Veteran’s Testimony – Kenneth W. Christopherson Medical Detachment, 1st Battalion, 414th Infantry Regiment, 104th Infantry Division
I was born in 1923 in northern Minnesota into a family of Danish immigrants. All of my Grandparents, both sides, were born and raised in Denmark, immigrating to the United States as young adults, so my Mother and Father were First Generation Americans.
At age 18, I left home and went to St. Paul (capital city), where I began my studies for the Ministry in a Baptist College. It was there, while in my first year of study, that WW2 began with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941 –ed). In November of 1942, during my second year of College, while many of my fellow students were being drafted, I decided to beat the draft and enlist so that I might be able to choose my Branch of Service! On the advice of an older brother, I enlisted for the Medical Corps. I have never regretted my choice, although neither my brother, nor I, had any idea that there existed “Medical Detachments” integrated into regular Infantry units! I thought I would be driving an ambulance, escort patients, do some work in a Hospital, surrounded by beautiful Nurses!
In the Infantry Division, the Medical Department provided two echelons of medical service for the care and evacuation of casualties from forward combat areas. The first echelon consisted of the Medical Detachment and the second echelon, was the Medical Battalion. Medical Detachments were attached to each Infantry Regiment or separate Battalion, and varied in proportion to the strength of the unit they supported. In the Infantry Division, there were six (6) Medical Detachments; one (1) for each of the three Infantry Regiments, one (1) for the Division Artillery, one (1) for the Engineer Battalion, and one (1) for all remaining Division troops. The Medical Detachment of an Infantry Regiment consisted of one (1) Headquarters Section, and three (3) Battalion Sections. T/O 7-11 dated 1 April 1942, indicated that the Medical Detachment of an Infantry Regiment included 10 Officers and 126 Enlisted Men (each of the three Battalion Sections consisted of 2 Officers and 36 Enlisted Men).
I was a 19-year old Minnesota farm boy, who had interrupted studying for the Ministry to enlist. On 17 November 1942, I enlisted at Fort Snelling, St. Paul, Minnesota (ASFRC – Army Service Forces Reception Center, total acreage 2,222, troop capacity 133 Officers & 6,765 EM –ed) and spent a week in orientation while awaiting further orders. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I realized that I was being sent to an Infantry outfit! I still had no clue about medical troops being part of an Infantry unit, and was totally unfamiliar with the concept of a Medical Detachment. All I knew was that I had apparently signed up for one thing and thought that I was being assigned to something different. It all became clear when after a 3-day train ride we (me and other Enlisted personnel) ended up in the middle of the night in pouring rain at a railroad siding near Corvallis, Oregon! We were then taken by motor convoy to Camp Adair, Corvallis, Oregon (Division Camp, acreage 57,159, troop capacity 2,133 Officers & 37,081 EM –ed), soon to be renamed by the other recruits arriving daily, “Swamp Adair”! (Oregon‘s average rainfall was 40 inches, with training and maneuvers mostly conducted in knee-deep mud). Official Basic Training got started 14 December 1942, and was to end 13 March 1943, immediately followed by specific ’unit‘ training.
The 104th Infantry Division had meanwhile been activated 15 September 1942 at Camp Adair, Oregon, and at that point, most units were truly made up of ’infants‘ (activation took place in compliance with Ltr AG 320.2 (26 May 42) MR-M-GN, TAGO 9 June 1942 – and at that time the Division consisted of 684 Officers and 1,435 EM).
