U.S. 3rd Army, 90th Infantry Division, 357th Regiment
World War II (1943-1946)
Before the United States entered World War II, it was apparent to John Busterud and most of his high school colleagues that they would be getting involved sooner or later. John was on the high school debate team, where they frequently debated some of the issues involved in World War II at the time. John usually took the side of supporting the war effort through programs like Lend-Lease, which sent war ships and material to the desperate and resilient British military. Once John moved on to college, he put his words into action and joined the University of Oregon’s Reserve Officer Training Corps.
The education in ROTC was focused primarily on weapons and tactics. John learned how to assemble and breakdown large tools, .30 caliber machineguns, light machine guns, mortars and, of course, rifles of various kinds. Tactical training focused on exercises meant to simulate an actual war experience. The cadets would trek throughout the Oregon wilderness, using binoculars, surveying the valleys – preparing themselves for the kind of maneuvers they would make in combat. In addition to the practical aspects of ROTC, John had to learn close order drill, which was essentially how to march on a parade ground. He remarked that close order drills taught him, “things that really aren’t very helpful when you’re in a tactical situation. They teach you discipline, but that’s about the main thing.”
Upon graduation, John and his colleagues were ordered to go on active duty and report down to the presidio of Monterey. They got on a train – in which John shared a berth with his former college roommate and fellow cadet, Clinton Pade – for the circuitous ride down to California. Once they arrived in Monterey, they were met by two-and-a-half-ton trucks, which drove them up to the presidio where they were sworn in and given their medical exams. ROTC cadets from the University of Oregon, the University of Washington and the University of California were all gathered there at the same time. The most notable experience for the cadets was the infamous tetanus shot, which was administered to each one of them, “right in the tail end, practically knocking them out of the room,” John recalled.
When almost all of the other cadets were then put on a train to Fort Benning, Georgia, John stayed behind due to a minor medical issue that the hospital wanted to keep an eye on for a few days. John spent most of his time going on long hikes to stay in shape, eagerly anticipating orders to move on to the next phase of training. Two weeks went by before John was given orders to join Officer Candidate School slightly behind the class his Oregon cadets were in. At this time, John was given his first assignment as well. Since he had been in the Enlisted Reserve Corps in college, John was given the rank of Corporal, whereas all other ROTC cadets were just cadets. So he was put on his first command and was assigned to bring 200 former prisoners who had volunteered for the paratroopers down to Fort Benning. These men had been general prisoners, meaning that they had committed a serious crime like assault and battery or stealing. A rough group of guys for John’s first assignment.
Things went without incident until their train reached Chicago. There, John and his men had to transfer trains from the Union Pacific to the Illinois Central, which would take them to Georgia. They had a day of lay over in Chicago, before everyone was supposed to report back to the station at 5 o’clock at night. Six former prisoners never showed up, demonstrating no fidelity in their volunteerism. Without time to search the whole city, John accepted the loss and left. “Better to not have them in the paratroopers anyways,” he said.
Once John and his prisoners arrived at Fort Benning, he turned them over to their new commander and proceeded to begin his own training. When he began OCS, John was only a couple of classes behind the Oregon cadets. Every morning began with physical training and it was brutal. The sand at Fort Benning was scorching and filled with sharp, sticky burs, a feature that the instructors wanted their men to get very familiar with. As a part of training John would crawl in the sand with his rifle tucked between his arms, likely in preparation for the conditions in North Africa. After the first day of this exercise, John returned to the barracks with burns all over his arms. He said that it was so hot, “the temperature was about 95 or so and that was in the shade.” There were more tactical exercises that hinted of a deployment to the dessert as well. For example, they would use sand tables to demonstrate recently fought battles like the Battle for Kasserine Pass. They relearned and practiced weapons training – breaking down rifles, machine guns and mortars in addition to newer weapons such as the 37mm tank guns. Fort Benning was also the first place that John was introduced to the Enfield rifle, an upgrade to the Springfield, but still inferior to the M1 Garand. They also had training in using hand grenades at the firing range. At night they would have compass orientation exercises, getting lost in the woods and having to find their way out, or camping out in bivouacs. In addition to the physical training, they spent a lot of time doing unpleasant work in latrine duty and kitchen police. After long days of training, exhausted and hot, John and his fellow officer candidates would return to the barracks and turn their mess kit into an ice cooler to chill Coca-Colas.
