Early life and joining the army

Overseas Deployment

From Bizerte to Sicily

Messerschmitts in Sicily

Friendly fire

Griffenhagans time in Sicily

Clearing the way for the liberation of Paris

Training in England and the Normandy Invasion

Normandy

Tthe Hurtgen Forest

Casualties and the Battle of the Bulge

End of the war and discharge from the army

Post war life and returning to Europe

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George Bernard Griffenhagen was in Plzen, Czechoslovakia on VE Day, 8 May 1945. Griffenhagen was born in Portland, Oregon on 9 June 1924 and grew up in Fresno, California. His family was hit hard by the depression. When the depression hit he was still a youngster and does not have any personal experiences of the time. Griffenhagen had one sister who was five years younger than him. He attended Fresno High School and was very active in the theatrical productions there. The high school annual [Annotators Note: year book] was filled with autographs all pertaining to World War 2. In June of 1942 the United States was already well into the war. Pearl Harbor was in 1941. It was pretty obvious that many of the boys would be in military service soon. Griffenhagen graduated from high school in June 1942. His draft number was very low so he expected to be drafted anytime. There was a sense of patriotism in the country. Everybody felt that they should not sit around and wait but that they should get out there and do something. Griffenhagen’s father had served as a combat engineer in World War 1 so Griffenhagen thought that if it was good for his father it was good for him. In order to get a choice of the type of unit he would be assigned to, Griffenhagen enlisted in the US Army on 15 December 1942. Griffenhagen will never forget the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was in Fresno, California. When they got the first word of the Pearl Harbor attack Griffenhagen’s friend, who delivered news papers for the Fresno Bee, came to his house and asked him to help out. An extra edition was coming out and Griffenhagen and his friend were to go out to the main road leading in from the mountains and sell news papers to the people coming home from the mountains. They sold the papers until they ran out of them. Hearing of the attack was shocking but not totally unexpected. It was assumed that the Japanese would do something but no one knew when or where. Griffenhagen enlisted in the army and selected the combat engineers because that is what his dad did. Griffenhagen was inducted in Los Angeles then put on a train to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Fort Leonard Wood was one of only two main training bases for combat engineers. The other was in Northern Virginia. Griffenhagen was at Fort Leonard Wood for three months. During his training he had the opportunity to apply for Officers Candidate School. He also qualified to apply for the ASTP [Annotators Note: ASTP is Army Specialized Training Program]. During the last week of basic training he was called before a board. It was the first time he had ever seen three majors sitting together in one place. The board informed him that he could go to either OCS or ASTP. Griffenhagen selected ASTP and was told that he would be going to a base in Oregon.

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Within a week shipping instructions were posted and George Griffenhagen’s name was on the list. They shipped out in less than 24 hours. Griffenhagen went to Camp Shenango [Annotators Note: in Pennsylvania] for two days then to Camp Kilmer [Annotators Note: in New Jersey] for one day before going aboard the HMS Andes, a British passenger ship which had been converted into a troop ship. They learned that they were to be the first replacements for the American Army in North Africa which had been badly beaten by Rommel [Annotators Note: German Army Field Marshall Erwin Rommel]. The Andes made the fastest trip up to that time from New York City to Casablanca. It took four and a half days and they did it with no escort. There were aircraft covering them when they were close to New York and Casablanca but that was it. The group that went over was composed of infantry, artillery, and tank crewmen. They also took along a lot of equipment. All transport for men and materials was done by boat so if the Germans had torpedoed the boat it would have set the troops fighting in North Africa back about two months. Griffenhagen landed in North Africa around 15 March [Annotators Note: 15 March 1943]. He has never been able to gather any information on the trip over to North Africa. He believes that this is because there were no units aboard ship. They all went over as replacements. During the trip across the ocean there was some concern about German u boats. Later when they went to Sicily they steamed passed Gibraltar and the u boat scare there was very great because the Spanish side of the pass was all lit up. The ships dropped depth charges all night to deter enemy u boats. Fortunately no German submarines found them. Griffenhagen landed in Casablanca where the 20th Engineers [Annotators Note: at the time the 20th Engineer Regiment] landed. They took an eight day train ride to Tunisia in box cars. Griffenhagen and a buddy joined the 20th Engineers a couple days before Bizerte was captured. When Griffenhagen was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood he got a medal for sharp shooting. He was so proud of it he wore it during the trip across the Atlantic and during the train ride to where he joined the 20th. He started getting teased so bad about it by the men of the 20th that he finally threw it away.