Most of the newcomers were either draftees in their very early 20s and a few us, volunteers who were just 19. New Officers and Enlisted Men started arriving in increased numbers between July and August. Divisional strength reached a total of 31 Officers and 8 Enlisted Men on 7 August, increasing to 185 Officers and almost 1,400 men on 15 August 1942. The cadre were tough old seasoned Veterans from foreign and other battles, and had little sympathy for the aches and pains, the homesickness, the complete ignorance of anything military, or discipline, of all those new and young kids they had to get ready for war … most of them were men who had already paid their dues on the battlefield, and some of them had put in more years in the military than we had lived. From then on it was work, work, work. The doctors with whom we would later serve in combat were our teachers of medicine. Great teachers, all of them, and I truly enjoyed studying medicine because while studying to become a Minister, I had already planned to also learn about medicine and become a kind of medical missionary in some foreign country. When not in class for lectures or practice, we were out marching with the Infantry. We had to get in shape and become as tough as they were, eventually we would have to follow them, to be with them, to be able to tend to the wounded on the battlefields. Other Officers and Enlisted cadre came from the 90th Infantry Division, then located at Camp Barkeley, Texas (activated 25 March 42 –ed). The overall Basic Training under the able leadership of Major General Gilbert R. Cook (returned from duty in Hawaii), who commanded the Division during its initial training period in Oregon, was reflected in the later battle accomplishments of the “Timberwolves”. More fillers began to arrive during October and November, and more recruits and new Officers continued to come in further in December 1942. Division strength showed a total of 819 Officers and 15,112 EM on 15 December 1942, and by 1 January 1943, the Division had reached a total of 840 Officers, 22 Warrant Officers, and 16,261 Enlisted Men!
After completing small-unit tactics and training, more training followed through participation in the Oregon Maneuvers (August – September 1943), and the California-Arizona Desert Maneuvers (November 1943), in the presence of Major General Alexander M. Patch, Jr. (CG > IV Corps –ed). Apart from the vigorous and hard training each week, men received the opportunity to indulge in sports, culminating in the Division Basket Ball championship. On 15 October 1943, the Division received a new Commander; Major General Terry de la M. Allen (previously CG > 1st Infantry Division), with combat service in N. Africa. Major General G. R. Cook took over command of XII Corps.
After many changes in the Division‘s Staff, the “Timberwolves” were on their way to another location; Camp Carson, Colorado Springs, Colorado (Division Camp, total acreage 68, 355, troop capacity 2,707 Officers & 44,240 EM –ed). On 15 June 1944, the entire Division passed in review in observance of “Infantry Day”. The Division‘s test conducted by XVI Corps was passed with excellent results, with the “Timberwolves” Division all set and ready for combat.
My unit, the 104th Infantry Division, was sent overseas quite late. An advance party had departed for New York and sailed on 17 August 1944. The remainder in fact did not leave the Zone of Interior before 27 August 1944, entraining for Camp Kilmer and its Staging Area, and departing New York POE with destination Europe, more particularly France, where we landed 7 September 1944 (My Regiment, the 414th Infantry, had left on the USS George Washington, 27 August).
After an uneventful crossing (let‘s be honest, lots of people got seasick), the rough seas calmed down, and the remainder of the journey was passed with abandon ship drill, air raid precautions, gas mask exercises, calisthenics etc. our ship finally arrived at Cherbourg, France. The date was 7 September 1944.
Belgium, Holland, Germany:
On 15 October 1944, the Regiment entrained in the good old “40 & 8s” at La Haye-du-Puits, Normandy, heading for the Belgian border. We reached Vilvoorde, Belgium, 18 October 1944 where we bivouacked. Our Division was now attached to the First Canadian Army, part of British I Corps. This was where final preparations would be made for actual combat. While stationed in Belgium, we became acquainted with the large numbers of “buzz-bombs” that flew over on a regular basis out of Holland.
Our general advance into Holland began on the morning of 25 October 1944, which in fact constituted my first baptism in battle. Overall operations would last until early November.
During October 1944, tactics had been discussed with representatives of the First United States Army, concerning the use of the 104th Infantry Division in Germany. As some of our Regimental Combat Teams (including my outfit, the 414th RCT) were to remain in Holland for a while, the remainder of the Division was to withdraw for assembly in preparation for a possible move in the direction of Aix-La-Chapelle (Aachen) Germany. Operations really began 7-8 November 1944, after which we started driving offensively into the enemy‘s homeland.