What was supposed to be a three-month training period, extended to four months to ensure everyone was adequately prepared for combat. During the course of the training, nearly a dozen of John’s fellow ROTC cadets from Oregon flunked out. While they proved to be good scholars in college, the Army determined that they did not have the leadership qualities that would be necessary for combat. As graduation from OCS approached, John’s tactical officer posted a bulletin stating that there was a quota of four graduates from his class, who could take communications training. John asked the officer for more information, curious about the possibility of improving his qualifications, but soon discovering that it was a very technical three month long course. He decided that learning how to splice wires, use code, semaphore and radios would not be a field he would excel in. He remembered thinking, “that’s not me I’m not technically minded I was an economics graduate, liberal arts major at Oregon and I don’t think I would be good at that, so I didn’t apply.” After graduation from OCS, John’s class still had to meet the quota and not enough men volunteered for communications school, so as fate had it, John was selected and sent off to the main post for communications school.
Topics that he never thought he could learn soon became the focus of his training. He was instructed in receiving code, splicing wires, climbing telephone poles, and radio work. After a few months in communications school, John was sent on assignment to Camp Hood, Texas. The camp was massive and meant primarily to train tank destroyers in similar conditions to those in Africa. By this point, however, the United States had just about conquered Africa and were moving north into Italy. So, expecting fewer major tank battles, Camp Hood was converted from an armor training camp into an infantry training camp. John’s assignment here was to teach trainees what he had recently learned at communications school. He was assigned to a bivouac committee, which combined basic training in the wilds of Texas with a course in communications. As an instructor, “I spent half of my time in the wilds of Texas camping out. We had to use hammocks because it was just like the south pacific, there were bugs all over, we had to sleep inside a hammock with mosquito netting.” Teaching communications in the wilderness added an element of difficulty that would not be found in a classroom. Snakes and insects interfered on multiple occasions. On one hot day, John had set up a lecture under the shade of an oak tree. The 200 men of his company were listening to John’s lecture when all of a sudden a copperhead snake dropped from the tree to the middle of the group, scattering them faster than John had ever seen his company move. Another incident involving a snake occurred when they were on lunch break and a rattlesnake slithered up from behind a trainee and bit him. Of course the insects were a terrible nuisance. Blister bugs frequently harassed the men, biting their ankles, spreading their poison and causing awful swelling. But wilderness also has its more playful side as well. While sleeping in snowy bivouacs during the winter, armadillos would run across their bedrolls. By December 1944, John was near the end of his training in Texas and General Patton had already invaded Italy, making John wonder if he would ever make it into combat. Finally the day came when John was given orders to be a replacement officer.
At this point John expected, from the conditions of his training, to be sent off to the Pacific, but since the Battle of the Bulge had killed thousands of officers, John’s orders changed and he was to be sent to Europe as a replacement officer. So with his assigned company of GIs, John was sent from Texas to New York, where he boarded a liner ship named Queen Elizabeth to take them to Europe. In peacetime Queen Elizabeth carried 5,000 passengers per voyage, but when John was riding, it was with 15,000 passengers. A cabin, originally intended for the use of a couple of people, was packed like a can of sardines. As a first lieutenant, John shared a cabin with 16 to 18 men, sleeping in triple-decker bunk beds. Enlisted men had 36 to a cabin. It is easy to imagine the squalor that was present on that ship. Disease spread like wildfire, not sparing John as he caught the flu. Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth traveled across the Atlantic with remarkable speed. Most people traveled in slow moving convoys, but because Queen Elizabeth had been a liner ship, it moved faster and traveled alone. U-boats lurked in the waters of the Atlantic, but Queen Elizabeth made it the Glasgow, Scotland in only four days, avoiding incident with any submarines.
