A Bronze Star without firing a shot
Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," published in 1998, is a compilation of stories about men and women of America who survived the Great Depression and served our country throughout World War II. "At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria and the coral islands of the Pacific."
One such survivor, Joe Lausche, 95, of Cass Lake, now living at Neilson Place, has recorded memories of his service in the bitter struggle against tyranny, for which he was awarded the Bronze Medal. Joe served with the 1st Infantry Division, well known in military circles as "Big Red No. 1.
His friend Alice Hickey transcribed his account of his experiences:
Call to war
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese turned our world upside down with the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States was thrown into World War II and the draft was immediately in force. I was 28 years old, living in Pennington, Minnesota, when my notice came. In March 1942, I had to leave my home and travel by train to Fort Bliss, Texas, for nine weeks of basic training. Just when we thought it was ended, they surprised us with a 25 mile kike through the desert - with full packs on! Everyone felt like they were done for when we stopped. They let us sit down to rest and gave us a cold beer. We could hardly get up again, but had the 25 mile return march, too. Bed never felt so good!
Basic training ended but we kept busy with various duties. I was one of several men who were selected to accompany the motor sergeant to a depot to pick up new jeeps. I was pleased to accept responsibility of being a driver and even more pleased to have my name painted on my rig. Assigned to the Motor Pool, I drove officers, did minor maintenance on vehicles, and was promoted to mechanic sergeant. It was a nice promotion, especially since I was relieved from extra duties - like doing dishes!
Several weeks went by, and I got quite sick, with symptoms of strep throat. It was not strep throat, but I was very ill, spending three months in the hospital. Just as I was preparing to leave, doctors informed me that I must have my tonsils removed. When the procedure was completed, I developed a 105 degree fever, and was confined to the hospital for some time. When I was completely healthy, I was sent back to base and found that everyone in that battery was ready to head overseas. About 16 of us were not assigned to any specific unit.
Cruising New York
We had a few extra days and were given the opportunity to spend a few days in New York. We boarded a bus and headed for the Big Apple. The bus took us to the Red Cross building - some fellows spent their time writing letters home, others went their own way. I decided that I wanted to just walk and see the sights of Fifth Avenue. I had never seen anything to compare with all of those gigantic buildings everywhere, and will never forget that sight. Later, we were picked up again at the Red Cross building and returned to base.
In a couple of days, we boarded the ships for our overseas mission. There were six-eight ships in our convoy, surrounded by several destroyers to ensure a safe journey. On the first night, I was one of many who got very seasick, and for half the crossing felt so bad that it wouldn't have mattered to me if I fell overboard!
After the 12-day crossing, we arrived in LeHarve, France, on Thanksgiving Day. We were informed on assembly that anti-artillery aircraft was set up around LeHarve, guarding us from German bombers. That information wasn't all that reassuring. We were treated to a great Thanksgiving Day meal of turkey and all the trimmings. Then we enjoyed a few days of rest.
A few of us were curious about the area and started scouring the woods around us. We started walking the railroad tracks and within about a quarter of a mile saw the biggest gun, pointed toward England, which was about 20 miles away. We checked the premises quickly, saw no one, so got gutsier and closed in on the gigantic weapon. I was bold enough to get on the barrel of this monstrous gun and walk out onto it. I must not have been thinking of the dangers like hidden soldiers in the woods - or falling off and being injured! I've always wished I had a picture of that heavy-duty gun, covered by steel plates. After the gun inspection we decided to check out some living quarters nearby. None of us seemed to worry about booby traps or hidden enemy, who could have shot us. Thankfully, we got back unharmed.