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The 20th Engineers was the first unit to go into Bizerte. George Griffenhagen and his fellow engineers spent the first 10 days after the capture of the city building stockades for the German prisoners. The Germans were big and husky compared to the teen aged Americans. As the Germans left, those that could speak English told the GIs that they were going to America to make love to their girls. After a week or 10 days of building prisoner cages they left and began training for the Sicily invasion. They were under Patton at that time. Griffenhagen only saw Patton in person one time. The 20th Engineers landed at Licata, Sicily on D Day. Patton’s plan for Sicily was to cut the island in half in the hopes of trapping a lot of the Germans on the west end of the island. When Patton’s tanks ran into a minefield he called for the engineers and it was Griffenhagen’s unit that got the call. They made their way to the area where the tanks were and arrived at a crossroads where they saw a guy standing on a jeep. The man was wearing two pearl handled revolvers and was cussing up a storm. The captain of Griffenhagen’s unit tried to tell the man who they were but he did not care. He just yelled at them to get their trucks out of the way. Griffenhagan’s captain told Patton’s assistant who they were and that they had to get through if Patton wanted the mines cleared. They were then able to get through. At the time Griffenhagen was in Company E of the 20th Engineers. In England they split the regiment in two and created the 1340th and 20th [Annotators Note: 1340th and 20th Engineer Combat Battalions].There were no troops on the ground to oppose them when they landed in Sicily but the Luftwaffe [Annotators Note: the German Air Force] was pretty strong. The German fighters would fly out of the sun and drop their bomb or bombs on the ships in the harbor then they would turn for home and would strafe the Allied troops on the ground on the way. Griffenhagen could actually see the pilot of one of the planes that strafed them. One thing that is little known about Sicily was that early in the evening on the second night there was a large German bombing raid. As soon as the Germans left, aircraft of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived. Nobody on the ground knew that the 82nd was coming and every gun available opened fire. Griffenhagen was up in the mountains manning a 50 caliber machine gun and firing right into the planes as they passed. After all action ceased they were told to stop firing and that they may have made a mistake. The following morning they saw what they had done. Fortunately they did not kill too many paratroopers but they did destroy a lot of planes. The figures are in Atkinson's book [Annotators Note: Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson]. Things happened so fast that they did not have a chance to think on what happened yesterday. They were too concerned with what was going to happen tomorrow.

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Right after George Griffenhagen and other members of the 20th Engineers removed the mines that were holding up Patton’s tanks in Sicily their company was attached to the 82nd Airborne. The assignment of the 82nd was to sweep and clean out the west end of the island. Griffenhagen and the rest of Company E went down the road looking for the 82nd Airborne. They entered a town and noticed the road was lined with Italian soldiers with rifles on their shoulders watching them pass by. They figured out pretty quick that no American troops had been through that town yet. Later that day a major from the 82nd Airborne Division came by in a jeep and pointed them in the direction of a little mountain town. The major then took four GIs, including Griffenhagen, and told them that he was bringing them to a town they were to take control of. When they arrived in the town center it was obvious that the Italians knew they were coming. There was a crowd of people there. The major dropped the four soldiers off. He introduced them to the local chief of police then left. They declared martial law and everybody behaved. The chief of police took them to a building with a fascist flag flying in front. Griffenhagen took the flag and recently donated it to The National WWII Museum. Griffenhagen’s friends got drunk so he ended up being taken by the chief of police to meet an Italian officer who wanted to surrender his garrison. It took three days for the 82nd Airborne to meet up with them. On the second day some of the Italians were getting nervous because no more Americans had arrived so to ease their mind the captain of Griffenhagen’s company had the company’s six trucks driven around through the town. When they arrived Griffenhagen and the other three GIs were relieved. At the end of the island they repaired an airfield for troops to land. From there they went to Palermo where they were turned into military police. The only problem Griffenhagen had while acting as a military policeman was with the local prostitutes. From Palermo the entire 20th [Annotators Note: 20th Engineer Combat Battalion] was devoted to rebuilding all of the bridges between Palermo and Messina that the Germans had destroyed. They were using Italian prisoners to do the heavy work but they could not use them on Sundays. That was the end of Griffenhagen’s war in Sicily. His unit was preparing to land at Salerno but at the last minute they were sent to England.