Unit Commanders (October 1944)
Lt. Colonel Hugh W. Jones – 104th Infantry Division Surgeon
Lt. Colonel Samuel R. Taggart – 329th Medical Battalion Commanding Officer
Colonel Anthony J. Touart – 414th Infantry Regiment “Mountaineers” Commanding Officer
Lt. Colonel Robert R. Clark, II – First Battalion, 414th Infantry Regiment Commanding Officer
William Ritz – American Red Cross Field Director
Much has been written about the Dora-Mittelbau KZ complex, the death camp at Nordhausen using ’slave laborers‘ for work on the V-weapons, and I really have nothing new to add to the very accurate accounts as available in the book “Timberwolf Tracks”. I only wish to relate one small incident of that unforgettable, horror-filled day, which has stayed fresh in my memory, even though exact dates, numbers, and other details have dimmed with the years.
I was then a Surgical Technician, a Technician 3d Grade (MOS 521) operating with First Battalion, Aid Station, 414th Infantry Regiment, 104th Infantry “Timberwolf” Division. Apparently many medical units, including 3d Armored Division personnel, were called upon that day (“Timberwolf Tracks” states that the liberation took place 12 April 1945 –ed) to help search for and evacuate the Concentration Camp inmates who were still alive amongst all the dead. I don‘t remember how many of our unit were sent down to the camp, but my good buddy Bill Catney and I were among them. As I look back in time, I realize that, as a Medic with the Aid Station, we were not really aware of much that was going on around us – it seems to me that our field of vision was extremely narrow with regard to the overall picture of battles, places, times, and sometimes events – so, if there were other units besides us 104th Infantry Division Medics, involved in helping, treating, and caring for the Dora-Mittelbau survivors, we probably wouldn‘t really have been aware of it…
Dora was primarily a hard labor camp for French, Polish, and other European nationals, political prisoners who were “conscripted” to hard labor in an underground factory, making the deadly V-1 and V-2 rockets. Those ’laborers‘ had been worked until they collapsed, then left to die of starvation when they were no longer productive.
I was not prepared, even after months of treating hundreds of our own battle casualties in Holland and Germany, for what lay before us as we entered barrack after barrack. The dead were stacked like we used to stack cord wood back on the farm. Some bodies had been dismembered, they were nothing but bones with parchment-like skin stretched over them. We found many people who were still alive, lying together with the already dead, as though resigned to their final fate. We took them, or sent them by jeep, and by truck to what I believe was a German Military Hospital, anyway, where the doctors were German civilians. Later in the day, I found a young girl who had been lying on her straw covered bunk for two weeks. I was semi-fluent in German so I was able to communicate with her to some extent. She spoke about as much German as I did.
I found out that she was from Poland, was only 19 years old, and had been in the camp for more than two years by now. Prior to being brought to the camp she was a student in a Conservatory preparing to become a concert pianist. Two weeks before the camp‘s liberation she had suffered a broken left arm when she fell, as a result of being too weak to walk down a stairway. Since she couldn’t work she was of no more use to the Germans, so she was left to die by herself, in her bunk. No work, no food! Her arm had neither been set nor treated in any way, and her arm was badly infected where a bone fragment had punctured the skin. She had made a sling for her arm from a silk scarf. How she had been able to keep such a piece of her past I don’t know, but there it was, a beautiful silk scarf, totally out of place in these inhuman surroundings, obviously something from a different time and a different place. Her main concern was that her hands, which had been those of an artist, now calloused, coarsened, and raw would never be able to perform on the piano again. At the Hospital, I carried her (she weighed almost nothing) into an X-Ray room and turned her over to a doctor with strong, if not perfectly phrased, instructions of how to care for her. She gave me the scarf to remember her by, and I carried it with me for the rest of the time we were in Germany, but now, sadly, I don‘t know what ever became of it.
I am now, at this writing, 87 years old. I am retired after teaching school in Texas for twenty years, and live in a small town in Mexico, my wife’s hometown, having been rather busy building an orphanage, small clinics, and church buildings, for the local people. Thanks to my service years, I was able to use my knowledge and experience in medicine to treat and care for the people in the mountains of central Mexico, where I also taught sanitation and vaccinated children. With all that has happened in these past 65 years, the horrible memories of Nordhausen / Dora-Mittelbau remain, but time has mercifully softened the edges, it is no longer as vivid as it used to be…
I have often thought of that young Polish girl and wondered if she ever became the concert pianist she had hoped to be one day, or did it become nothing but a shattered dream.
