Interview of Aaron May
Transcript Number 087
OCTOBER 2, 2001
Our session is being held at the University of North Carolina library. We're going to be interviewing Mr. Aaron May. My name is Paul Zarbock. I'm a part-time staff member with UNCW.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. May, tell us a story. Tell us your story.
MAY: Well I was inducted at Fort Bragg on March 4, 1942 and we were shipped to Camp Chaffee in Arkansas and that's where I had my basic training. After the basic training was over, we were sent to the 14th Army Division, the 68th Army Infantry Battalion. I was allowed to go into Fort Smith for the first time which was just about 12 miles away from Camp Chaffee and I went to the USO dance the first time I was there and I met my, who was to be my wife, Norma Eisen, there. She later became my wife on February 8, 1944.
During the time I was at Camp Chaffee, I rose from private to a staff sergeant. On the 4th of November 1943, I was let out, separated from the Army as an enlisted man and sworn in as a warrant officer. Norma accompanied me to Camp Lee, Virginia, where I took officer training and at the end of that period, the 14th Army Division was sent on maneuvers in Kentucky and Tennessee.
I'll always remember that that's where I learned how I was supposed to lead a convoy at night in the pitch dark with no lights on. On October 4, 1944, we left the States on the Queen Mary II to Marseilles. The 14th Army Division left to go up through Germany, but somehow they let the 68th Army Infantry stay in Cannes, France, but I would like to say that during the trip over on the Queen Mary II, one thing that stuck out in my mind, it was a Marine standing in every compartment.
The ship was divided into compartments for battalions and companies and I asked the Marine how come we have a Marine with a gun standing at the entrance. His explanation was that if the ship was torpedoed, he was there to see that the lines didn't break ranks, the soldiers didn't break ranks and he had the authority to shoot any soldier that tried to disrupt the lines that were going in, that they had to wait for the call to leave when they were supposed to and if anybody got too excited and tried to leave, that was his job, to shoot them and that's something that I'll always remember.
But luckily that never occurred. We weren't torpedoed and we did go to Marseilles. We went above the battalion in the mountains where the French Italian border met. They were afraid that Germans could sneak in the back way around Monte Carlo and through that area and so we stayed there about three weeks. I led a convoy back from where we were about 30 miles up into Cannes to pick up supplies and twice a German airplane tried to hit the convoy, but they never did.
So after that, they decided that the Germans weren't going to come in that particular area so we left to join our troops because after we got to our troops and during the march up through Germany, we had the heaviest fighting in Alsace Lorraine section and in the Haguenau Forest right after the Alsace Lorraine section.
I remember once, it always stuck with me, one of the shells hit one of our tanks during the height of the battle in the Haguenau Forest, hit the tank and of course everybody in it was killed. They asked my fellow officer, his specialty was to take care of tanks. My specialty as warrant officer was to lead the convoys to get ammunition and to take bodies back to the rear. After that tank was hit by the Germans, the captain my friend, he said "We don't want the Germans to have control of that tank. Would you get a tank retriever and go up and retrieve that tank".
He went up to retrieve the tank and when he got close to it, the Germans, who had zeroed in on the first tank, zeroed in on him. It was a direct hit. The shell went through the tank and he lost his life inside. It was a terrible death. That's just one episode of the war that I remember and I fear his vitals was in the, right before the Haguenau Forest and the Alsace Lorraine area.
Now if I may, I'd like to get back to what I've been teaching in the schools and this pertains mostly to after the war and then if I have time, I can get back to the war. But I'd like to say they called the 14th division the liberators and I'll explain that later on too. My primary role in the war was to lead a group of men. I had five trucks. They went with supplies and ammunition and when necessary, to carry dead bodies back to the rear.
More than once a convoy was the object of German planes and enemy sniper fire or spray. However, today I want to focus on my experiences in the release of prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp. The Dachau was located 20 miles north of Munich and there is more than one entrance and an exit of course.
INTERVIEWER: Excuse me, for the use of the camera, tell me the name of the town again where the concentration camp was.
MAY: Well close to Munich, 20 miles away from Munich. The name of the concentration camp was Dachau. As I said there had been one entrance and exit because several units, they went in one exit and other units went in another exit and that's why I want to bring out the fact that there was more than one exit. There was no resistance when we went by from the German guards. Some of the guards had already been killed and some of the guards had fled before we arrived.