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George Griffenhagen went in on a Dutch ship [Annotators Note: when he travelled from Sicily to Great Britain]. They passed by Gibraltar and ended up landing in Glasgow, England [Annotators Note: Glasgow, Scotland]. When they arrived in England, Griffenhagen’s unit [Annotators Note: the 20th Engineer Regiment] was split. Engineers and artillery were the only units that had separate units. Every division had engineer and artillery units in them. The 20th Engineers was attached to every US unit in Europe with the exception of the units that were the late comers to Italy. In England it was decided to break the unit into two battalions to make it more flexible. The original 20th remained the 20th Battalion [Annotators Note: 20th Engineer Combat Battalion] with companies A, B, and C. Companies D, E, and F of the 20th became companies A, B, and C of the 1340th Engineers [Annotators Note: 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion]. Griffenhagen’s E Company became B Company of the 1340th. Even though the regiment was split, when histories are written they treat the 20th and 1340th as the same unit. In North Africa they were connected to a British unit for a time but their most unusual connection came as they approached Paris. Eisenhower told De Gaulle that the French 2nd Armored could liberate Paris. The French 2nd Armored did not have any engineers so in order to be able to check the bridges over the Seine River and make sure they would not blow up, Griffenhagen and other engineers were sent to do that job the day before the city was liberated. As they passed through Paris they were greeted by girls and people with wine. They went straight through the city to the island where Notre Dame was. Griffenhagen spent the day guarding the trucks while the other engineers went up and down the Seine checking the bridges. The next day De Gaulle entered the city.

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After George Griffenhagen’s unit [Annotators Note: Griffenhagen arrived in England as a member of Company E, 20th Engineer Regiment which split into the 20th Engineer Combat battalion and the 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion. After the split, Griffenhagen became a member of Company B, 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion] split in England they did a lot of training removing mines on the Welsh Coast. They suffered casualties and even lost their commander at this time. Mines are tricky things to fool around with. They also trained with Bailey Bridges and the 20th Engineers and 1340th Engineers must have built more Bailey Bridges than any other unit in the United States Army. During their training in England, Griffenhagen got leave and went to London. That is where he met his future wife who unfortunately passed away two days after their 62nd wedding anniversary. A Bailey Bridge was like an erector set. The first one they assembled in Normandy was on 9 June [Annotators Note: 9 June 1944]. They needed to get tanks across but the Germans had all of the accesses leading to it covered with guns. They ended up building the bridge during the night. A German plane flew over and dropped flares over them and they would have to stay still but they got it built. The Bailey Bridges were just temporary bridges but there is at least one still standing in Carentan which has been reinforced and is mostly there as a novelty. In addition to building Bailey Bridges they built abutments using logs and rocks. Griffenhagen went ashore in Sicily aboard an LCI [Annotators Note: Landing Craft, Infantry]. The ladders going down the sides of an LCI are exposed to enemy fire so it was decided to use Higgins boats [Annotators Note: LCVPs or Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel] for the landings in Normandy. For Normandy, Griffenhagen went across in LST505.They were attached to the Big Red 1 [Annotators Note: the Big Red 1 is the nickname of the US 1st Infantry Division] and went ashore on Omaha. The 20th went in on the early waves and the 1340th went in on the follow up waves. Griffenhagen did not go ashore until the second day [Annotators Note: 7 June 1944]. His memory of his time on LST505 was watching the battleships firing in big circles not far from them. He had never heard battleship guns go off. Aboard LST505 they were with Z Corps Headquarters. The Z Corps Headquarters had never seen action and all ran to the rails the first time a German shell landed near the ship kicking up a huge water spout. The first indication they had of what was happening was when a Higgins boat floated by with a dead GI aboard it.