That night, they got off the ship and immediately took a train across England. What a sight they beheld from the train. John witnessed buzz bombs exploding in distant cities, V-1s and V-2s contining to devastate the United Kingdom in the final months of Hitler’s desperate and egregious use of terror on the island nation. When John arrived in South Hampton, he was so sick with the flu that he could hardly move. His men laid him out on a warehouse door to rest all day long. When his ship was finally ready to board and travel to the north coast of France, John was in such bad shape that he rode in the sick bay, declaring it “a classier way of going across.” They traveled at night to avoid exposure to attacks. Their destination was Lahare, a town without a harbor, thus forcing the ship to anchor off the coast and send the troops ashore via landing craft. From there they boarded a troop train that took them to a little village with a French barracks near the German border. After one day, they were sent to Luxemburg in trucks. Meanwhile the war had been moving rather quickly since the Battle of the Bulge was over. The strategic city of Bastogne had been captured and troops were now trying to penetrate a series of German fortifications on the western front known as the Sigfried Line.
Luxemburg was the first place John encountered enemy activity. Although harmless, there was a German reconnaissance plane that would fly overhead at night. He was given the nickname “Bed Check Charlie,” in honor of the Army’s routine bed checks at night. While in Luxemburg John was assigned to the 90th Division, which he knew no more of than the average person did. It turned out that the 90th Division was a very distinguished battle group. After the war ended, the 90th had spent more days in combat than any other division in Europe. Part of the division landed at Utah Beach on D-day, and in 1945 John joined their ranks in the bombed out town of Mayen, Germany. John slept in a cellar with his men that night, waiting for mess trucks to bring them food, staying underground to avoid air attacks from the Germans. They were in division-rear, which is pre-combat area. They provided the logistical effort, whereas division-forward is more of a tactical headquarters. After a couple of days in Mayen, John and his men got into two-and-a-half-ton trucks, which took them to the Moselle River. Since all the bridges had been destroyed, they crossed a pontoon bridge and entered the newly captured town of Brodenboch.
Brodenboch personally introduced John to war’s macabre nature. He saw his first dead German and lost a member of his own company. A young soldier by the name of Draughty had constantly been tempting fate, taking chances, screwing around. One day the whole company was in the assembly area at regimental-rear when John heard an explosion. He rushed to the scene and found Draughty dead, with a huge hole in his chest. They had just captured the town the night before and Draughty had found a discarded German rifle grenade. Disregarding the constant instructions to be careful of booby traps and never fool around with enemy weaponry, Draughty evidently pulled the pin of this grenade, and suffered the ultimate consequence. After this incident everyone was assigned to clear the village of all booby traps. Soon after, John was sent to the top of a nearby steep hill to meet up with his new battalion.
At the top of this hill was a disabled German 88 flak cannon, an infamous and devastating weapon of the German military that had the versatility and accuracy to fire at aircraft, infantry and armor. On this hill, John went to regimental headquarters where he met the regimental commander, John Mason, and the battalion commander, Bill Depuy. John was assigned to the 357th infantry, first battalion. Depuy said to John, “well you stay at battalion headquarters, because you’re a cabo,” which meant communication officer, “and we might be able to use you up there.” The other officers were sent to the rifle companies. This was John’s first break, but he was soon assigned additional commands.
