11/21/2018 | By Kelly Countryman 104th Training Division
After basic training, Joe was assigned to an office job in the states, but as the war progressed, he was called to go overseas and as he tells it “joined the 104th Infantry Division as a replacement.”
Joe receives a hero’s welcome on his return from the Honor Flight.
Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Honor Flight.
Joe was dismayed to to be assigned to a machine gun squad as he had heard “machine gunners had a short life in combat.” Assigned to G Company, 413th, Joe recalls, “I was trained as a rifleman but was told not to worry, they would teach me how to use the machine gun so that was my job, like it or not.”
The life of a replacement isn’t easy, and fitting into an established unit had its challenges, as Joe wondered if he could be successful and felt his fellow Soldiers wondered the same. Even General Patton talked about this to new troops when he said, “I know some of you are wondering if you can handle the job. Don’t worry about it. You’ve had the best training and equipment so when the time comes, you will do your duty. It generally takes a week or two before you are accepted and then when new replacements come in, we all worry about these new guys. It’s not easy being a replacement.”
John and Joe DeVaux, courtesy of Puget Sound Honor Flight.
Furthering the challenge to Timberwolf replacement Soldiers was the fact that the 104th Timberwolves stood apart in their tactics. Trained to attack before dawn, the Timberwolves were known for surprising the enemy.
Although they made many daylight assaults, the division’s commander, Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen trained his soldiers to conduct night attacks, a tactic he employed when he commanded the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One) in North Africa. Night attacks were extremely successful, and casualty rates were greatly reduced. Joe recalls “It was very difficult at times keeping contact in the dark so we had passwords. The Germans had a hard time pronouncing the letter ‘F’ so our passwords were, for example, five fish, four, freedoms, etc.”
Two World War II Timberwolves on the same Honor Flight, Mr. Leo Thoennes and Mr. Joe DeVaux.
Joe also talked about the hardships of combat in winter. “I recall sitting in foxholes night after night with no one in front of us but the enemy and I was so cold my whole body would shake and my teeth rattled so bad I had splitting headaches.”
“There are many things that make war miserable, the physical exhaustion that comes day after day, the same cold food from K-Rations, the smell of our dirty clothes and bodies,” he reminisced. “There is the beard, the dead weight of the machine gun and other equipment, but I think the worst part is the sweating out that precedes every attack. It seemed our whole life was confined to a small land area and we had no idea of the big picture outside of our assigned area.”
Eventually, Joe recalled, that harsh winter of 1944-45 ended, spring arrived, and the Timberwolves had worked their way east across Germany to the town of Nordhausen where they liberated the labor/concentration camp of Dora-Mittelbau. In his own words, Joe describes the horror the Timberwolves encountered.
“There were some 6,000 dead bodies in the camp area with perhaps up to 1,000 still alive. It was a horrible sight, one which will remain forever in our minds and which caused me many sleepless nights. The medics took over to help the survivors. We were told not to feed them as too much food or liquid could cause their death. We spend the better part of one day there and then we had to move on. Don’t let anyone ever tell you the Holocaust never happened,” Joe admonished.
Joe and the “gummi girls” taken on or about April 20, 1945 at Halle, Germany.
Not one to lose his sense of humor, Joe recounted one of his most embarrassing moments toward the end of the war.
“The sun came out one day in late April and we were in a small farm community having a short break. I leaned against the wall of a barn enjoying the warm sun and was half asleep when two German soldiers came out of the woods and stood in front of me with their rifles pointing at me. I thought ‘Uh-oh, it’s over for me.’ One of them said ‘Kamerad’ so I knew they wanted to surrender.”
Joe knew that Germans had been surrendering to the Americans rather than Russians as the Russians took no prisoners. Recognizing the German men as regular troops and not SS Soldiers, Joe recalls shaking their hands and giving them each a cigarette. “I asked if they had any pistols as we were always looking for that elusive German Luger but they said ‘nein’.”
It was then that the story took the embarrassing twist. “I took one of their rifles, held on to the barrel and smashed the wooden stock and threw it aside,” explained Joe. “ took the 2nd rifle, did the same but when I smashed it on the ground the gun went off right between my legs. Needless to say, that could have been catastrophic and I was shaking all over for a minute or two. All I could think of to say to the Germans was: “Ich bin ein dummkopf”. I escorted them back to the rear for food and a POW Camp. I hope they eventually made it to their homes.”
Joe also admitted to being something of a rebel. He says he, along with the other Timberwolves, were told not to fraternize with the German girls they encountered, but he did anyway. “These little girls were happy to pose with me and I gave them some Wrigley’s Kaugummi (Gum).”
According to Joe, all he wanted after the war was to live in peace, forget the bad memories, get a job, find a wonderful wife and raise a family, all of which he accomplished.
“With the help of my dear wife and our Lord. We have three children, seven grandchildren,seven great grandchildren and just this last July, we celebrated our 70th Wedding Anniversary. God has been good to us,” he concluded.