. He was six weeks old when his father died and was an orphan by the age of two when his mother passed away. Following his parents’ deaths, Bednarski was adopted by his eighteen year old sister, who raised him in Bayonne.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Bednarski volunteered for service in the United States Navy, but the navy turned him down, so he joined the army. He was in a foxhole several years later when he received a letter instructing him to report for navy service, as he was now determined eligible.
Following his enlistment, Bednarski was assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he went through a ‘grueling” basic training with the Thirtieth Infantry Division. “Once you acquired the physical ability to go up Tank Hill with a full backpack, you were ready to go,” he recalled. The New Jersey National Guard’s 102nd Cavalry Regiment (Mechanized) was also preparing for combat at Ft. Jackson at the time of Bednarski’s basic training. The Jersey Guard unit had been called up in January, 1941 and was preparing to go overseas. Bednarski was reassigned to the 102nd, and left with the regiment for England in September, 1942. He noted that his convoy lost several ships to submarines on the trip across the Atlantic, and that the ship he traveled on was sunk by the Germans on a later convoy.
Bednarski recalled that although the 102nd had given up its horses in 1941 to become a mechanized unit, the regiment’s tradition was still “cavalry all the way.” After arrival in England, he noted that the Jerseyans were ordered to “wear the cavalry boots, britches and a garrison cap whenever we went off post. In London everyone saluted us when we wore the cavalry outfit.” He liked England and remembered that training became more intense and diversified, “…the closer we got to the real thing….” The men of the 102nd studied army communications and how to use mortars, maps and compasses. He said that “The outfit in total was good because everyone had to learn everything, which was unusual for the Army in war.”
Bednarski initially found the 102nd very cliquish, with a barrier between the original National Guardsmen and the new men assigned to the regiment, who were viewed as “outsiders.” He did note, however, that “everything changed once the action began.” While in England the 102nd Cavalry Regiment’s second squadron, in which Bednarski served, was detached from the regiment and sent to cold and rainy Scotland. On Christmas Eve 1942, the second squadron boarded an obsolete old coal burning ship en route to North Africa. Bednarski recalled that the ship was fitted with something similar to an elastic sling that he thought was a device to hurl missiles at attacking aircraft, but was probably actually used to propel depth charges into the ocean against submarines. The ship sailed south through the Irish Sea that had, until then, been closed to shipping by German U-boat blockades on either end.
Following its arrival in North Africa on January 3, 1943, the squadron was assigned to provide twenty-four hour protection to General Eisenhower during a five day period of battlefield inspection following the disastrous battle of Kasserine Pass. Bednarski recalls that the battlefield was strewn with destroyed American M-3 medium tanks. “We had old Grant Tanks [a British name for the American M-3 medium tank] that had only a 90 degree traverse [for its 75mm main gun, mounted in a sponson on the tank’s side.]. They would have to turn the tank around to shoot at anything behind them.” According to Bednarski, the M-3’s armor was held together with rivets that would spring loose if a German 88mm antitank shell landed anywhere near it. He recalled that the M-3s caught fire easily, and that many times he looked into a destroyed tank and saw burned helmets and mounds of gray matter beneath them. Bednarski opined that, “In my opinion it was criminal sending those boys against the well equipped and well dug in German Army.”
In succeeding months the squadron moved back and forth across the North African desert, establishing security in a twenty mile belt around Algiers to prevent German infiltrators from reaching the city. Although enemy contact was minimal, the wear and tear of constant patrolling in dust and darkness over the narrow roads of the Atlas Mountains caused some losses of equipment and men. The Jersey cavalrymen also performed escort duty for the King George VI, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U. S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and other VIPs. While escorting Churchill to Marrakech, Morocco for a meeting, the squadron covered 1000 miles across the Sahara in one twenty-four hour period, refueling at depots established at set intervals. Bednarski recalled that native camel caravans, appeared “… like mist out in the Sahara Desert…,” in stark contrast to the noise and speed of American convoys.
On November 23 the squadron was redesignated the 117th Cavalry Squadron (Mechanized). The following May, after some amphibious landing training, the 117th joined a convoy of ships headed for Italy. Bednarski describes the convoy trip across the Mediterranean to Naples as adventurous, “…I was young and didn’t know better….” He remembered that the navy set off depth charges beneath the water as a countermeasure against German and Italian midget submarines and scuba divers, who had on previous occasions successfully attached mines to the hulls of Allied ships, while they were at anchor off the coast.
Bednarski vividly recalled standing on the deck of a Liberty Ship halfway to Naples when the convoy was attacked by two flights of German bombers. “It was late in the day when both flights came out of the sun that was low off the water. One flight came in high and the other one low. It seemed like the ship was going to fall apart when they began firing the five inch gun mounted on its deck.” The enemy aircraft were close. He could see one pilot’s face and noted that he was wearing black goggles and a helmet as his plane went down into the water.