The Dora-Mittelbau complex went through 3 different phases, and underwent following changes:
the first, being one of the “Aussenlager” (external labor camp) of “KZ-Buchenwald” (Buchenwald
Concentration Camp), whereby Dora (as from 28 August 1943) was in fact a hard labor camp where groups of inmates were sent to work
by the Buchenwald Concentration Camp authorities.
the second, when Dora (as from 28 October 1944) took over the Buchenwald annexes and its different labor activities, thereby now
forming “Aussenkommandos” (external labor details, “SS-Baubrigaden” (SS building brigade), and
“SS-Eisenbahn-Baubrigaden” (SS railway building brigades) which were active at one time or another for the
“Mittelwerk” (“Dora-Mittelbau”) complex located in and around Nordhausen, and also at less important sites
such as Berga, Blankenburg, Ellrich, Halle-Saale, Harzungen, Heringen, Kleinbodungen, Mackenrode-Tettenborn, Niedersachswerfen,
Nordhausen, Nuxei, Osterhagen, Osterode, Rottleberode, Sollstedt, Stempeda, Stuttgart, Wieda, Woffleben, etc. which would (around
spring of 1945) reach a total of more than 40,000 foreign workers, spread over 42 different camps and/or military installations.
and the third, whereby Dora now formed its very own “Aussenkommandos” (as from 2 November 1944) intended for 18
different sites, including the notorious Nordhausen-Boelcke Kaserne.
The slave-laborers working at the Dora-Mittelbau complex were from different nationalities (from all over occupied Europe – i.e. French, Belgian, Danish, Greek, Italian, Croat, Dutch, Luxembourg, Polish, Rumanian, Serb, Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Yugoslav, Lithuanian, etc.), and were usually sent in from other Concentration Camps; they were mostly political prisoners, some prisoners of war, foreign civilian workers, Jews, communists, homosexuals, gypsies, even German specialists, AND they all had a ’common‘ denominator, ALL were “conscripted” to hard labor in an underground factory, making the deadly pilotless V-1 and V-2 rockets (V stands for Vergeltungswaffe or retaliation weapon).
People had to work under inhuman conditions, since there were very few barracks, prisoners were housed in the tunnel shafts in very poor conditions, food was scarce and certainly insufficient, medical care practically non-existent, and working conditions harsh (to say the least). Work not only involved building, testing and completing the V-rockets, but continually constructing and expanding the underground installations as well! Prisoners often collapsed on site, and since the ’early‘ inmates could no longer be considered as a valid and strong workforce, they would be quickly replaced by new batches of prisoners from other camps, until they also collapsed, and were left to die of starvation when they were no longer productive and useful to the Third Reich authorities –ed.
I stayed with the 104th Infantry Division until the very end. After the German unconditional surrender, we were just waiting for shipment home or possible redeployment to the Pacific Theater to fight the Japanese. Fortunately, that war also ended while many of us were home enjoying our 30-day leave in the Zone of Interior. After this rest period, we all reported to Camp Luis Obispo, California, to await separation. I was Honorably Discharged 8 October 1945 (short of only a few days of three years of faithful service to Uncle Sam).
Tec 4, Jess T. Renteria (ASN 37354648), serving as an aidman with the 414th Infantry Regiment, received the Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against the enemy on 18 and 23 November 1944, in Germany, for evacuating wounded soldiers under intense enemy fire.
The Medical Detachment, 414th Infantry Regiment, my outfit, received the “Meritorious Service Unit Plaque” for operations conducted during the period between 24 October 1944 and 1 February 1945. B Company, one of the Collecting Companies of the 329th Medical Battalion, supported the 414th Infantry Regiment.
The authors are truly indebted to Tec 3 Ken W. Christopherson (ASN: 17156294) who shared some of his personal WW2 reminiscences and photographs when serving as a Surgical Technician (Medical Detachment) with the First Battalion, 414th Infantry Regiment, 104th “Timberwolf” Infantry Division.