Pre-Interview Banter

Pre-War Life and Enlistment

Arrival and Deployment

Heading to Elsenbourne

Hurtgen Part 1

Hurtgen Part 2

Incompetency and Ardennes Arrival

Interactions with Germans

Temporary Truce With Germans

Relief and Return

Battle of the Bulge

Village Assault/Sniping

Sniper In Village Assault

Schleiden/Wounded by Mines

Hospital Experiences

Concluding Reflections

Annotation

[Annotator’s Note: Pena begins mid-sentence] William Pena was commissioned as an officer in the army and reported to Fort Sam Houston, TX. He spent six years serving in the Army and afterwards returned home to complete his degree in architecture. Pena tried to use the letters he wrote during the war to write a book but when he called up his mother and asked her if she had them she said it was the least favorite time in her life and had just recently burned them all to try and forget them. Instead he just used his memories because they weren’t allowed to keep a diary in case the Germans caught them and tried to use their records to figure out what was going on behind the Allied lines. Pena says that too many stories from WWII were too battle oriented and left out some of the simpler things, and so he tried to include everything, even the normal everyday occurrences. Pena also recalls how his time over there, especially the time spent in the Hurtgen Forest, was strange in that at times it felt as if the generals were just playing war. There was no real military objective for holding the Hurtgen Forest area and Pena says looking back, it is a strange and sobering moment to think about why they were sent there in the first place. All he could come up with was that they were just a feint used to draw attention away from an assault being made to the south.

Annotation

William Pena was born in Laredo, Texas and attended a Catholic middle school and public high school. He was the editor of the high school journal and excelled in English and math. He went on to attend Texas A and M. He was next to nothing in status and remembers being taught the importance of rank and having instilled in him an understanding of humility. There he studied architecture for four years but didn’t finish the necessary fifth so he had a provisional degree when he then enlisted in the army. He went to train in California at Camp Roberts for a year and taught a class in Spanish to non-English speaking soldiers about rifle use. The general came by and witnessed Pena teaching. Later, while he was training at the infantry school, a request came for a Spanish-speaking officer. The general remembered him and placed a hold on Pena so that next time a request came through, he could be called upon. He was there for a whole year and when he was ordered to go and serve in the Pacific, he was prevented from doing so by the hold placed on him by the general. Then shortly after D-Day, Pena was called to serve in the European Theater amongst the officers to fill the newly created gaps in the ranks across the Atlantic. Pena was in the hospital with the flu when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor and he and the other boys he was in college with knew right then and there that as soon as the year was up, they would all get called to fight. For many of them this instilled a sinking feeling of anxiety. Pena says he went and fought because everyone else was going, and so he just went along with the flow. He recalls how some men could not wait to get to the front as they feared that the war would be over before they could get into fighting. Pena recalls how he felt like he did not really fit in the infantry but ended up there regardless. He also tells about how when he went to report for duty, he and two of his good friends all decided to report in New Jersey around the same time so that hopefully they would all be placed in the same company. His two friends were assigned to the same Company but he was not. He was shipped off alone.

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William Pena traveled on the Queen Elizabeth over to England where he was given lots of food. Only one day he remembers the boat being unsteady and making him queasy. Upon arrival they took a train down towards the south to the port where they would depart for the continent. They snuck out to a local bar and decided to try every beer they could find in the pub and got insanely drunk. He recalls throwing up all night in the latrine. The next day, they arrived at Omaha Beach after it had already been taken by the Allied forces. They made their way to the top of a hill overlooking a freshly dug cemetery from the fighting the days before and Pena remembers one of his superior officers telling them to look at the cemetery and remember that one in 10 of them would end up there soon. Pena was taken by jeep to his battalion on the border of Germany and France. The Americans had already taken 17 pillboxes, only to lose them to the German counterattack, so Pena was brought in to replace the men that were lost in the German onslaught. Captain Doolack [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling] arrived and told him that what they were doing was just like war games but with live bullets and that he should not worry. Doolack told Pena to follow him, run when he ran, fall to the ground when he did, and the Germans would not hit him as they had bad aim. At night, in order to build his credibility and confidence with his men, Pena would run from foxhole to foxhole telling the soldiers to take a good look, I’m your new lieutenant.

