Thursday, July 5, 2012

'Who Needs It More, Him or Me?"

The Landsberg concentration camp memorial

Here is the story from my new book, "Conversations With Veterans of D-day," to which I referred in my previous post. Len Goodgal is a 101st Airborne Division veteran of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose I Company often fought near or alongside the fabled Easy Company of "Band of Brothers" fame. There but for a couple of letters you might have seen this story on HBO or read it in a bestseller.

I've included a little more of the interview. As I mentioned in the previous post, on D-Day Len landed in the water near the base of Pointe du Hoc and scaled the cliffs with the Rangers. This story occurs much later in the war.
Aaron Elson: You mentioned Landsberg Prison.

Len Goodgal: Yes, they liberated Landsberg Prison. I didn’t see the prison. I saw the prisoners. I’ve got an interesting story about that, because when we liberated Landsberg I was right outside the town. We were in a machine gun position with Eddie Austin, and we had three of these refugees with the stripes, you know what they looked like. They were Russian I think. I don’t know whether they were Jews or not, but they looked horrible. I mean, they looked nightmarish. And us guys, we were trying to feed them something. We had D-ration bars we were putting into our canteens and heating them with water, and we had some pickled eggs we used to find in the basement, and some bread that we grabbed from someplace, and a couple of things, I don’t know what the hell we had there, we’d find stuff in cellars.
These guys wanted something to eat, which we were trying to feed them, some of the cocoa. And this guy was shaking. Eddie Austin took his coat off and gave it to one of these guys. And Jesus, I almost flipped. I said, “Are you out of your mind? What are you doing? Giving away your overcoat?”
He said, “I can’t not give it to him.”
I said, “What do you mean you can’t? They’ll bust your balls for that.”
He said, “Who needs it more, him or me?” He or I. Him or me. “Who needs it more, he or I?” is correct. He said, “Who needs it more, him or me?” Eddie Austin was a superintendent of schools in California later on, but that’s besides the point. He knew what he was saying, “Who needs it more, him or me?”
“I don’t know, Eddie,” I said. “They’re gonna bust your balls.” Until my dying day I’ll never forgive myself for not giving the other guy my coat, but they weren’t shivering. This guy was really shivering. I didn’t feel bad. I said, “I think you’re out of your mind.” I said, “Eddie, what’s it gonna do for him? Put him in a house someplace and build a fire.” We had a fire going there. We fed them. They couldn’t eat the stuff, it was too rich for them. The Red Cross got ahold of these guys and took care of them. In fact, the Red Cross MPs came in to most of these camps. At Dachau they got in right away. They didn’t let us in. We went right past Dachau. I didn’t see them. I mean, they didn’t let them out of there. You would see guys roaming around if they did. We picked up a guy going through Germany, and he went all the way to Berchtesgaden with us, and the cook took care of him. Maurice. I don’t know what his last name is. He spoke about five languages. He’d been in a concentration camp for years. He was a skinny guy like that. And he had a horse and wagon, and anything he could steal he put in there. He and the cook were, I don’t know if they were chopping people’s rings, I don’t know what the hell they were doing, but they were getting enough loot to live for the rest of their lives. I mean, Maurice was helping him. And the cook used to carry a .45 pistol on him, I remember, all the time. And he was a pretty good guy, just gung-ho. Till he became the cook. How he got to be our cook, we had a guy named Feoli who was a cook and he shot his dick off in Holland because he fired his pistol while he was cleaning it. Feoli. He lives in New York State someplace. His .45 went off and it shot his dick off. I remember that, and oh, we laughed about that. Well, you know. What is it, pathos or something, I don’t know what the hell you call it. It’s funny as hell but when you think about it, in other words it’s not funny. Oh, it was brutal. We’d look at each other and laugh. “Don’t give me no pistol.” We used to pick up pistols, P-38s and Lugers and all different kind of weapons, Schmeissers and stuff. Most of them disappeared or we traded them along the way.
Some of the guys came back with them. Most of the guys didn’t even come back with a pistol, on account they were afraid they’d use them. Some of them just didn’t want to have them around. Weapons didn’t mean anything anymore. Glad it was over. But I remember us being in Solfelden, and they had horses there and we were horseback riding, German horses, and we used to go horseback riding in the afternoon or in the morning. They had guys that knew about horses taking care of them. To me it was a novelty. It was recreation. I was there from May, the war was over May 8th, I was there from May till September, and hey, it was a walk in the sun being a soldier. Just imagine how we felt over there. Anything you wanted to do. If you wanted to fraternize, and you weren’t supposed to fraternize with the Germans – everybody had a girlfriend someplace. Everybody. I can tell you an interesting story. I read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, I don’t know if you’ve read it. You’ve got to read it. It’s brutal reading. You’ve got to read that book. And in it he talks about them returning slave laborers, women, back to Russia, and the Russians  sent them to Siberia. When I was in Berchtesgaden, we used to use them, they were working as cooks and stuff for us because, hey, the Germans don’t want them anymore, they got captured, were working in the fields at home, in the hotels, hey, so the government took care of them. Then one day they came along, they took them all, put them on trains and sent them back to Russia. Solzhenitsyn talked about them, taking those people and putting them in Siberia. And I didn’t know. I thought they were going home. And they didn’t really want to go home, a lot of them, because, hey, when you see Russia, what it was about, and you see what Germany was like in Bavaria, even with the work that went on. Hey, it was a better life in a lot of ways, and some of them lived with German guys.
We had thousands of troops surrender to us coming off the Russian front. They wanted us to turn around and fight the Russians. They came in with all their equipment, ready to fight. They would turn around and they were gonna fight with us. They put them in camps. We did not abuse them. They talk about starving them to death. Eisenhower did not do that. Whoever wrote that stuff is a brutal liar. We did not brutalize the Germans, although there was high unemployment among them, there was not work and all that. We did not starve them or brutalize them. We weren’t allowed to do that.