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[Annotators Note: this segment begins with George Griffenhagen and the interviewer returning from a break and talking about the engineer unit Griffenhagen was in being attached to other units.] To George Griffenhagen the worst thing about the Higgins Boat [Annotators Note: Higgins Boat is the nickname for the LCVP or Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel] was going down a rope ladder with a full pack to get into it. One problem with the landing was that many boats did not land where they were supposed to. Some were a half a mile away from where they were supposed to be. Griffenhagen had no problem going ashore in Normandy. When he went ashore in Sicily he was walking ashore in waist deep water and stepped into a bomb crater. He sank down into it but managed to keep his rifle dry. Through the entire war Griffenhagen carried an M1 rifle. There was very little action going on when he went ashore. The dead were being picked up. They were marched up to a hedgerow field where they camped out. Griffenhagen dug his foxhole then got called for guard duty at the entrance to the field. When he returned to his foxhole there was a dead German in it. The enemy soldier had been dead in the tree above the hole and had fallen into it at some point. The first six weeks they were building roads and bridges. His company had the responsibility of building a platform for the first entertainment group from the United States to visit Normandy. The group was led by Edward G. Robinson and had a dancing group with it. They had just finished the work on the platform and the entertainers were beginning to rehearse when ack ack [Annotators Note: anti aircraft fire] started coming in. They all dove for cover. Griffenhagen dove under a half track and Edward G. Robinson dove under the same vehicle. Robinson played a tough guy in the movies but was terrified during this time. Nothing happened and the alert only lasted about five minutes. Griffenhagen wishes one of the pretty dancing girls had dove under the half track with him instead of Robinson.

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[Annotators Note: George Griffenhagen was originally assigned to Company E, 20th Engineer Regiment. The 20th Engineer Regiment was split up in England during preparations for the Normandy invasion. The regiments 1st Battalion became the 20th Engineer Combat Battalion and the 2nd Battalion became the 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion. After this split Griffenhagen was a member of Company B, 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion.] During the war George Griffenhagen’s unit was assigned to many different divisions. They were attached to the Big Red 1 [Annotators Note: the US 1st Infantry Division] many times. They were also attached to the 2nd Infantry Division and the 28th Infantry Division during the fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Sometimes they were attached to a division for a week. Sometimes they were attached for a month. In Normandy they were mainly doing bridges and road maintenance and probably some mine work. The Falaise Gap sent them moving fast. They were attached to the 2nd French Armored Division. This was 1340th. The 20th remained in Paris and built the reviewing stand for the march down the Champs Elysees which they made from an upside down Bailey Bridge. They did not have any equipment to build reviewing stands. Griffenhagen’s group moved out quickly. They spent one night in Versailles then took off heading to Belgium. They were moving very fast. They had to keep up with the division they were attached to. When they got to Belgium they slowed down for a time. Griffenhagen mixes up his time in Belgium because they were in the same area during the Battle of the Bulge. They were attached to the 28th Division. The 28th already had a reputation for getting into trouble. Their mission was to capture the Ruhr River damns before the German could blow them. The farthest they got was Schmidt. It was November [Annotators Note: November 1944]. It was winter and the Hurtgen Forest was densely populated with trees. Between 1 and 5 November the Germans were all around. Griffenhagen believes that the Germans in the area were just as confused as they were. They were capturing American troops and the Americans were capturing German troops. The artillery was off and on for 24 hours a day. A foxhole does not protect from artillery shells exploding in the trees above. Foxholes only protect from artillery that hits the ground. There are a couple official histories written on the subject. The commander of the 28th was Dutch Cota [Annotators Note: US Army Major General Norman Daniel Cota, Sr. His nickname was Dutch]. Cota had ordered the 28th to pull back. He told the 20th to keep the pass open so the 28th could fall back. The 28th pulled back but the 20th did not. For a couple days they were the only guys holding the fort. On the fourth day Captain Kragen [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling] ordered Griffenhagen to take a German prisoner back [Annotators Note: most likely to a battalion or regimental command post]. The captain probably chose Griffenhagen because other guys in the unit killed the German prisoners when they got them. Griffenhagen delivered the prisoner and on his return trip saw the most bothering sight of the war. On his way back he passed their chief medical officer, Captain Trewick [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling]. He was dead and his body was lying beside a soldier who was also dead. The other soldier’s guts were blown out. The bodies were swollen and Griffenhagen could tell that they had been dead for two days. They had gotten used to seeing cattle like that but this was different. He was upset that they could not be buried. The German prisoner was a kid who kept begging for his life. Griffenhagen got him across the Kall Trail and to the American lines. He delivered his prisoner then laid down to sleep. He slept for 18 hours before he was woken up and told that the engineers were being pulled out. He was told that he was the only person who had been down the Kall Trail so he was needed to lead people back to his unit so they could be led out. The night Griffenhagen led the German prisoner out there was no firing or artillery at all. This next night the Germans were shelling the area intensely. The next thing Griffenhagen remembers is being in a combat fatigue center in Liege, Belgium. He was in a straight jacket and medicated with barbiturates. He was told that he was like that to protect himself. He has no idea how he got out of that tremendous fire or how he got to Liege. He recovered quickly. He saw the way that the other soldiers there were being treated and it disgusted him. He and others who were capable had to feed the men who could not feed themselves. About a week later he was discharged from the hospital and sent back to his unit.