Now orders came down. There were detailed instructions. For example, you were to be careful not to overfeed any prisoners as they had not adjusted to their shrunken stomachs and they would have to adjust gradually to a normal diet. We were allowed to give them a bit of chocolate, a spoonful of food and that was all that we were supposed to give them at one time. I remember watching old men at the gate just peering outside and some were afraid and some turned back. However I saw one man walk across the road to a dilapidated old parking lot. He emptied about 20 gas cans until he had enough gas to get an old car started and off he went.
Of course, all the men and women were elated that the gates were open and at last they had their freedom. I remember what I thought was the most important of the act of war memories. It came from General Eisenhower. He wanted to make sure that every German knew first hand of the atrocities committed by their people and of course we tried to carry out his orders.
I watched over Germans, mostly women, dig up the massive graves where the human bones and bodies were buried and I'm sure some of you or maybe most of you have seen photos of these graves or the graves yourselves. I asked a German woman, "Who is to be blamed for this?" She responded, "The Jews. They started the war". But what went on inside the camp, they manufactured candles, she replied. I asked again, "Do you think Hitler would have known about the atrocities inside the camp?" She answered smiling, "Of course not, maybe a small officer or a general, but our Fuhrer would never do such a thing. They were all lies of course". And I ordered her, "Lady, you go back to the end of the line and you march through again and see the bones again and you keep doing that until you can wipe that smile off your face".
Yes, there was some remorse from other women to some degree. In my opinion, they were still more afraid of the SS troops than they were of the Americans. I remember another incident with a German woman. She spoke English perfectly. She complained to me of a Polish soldier stealing her clothes. I asked her if she believed any German crimes were committed. She answered no, but I told her, "Look down the street, you can see for yourself men who were once 6' tall, proud of their country and proud of themselves. Now they're starved and weighed 40-50 pounds." "Well that may be true", she responded, "but they started the war" and that was the stock answer from most all the Germans at that time.
They still weren't willing to come out in the open and say that the Germans and Hitler started the war. I remember busting into German homes and finding Red Cross boxes. They were supposed to have been given to American POW's. The boxes contained powdered milk, salmon, coffee, liver paste, salt, sugar, cocoa, meatloaf and miscellaneous items.
In the final days of the war, Germany was running out of money. The SS troops were determined that they would do their best to finish off what they had started to all the Jews and other minorities. They didn't want to pay for the bullets. They didn't have any money. The camps weren't running at that time. So they lined the Jews up and the only weapon they had was swords like this and of course this sword is one of the original swords that they used.
They would shoot the Jews in the back and then push them in the ditches. It was on the first of May 1945 the G3 war news broadcast, "Last night, the 14th Armor Division of the 7th Army released 110,000 POWs at Mooseburg yesterday. And that's why, I said in the beginning, they called the 14th Armor Division the liberators.
There were other 7th Army troops, of course, released 30 to 40,000 prisoners from Dachau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp.
INTERVIEWER: I'm sorry, what was the name of that other concentration camp?
INTERVIEWER: How do you spell that?
MAY: D-A-C-H-A-U. Munich was entered yesterday and BBC news reported it was completely occupied. And that was the end of the German war at that time. Now we had orders to switch from the 14th Armor Division to the Thunderbird Division. We had to take off our patches and put on the Thunderbird patches. They gave us a 30 day leave in the States and then we were going to the South Pacific.
While we were in the loading zone is when President Truman dropped the bomb so when we got to the States, the orders were changed around and we didn't have to go and that's why I think 100% or 99% of the soldiers fighting in Germany were glad about the bomb that was dropped because in a way they might have killed more of the enemy, but in another way, it saved a whole lot more American lives. So we didn't have to go to the South Pacific.
We went back to the States on the Aquatania and I'll always remember that I was walking down the gangplank. They had a band that was playing "The Bells are Ringing for Me and My Gal". We were sent to Brownwood, Texas, to wait further orders and at that time they had started letting people out of the Army in a rotation sort of thing. It was according to what your number was as to how fast you were rotated.
After Brownwood, my wife came up to meet me and I stayed in Texas for a couple of weeks and we bought a second hand car to drive back to Wilmington, North Carolina, and I had to be discharged at Fort Bragg. We had about five flats on the way from Texas. The engine caught on fire one morning, but we finally made it back out to Wilmington and I finally went to Fort Bragg for my discharge.
INTERVIEWER: Who fixed those flat tires?