Bednarski described the harbor at Naples as “…quite a scene….” The port was heavily damaged and there were a lot of sunken ships with only their masts visible above the water.” He recalled the Italian city’s streets as being very narrow and terraced. Shortly after landing, the 117th left Naples for the north and was committed to action as American forces fought to relieve the Anzio beachhead.
Although the men of the 117th had been in the service for several years, they were still “green” when it came to combat experience. Bednarski recalled that his unit had halted at a crossroads near a town [perhaps Terracina.] As the squadron deployed to attack, a commander from a passing tank “yelled to our officers – ‘get your men the hell out of here…’” He had good reasons — the Germans would routinely zero in their artillery on all crossroads near their positions so that they could fire rapidly and accurately on those locations without any adjustments. Bednarski recalled that the first fire his unit received as it moved forward was sniper fire, “…sounding like wasps — and then the artillery rained down on us. We really got shelled that day.” Some men abandoned their equipment under the withering fire and had to return at night to retrieve it. Later on during the war, as the men of the 117th gained experience, they could tell by the sound of an incoming shell where it would land.
The 117th moved north up the Italian boot with the rest of the American Fifth Army, and Bednarski recalled that the day Rome was liberated [June 5, 1944] he and his buddies had to duck behind an ancient stone arch when a German Stuka dive bomber attacked them. He also remembered bivouacking in an onion field and waking up the next morning to find Germans in the same field. They looked like they might want to surrender, but never had the chance. Bednarksi explained that “…when you begin to lose people in the war you become more merciless — revenge kind of seeps into you. You want to get back.”
After pushing north of Rome for a while, the 117th was pulled from the line and assigned to join the forces invading southern France in Operation Dragoon. The squadron was split up, with each of its three troops assigned to a different division. Bednarski recalled landing on the French Riviera beach of San Raphael on D Day [August 15, 1944] plus one hour. On the way into the beach, his LST [Landing Ship, Tank] was hit by a German shell, and he recalled looking back as he was getting off the craft and seeing the ship’s pilot bleeding from his wounds.
In the advance into France, the 117th was assigned as the spearhead unit of the “Butler Task Force.” The task force was ordered to head north, as far and fast as it could, destroying enemy equipment, capturing Germans and creating general havoc, yet avoiding strong German units whenever possible. Within a week the 117th had traveled 200 miles before stopping near the Swiss border at Grenoble.
At this point Bednarski explained the role of a reconnaissance unit like the 117th. The squadron could be temporarily assigned to either a division or to a regiment, not to fight in the line, but to seek out the main enemy force and report that information back to higher headquarters. The men of the 117th traveled in armored cars and were lightly armed, compared to armor units. He noted that he had “worked with some great outfits during the course of the war, including the 3rd, 36th and 45th Infantry Divisions. He noted that the famous Audie Murphy had fought with the 3rd Division, and that Medal of Honor winner Lieutenant Stephen Gregg of Bayonne, New Jersey fought with the 36th Division.
To determine the location of the German Army, Bednarski related, “…we would go into virgin territory, through roadblocks, tank traps, mines, artillery fire, machinegun fire, and sniper fire until we located the main [enemy] force….“ The message he and his comrades always received from higher headquarters was “to push on aggressively…that was their famous words. It was very hard on your system.” He recalled that he learned to tell how close he was to the front lines by counting the strands of communication wire laid along the ground. “From a Regiment to a Battalion, you could see five or more strands, from Battalion to a Company you would see three, and from Company to a platoon you would see one wire. When you see no more wire you knew you were all by yourself.”
Although much of the 117th’s movement was by light armored and unarmored vehicles, Bednarski noted that “on other occasions we were used as dismounted patrols to maybe check out some sectors that had been bypassed. We got shot up quite a lot on those patrols.” On one patrol, another sergeant asked to borrow Bednarski’s binoculars. As the sergeant raised the field glasses to his face he was shot, but, “he lived, we got him out of there.” To get “out of there” required using covering fire, and was a delicate maneuver often performed by the men of the 117th.
Bednarski related that he was surrounded many times by the enemy and that on one occasion his family was notified that he was missing in action. “We were assigned to hold a particular area and a little later on we got a message from headquarters that said ‘…do the best you can because you are surrounded, they are right behind you….’ So I smashed the car’s distributor cap and threw away the breech lock from our gun. We then went into the woods for several days.” On another occasion, he recalled, French maquis resistance fighters “attacked a German column that had stopped for a rest about 35 yards from where we were hiding.” We could hear the Germans talking. The French opened fire, and the firefight lasted about a half hour until the Germans moved out. The tactics of the maquis was to follow a German column and harass it with fire when it stopped.”