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For George Griffenhagen, seeing Trewick [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling. Captain Trewick was the chief medical officer of Griffenhagen’s battalion] dead and not being able to be buried summed up the horrors of the Hurtgen Forest. The battle was total confusion. They did not know where the Germans were and the Germans did not know where they were. To Griffenhagen, going into the Hurtgen was a total mistake. It was a waste. On 5 or 6 November they pulled the 20th [Annotators Note: the 20th Engineer Combat Regiment. Griffenhagen was actually assigned to the 1340th Engineer Combat Battalion that had been formed when the 20th Engineer Regiment was split up in England.] out. He had spent about a week in Liege [Annotators Note: in a combat fatigue hospital]. He rejoined his unit around 20 or 22 November back in Brussels, Belgium. The unit had suffered 72 percent casualties and had to wait for new troops to join them. There were many men suffering with frostbite in addition to the men who were killed or wounded. Griffenhagen’s unit was on the northern end of the Bulge [Annotators Note: the German Ardennes Offensive also referred to as the Battle of the Bulge].The weather was terrible and the air force could not get in there. They got messages that the Germans were dropping paratroopers dressed in American uniforms and were told to question people. One day, Griffenhagen picked up a guy in an American uniform. Griffenhagen told his buddy that he did not like the guy. The soldier knew the answers to all of the questions Griffenhagen asked him but Griffenhagen is convinced that the man was a German. On Christmas Eve the skies cleared. Griffenhagen has never seen as many planes in the air as he did that day. For the next week Griffenhagen’s unit spent their time clearing German vehicles from the road. At Elsenborn Griffenhagen was in charge of the motor pool and was responsible for making sure that their vehicles were properly maintained. This gave him the opportunity to do things on his own. One thing he did was set up a scheme to collect shoes from the GIs because the snow was coming down and the men in the 20th Engineers had not been issued new boots. That way he was able to outfit all of the men with boots.