He was assigned a couple of platoons and became munitions officer after the previous one had blown himself up in a landmine accident. This made John feel as uneasy as any man would, knowing that the only remnant of the officer he was replacing was a wristwatch. Not long after being assigned munitions officer, John also became security officer of a platoon that was assigned to gather up all the weapons of recently captured villages and also provide security for the battalion. In addition to working three separate jobs (communications, munitions and security) at once, John was also in charge of building battalion headquarters every time they would move to a newly captured village. Meanwhile, progress in the war was rapid. Villages fell with little resistance and casualties, and the troops were enjoying some of the spoils of war. The 90th division captured a champagne factory, made fast advances through big cherry country and finally reached Mainz, Germany, where all the Germans were living in caves and the town had been reduced to rubble.
The main battle plan at this time was for Field Marshal Montgomery to cross the Rhine up north in an offensive that would supposedly involve airborne divisions, armored divisions, infantry divisions, and would likely create huge casualties. General Patton, of course, had plans of his own. As commander of the Third Army – of which the 90th division were part of – Patton decided to cross the Rhine, south of Mainz, at a little village called Oppenheim. With very little advanced planning, John and his regiment were assigned to augment the Third Division at Oppenheim. So he went to the assembly area and prepared for a night crossing. Advanced troops crossed the river in assault boats first. Then they set up a pontoon bridge, which John crossed at around three a.m., although he sat in convoy for quite some time while the advanced troops cleared the village. As daylight came, so did the German fighter planes and they flew directly at the convoy. The Americans were under orders to stay in their columns, but when the planes strafed, the troops scattered. John dove into a nearby cellar, scraping his elbow, but fortunately injuring nothing more. It was a close call, the closest John would experience during the war.
The first little village they cleared was Leeheim. Then they headed south to flank and capture a town called Darmstadt. From there they turned north to the Mainz River, which runs east to west from Heidelberg, through Frankfurt, into the Rhine. When Battalion Commander Depuy made plans for river crossings, he preferred night assaults, finding that he had fewer casualties even though it sacrificed the solace of visibility for his troops. The attack was planned for a little village called Mulheim, where there was a German Officer Candidate School filled with fanatics grasping onto the final vestiges of hope for the Nazis. John was fortunate enough to not be selected as the communications officer for the initial crossing. He learned why, when he crossed the river at sunrise. Hanging from barbed wire on the other side were the dead operations officer and the severely wounded Communications Officer Dany Carmichael, both shot. Carmichael, a good friend of John’s, had been hit in the shoulder, which created a similar wound to the one that killed Draughty. John remembered feeling “lucky because [Depuy] didn’t send me across in that first wave. Who knows what would have happened.” When Carmichael was sent back, John and most of the men thought he would die. It was not until after the war, in 1947, that by coincidence John encountered a healthy Carmichael at Yale, where John was enrolled in a summer law program and Carmichael in an architecture course.
John and the 357th continued fighting up north until they reached the German autobahn. As platoon commander, John had been assigned two jeeps, a gunner, an interpreter and a driver named Carl Elstrom. One day, while driving on the autobahn, the roaring engine of a German Messerschmitt came booming out of the overcast clouds right towards their column. John, Elstrom and the rest of his crew in the jeep dove for the ditch on the side of the road, as the fighter plane strafed them. They landed unscathed and looked up to see an American P-51 Mustang coming out of the clouds chasing after the Messerschmitt and that was the last they saw of him. They fought eastward from the autobahn to Vanherseldt.
The area around Vanherseldt was salt mine country, where there were many displaced persons from France and other occupied countries that had been forced into labor for the Germans, working in underground factories, making numerous war supplies, even Messerschmitts. Setting up factories in these salt mines of course provided the Germans and forced laborers with safety from the Allied bombers. John and his men had begun uncovering some of these factories, when they reached a river called the Werra River. While at battalion headquarters, John was assigned to lead his first night patrol across the river. On the other side was C Company, which had encountered another German Officer Candidate School, heavily armed with burp guns and 88s that were inflicting heavy casualties on the Americans. 12 men had been killed in C Company, and numerous others wounded, so it was John’s mission to meet up with C Company across the river and consolidate their forces. When John crossed in the early morning, he saw the results of a tough and fanatic German resistance, several dead Germans as well as the 12 Americans had been piled in rows at the side of the road, awaiting pick up from burial detail.
