US Army, 100th Infantry Division, 398th Battalion Army Corps
World War II
The beginning of the story of my 84 –year-old interviewee, George Mitchell, goes back to Wyoming, Ohio in 1943. Mitchell was a high school senior at the time. “The guys at my high school, we all were excited about it. This was a real war and we were going to be involved in it,” said George Mitchell.
He was quite small, measuring only 5’ 3” and weighing around 120 pounds, as an 18- year- old senior. Mitchell decided that in order to prove his strength, he would enlist in the U.S. Army. However, he was initially denied due to a “lazy eye” that hurt his vision. Later, to his surprise, a few months after starting college, Mitchell was called up into the Army. Mitchell started his training at Fort Benning, in Georgia, and later at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. After 8 months of training, he was put into the 100th Infantry Division in the 398th Battalion of the Army Corps.
Mitchell’s first mission began on his birthday, September 27, 1944. The now 19 year old was shipped off to France on the General Gordon across the Atlantic Ocean. Some of his most vivid memories are from the trip. He still recalls his best friend, Musser, being seasick for 14 straight days and only eating M&Ms throughout the entire journey. Whenever Musser needed him though, Mitchell was there to help out. He also distinctly remembers when he stood lookout one night in a hurricane where the transport ship behind him was so close that he turned around saw it right behind him. He called out, “may-day!” and saved their boat from a deadly collision. However, doing this forced them to turn on the ship lights in U-Boat infested waters. Luckily, they got away without being shot down by a submarine.
About a month later, in October of 1944, they landed at Marseille, France, which was still occupied by the Germans. The Germans and Italians had originally bombed Marseille in 1940. The city was occupied by Germans from November 1942 to August 1944. In 1944, the Germans fled because they knew that the U.S. was coming. From the shore, Mitchell’s Division walked 8 miles to the mountains where the 35th and 46th divisions were, so they could relieve them. Although not initially attacked, Mitchell’s battalion quickly fought a number of significant battles against the Germans, most notably at the Battle of Bitche and later near Heidelberg, Germany. Mitchell described a number of instances in which soldiers fighting behind him, or in front of him, were killed or injured on the spot.
The Battle of Bitche took place in the town of Bitche, France. Bitche had been home to important events on the Franco-German frontier since at least 1714. King Louis XIV’s engineer, Vauban, designed and built a massive red sandstone citadel in Bitche. In the French Revolution, the Austrians unsuccessfully besieged the citadel. Then, in 1870-1871, the Germans had another unsuccessful attempt. During World War II, Bitche became the scene of combat twice. In June of 1940, the German 257th Infantry Division invaded through Bitche. On March 16, 1945, the American 100th Infantry Division captured Bitche after a three month siege. This was the Battle that George Mitchell took place in. During this battle, the 100th Infantry Division sustained 916 killed in action, 3,656 wounded in action, and lost 180 men reported as missing in action.
For his efforts at Fort Bitche, Mitchell won the Army Bronze Star, one of the most prestigious awards. He earned this notable award one night, when a fellow soldier stepped on a land mine, seriously injuring himself. The noise of the incident alerted the German soldiers, who began shooting at the U.S. soldier. In order to save the soldier, Mitchell ran off roughly 50 feet away and started shooting a machine gun at the Germans, who then redirected their fire at Mitchell, allowing his fellow soldiers to carry away the wounded soldier. Mitchell recalls this as one of his finest moments and one that he is very proud of. In another skirmish arising from the same battle, Mitchell talked about him and his friend Musser being the two lead scouts on patrol. The patrol was attacked from the side, and not the front, and he and his friend Musser were two of the only survivors.