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When the GIs started pushing the Germans back [Annotators Note: during the later stages of the Battle of the Bulge], George Griffenhagen’s unit got moving again. They were working on roads and bridges. They got to the Remagen Bridge the day after it was captured. They crossed over the pontoon bridge that had been set up next to the bridge. Some of the guys in Griffenhagen’s unit said that when they got to the Rhine River they would go swimming in it. They all did it. The water was ice cold. From the time they crossed the Rhine they were continually on the move. At the time they were attached to one of the armored divisions and remained attached for a week or 10 days. If they took fire from a village they would bring artillery up and blast the village but they kept moving. At night they would just stop on the road and sleep in their vehicles. One morning they awoke around daybreak and heard the booming of guns going off. They recognized that the guns were not theirs. It turned out that there was a German headquarters right off the road next to them that they did not know was there. The German officers there got into a plane and took off. Sometimes they had to do some mine work but by that time the Germans were no longer laying mines in large amounts.[Annotators Note: the interview is stopped briefly so Griffenhagen can use the restroom] They got to the Oder River and met the Russians there. At the time they were part of the 1st Army and were then transferred to Patton’s 3rd Army which was coming up from the south. They travelled south into Czechoslovakia. They stopped in Plzen on their way to Prague when they were stopped. Eisenhower had promised the Russians that they could take Prague. That was alright with them. They celebrated VE Day. On the 9th [Annotators Note: 9 May 1945] they decided that they would help the people of Plzen celebrate victory. They broke the doors of the Plzen Brewery down and loaded up trucks with bottles of Plzener beer. Other trucks loaded up with ice. They met in the town square and iced down the beer. They told the civilians to join them and they did. Everyone had a great time. On VE Day and in the following weeks Griffenhagen felt happy that he would be going home. He had plenty points. They got word that they would be going home but not at that time. Troops who were set to go to the Pacific were sent home first. Griffenhagen did not go home until October. They took over a small winter resort named Babylon. They started holding dances and Griffenhagen was responsible for getting the girls to the dances then home afterwards. Finally Griffenhagen got word that he would be able to finish school. Professors from the United States travelled over to Europe to teach classes. While in school he was able to take the train to London to visit his future wife. In September he got word that his unit was ready to go home. He joined his outfit back in Czechoslovakia just in time for the unit to move to a camp in France where they waited about a week to go home. When he got home he was sent to Davis, California to be mustered out. His parents never saw him in uniform. He got rid of his uniform before he got home.

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After the war George Griffenhagen went back to pharmacy school. He went to Fresno State for one year then went to the University of Southern California where he got his pharmacy degree and a graduate degree. He was the curator of the division of Medical Sciences at the Smithsonian for seven years and the editor of the Journal of American Pharmacists Association. He also does the Wavy Arrow [Annotators Note: the Wavy arrow is the newsletter of the 20th Combat Engineer Association]. He gets inquiries from people looking for information on their relatives. Griffenhagen feels strongly that World War 2 should be taught to future generations. He wonders how things would have been if the Germans would have sunk the HMS Andes. It would have set the war in North Africa back for at least a couple of months. He is glad to see that there are several museums like The National WWII Museum. After the war Griffenhagen did not talk about it for years. When he first got home he suffered from fainting spells. Finally he and his doctors associated the problem with his service in World War 2. In the early 1980s he was attending a pharmacy conference at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC. The American Legion was holding a conference there at the same time. Griffenhagen was down in the hotel bar and the guys he was with started talking to the American Legion guys. Griffenhagen was talked into joining the American Legion even though he did not want to. He did not want to relive the war. In the first Legionaire Magazine he got he noticed an advertisement for a reunion of the 20th Engineers. He attended the reunion and enjoyed it very much. Soon after that one of the officers asked him to take over the Wavy Arrow. Griffenhagen has spoken a couple times to groups about his service. One of his friends asked him to come talk to the man’s two adopted sons who were from Russia. Griffenhagen and his wife went back for the 50th Anniversary [Annotators Note: to Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of the 6 June 1944 landings]. Griffenhagen’s wife had been in London during the bombings. They started the trip in London. A reception was held in an underground facility. During the reception a recording of a bombing raid was played. That was not bad but when a smoke bomb was set off his wife freaked out. That incident aside the whole trip was great. He understood what they were trying to do. There were heads of state at the ceremony on Omaha Beach. When Griffenhagen got there he saw lines of trucks that looked like they had just come off the assembly line. He stopped to look at them and learned that French locals had salvaged them and restored them to mint condition. On the last day they went to Paris for a march down the Champs Elysees. The Parisians were terrible. They were fussy and cussed them and blocked traffic. They forgot about why he had been there before.
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