After crossing the Werra River into Turingia, John and the 357th moved forward to a little village called Gosperoda, where they were billeted. Meanwhile, they received word that one of their other regiments had captured a little village called Merkers, which would become the core headquarters for the troops. Military Police had enacted a curfew in Merkers, but one night, the MPs encountered two women walking around the village. The MPs asked the women what they were doing out at night. One of them was quite obviously pregnant and responded that they were displaced French citizens looking for a midwife to deliver her baby. The MPs brought them into their headquarters to interrogate them. After they confirmed that they were indeed French slave laborers, they drove them back to where they were picked up, and released them. They were so grateful for the way they were treated that they told the MPs about a mine on the outskirts of town. One of the women pointed and said, “That’s where all the gold is.”
Soon after the French woman’s tip, elements of the 90th division went to the mine and captured it with little resistance. The only people who had been guarding the mine were the head of the German Reichsbank, the head of the German Museums from Berlin, and 30 enlisted men. These were not combat soldiers, and they did not want a fight. Inside the salt mine they had been guarding, was a vast cache of treasure: paper money and coins from various countries, thousands of gold bars, Jewish silver, famous paintings, drawings, artifacts, jewelry, and various other valuable things. Because John’s regiment, had sustained so many casualties, they were put in charge of the mine while the 358th and 359th continued to fight. When they arrived, John was ordered to oversee security for the mine. After all, it was not long ago that John was named security officer of his battalion.
John’s first job was to find all the entrances to the mine. There ended up being 17, scattered over several kilometers in the area. His next task was to get some light down there. John took his jeep and his trailer down the old lift into the mine. Elstrom drove him for miles through the passageways, exploring the depths of this mine. About 700 meters underground was a large brick wall with a vault door sealing a chamber. Before John had arrived, the Army had sent engineers to rig it with shape charges and blow a small hole in the wall. John called it a lieutenant hold instead of a general hole because generals were too fat to fit through! When John entered the gold room behind the vaulted wall, he beheld a sight of treasure that would put Blackbeard to shame. There were pricesless paintings from Monet and Renoir, Durer etchings, jewelry and artifacts from ancient Egypt, and endless amounts of gold. To place value on such a treasure trove, they needed to bring appraisers and monuments officers to Merkers.
General Eisenhower heard about the salt mine and he immediately called a military government officer by the name of Colonel Bernstein to evaluate the treasure. In addition, Eisenhower had former museum curators sent to Merkers to evaluate the art. When the officers got to the salt mine, John’s security forces greeted them. Under the command of Colonel Bernstein, John’s battalion was tasked with the duty of counting and moving the contents of the gold room. They decided to have all the art treasures moved to Wiesbaden, which had already been the collecting point for all the hidden art being discovered. After a few days, the generals all became very interested in this mine, and twelve of them came for a visit. As the officer in charge of security, John was sent down to greet General Patton and his ivory-handled pistol. This was the first and only time he would meet the renowned general. Patton said to John in his stern voice, “Lieutenant I wanna meet General Eisenhower, can you take me to General Eisenhower?” John quickly replied, “Yes sir I can.” So Patton followed John’s jeep to Eisenhower and several other generals including Omar Bradley and Manton Eddy, who had already arrived and were waiting for Patton. They were then redirected to the ancient mine lift, where they descended into the depths below. Patton looked at the lift cable and said jokingly, “You know Ike if that cable were to break there would be a lot of new promotions in the army.” Patton’s humor was certainly not innocuous, with comments like “the army ought to hold onto all this gold so when Congress decides not to give them any increase in pay that the army will have this money.” And comments about the art like, “you know I can buy any of this art, for two dollars and 98 cents.” After touring the mine, General Eisenhower wanted to review John’s troops. John remembers Ike saying, “I know you fellas all want to get back into the fighting again. I’ll do all that I can to get you back there as soon as I can.” This was met by the groans of soldiers, who wanted anything except to get back into the fighting.