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William Pena’s two sergeants were taken from him after one night and were transferred so he was given a new sergeant from the States who was also quickly replaced. On another occasion, Pena was ordered to lead an assault on a pillbox with inexperienced men but at the last minute the order was cancelled. Pena recalls how, despite his fresh arrival, the men who had been on the front for a while had respect for him and he never had any issues maintaining their discipline. Pena and his men moved toward Elsenborn and the Germans began to lob light mortars at them so they had to hold their position. One of Pena’s men was killed and another was crying. He went up to the broken soldier and helped him regain his senses and the respect the men had for him grew that day. Pena remembers how mortar and artillery fire in general is one of the scariest things to encounter in warfare. In the dark the company that Pena was with got turned around in the woods and it delayed their progress significantly. A heavy weapons company was following them carrying all their heavy machine guns and heavy mortars. The lieutenant who arrived to guide them to the front lines the next morning forgot about the weight of the heavier guns and left the heavy weapons crews in the dust. Pena, in his attempt to guide the men himself, took the wrong fork on the road and had to turn around. Thankfully there was a fog that held until 11 in the morning and allowed the men to arrive at their position at the front without any loss of life or enemy fire.

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William Pena remembers how his battalion commander was a gung-ho, brave, and tall man who refused to stay at the rear and was always at the front. He had a temper though and on one occasion his commander, Topping was his last name, came in to the house they were occupying on the rear of the lines and began berating the men for not having some of their helmets on. On another occasion, he reprimanded the men for leaving behind an extra sock and how supply was low so they must not waste anything. Pena and his men arrived in Hurtgen where the Germans began to fire on them heavily. The fighting was fierce in the dense forest and the Germans made use of heavy artillery to great and horrific affect. Pena recalls that it was clean on the forest floor and that Christmas trees grew thick in the forest. To this day, Pena still has uncomfortable associations when he sees one. Pena was assigned to a heavy weapons team and prepared himself and his men for what would be later known as the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. The platoons were split onto both sides of the road that led through the forest. This was a poor tactical decision as it made communication difficult. The plan was to lay down covering, staged artillery fire that would suppress the Germans ahead and make it easier for the men to follow up behind. This plan went to pieces as soon as the first shots were fired and from that point on they had to improvise. The forward observer for spotting artillery was killed so they were unable to receive any support. The platoon on the right meanwhile encountered a minefield and was halted. The platoons on the left encountered a minefield too and in order to avoid it, they swung out into an open space that the Germans had covered with a machine gun. Captain Doolack [Annotators Note: unsure of spelling] was hit in the heel. He turned to Pena and said that he was now in charge of the company and Pena realized it was now on him to get the mission accomplished. He took off to search for the two platoons on the left.

Annotation

William Pena followed a trail through the woods and kept encountering groups of men asking for the two platoons on the left. He was unknowingly making his way through a minefield and as he made his way north he found a company digging in at the wrong position. That night, the company he encountered was ordered to make the assault that Pena’s men had not been able to. Pena was ordered to report to battalion and was given Captain Bruce Paul [Annotators Note: as a new company commander]. This captain had been wounded in a previous engagement and inherited the company, restoring the morale of the troops who had known him from the onset of the war. Pena then began to directly advise Captain Paul and helped him orchestrate a movement through the forest to a battalion that was lost on the northern end of the woods. Their battalion commander was right on their heels pushing them on, and they quickly encountered a German and American skirmish to the right and joined in the fight, digging into a defensive position on the edge of the forest. Every morning and night the German patrols would sneak through the minefield they had laid and would pepper the American lines with light to heavy fire. The men that Pena was commanding were dug into foxholes designed to protect them from artillery fire, not for aiding in a firefight, and thus they were at a slight disadvantage. One of his men was hit in the fingers and he began to lose control of his discipline so Pena ran over to him and slapped him to bring him back to his senses. He did this in order to maintain morale as the screaming would frighten the rest of the men. They lived off of k rations for the majority of the fighting. The supply sergeant and cooks would make their way at night to deliver mail and food to the men so they were well supplied and had their spirits up. Pena remembers that receiving mail from home was critical in order to stay in touch with the world back home. He remembers how a friend wrote to him about not being able to buy silk stockings anymore and in a strange way it brought him back to reality as it reminded him that there was a life and a world outside of the war.

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William Pena remembers how after suffering heavy casualties his battalion was diminished to the size of practically one company. They arrived at a position nearby overlooking a bridge and a younger one star general went to the bridge and asked to take a platoon plus a light machine gun with him from Pena’s men. When Pena’s men formed up, the general asked if this was his platoon and he replied that it was his whole company. This displayed to Pena the ignorance and lack of realistic understanding of the situation for the soldiers. Pena remembers how despite the notorious fighting there were significant periods of time where nothing happened and all was quiet as they waited for orders. Pena remembers that the disregard for life and the needlessness of the sacrifice of the nearby divisions, which served as no real tactical advantage, was unbelievable. Even the Germans thought they were crazy as they had the high ground as well as several deadly artillery positions that decimated the men. Pena again and again questions the decision making that went into the pointless sacrifice of the men and says that still to this day no one has offered a real answer. While fighting in Hurtgen, Pena and his men approached the small town of Kommerscheidt. Shortly after that they were taken off of the line and sent to the Ardennes.