Recalling the living conditions during these battles, Mitchell had to cringe. He remembers the awful food they were given. He would get a box of scrambled eggs and ham for breakfast that tasted horrible. Most of the men would just throw it out and smoke cigarettes that were given t them instead. For lunch, everyone got a can of Spam. Again, most of the men disposed of the disgusting substance and Mitchell still can’t eat a spoonful of it today. Not only was the food bad, the weather was snowy and cold. He said that his uniform was useless when it came to warmth and that snow would melt in his boots, freezing his feet. He had to endure treacherous conditions and has been affected physically by them.
Mitchell told me another very emotional story of a time where he and a close friend were the two finalists for a weekend furlough in to Paris. The furlough was originally awarded to Mitchell, but he wanted it to go to a friend, who had been fighting on the front line even longer. Each of them kept trying to give the furlough to the other. Finally, an officer flipped a coin, and Mitchell won the furlough. When he returned, he found out that their battalion had been attacked over the weekend and his friend was killed. Mitchell swore for years afterward that he would go to his friend’s mother after the war to speak with her, but he never did, figuring there was no way he could tell her that a coin flip had led to her son’s death.
When the fighting stopped in June of 1945, Mitchell did not have enough “battle points” to be sent home, so he was kept in Heidelberg, Germany with a job to work a communication switchboard. He actually liked this very much, thinking Heidelberg was a beautiful area. He had access to his own jeep, lived above a great bar and even had a German girlfriend. Eventually, he was sent home and has since been living happily in San Rafael with his wife, Margie.
Looking back at the experience, Mitchell believes that he helped out our country and that he feels more comfortable with what he did because of the threat Germany was to the future of the United States. He thinks that he did his duty as a good citizen of our country. The time during the war brought him together with some of his best friends who he still keeps in touch with today. He says that the friends you make in the war aren’t like college buddies, or anyone you would meet through school. Mitchell had a special relationship with the men he met in the war because they had to look out for each other and take care of one another. Participating in World War II has had an effect on George Mitchell. Physically, he has been left with scars on his body that he still carries with him today. He also endured several injuries which have required necessary surgeries in his old age. Mentally, however, George Mitchell was affected negatively and positively by the war. Negatively, he has reoccurring nightmares about the war on a regular basis. On a positive note, being a part of the war proved to Mitchell that he could do anything even if he was a smaller guy.
After interviewing George Mitchell, I gained a more personal view on the war. Studying in history books had given me basic information about World War Two. Gaining this knowledge was good, but being face to face with a veteran who actually participated in this war was great. I watched his emotions and took in his words of experience. George Mitchell seemed to have the typical opinion of war. At the time of the war, he believed that it was something he needed to take place in, so that he could help his country. Mitchell knew war was a violent, murderous thing and wasn’t expecting to have many new feelings when he entered into it. When asking Mitchell what he gained from the war, he stressed the best part of the war were the friendships he made. It was one part of the interview that stood out to me. Mitchell made some of the best friends in the war and is thankful of this. He says that the reason he was drawn closer to the men was because each man looked out for one another and risked their own life everyday for each other. Hearing about these friendships made me think of the war as partly beneficial to George Mitchell.
Also, after participating in the war, Mitchell gets veteran benefits. These included having the option of going to college at the end of the war, and now getting monthly checks and health check- ups for free. Although none this can make up for the mental trauma Mitchell suffered from the war, they are definitely nice options. During my interview, Mitchell also said that his view on World War II hasn’t changed since he participated in it. After fighting, one thing that he got out of it was confidence. When entering the war, George Mitchell was pretty scrawny and not sure of himself. After the battles and the physical work he put in, he realized that he could do almost anything. Having this feeling was definitely a good thing that came out of the war. All together, I think that the opportunities that the war created for George Mitchell, such as friendships, college education, and self confidence, overpower the negative side effects that he suffered from World War II. George Mitchell witnessed deaths, and suffered some injuries, but for everything else that he got out of the war, I believe that it was worth it.
Interview by Erin Van Gessel in June 2009.
St. Mark’s School 8th World War II Veteran Oral History Project
St. Mark’s Faculty Advisor: Mike Fargo