Interview of James B. Metsch
Transcript Number 105
MARCH 8, 2002
Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock, a consultant and part-time staff member at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Library. Today's date is the 8th of March 2002, and we're at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James B. Metsch.
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Metsch, tell me, when did you get into the military and why did you get into the military?
METSCH: I guess it was in 1942. I had two brothers. My dad had passed away when I was quite young and one brother was in the Air Force, the other one was working with a company actually here in Wilmington installing all the wood and furniture in ships, mainly Navy ships. I was very anxious as a person to be doing something to be getting involved and that caused me to go in. They took me happily.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you do your basic training?
METSCH: In New Jersey and I'm trying to think, Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
INTERVIEWER: Was it infantry basic?
METSCH: No, when you get inducted, I thought the military were so well organized to take advantage of everything. When you got to the induction place, you took a whole bunch of examinations and tests. I have a good I.Q. And then they decide what they're going to do with you and they sent me to school to learn to be a radio transmitter, receiver, repairman and then they sent me for a short time to Washington to learn how to repair coding and decoding devices.
So the outfit that, when I left the induction center, I was sent to was in Fort DuPont, Maryland, and was actually the first signal company of the United States Army, very unusual, because signal was not a big operation and they only had one company and that was the nucleus of all the signal people from there on in. I finally was sent to 94th signal battalion and in the Army military structure when you're a battalion, you're servicing the Army. So the 94th signal battalion eventually was sent to Europe to service the 3rd Army, but they were so far advanced, they set up an enormous distribution, signal distribution center in Belgium. That's what they did.
The outfit I was in, I was away at school when they were activated and sent overseas; therefore, when I got out of school, I was reassigned. I went overseas with this 94th signal battalion.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you land overseas?
METSCH: Omaha Beach.
INTERVIEWER: Were you there at D-Day?
METSCH: No, God no, but I was there about six days later. I think one of the most interesting things that ever happened to me was when we landed at Omaha Beach, and it's a scary thing. It's scary because you're going off the side of a big old vessel on a rope and the landing crafts are bouncing around all over and you've got to hit it. So when we landed, I was so pleased. We stopped for a minute to find out what happens next on the beach.
While we were talking to each other, a mine went off. I had what was known in those days as a mackinaw. It tore the inside of the arm out, tore the inside of the jacket cloth out. Naturally when this thing went off, we all hit the ground. Got up and saw this and I figured, God you've sent me an angel to protect me. Believe me, I really honestly think that happened. I was protected in many, many ways all through my service. Strange story, but it's true.
INTERVIEWER: On the beach once you got organized, where were you assigned?
METSCH: We were sent up the side of the cliff to a farm about a mile or two inland. An amusing thing happened there. Most of our commissioned officers were men from the telephone company. They were no soldiers at all. We went in this farmer's field and we took the manure and tossed it on the fence to get it out of the way. A young lieutenant made us put it all back the next morning (laughter). These are the wonderful stupid things that happened during the service. He thought better from there on in I'm sure.
INTERVIEWER: Well where did you set up your repair facility and go to work?
METSCH: Okay, we had a truck assigned to me and my partner, a fellow by the name of McMillan, very brilliant electronic man. He had worked with Farnsworth. He was a brilliant, brilliant man. This is known as a bus buddy. The back is all solid with windows that have metal lashings around it, two work benches and certain types of equipment. One thing it had was a steel floor, couldn't see why. You'd freeze to death.
This is where I worked. I had a three-quarter ton truck attached to it with a large generator in it that gave me electricity. So I had electricity all the time. It caused me to do a little cooking when I was in England so I cooked my own bacon and eggs and things of that sort. I enjoyed first of all my organization. I enjoyed most everybody that I met in the military. I didn't meet anybody that I thought was not up to doing what he was supposed to do. I think that's a wonderful thing we can say about the military.
I've spoken to my sons and grandsons and said that I don't think anything would be better for them when they get out of school is to take a hitch in the military someplace and learn cooperation and discipline. That's the way I feel about it and that's the way it went. I was innovative in that I always had coffee ready. I carried an extra jerrican with water. I found these things around. Didn't bother anybody so I made good use of them.