Aaron Elson: Back to Landsberg, was that a concentration camp?

Len Goodgal: Yes, it was a concentration camp there and a prison. Landsberg Prison is where Hitler got his start, I think, one of those places. They had the putsches there. Beautiful area. Berchtesgaden, and that area through there, is probably one of the most beautiful parts of the world. You have to go to see it to see, July and August, where’s it’s warm and sunny and the fields are growing, there’s snow on top of the mountains and it would melt and we’d come the next day and clouds would go over, there’d be snow on the mountains. A gorgeous, gorgeous countryside. And they kept it nice, too. The Germans are meticulous. Clean. You can’t believe that these people were Nazis, and how brutal they were. Committed all these brutal acts. When you know the people. Germany was a country of kinder, kirche, kuchen. Children, church and cooking, that’s what a woman’s job was. Children he made, women and children for the Reich, screw the church, and fuck the soldiers, you know. Hooray for Germany. Blond and blue-eyed, Hitler was a brown-eyed, black-haired sonofabitch, who the hell is he kidding? Blond hair and blue eyes? I mean, let’s face it, did he have blond hair? Did he have blue eyes? He had brown eyes and black hair. It was ridiculous. It was so ridiculous that you wonder how they put over what they did. And they put it over. They did it. They captivated the state, captured the times. They were in a Great Depression, saw no way out, were looking to blame somebody and anybody they could put their hands on, it was their fault. Never my fault whatever happens to me, it’s your fault. You’re to blame. Not me. If I want to believe it, I can believe it. People can always believe anything. That’s what happened in Germany. The Depression. They lost contact with the reality of what kind of people they were. They thought of themselves as Saxons, not Anglos. Their image was the Prussian. And that was sad because they’re not that way, they were churchgoing people. Martin Luther came out of Germany.

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The new book, "Conversations With Veterans of D-Day," is not yet available in print -- I still have to iron out some glitches in the header/footer/page numbering/table of contents departments, but it is available in Amazon's Kindle store. Don't have a Kindle? You can get a free Kindle app for your computer or smartphone.

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