MAY: Well at that time I was young and I could fix them and one time, like I said, the engine caught on fire and my wife said that I better get some sand and pour it on which we did and cut out the fire. The last puncture I had was right outside the Cape Fear River before we got into Wilmington and of course as soon as we got into Wilmington, I disposed of the car. Before we did that, we thought it would be a good idea to go buy a car. At that time, they had little cabins on the road and the one we stopped at one night was called Cabin in the Pines. It was a lot of fun and when you're that young, you can stand all that excitement.
Now while I was in the Army, I wrote a lot of letters to my wife and when I got back, I divided them between my children, but I did write some of them down. Like December 15th, I wrote, "We cannot relate the names of towns until 14 days after we have been through".
INTERVIEWER: What year is this?
MAY: Well I've got down here, these letters are dated from December'44 til June '45. One of the envelopes...The rule is you couldn't write the name of a town until two weeks after you'd gone through. "We were on the front lines and giving Jerry hell as you read in your papers. I got a hair cut today, first one since I left Marseilles. An old woman gave it to me with an old pair of scissors and a hairbrush with just a few bristles left. Well she didn't do a bad job. This is in the Alsace Lorraine area. We're treated like liberators by most of the people. They offer you a drink and in the morning, they keep you warm. In the Alsace section, it switches from Germany to France and back to France to Germany and if Germany was in command, they were all Germans and when the French was in command, they were all French."
"These people when we were there, of course, had been nice and gave us a drink. We took over all the houses. We didn't sleep outside. They gave us straw slippers in one town we went through. Most wear wooden shoes and take them off before entering the house. The houses are connected to the barns and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The people of Alsace Lorraine are hard workers and stack their cellars full of food."
"It depended on which army was advancing of what nationality they really were. There was a rumor that we liberated General Patton's son-in-law. Whether it was true or not, I couldn't confirm. Some of the Germans are Nazis. Some claim to be not. When Germany actually saved some of our men when they were walking into a trap and I have seen the prison camps only from the gates. I never went inside because we didn't have time at that time to go through them."
"People of every conquered nation are on the road walking to and from to get to their homes. No matter how many miles they had to walk to get home, they would. When we took over a town, the Germans are not allowed to stay in the same house we were and we are not allowed to talk to them. Most of them are frightened at first, but take heart when they see how soft-hearted the Americans are. At that time even then, they are more afraid of the SS troops than they are of the American soldiers."
On the 3rd of May, I wrote, "We are now in the 3rd Army because before we were in the 7th Army. At this time, I got a glimpse of Patton, but still think Patch is a great general. I can't tell you where we are, but I feel like I've been through Germany and back again. There was a rumor yesterday that we liberated 28,000 prisoners including 43 Russian generals and some of our own men and we also liberated 250 bottles of champagne."
"One of the Germans we caught turned out to be an SS trooper. He said he hadn't seen his wife in so many years and he was just 10 miles from home. However we never let him out. We captured him and kept him until the end of the war."
On April 17th which was sometimes I've got these dates a little mixed up, "We have been driving day and night, lucky to get two hours sleep and eat when we can. We've captured all types of equipment, freed all kinds of people, captured hundreds of prisoners. It sounds good in the papers, but over here, it's no fun and no rest. The only people with any fight left are the SS troops. The Germans say that they were more relieved to see us than the SS. Even the regular German soldiers seem to be relieved and they were taking off their suits and trying to return home as civilians. The people feel like we have liberated them too instead of conquering them. It seems that what's left to fight mainly is the SS troops."
On April 25th, "A Russian soldier came up to me and said he was an officer that had just been liberated. He asked for a rifle and the chance to go to the front with us. Actually I couldn't do that, but I told him that he could come with us, but we couldn't give him a rifle. He did come with us and did the work of loading and unloading the trucks. He said that all he wanted was clothes and food when we gave it to him. Anything with a patch on really brought a smile to his face."
On December 31st, "The Army issued each officer a quart of whiskey today. Several of the fellows were sitting with me in the house that some Nazi just vacated and shells started to land all around us, but we said 'the hell with the shells, bring out the whiskey' which he did. I was a little tight and a whole lot scared. You have been reading the news. There is a quiet soldier sitting next to me. They surrender so fast, it's hard to keep track of them. They walk along the road with their hands up, but we're too busy to even pick them up. However, the fighting is not over yet. The SS troopers do not give up. They still do a lot of damage before being shot. We've advanced several days without sleep. We have liberated clothes, rations and so forth. Half the time, I didn't even know where we were."