Back at LeHarve, we tried to relax while awaiting orders, but it was difficult with German planes overhead dropping bombs that landed approximately 200 yards away from us. Our hearts pounded with fear as we dove under trucks to hide. We could see the bombs landing. Orders came that we were to start moving toward the front lines where all the action was. That was the night the Buzz Bombs started overhead. I lay in the truck listening to them go. They had a nice, but very dangerous, "purr." It was comforting to hear them purr because you knew they hadn't landed yet. When the sound stopped, it meant they had run out of fuel and would drop to the ground in approximately three seconds. Most Buzz Bombs were destined for Liège, Belgium. How I wanted to see one of these bombers that caused such great fear for all of us. A day later, I did see a Buzz Bomb, which was lying on the ground. It measured about 12 feet long and 4 or 5 feet wide. One section would contain fuel and the other explosives. The shooters would have to have had proportions down to a "T" for it to make the correct destination. One field we passed had about 12 Belgian cows lying dead, shot by incoming fire. In the sky above us, American B24 Bombers were heading over to bomb Germany. As we watched from about two miles away, we saw one of our bombers was hit, falling out of formation and heading towards the ground. We saw three soldiers jump out and open their parachutes. Unfortunately, this was a plane for five men. Two must not have survived because we never saw them come out of the aircraft.
We had planned on stopping Belgium to stay for the night, but just as we got settled in, we received orders to move up to the front immediately, 25-30 miles away. As we got closer, they took nine of us in a truck directly to the front line - which was the very worst. There was so much artillery coming and going, we were scared out of our minds, witnessing unimaginable events. As soon as we got to the front we reported to the Lieutenant in charge, who said, "You might as well take these men back. We have hardly any soldiers left in our company. A new company is coming in to relieve us."
The front line was in an area that had been heavily wooded, but now the trees were torn all to pieces from the heavy shelling. After all this rigmarole, we had to find our way back to the rear.
When it was time for the jeep drivers to load ammunition to take to the front, unfortunately, I happened to be one of those who had just gotten back from the front and was awaiting orders to go back again. I was all shook up. Driving back and forth from the front to the rear seemed to go on for days, with little time to rest. At least we had a sufficient amount of food, which came in small cans called "C-rations." There was a candle underneath the can for warming up the food. Considering the circumstances, it wasn't too bad. When we were stationed, we got plenty of hot meals.
When we finally got to the front, all hell broke loose! The air was filled with firing from tanks and small arms. I ran quickly down to the basement of an old log building, a make-shift command-post station. I felt very sorry for the soldier with me who had to head foot-first into battle. When I got downstairs, I heard a soldier yell, "Shoot the German tank as soon as he comes around the building."
Then someone else hollered, "We have a wounded man up here - have the medics bring him down!"
They had probably been living with the confusion and necessity so long that they were used to it. The firing continued most of the day, but when it let up somewhat, I had to get back in my jeep. On my way back, I heard a German soldier hollering for help - about 100 feet away. Maybe if I hadn't been all alone I would have stopped to pick him up and drop him off to a medic. I think from what I observed, his fighting days were nearing an end.
A day or two later, I was once again on my way to the front line to make a delivery. As soon as I got there, the Germans were sending in an artillery barrage. I climbed down into the forward command post ASAP! Shells and explosives were falling all around me. I hid myself under a log, never so scared in all my life and shaking like crazy. I heard someone shouting to get a soldier who had just been hit into the building. Within about a half-hour the barrage stopped. What made the barrage especially frightening was the use of "Screaming Meemies," explosives, designed to scare and confuse troops, six shells at a time into the air. Their hideous, loud noise alerted that they were coming, but it was impossible to know where they would land. When the barrage had ended, I crawled back into my jeep and drove to the rear, struggling to find my way in complete darkness. Headlights couldn't be used for fear of the enemy spotting you. I was so relieved to be heading in the opposite direction of all the chaos.
I will never forget the occasion of being sent to the Forward Command Post with a delivery of six quarts of whiskey, driving through German mortar fire the entire way. I was grateful to get there alive and gathered up five quarts of whiskey, which I took in to the officer. He saw five, asked me where the other one was? They must have rolled around in the jeep during my hectic ride and I told him I wasn't sure about any more. He went to my jeep and found it under my seat. It must have rolled under the seat while I was en route, but even with my apology he seemed to think I was hiding it to enjoy myself. There were no repercussions; he just took the bottle inside with him.
Eventually, our troops started pushing the Germans back from the front. A German jeep had been captured, and I was told to drive it back to our area. This was scary. What if our own military mistook me for a German? Would I be shot? To ensure my safety, I was escorted by American troops and made it back without difficulty. Several days later, I was called in to talk with an officer. It was a great surprise when he presented me with a Bronze Star, awarded for my valor in transporting ammunition to the front lines under fire by German tankers. What a great moment this was for me, realizing that in spite of all the madness of war, I had been doing some good here. I'm not sure where I kept the Star while overseas, but I know for sure that I brought it home without a scratch on it.
