CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
In the early afternoon of December 7, 1941, seventeen year old Robert Busick was sitting at a pharmacy soda fountain counter in Brooklyn, New York. He and his girlfriend, along with his sister and her boyfriend, had been bicycle riding and stopped at the pharmacy for a hot chocolate. When the regular radio broadcast was interrupted with the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, he recalled, “we all said, ‘where is Pearl Harbor?’”
Busick recalled that his father, who was about thirty-five years old at the time, wanted to join the army, but because he had six children the law required that his wife sign a waiver. According to Robert, his mother “…would not sign in no way, shape or form.” Robert himself was inducted into the army on January 22, 1943.
Busick took an electrical vocational course in high school, and at the time he was drafted, was working as a mechanic for American Airlines. He requested assignment to the Army Air Force (USAAF), but was instead assigned to the army ground forces. His basic training was conducted at Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, where, he recalled, his first impression of army life was of an officer standing ankle deep in cold water, assisting trainees to jump from a truck to dry ground.
After training as a telephone lineman at Camp Edwards, Busick was assigned to the 424th Anti-Aircraft Artillery, as part of a group replacing men that unit lost when the United States Army Transport Ship Dorchester was sunk by a German submarine on February 3, 1943. [The Dorchester was the ship on which the famed “four chaplains,” George L. Fox, a Methodist minister; Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi; Clark V. Poling, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, and New Jerseyan John P. Washington, a Roman Catholic priest, gave their life vests to soldiers, sacrificing their own lives to save others.]
The 424th was stationed in Greenland, where it guarded an American air base with a mile and a half long runway against possible enemy air attack. The base was located above the Arctic Circle and used as a layover station for planes flying to and from England. Busick recalled that many of the planes on the way to Europe were flown by female [Women’s Air Force Service Pilots or WASPs] ferry pilots. He also remembered that the Germans were active in the North Atlantic area, and that German planes were observed near his base.
Busick’s strongest memory of Greenland was that of a barren land of rocks and snow with gale winds blowing continually from the same direction. He recalled that 100 mile per hour winds once blew for three consecutive days. To resist the wind, he and his comrades braced one side of their barracks with eight inch thick wooden beams buried into eight foot deep holes. To further secure the buildings against the wind, strong cables were fastened to the beams and run over the barracks roof. Busick also remembered that in order to sink the beams, soldiers had to chop holes into the frozen ground, pour gasoline into the holes and then light it to melt the permafrost so that it could be dug into.
Busick noted that the soldiers of his unit had to go out into the extreme weather every day, no matter how bad it was. The wind was often so strong that they would have to pull themselves along ropes that ran from barracks to barracks to keep from being blown off their feet. When he took off a glove to splice a wire on one occasion, his hand was frostbitten. Although the treatment he received would not be approved today, it seemed to work. He recalled: “The medic took a pail of cold water from the refrigerator and put my hand into the bucket. It felt warm. The water was stored in the refrigerator, because it would freeze if left on the floor of the barracks. It was that cold. We wore three sets of gloves — cotton, wool and rubber.”
It was in Greenland that Busick learned how to cope with cold feet by putting on dry socks every afternoon. He would dry and warm the old socks by placing them under his shirt next to his body and would put them back on his feet the next day. Later, while serving as in infantryman in Europe in the last winter of the war, this lesson would hold him in good stead. “Everyone thought I was crazy, but I never had a problem with my feet,” he recalled.
Busick recalled that there was an army hospital in Greenland fully staffed with doctors and nurses that was never used. According to his recollection, the hospital was intended to be used to treat casualties incurred during the Normandy invasion of 1944, but the army belatedly discovered that there was twenty percent less oxygen in the air in Greenland than in the United States, a fact that would hinder recovery from wounds, and the idea was scrapped.
In all, Busick spent fourteen months in Greenland before being flown back to the United States for reassignment. He traveled to North Carolina and then on to California, where he was assigned to an antiaircraft battery due to be sent to the Pacific Theater. Because it appeared the air threat from the Japanese had diminished somewhat, and infantry replacements were desperately needed in Europe, those orders were cancelled, and he was sent to Texas for infantry training.
In December 1944, Busick sailed for England on the liner Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted to a troop transport for the war. Soon after arriving in England, he shipped out from Plymouth on an LST landing craft to France, where he boarded a freight train for transport to the 157th Infantry Regiment of the Forty-fifth Infantry Division, which was deployed in the mountains just west of the Rhine River near the German city of Colmar.
Most of the men and equipment in the division had been sent to relieve the Americans besieged in Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, and Busick recalled that “we had one division covering the ground that usually took three. We were spread thin. The Germans attacked and overran us.” He had been assigned a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and recalled being in a foxhole and hungry for three and a half days.” After intense fighting, Busick’s squad finally fell back, leaving for the rear area on a “deuce and a half” (two and a half ton) truck driven by an African American driver from the “Red Ball Express.” He remembered that “there were only three of us left in my squad. Our battalion lost over two-thirds of its men.” Busick’s platoon leader, platoon sergeant and squad leader were all killed in the fighting.