Meanwhile, the war had been progressing rather quickly, with sporadic fighting across Europe. Once the generals left, Colonel Bernstein ordered John and his men to begin moving the gold to the German Reichsbank in Frankfurt, that was the closest place to take it. While John and some of his officers would tally the gold bars and pack them into burlap bags in pairs, a line of people would transfer it from the gold chamber to the jeeps and up the lift. A man by the name of Major Reighard would then tally the gold bars again to make sure none were missing, and put them in a truck to Frankfurt. This was a very careful procedure with ubiquitous oversight thorough the whole process. After all the gold was out of the mine, there remained all the German paper money. They left it there, thinking that its value was now nearly worthless, but the Germans were so regimented that the people refused to accept the inflated values being set for the Mark, and continued to use their paper currency as if nothing changed. In all likelihood, some lucky citizens of Merkers looted the money and used it before the true worthless value of the Mark was realized. Still, there was the task of transporting all the art to Wiesbaden. With two or three monuments officers working at the mine, John and his men went through a very similar procedure to transport the art out.
With such a careful recording of the treasure’s whereabouts throughout the transportation process, almost all of it was accounted for, with only two exceptions, some missing Dutch coins and missing Egyptian jewelry. The gold was later taken to the federal reserve vaults of New York and London, two-thirds and one-third respectively, and was used to pay for reparations to the countries devastated by the war. The United States kept none of the gold for its own losses. As for the art, there were some people in the military that thought the United States should keep it as spoils from the war. The monument officers, however, were so incensed by the proposal that they wrote a manifesto to President Truman, stating that if we kept the artwork, we were no better than the Nazis. Truman listened carefully to both sides and decided to return it to Berlin, though only after it went on a tour throughout the United States. Once it was transported back to Berlin, the Americans had to erect a new museum, since the original one was in the Russian zone. John later went to that museum with his wife.
After his security duty was complete in Merkers, John was sent back into the fighting as Eisenhower had promised. They were sent to Czechoslovakia and were the first division to enter the country. Instead of moving further into the country, they were ordered to travel south along the border. After a couple days from when they left Germany, they reached a town called Viden, near a recently liberated concentration camp at Flossenburg. John had an interpreter at this time named Schmidt, whose mother lived in a village nearby, which made him very excited to see her soon. Schmidt’s job was to interrogate German prisoners and speak with the Burgomeisters. One day, he was interrogating a German SS major, who had recently been captured. Unknown to anyone, the major was carrying a concealed gun. During the interrogation, he pulled out his gun, shot and killed Schmidt, and fled into the woods. The war was just about over and such a heartbreaking incident demonstrated the tragedy of war’s wanton violence. They searched in the woods for the SS officer all day, but never found him.
Towards the end of the war, there were a few cases of unnecessary death that took place. John recalled, “one unit that was going into Czechoslovakia through a pass in the mountains along the border and these people were going through there and a fanatic bunch of Hitler Jugen ambushed them and killed quite a few, they were wearing American uniforms.” Major combat operations had ended, but the killing had not.
As they continued their way down the border, surrendering troops came to them en masse. A Hungarian division and a Panzer division surrendered to the 90th, and on one occasion, while John was lost with four of his men they encountered a Hungarian company, which surrendered to him. As was custom, John received the commander’s binoculars and pistol, but being lost and in a full jeep with four other men, John did not have the capability to take the company captive, so he simply pointed to the rear and said, “go that way.” John and the 357th eventually reached the city of Plzen, where they billeted a castle just waiting for the war to end. Enjoying some nice Plzen beer, they sat around, listening to a radio, when the news finally came, “the war in Europe is over.”
Interview by Matthew Bourhis on June 26, 2012.