INTERVIEWER: You were kind of camping out during the war there, weren't you?
METSCH: Oh, when anybody needed a cup of coffee, they could come see me.
INTERVIEWER: Did you get into Germany?
METSCH: Oh yes. One of my wonderful experiences was we as the signal corps captured the Remagen Bridge. We weren't supposed to be there. We just got there and there it was and then the military or the infantry came up afterwards. The general that was in charge of our area called back to Paris where the big shots were all having a meeting deciding who was going to cross the Rhine first and they had decided Patton was supposed to cross the Rhine first.
At any rate, we crossed the Rhine on this bridge and secured it. As you got across to the other side, there was a tunnel there and we went into the tunnel. On the right hand side was a poorly maintained road going up the side of the mountain and that next couple of nights, we were all on real guard duty because the Germans were sending down, I forget what they call them, they were men trained in water suits to blow up the bridge. We stopped them.
The city in the area is one of the headquarter cities of German wine and needless to say, I've always found it fast. Amazing, in France there was the center for champagne. The boys had 55 gallon cans that were supposed to be for gasoline all filled with wine. We had one fellow actually fall into a large tank, wooden tank of wine and drowned in it.
INTERVIEWER: But you went across the Remagen Bridge?
INTERVIEWER: Before it collapsed.
METSCH: Oh yeah.
INTERVIEWER: What was the signal outfit doing crossing the bridge? That's dangerous work.
METSCH: We moved so fast after we broke through, I'm trying to think of the area we left, we moved so fast. We were out in front of them. We knew where we were supposed to go and that's what we did.
INTERVIEWER: What outfit went across the bridge first? Do you happen to remember?
METSCH: Oh, it was the infantry.
INTERVIEWER: I'll look it up later, but I just wondered.
METSCH: It had a single digit number, infantry group. They went across. They never could go back to Paris, never could get through because they were having big time meetings finding out who was going across. From there, we drove pretty fast through Germany and I can't think of the town name, but it had a large prison camp.
INTERVIEWER: Concentration camp?
METSCH: Concentration camp, a large one, an old stone wall place. The building at the entrance of those places was always the headquarters of the concentration camp. It had a lot of art objects and things that the Germans had picked up along the way and wound up here. That was a very emotional time because the people that were freed had been so abused, so unhappy, that they were just celebrating in the most unusual way.
They hadn't seen a bicycle or been on a bicycle so the first thing they wanted to do was ride a bicycle. They did all sorts of foolish things that you would expect youngsters to do, that's how they acted. Your heart would go out to them because they suffered something awful in those camps. It always bothers me when I read that the Germans said that they didn't know what was going on. That's so much baloney. You couldn't live there without knowing what was going on.
INTERVIEWER: How did you feed all those prisoners? The Army really tried to get some supplies to them.
METSCH: Because we were well taken care of. That's the one thing you can be sure of when you're in the military, they take good care of you because they need you. Civilians are the ones that suffer. We just gave them anything we had. I can remember another thing, spending a Christmas when the Bulge broke through in Belgium and there was an orphanage downtown. There were a lot of children, run by Catholic sisters.
I went to the guys and got them to give me their mirrors, their combs, all the stuff they had to fix themselves up, all the girls at the orphanage. We put up a tree and decorated it with toilet tissue. We were always active in some way or other like a good bunch of Americans would be.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any dealings with any of the German prisoners, military prisoners, the German army military prisoners?
METSCH: No, I had a lot to do with that when I was back in the States because we had them here and they were treated beautifully here. I knew there was a compound here with high barbed wire with machine guns. That's where they bring them temporarily, but never had any real contact.
INTERVIEWER: Well let me take you back. It was, the Battle of the Bulge had started and that would have probably been around December.
METSCH: Yep, we were with the 3rd Army surrounding the Germans at Maintz. We got word we were needed to stop this thing and overnight we went from Maintz to Arlon, Belgium. First we stopped at Luxembourg. The people there were very, very generous and kind to us, nice people. I remember getting what money I could get together in their currency. They had the most gracious pastry that you ever tasted in your life and ordered all of that I could. Put it in my truck.