"The German soldiers were well-equipped. The propaganda saying the Germans wearing paper clothes is all bunk. They all had new clothes. Most of the time, most of the ones liberated were in a mansion where Hitler's wives and officers were kept and the officers were still there."
I think that covers most of the war. I did write a few more letters. When I got home, I took, I had three sons and I took all the medals and different things I had and divided them between the three boys with the exception of this sword because I couldn't divide that. Now if there are any questions, you go ahead.
INTERVIEWER: Just for the sake of historical accuracy, you said that you were, you left the Armored Infantry and went to the Thunderbird Division, is that correct?
MAY: That was after the war.
INTERVIEWER: Now wasn't that the 45th Infantry Division?
MAY: Well I think so. The Thunderbird was a nickname, wasn't it?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, yes.
MAY: That was the same division that had started out in Africa I believe, fighting in Africa and one of the most famous divisions and they were under General Patton and the 14th Armored Division was always under General Patch, the 7th Army. We were actually in the 7th Army. The 45th, the Thunderbirds, were in the 3rd Army and that's...of course, we didn't join them until after the war was over so when I got home, I actually had Patton's uniform from the 3rd Army, but we actually didn't do any fighting for him or aligned to him in any way except for the fact that we were to go to the South Pacific.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember specifically where were you at the time of V-E Day, when it was announced? Were you in Munich?
MAY: Yes, we were very close to Munich. Like I say, we got the news on the London BBC and that's when they told us that the war was over and we got most of our information from the BBC and we were surprised to hear that the BBC had mentioned the 14th Armored Division in liberating the American soldiers at Museburg____ and that's when the war ended, but we didn't, of course, immediately come back. As best I can remember, we might have stayed in Germany approximately three weeks. I know where I was when the bomb was dropped because we were in a loading zone waiting to be shipped back to the States.
INTERVIEWER: Where was that loading zone?
MAY: It was in Germany, no it couldn't have been in Germany. I forget exactly where that loading zone was, but I think at that time even then, Marseilles was a loading zone. That's where when we arrived...and I know we were...I know the Aquetania ship. I'm sure we left from Germany, but I can't remember the port, the German port right now.
INTERVIEWER: Was the countryside smashed, broken and burned?
MAY: Well during the war, one thing I observed when we drove along in our tanks, we saw so many French tanks that they had been trying to get into fighting position. It was amazing. I know the U.S. Army, if they could possibly save a tank, they would save it, but it just seemed like the French Army left all their equipment along the side of the road and that was one observation that I made during the war. I know, of course, you all remember the famous words by the general when he said "Nuts" while the heaviest fighting was gone on. It wasn't exactly where we were. He was a lot more southern and we were further north, the Haguenau Forest was north.
I remember the time there was a heavy snow and we stayed at one place for two weeks and that was the heaviest battle, but I won't try to compare it with what he went through at the southern end because he blocked the Germans in the south and we did our part in the north, northern part.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. May, take a look right into the camera and you're going to be talking now to your grandchildren, maybe your great-grandchildren and as I said to you off camera, you will never be a day older than you are today. The video tape will make sure that you're always this age. Please tell your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren what did all that terrible war teach you and what would you tell them about war?
MAY: Well I'd like to tell my grandchildren that that war, of course, was a horrible war, but I feel like it's something that our country and all the other countries had to take part in. I think they never had a war again that had the same meaning and the same feeling that other wars have had because we were actually fighting in the long run for England's independence, France had already lost her independence and if we let the Germans take over England, they would eventually somehow taken over this country. It was my personal feeling that Germany had to be stopped. They tried to do it in World War I and they couldn't succeed and of course World War II was a lot more heinous war. More people got killed, but it had to be done.
But in the future, I'd like to tell people if a country does not threaten, the best thing a country can do is to learn how to protect them selves and how to show vigilance in case anything should happen. But I don't think, I want you to remember all these smaller wars that came about, but the biggest war that we've had, was of course during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's time and we had a terrible depression at that time.
The war really brought people out of the depression, but at that time, it made women go to work and it made all the men that couldn't fight go to work and it brought people together just as today these events that are happening brought people together.
I wouldn't tell anybody to want to go to a war. It's not fun. It's not easy. It's dangerous; however, if you have a war to protect your own country, then you have to do it, but if you have a war to try to settle an argument in a far off land, like the Vietnam War, you have to do a lot of thinking about whether this is really necessary. Our war was necessary. That's what I want to tell them.