Busick recalled that as his unit withdrew from what came to be known as the Colmar Pocket, “the first village we went through was full of German soldiers. They waved at us and we waved back. They must have thought we were Germans dressed in American uniforms. Two villages down we ran into a US Army Quartermasters unit that was washing laundry. They asked us who was in front of them and we told them only the Germans. They got out of there before we did, with their laundry. After we got chased out of the Colmar Pocket, we were relieved by the Forty-second Division, who retook the pocket and captured a lot of Germans.”
The Forty-fifth was reorganized before its last big push into Germany. During that period Busick and twenty-two other men from his company were quartered in a French farmhouse near the town of Nancy. The farm family consisted of two children, a boy about seven and a girl about eight, their mother, their grandmother and their grandfather, who was a veteran of World War I. The family had not heard from the children’s father, a French soldier, since he had been captured by the Germans in 1940.
Busick recalled that living on the farm gave him a chance to “see how people had to live because they are occupied, like the French were, and how bad it was. The people did not have that much to eat and everything that they would normally have, they had taken away from them. The Germans took their food and especially everything they had made of metal.”
The family shared what they had with the Americans, including some ersatz coffee on the first night Busick and his fellow soldiers bivouacked on the farm. He said “I don’t know what it [the coffee] was made out of but it was terrible. From then on we brought them coffee in our mess cups, carrying it through the icy streets every morning. Each morning the mother would have ready for us an outside tub full of hot water for us to shave with. She would heat the water by starting a fire beneath the tub with little twigs.”
The Americans stayed on the farm for about three weeks. Busick remembered that “on the day we left, the farm family, including the children, who had been away at school, gave every one of us sweets that they had made from sugar. When we left we filled up the barn with wood and gave them as much food and candy as we could”
Returning to the offensive in March, 1945, the Forty-fifth cracked the vaunted German Siegfried Line. Busick recalled that the terrain in front of the Siegfried Line defenses had been landscaped to channel their pre-sighted machine gun fields of fire, and that he believed the waist-high fire was designed to maim soldiers as much as kill them, thus drawing in other soldiers who helped the wounded and became new targets. One of the medics in his unit was killed by machine gun fire when he tried to assist a man wounded in the assault on the line. The medic’s red cross emblem was clearly visible, according to Busick, and although “they [the Germans] usually honored it…this time they didn’t. We started up the hill, but a chaplain named Reilly said ‘wait it is my job.’ He stood up and walked up the hill and brought back the wounded man. They shot at him but never hit him. The medic had been killed. After that we never took prisoners. Later on in the war Chaplain Reilly talked to everyone in our regiment and explained to us that the Germans were aware that we refused to take prisoners, and they would fight more, and that more and more of us were getting hurt. We listened to him, and it did get easier.” [The Forty-fifth had a history of killing prisoners. In 1943 in Sicily, soldiers of the division summarily executed seventy-six German and Italian prisoners at Biscari. An officer and non-commissioned officer were subsequently court-martialed for the massacre.]
In explanation of the division’s reputation for shooting prisoners, Busick stated that the Forty-fifth had been fighting the Germans since the North African campaign of 1943 and had fought them in Italy, southern France and Germany. “They knew from experience that the German SS, unlike the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, did not take any prisoners. The SS were considered fanatics, and it was rare to take an SS trooper prisoner. The SS could be identified by the markings on their uniforms and by tattoos on their wrists. We had no animosity to the German regular army.”
Busick stated he was told that Hitler called the Forty-fifth Division “his American Division,” because the division’s original insignia was a Native American pattern reversed swastika, and that because of this the division emblem was changed to an alternative American Indian Thunderbird design. [In actuality, the swastika insignia, adopted when the Forty-fifth was created as a National Guard unit composed of troops from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma in 1924, and designed to evoke a Native American tradition, was abandoned during the 1930s, when identification of the symbol with the Nazi regime in Germany made it unpalatable. After going some time with no official insignia, the Forty-fifth adopted the Thunderbird in 1939, two years before American entry into the war.]
On March 26, 1945, the Forty-fifth Division crossed the Rhine River, in landing craft piloted by US navy sailors. The following day Busick’s battalion drove faster and deeper into Germany than intended and got somewhat scattered. The battalion commander ordered a lieutenant to locate and make contact with the battalion’s companies. The lieutenant, accompanied by his driver, a machine gunner and Busick, made a wrong turn on a mountain road and encountered a castle. They drove into the courtyard and found a Hungarian cavalry regiment lined up in the courtyard. [Hungary was an ally of Hitler from 1941 to 1945.] “They had their families, women and children, standing behind them. There were a couple of thousand of them, and they surrendered to us. Then they made us breakfast,” he recalled.