Then we went into Arlon, Belgium and we were billeted in an old military outfit. It was an old stone building. I think one of the greatest examples of patriotism was when I was there, a young man came in in his jeep and he needed his radio fixed. So I look at him and he had his hand all bandaged up, blood showing through. I said, "Look, while I'm working on this, I'll have it fixed in no time, why don't you go our medics and let them take care of you". He said, "Oh no, I got to get back right away". (Crying) This was the American soldier. Those memories make me emotional.
INTERVIEWER: So you've experienced the best of times and the worst of times.
METSCH: Worst of times. I think one of the main shocks I ever had was I walked into this town and there was a pile of U.S. bodies piled waiting to be picked up and I thought I saw my brother. You know how your brain works and he had been captured by the Germans. His plane went down over Germany and was captured. He and some other boys broke out of the prison they were in and got back to London.
Once you do that, you can't go back into the same theater again. So they reassigned him to the Pacific. It's amusing. All these things happened, absolutely amusing. We had a bomb go through this building that we were billeted in. We were way up on the top. It went through the roof, through two or three floors and wound up in the basement and never went off. How lucky can you be.
So I remember going out, it reminds me of what they're doing in Afghanistan now with this air ground communication. The planes up there need help. They need help telling them where things are and what's going on. So you send the planes over and these things had to be fixed and you correspond with them and tell them from their viewpoint, what was where.
So we got to this town and my friend McCullen wanted to get out to the local town and have a drink. I stopped him and wouldn't let him. I'm sure there was a German behind the glass door to this tavern. I think I heard that. So at any rate, we got back in the jeep, finally found our way to where this three _____ was up in the mountains and told them where we were. They said you couldn't be, that town is owned by the Germans. We said that's where we were. What they didn't want to do was to catch two guys riding around in a jeep to expose themselves. They thought they weren't known.
At any rate, he said you get this thing fixed and I'll show you what was down there. He called in a flight known as pig-pig, I remember that. They circled above us and he'd say, you say the bomb at such and such measurements. They have German tanks in there. The guy would come down, hit that bomb with a bomb and sure enough, and there were the German tanks. They knew everything about that town. Then they would call in these bombers, fighter bombers they'd call them, direct them exactly what to do and that's what they've been doing over in Afghan.
INTERVIEWER: Was this town in Germany or in ...
METSCH: Oh, this was deep in Germany. I was in a lot of Germany. I went to a big old city along the Danube. I remember going there. When we were in Germany because the peace came along, we were again in a military barracks type of a spot and we all celebrated quite a lot when we heard it was all over. Amazing thing is we had x number of equipment only a few months earlier because we went through all the war using mostly captured equipment, to fix radios and all that sort of stuff.
But right while we're still in this city, it's a big city, I remember they had an old-fashioned 5 and 10 store in the downtown area. We were ordered to take all of this new equipment and bring it to the dumper. After a while, I got to realize this was Washington, D.C. and the French government. Things they caused. We sold trucks, but the French government would buy the trucks from us and then sell them at exorbitant prices to their own population.
The whole thing, governments, the way they act are just unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. I can't tell you much about what I did, but I can tell you the impressions I have at those times.
INTERVIEWER: The equipment that you dumped, was it radio equipment?
METSCH: Oh yeah, all kinds of parts and testing equipment, everything.
INTERVIEWER: What was the advantage of throwing it away?
METSCH: The French did not want it on the market. Unless they disposed of it, it would be on the market and be in competition with what they wanted to sell. Simple as that. You know you think these countries... the Remagen Bridge area was decorated. I forget a French decoration, like a rope, and by the way, Patton came to do that. We didn't like him. People that served under him didn't like him at all.
INTERVIEWER: Didn't like Patton?
METSCH: No, he was brutal. He was consciously mean all the time. When we had to advance, we had artillery and everything else, Patton "Run in there". At any rate, he started a speech in front of us. He said, "I know you fellows lost a lot of men, but I want you to realize it was mostly due to old age and too much to drink". What a way to talk to people. He was there with his nurse and his dog, as I would say living the life of Riley, and that's not needed. He was very, very mean spirited to Eisenhower. He had no right to be. He just wanted more credit and that type of thing. It's amazing what happens.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you end up in Germany at the end of the war? Do you remember where you were?