As the enemy retreated, the maquis also targeted French citizens they felt had been too friendly to the Germans. Bednarski entered a French town one Sunday morning and saw three bodies hanging from a church steeple. “They were collaborators,” he said. He also saw naked French women with shaved heads being beaten by other French women. One of the more macabre sights he recalled from his service in France was seeing a dog walking down a street with a charred human hand in his mouth. An equally bizarre incident occurred when Bednarski jumped into a ditch with a bloated dead German, who had maggots crawling out of his mouth and nose. “I don’t know what he smelled like,” he remembered, “but he smelled good because I used him as a cushion against German artillery fire.”
On another occasion he said he would “…remember ‘til the day I die…,” Bednarski’s squad was forced to leave its vehicles and head for some nearby hills after encountering a retreating German tank column on the road. The tank commander focused his field glasses right on the position the Americans had taken and then turned his turret gun toward them “…for what seemed like an eternity…” He then returned the gun to its former position and motioned for the column to move on. “If I met that guy today I would buy him a drink,” said Bednarski. “I knew he had to see us. The Germans had great binoculars.”
Henry mentioned that Germans would often dress in American uniforms to infiltrate Allied lines. He recalled one incident in a town near Strasbourg when he and around fifteen other men from the 117th were ordered to establish an observation post in a building. After emplacing their machine guns and establishing fields of fire, the Americans settled down for the night. “About two in the morning one of the guys woke me up and said, ‘Hey Sarge, there is somebody out there.’ I went to the window and asked ‘…what are you doing out there?’ He spoke in perfect English, he knew the password and we let down our guard, and all of a sudden BOOM, the Germans put a shell called the Panzerfaust [similar to the RPG or rocket propelled grenade] right through the window, and the roof exploded. I don’t remember how we got out of there, but we did. I told everyone ‘you are on your own.’ I remember running through a chicken wire fence. I must have left my silhouette in that fence.”
Early one morning in France Bednarski remembered that he “…went out to check on some machine gun post that I had set up. In the meantime a German tank pulled into the outskirts of the town. As I was walking toward the post, all of a sudden I heard a shot go off. Either the German Tank commander was stupid, or all that he had was an armor piercing shell that went over my head and through the building. If it had been a high explosive shell, me, the building, and everyone would have gone up.” On another occasion a major who had received a “Dear John” letter [informing him that his wife or girlfriend had found another man] brazenly walked down a road into the line of fire, and a tank shell blew his head off.
On one confusing day at Montrevel, part of the 117th was overrun by German armor from the Eleventh Panzer Division. Bednarski recalled that twenty-seven men from the squadron were captured, but he escaped: “I don’t know if it was Providence or not. I was assigned to the rear of the column when my damn car broke down two miles from where we were supposed to go. About an hour later I heard all hell break loose, machine gun fire, artillery fire and tank fire, and the biggest gun we had was a thirty seven millimeter. All of a sudden there were five cars coming back, and the lieutenant in charge said that Captain Piddington ordered him to leave, because there was no sense in all of us being captured. We jumped into one of his cars.”
Bednarski’s memories of war were not all grim. He recalls how impressed he was going through the Straits of Gibraltar and how the European landscape, even scarred by war, was beautiful. He is still touched by his recollection of the French people who swarmed to the roadside and sang the Marseillaise as the 117th drove through the Rhone Valley. In between battles in Italy and France he got the opportunity to tour the Vatican and meet the Pope, and stayed at the Ritz Hotel in Monte Carlo on “rest and recuperation” leave. He and some other sergeants were treated to an elegant dinner in an Italian Villa near the town of Siena, and dined in a French chateau where they were served a different wine from the chateau vineyard with every course.
He remembers that the ship he returned from Europe on after the war was infested with fleas, and the soldiers on board all had to be deloused and issued cleaned new uniforms after coming ashore. On return, he was struck by how much things had changed at home during the three and a half years he was away. In the years to come Bednarski attended a number or meetings of the 117th’s reunion association, but there were fewer and fewer attendees as the years rolled by.
In a final note, Bednarski spoke of seeing a message posted by a lady in Kentucky requesting anyone who knew what had happened to her son, killed in action in Europe, to contact her. He knew her son, and he recalled what happened to the Kentucky soldier. “We were right on the Rhine River and stretched out. We were stretched so thin that we had a tank run back and forth behind a levee, to make the Germans think that we had a battalion of tanks. That night we had a problem with our communications, so we had someone run from foxhole to foxhole to check to see if everyone was alright. Unknown to us an Engineer Battalion formed behind us. They must have thought that the kid was a German. They cut him right in two. That kid was that lady’s son. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that he was killed by our own people. So I wrote her that he died in combat like all good soldiers fighting for his country.”
Henry V. Bednarski died Tuesday, March 3, 2009, at Bayonne Medical Center. He was 89.