Busick and his companions were out of radio range with their headquarters, so they decided to lead the Hungarians, under a white flag, back to the Rhine River. “On our way down the mountain road we heard a radio broadcast from our troops, asking for an air strike, by our air corps, on a cavalry regiment that was attacking them. It was us, so we interrupted and identified ourselves, and told them we were bringing in that cavalry regiment. There was no air strike. We turned the regiment and their horses over to two army MPs, near a pontoon bridge at the Rhine River.”
As the Forty-fifth drove deeper into Germany, Busick recalls crossing a bridge guarded by an American 40 millimeter antiaircraft gun unit, at the German town of Aschaffenburg [April, 1945]. He remembered that “we barreled right into a German unit that had been reorganized by an SS major after General Patton had gone through. Aschaffenburg was a military town. It had an officer’s training school, a military hospital, and other military units including a medieval castle that the Germans used as their military headquarters. We fought house to house for six days.” One of Busick’s longtime buddies was killed when he was shot after looking in the window of a building in the town.
By the time his battalion reached Aschaffenburg, Busick was back working as a communications lineman, and he recalled being sent into the town to repair a wire. He found the break in the wire in the town’s large square and fixed it. Still unable to communicate with his headquarters, he followed the wire and found another break. As he was fixing this break he became aware of mortar rounds coming in, landing behind him. He said “in town you always heard shells coming in. It never dawned on me that they were zeroing in on me.” He found out a little later that a woman in a house on the square was acting as a forward observer, signaling the mortar crew by moving from window to window in her second floor apartment. “Some of our riflemen realized what she was doing and shot her,” he remembered.
On another occasion Busick found a cot in the garage of a furniture factory and went to sleep on it. A shell landed nearby and, he recalled, “knocked me out.” He was found unconscious by two artillerymen, who returned him to his battalion. In Nuremberg, he and some of his fellow soldiers became involved in a firefight with some twelve year old children who were firing a machine gun at them from a nearby balcony. “Our alternatives were to fire back or get killed, he noted, and we were against that. [getting killed]”
The Forty-fifth division liberated Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945. Busick arrived at the camp the following day. He remembered that “there were corpses on railroad cars that the Germans had been trying to get out, but no trains were moving in Germany because our air Corps had bombed them out. There were quite a few [prisoners] still alive but there were no German guards. Some had been lined up the day before and shot. Some had lived because an American chaplain had interrupted the shooting by walking down the line in front of the machine guns. The chaplain said that he knew what they did and what they were, but killing them wouldn’t get us anywhere, and we could be tried as war criminals.” Busick noted that this was not the same chaplain who had walked out in front of the Siegfried line. He recalled that the dead guards were cremated in the camp crematorium, and their ashes mixed with the ashes of dead prisoners. [After liberating Dachau concentration camp in 1945, soldiers from the Forty-fifth Division reportedly machine gunned at least a dozen or more guards and perhaps some convalescent German soldiers housed nearby, then gave handguns to prisoners, who then shot at least forty more. The soldiers who shot the Germans were court-martialed, but General Patton ordered that they not be punished.]
Busick remembers thousands of dead bodies scattered around the camp, and the by now familiar smell of death in the air. He noted that “the body releases gas upon death, especially sudden death. Dachau was mainly the end of the line.” He showed the interviewer some photos of the surviving inmates and guards with their hands raised in surrender.
Busick took some time to investigate the camp and examine the gas chambers and ovens used for incineration of bodies. He noted that American soldiers were told not to talk to or feed the prisoners. His unit guarded the perimeter of Dachau for about twenty-five hours and then turned over the camp and its inmates to an Allied Military Government unit, a group of French, Russian and Polish civilians. He did not talk about what he had seen at Dachau until recently.
VE Day found Robert Busick in Munich, Germany, where, in celebration, he got drunk in a hotel bar and shaved with champagne. He remembered that there was a religious thanksgiving peace service in a large square in the city [Koenigsplatz or “King’s Plaza] and that “everyone attended, everyone went.”
The war over, Busick served on occupation duty for a while. He recalls standing guard outside the sports arena in Nuremburg where Hitler had held many of his large Nazi rallies, while a Jewish service was being held for thousands of Jewish death camp survivors and other Jews who had been in hiding for years. It was the first Jewish ceremony that many had attended since Hitler had come to power. He also recalled that many German civilians would line up near American garbage cans outside mess halls, and that soldiers were instructed to give them leftovers. “Most of us would fill up extra coffee cups from our mess and give it to them,” he said.
On one occasion after the war Busick was assigned to drive a “deuce and a half” [two and a half ton truck] to an internment camp in neutral Switzerland and bring back American fliers, mostly from the Eighth Air Force, whose planes had been forced down in that country during the war. He also transported German and Italian soldiers back from the camp.
Busick returned to the United States in late 1945 and was honorably discharged from the army on November 22. He believed that he and his fellow soldiers did what they had to do in World War II, and that the world would have been considerably worse off had they not. Several years before his interview he and his wife moved from New York to Brick Township, New Jersey, where they were living at the date of the interview.
Robert A. Busick passed away on June 7, 2011.