METSCH: I guess, it's a great big old German city, but known for beer.
INTERVIEWER: Was it Munich?
METSCH: No. It was much further west. They sent me back to Paris because of my technical work. See that's on your records, the number of the things you know how to do is right there on that discharge. I was sent back to Paris. Actually I stayed in Versailles, I lived in the palace Versailles, in servants' quarters.
INTERVIEWER: Is this after the war?
INTERVIEWER: Okay, so you're now in Versailles on the palace ground.
METSCH: Army headquarters and anything they wanted me to do. When they wanted something fixed, they'd just call you and say do this or whatever. One of the things I did was fix public address systems in the theaters. The whole idea behind that was this was entertainment for our troops, therefore we should give them anything we can to make their show good. One of the owners was so tickled pink that they got all this equipment and fixed, and I was actually turning it into a fellow by the name of Jean ______ who was a French Bing Crosby at the time.
He was going to be in the show and we did the mikes for him. He gave me a section of box seats I guess for life, whatever. So I went to the Red Cross and they said they couldn't believe they could send every day or night to this big theater, box seats for the servicemen and they were thrilled. A young lady who was in charge of the American part called in a French girl who was in charge of the French. They wanted to do something, did I need any cigarettes. That was the first thing they asked. What would you like to have.
Well what do you do when you're in Paris. Well the young lady said you stay here, "I'm going to my office and write a letter". So she came back in 5 or 10 minutes and wrote a note to her brother who was head of the racing commission and had headquarters in Paris.
INTERVIEWER: What was his name?
METSCH: Emery DeCurgeli and her name was Ellie DeCurgeli. So I got to meet these old time off edge royalty of French government. Their father was a count, Emery was a count, made this by the government. Her mother lived down in Normandy in a gorgeous old estate which I was invited to because I had transportation. I had a jeep I could drive. We spent a weekend down there.
From your bedroom window, you go to the window sill and they gave you a shotgun and you shoot out of the window. I had a lot of wonderful experiences to this work I had, fixing radios and transmitters. We put in the telephone system from Orly Field to Paris. We were there, we put it in so this is the type of thing I was involved in.
INTERVIEWER: How long were you in the Paris area? Months and months?
METSCH: Yes. I would say a minimum of six months, maybe nine months. My problem was that the number I have on my records of what I did. At that time, you had points to go home, but if they didn't want you to go home, you had an occupation that they needed, they didn't let you go home. I had an old friend who was a sergeant major at headquarters and I said, "John, for God's sake, get that off my record, will you?" And he did. These things are all quite amusing. I guess they're somewhat even illegal.
INTERVIEWER: Let me ask you to go back. The day that you found out that the war was over in Europe, where were you?
METSCH: I'm trying to think of the name of this big old city there in Germany. It was a city that had a lot of memories. It was all old stone buildings.
INTERVIEWER: Who told you the war was over? How did you hear it?
METSCH: Radio. Our own radio. That's how we found out because we all cheered and had fun, had a few drinks, whatever we could do to celebrate. Didn't make any difference, we were still settled in that big compound and the orders is really what you do. We were on our way into Berlin. That was our next stop.
INTERVIEWER: But you never got there?
METSCH: No. I did years later, not with the military.
INTERVIEWER: So you were transferred from this city in Germany at the end of the war to Versailles in France?
METSCH: I was put into military headquarters group that were headquartered in Paris.
INTERVIEWER: Was Eisenhower there?
METSCH: I don't know. He must have been, but I never met him.
INTERVIEWER: He didn't come down and shake hands with you?
METSCH: No, no. I would have loved him to, but I guess I got my orders through an officer of some sort. Even there, it was often amusing because our officers didn't know what we were doing. They weren't technicians and this fellow I worked with, McMillan, found out a way - one of the big problems was a power pack for this radio always going out. It had a condenser in it that would always break down. McMillan, after he had a few drinks, got to thinking about it and realigned circuits so we could avoid that problem.