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William Pena recalls how they arrived near the Ardennes and had an interaction with some German officers who were interested in trading prisoners. Pena and the other six or seven officers with him told the Germans that they had no more German prisoners and the German officer was disappointed and traded cigarettes instead. Pena remembers how the Germans would ask when the Americans would give up and told the Americans how they had a secret weapon which would make the US Air Force obsolete. Pena and the other Americans would reply that it was the Germans, and not they, who should give up. Right as they said so a group of American bombers went roaring overhead and the Americans asked the Germans if they knew those planes. The Germans officers replied that they did indeed know them. Motioning to several medals on their jackets from being wounded, they said that they had become very familiar with American air bombardment throughout the war. Over the next several days, the Germans continued to return and chat with the Americans and try to trade wounded soldiers. Pena states that he would often wonder during these interactions whether or not they were really at war. On one occasion in particular the Germans came over and told the Americans they wanted to get their dead soldiers out of the nearby river that both sides were drinking from and that if they and the Americans did not remove each other’s slain from the water it would poison them all. So both sides, after some deliberation, declared a truce from 12 noon until 1 pm, and both sides began working together on the riverbanks to remove the corpses. However, the American battalion commanders did not approve and when they found out they radioed in and chastised Pena and told him they were about to order a Time on Target [Annotators Note: a concentration of all the artillery fire they had simultaneously] on the German position. A mad scramble ensued and Pena tried to warn the Germans as everyone began to sprint back to their positions. Suddenly the artillery began and it was chaos. Then to complicate things, one of the American officers who was German speaking had gone over to the German position to investigate the state of the Allied prisoners and was now being bombarded by his own side. The officer who had been stuck over with the Germans eventually made his way back to the Americans and said that the Germans had told him he could either remain with them as their prisoner or make his way back to his home position if he left during the artillery barrage and took that chance. He did so and, despite having been led there blindfolded, made his way back to safety. That night Pena and his men were relieved from service on the line and made their way to their transports.

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William Pena remembers how nervous his truck driver was when they left. He ate a big breakfast with his men at the kitchen on the rear line. Unfortunately, a lot of them threw up the meal due to their living off of nothing but K rations. Their stomachs had shrunk and had yet to grow back to a normal size to eat. Meanwhile the Germans had captured the American aid station just to the north of them. A priest had escaped with several men and guided them back to the American side. The American prisoners were handled with such kindness and care. Pena remembers how after the war they had lunch with the regiment of Germans that were opposing them on the line and how they had an oddly amiable relationship. Pena recalls returning in 1984 and 1994 to walk through the forest and seeing the same exact bridges and hunting lodges where they had been stationed. The spot where they had been stationed on the edge of the forest is now a cemetery and the saw mill has grown in size as well. Pena says that it didn’t have the same eeriness that it had back then since it is more developed but it still reminds him in ways of a disturbing time, and when he goes through certain forests to this day it makes him uneasy as it reminds him of being in Hurtgen.

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William Pena recalls the situation in the Ardennes before the Germans arrived, how they laid tripwires and mines. They could see the Germans playing baseball so their battalion commander decided to fire on them to let them know it was not a quiet area. It was war. Pena remembers how they had a field artillery practice session where the colonel would mark a certain target, and they were supposed to hit it with three rounds of artillery. Pena managed to do it but another man took six. The next day, early in the morning, the Germans began an intense artillery barrage on the American position and Pena’s first thought was that they had angered the Germans with their target practice the previous day. This was not the case. It was actually the opening stages of the Battle of the Bulge. That day was supposed to be their last day on the line. The Germans came pouring across the river so Pena and his men counter attacked and alone held the position they took for three long days before they were asked to fall back to join up the rest of the men. While repositioning, Pena and his men found a cane sticking out of the middle of the ground and they assumed it was a booby trap. Despite their attempts to detonate it, they were unable to do so, so they carried on. There were a lot of prisoners taken during the Battle of the Bulge and Pena remembers how the majority of the fighting he experienced was more cat and mouse than anything else. They often ran into Germans at seemingly random times, while both hiding from and hunting the Germans. He likens it to guerilla warfare. On one occasion, they were prone on the edge of a field and Pena recalls how they initially thought an approaching platoon of men was their replacements only to soon realize that it was a whole platoon of Germans heading towards them. Without a word they melted into the woods and fell back for a later engagement.