The tables had turned, and we were now taking care of German soldiers. My officer asked me to drive him to an area where they were keeping prisoners. While waiting for this officer, I visited with another jeep driver. He shared a very terrible incident that had happened earlier that same day. This man was very upset, so I encouraged him to talk with me about the happening. He told me that the officer he was driving for told him to stop the jeep. This officer went over to the table where German prisoners were eating. He selected one of the men to come with him. They got into the jeep, the officer ordered this driver to take them about 200 yards into the woods. The officer demanded that the man get out of the vehicle, forced him farther into the woods and shot him. What was that officer thinking? If he had been found out, he would, and should have been court marshaled. That story still haunts me.
My favorite memories are of being transferred as a mechanic to the Headwaters Company. I met a sergeant there by the name of Harnish. Our job was to stay in the rear and that seemed fine to me. We fixed broken vehicles, having them up and running as soon as possible. Harnish had a great personality, came from Wisconsin and could speak German very well. What an advantage! We'd go through the towns, stop for a drink, and the women would gravitate to Harnish because he was an American who could speak their language. The Germans seemed so impressed with him, they'd give him chrome pistols or anything else he'd like. I didn't have much luck because I couldn't speak the lingo. I felt as though they looked at me like I was the enemy. Harnish got enough attention for the both of us...and he was a hoot!
In one little town, I saw a barbershop and decided that I wanted the barber to give me a shave with a straight razor. It was the absolute best shave I have ever had. The men I was with teased me a lot, wondering if I hadn't bee afraid that the barber might cut my American throat? That never crossed my mind. I didn't think of him as a German, just a regular barber, doing his job.
Our last couple of days were spent in Nuremburg where the war finally ended. There wasn't much to inspect because the town had been pretty well bombed out. Eventually we got back to France where we awaited being shipped back home. I remember the Red Cross area, serving coffee and snacks all day long. I must have had a real sweet tooth then. I remember eating eight donuts a day.
The day we had long been awaiting finally arrived, and we boarded the ship to return us to home. I had made up my mind that I would not get seasick again, and I didn't. We were bused from New York to Camp McCoy, Wis., where Harnish and I received our discharge from the Army. Even though I was so excited to be going home, it was hard for me to say good-bye to my dear friend I knew I would miss very much. We promised to keep in touch.
I rode the train to St. Paul, where I was met by my wife and sister. After a stop at Sis' house we were on our way to Pennington. I cannot describe to you what it felt like to be on my way home. I still remember the magnificent feeling of absolute joy. No longer would I worry about what was behind me or what I would stumble across through the day.
Arriving home and being greeted by my family is one of the greatest memories of my life. Everything looked the same, but what a strange feeling it was to come back after being away so long. Becoming a civilian again was hard and took time getting used to, because I still had plenty of Army in me. Now I had to put the war behind me, move forward one step at a time. I corresponded with my friend, Harnish, and soon got his news that he had gotten married within six months of returning home. I was so happy for him. He deserved a good life. Then one day a letter came from Harnish's wife with very sad news: Harnish had died. She gave no explanation of how or why he died, only that I wouldn't be receiving any more letters from him. How my heart ached. I had lost my best friend.
During my first year back home, I started back to work at the U.S. Forest Service in Cass Lake where I was employed until retirement in 1972. I continued to do things that I enjoyed, especially dancing. In my lifetime, I've known a wide variety of people and appreciated so many different experiences. It's been a good life, without much money, but lots of enjoyment.
Now I am 95 years old, residing at the Neilson Place in Huckleberry Neighborhood. We enjoy good food, good music and activities. While my body isn't as agile as I'd like, my brain is still in good shape.
In November, we had a Veterans Day observance at Neilson Place. It was surprising to me to find out how many other veterans live here. It feels good to be able to meet and talk with these other survivors of World War II. Through discussing our experiences, I decided to record my own story, receiving the Bronze Star in humility and with gratitude. It is my hope that future generations will read and benefit from my story.