Some way or other one of those power packs got back to Philadelphia and they were stunned. They wanted to know who did that. Of course it was our outfit that did it. So they decorated the captain of our outfit (laughter). He knew nothing about it. But they had to celebrate it with somebody so that's what they did.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the phrase "no good deed ever goes unpunished"?
METSCH: (Laughter) No, never heard it, but really this fellow McMillan was brilliant. I was lucky to work with him.
INTERVIEWER: He was an enlisted man too?
METSCH: Yeah, I believe so. Frankly when you're in the service, you don't even know who is enlisted and who wasn't.
INTERVIEWER: Have you kept track of him when you got out?
METSCH: No, I have a few, there was a fine older fellow who I used to tease a lot because he couldn't keep up with the younger guys, John Perrin, in Texas. He was just such a lovable fellow ______, the company philosopher you might say, and I kept in touch with him for many, many years. Always planned to visit him when I went to Texas and didn't. Had family there so missed out that way.
This fellow McMillan, I'm sure went back into the industry someway or other because he was absolutely brilliant. You talk about the Japanese making all this stuff. We could have, we would have invented all of this stuff, designed all this, but we had companies that were glad to have the Japanese make it, they made more money at it.
I happened to have earned my living in the furniture business. I worked for Drexel Heritage which is a very fine furniture manufacturer in North Carolina. It used to amaze me how we would go to China in the plants to make things cheaper and send them over here. Right now our furniture men work as unemployed and all the furniture is coming in from China. I have a son in the wholesale furniture business and he had discussions with one of his customers. He said, "No, I won't see the market Bob, I'm going to China". Here's a retailer going over to China to buy from them. We are stupid in many of our approaches to business. We're supposed to be brilliant.
INTERVIEWER: Well when you got out of the Army with skills and abilities in electronics, you didn't follow along that line.
METSCH: No, because I left a company that I was very, very fond of. It was a retail firm on Fifth Avenue in New York, W. J. _______, eight stories of fine furniture. I was a specialist in carpeting and oriental rugs. That was a trade that not too many people had. That company was best known in the world for home furnishings. We had stores in California, Washington, D.C. We did all the fine homes around the world and I was very wrapped up in that business.
Then what happened was another tragedy in the U.S. industry. We had a greater of a corporation, remember we had that big corporation ______, and they were buying up companies only to disband them. We had an eight story building, corner block square on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street. We had a warehouse on the west side that had 12 stories, half a block square. We had 47 trucks on the road delivering furniture. We were a big outfit. These fellows took charge and sold everything out.
When I saw that coming, I had friends for years in the furniture business and they called me and offered me work with Drexel Heritage in North Carolina. So that's where I left behind.
INTERVIEWER: Back to your military career, you had, as I said before, you had good times and you had bad times. Was it about equal or were there more good times than bad times or more bad times than good times?
METSCH: I would say they were, I enjoyed it a great deal. I was unhappy for circumstances occasionally, but I enjoyed my work in the military and the service I was performing in the military. I remember in Arlon when they were...the reason the Germans were making progress in their attacks was it was very overcast for about five or six days and we couldn't stop them by air.
I was working in the headquarters in Arlon on the general's personal communications to England and finally got him so he could hear them and they could hear him and he got me out of the way, "Let me at that thing" and he got a hold of the radio and he started calling in planes. He said, I don't know how many planes were coming, he'd say "Double it". Five or ten minutes later, "Double it again". He'd just call, the sky was full of airplanes. It's amazing how things in a war just, you know, either way are such little reasons.
INTERVIEWER: What was the name of the town that you were at?
METSCH: Arlon, Belgium.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, yes it is. You know victory and defeat are a very, very short distance apart.
METSCH: I can remember driving along a road in that area and seeing a tank coming, a U.S. tank. As they go by, I waved, they waved at me. As I went by, I realized it was a German tank. I mean how silly some of the things are. When I left that radio trying to get back, I had to go over a lot of fields because I knew then where the enemy was so I tried to avoid it. Going over these mountain slopes in the jeep and I knew I could hear it all the time, but wasn't touched in the least. You just go about what you're supposed to do and you get it done. That's about what it is. And most everybody I met in the military acted that way. I feel just great about our country and our men.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember any particular date, like 4th of July or Christmas or New Year's, was there any event that took place on one of those usually well remembered dates?