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William Pena tells how at one point they encountered a group of Americans who laid down their weapons as they approached. They thought Pena and his men were Germans coming to take them prisoner. Pena and his men told them to pick up their weapons and join them in the fight. A German tank arrived on the scene shortly after and when they thought they were about to be attacked, the top opened and an American stuck his head out and asked Pena and his men to join up with them. They were the Third Army and realized they had no infantry so Pena’s group joined up and helped escort them to the Third Army’s infantry. Over the next several weeks, Pena and his men made their way from village to village fighting small pitched battles. They approached another town with a thick forest between them and their target and on the way they got lost. They eventually found their way and began an assault on the nearby village. Pena’s captain got hit by a machine gun so he took control and began to lead the attack. While attacking, Pena and his men were hit by some friendly artillery fire and some of them were wounded and killed. They entered the village and began making their way down the street. They fired on the move at soldiers coming out of their barracks. They crashed into the first house behind them in the downtown square to take cover. An American came in saying there was a sniper and that the units outside needed help getting rid of him. A male nurse tried to get some of the wounded out of the street but the sniper shot him too. Then a female nurse ran out into the open to grab the male nurse. The sniper did not shoot her, even though he could have. Then a tank rolled up and obliterated the building that the sniper was perched in.

Annotation

William Pena and his men took up a position in the town across from what was a girl’s school run by nuns. That morning a priest approached the Americans saying that there were twenty or so German soldiers in the basement of the church who wanted to surrender. So they went and got them out of the basement. The nuns came out and gave the Germans rosaries and the mother superior asked the Americans to treat the Germans well. After that they crossed the Rhine. Pena went to Paris on a 72 hour leave he was given. Pena recalls how the French initially used to give credit to the Americans but after a couple years, they began to act like the Americans had never been there. Pena returned to his men and they made their way to Schleiden. When they relieved the Americans there, they switched all their money over to German marks. Suddenly they were attacked and the farmhouse with the safe holding their money was buried underneath the rubble. The battalion commander arrived on the scene and ordered the men into Schleiden. Pena volunteered to accompany them. They accidentally walked through a minefield, down an open road, and past a disabled tank. Pena stepped to the side of a downed tree in order to untangle a wire from a set of branches that was leading to the forward position’s telephone. When he did so, he stepped on a land mine and was blown up into the air and fell into a ditch as he came back down. When the men pulled him out of the ditch, Pena asked if his feet were still on, and they said yes they were. His communications sergeant put him on his back and carried him all the way back to a jeep which drove off the edge of the road and crashed. Finally, after getting the jeep back on the road, they got Pena to the aid station.

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William Pena arrived at the aid station. The medic that had been attached to him and his men joked that they had finally gotten the evasive Lieutenant Pena. The tourniquets that his men had put on his legs were actually useless. His arteries and veins had been seared shut by the explosion. Pena remembers how he had been forced to slap a soldier to keep him from losing control. To make sure he would not need to be slapped he stayed completely quiet. Pena also remembers how his commanding officer told him not to go on that specific mission beforehand. As far as Pena knew he never came to see him at the aid station. Pena later discovered when he asked him why he had not come to the aid station, his commanding officer told him he had been there in the other room, but could not bear to go in the area Pena was in. After that, Pena was taken from the fighting and was sent to several different aid stations. Pena recalls how they would try and slowly take men back from the front lines to different aid stations so that they would not die of shock. He remembers how the ambulance drivers did not understand how much pain he and the other wounded soldiers were in and flew over the poorly paved road and jostled the men almost to death before Pena finally yelled out to them to slow down. Once he arrived at the hospital and the doctor inspected him, he informed Pena that the hospital he was at was actually a head injury hospital. They then took Pena to a leg hospital down the street where they amputated one of his legs. After that, Pena was sent to several other smaller hospitals before finally arriving in Paris. While there he was treated by a very strict woman doctor. From there, he was flown to Newfoundland and eventually arrived in New York.

Annotation

William Pena remembers how readjusting to life with his crippling injury was very difficult. Life without part of his ankle and half of his other leg has been anything but easy but 64 years on, he is fine with it. When he returned to college he was very self conscious about the injury and did not want to stay in a dorm. He lived alone for a while but after meeting a friend he had known before the war, he moved in with him on campus. After a moment of reflection, Pena states that he views the poor decision-making behind Hurtgen as just generals playing war. [Annotator’s Note: Interview cuts off shortly after this midway through interviewer’s sentence.]
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