METSCH: Well I told you they had this big home for children in Arlon and we went down there Christmas day. There was a whole collection of guys. It was funny because what could you give a little girl beside a comb and a mirror or something of that sort. But we got so many, everybody gave. We packaged them up in paper, give them out. I remember doing that. It was very rewarding doing that. The children responded beautifully as they always seemed to do.
INTERVIEWER: You had mentioned how many orphans there were.
METSCH: I know hundreds and they were overcrowded because of the war situation.
INTERVIEWER: So war just does not, it's not between soldiers. It's between everyone.
METSCH: I don't know what you're saying.
INTERVIEWER: That in a war, even children are affected.
METSCH: Oh golly yes. The civilians are so much more affected because their shortages are immediate and real and big. As I said, I could always eat well because I was with the Army, but the people around me couldn't eat very well.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, yeah, and you had warm clothes.
METSCH: I can remember we were staying in an apartment house you might call it and the ground floor was a woman whose children were playing in the street. When the children were playing in the street, I happened to have oranges and I don't know what other fruit I had and I gave them to the children. Oh, the next thing I know the woman in the window told me to, she motioned for me to go to the vestibule (laughter) which I did and she had a little drink of a very fine liquor for me and she said that's the first fruit my children have ever seen.
That shows you what people don't have is enormous that are civilians. In the military, they have everything. I can remember worrying about servicing the outfit that had gone across to Remagen and I know from personal experience these trailers that we had last for about 350 hours and they have to be knocked down. So I knew we'd need them. I knew my old outfit was back on the coast of Belgium. I knew if I tried to get a requisition, it would take me weeks. So I got a fellow, weapons carrier, and we visited my old outfit. I said we were just going to drive out with all these power units.
Strangely enough, the fellow that I worked with at Fifth Avenue was on guard duty that night. Small world. They remembered I could play cards pretty well so right away, they invited me to eat and play cards which I did. Then I said I had to get back. We just drove out the door with all these power units. Now they never would have had them across the Rhine unless I did that. You had to be honestly innovative in everything you did. So that's how we got the power units over across the Rhine.
INTERVIEWER: Can you think of anything else you'd like to say?
METSCH: Oh, I really enjoyed the people I worked with. I enjoyed the military. I believe the military has a proper use. I think that governments as a whole do not have the same perspective as units of people.
INTERVIEWER: I'm going to ask you to look right in the camera and know that you're talking to your children and your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren and would you tell them what did you learn, what did the war teach you. What did you come away feeling and thinking after a war experience? What would you tell your children?
METSCH: Well that American military is a very good organization. It has the proper attitudes. You meet wonderful people in there that are performing their jobs and it's an enormous, enormous organization. When you think of the organization that they have, it's just unbelievable. I had to do different things.
I was sent back by plane to Swansee, Wales, to pick up all the equipment that I'd need to work with and get on a ship and go up through the Rhine River and brought that to our outfit to work with. Now when we landed there, the people, the French people thought we were coming in to give them food and things that they needed and they wouldn't help us unload the ship because we had nothing. You can't be angry at people for that though. They didn't understand what as going on. And during a war, everybody is trying to take care of themselves. It's amazing and you have to learn to take care of yourself and you do that without harming anybody else.
INTERVIEWER: Does a war ever fix anything?
METSCH: I don't think so. I think the settlements of war are absolutely ludicrous. I don't think they achieve any good. I think they perpetuate bad things. It's strange. The people involved in performing in that war are very, very good at what they're doing and happy, but the result of that war...here the French government charges more money for a farmer to buy a truck that we were giving them than they should as an example. Our government was willing to give in to so many of these things, they never should have been willing to give in to. We should have insisted in doing it our way, not doing it their way.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for your time.
METSCH: You're welcome.
INTERVIEWER: You're a great soldier.