WWII memories: ‘No place was safe’

Bill Brecheisen recalls his 503 days on the front lines, which included Sicily and Rome, Casablanca, southern France and Germany. He's now 98 and a resident of Heartland Meadows.

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November 11, 2020 - 10:15 AM

Bill Brecheisen, 98, recalls his 503 days on the front lines during World War II. Photo by Richard Luken

Bill Brecheisen’s memory has faded, but only slightly, from his stint in World War II.

He recounts with stunning clarity his 503 days on the front lines, from the invasions and eventual liberation of Sicily and Rome; traversing the icy waters up and down the Rhine River in the last days of the Third Reich; riding in box cars equipped for men or horses through North Africa.

He was hospitalized more than once, nearly dying of malaria, and then having an artillery shell land close enough to put shrapnel in his knee.

He soon realized even hospitals weren’t safe. Brecheisen and a nurse were forced to pull wounded soldiers from their cots as German artillery shells landed nearby, then seeking refuge in water-filled foxholes.

It was a brutal time, indeed.

War is hell, as they say, and William R. Brecheisen was there for some of the worst of it.

Seventy-five years later, after having penned a diary to document his wartime experience, Brecheisen shared his story with the Register.

Brecheisen, 98, lives at Heartland Meadows, a residential care home just north and east of Iola. He stays active, tending daily to a small brood of chickens and a small flower garden when weather permits.

BRECHEISEN spent much of his childhood on a farm near Welda, where after graduation he continued to help his father on the farm. Uncle Sam had already imposed on the Brecheisen family, directing Bill’s father to grow more produce for the burgeoning war effort.

Then, on Bill’s 20th birthday, came the letter. He joined the Army in November 1942.

His training was in heavy weapons artillery — think mortars or the M1919 Browning submachine guns.

The original assumption was Brecheisen would be headed to the Pacific Theater, where the Allies were battling tooth-and-nail with the Japanese.

Instead, Brecheisen was shipped out to North Africa. (A certain movie a few years after the War glamorized Brecheisen’s staging area along the African coast: “Casablanca.”)

The action didn’t wait for Brecheisen to cross the ocean.

“We were about halfway across when we passed between a pair of German submarines.

Rather than stick around, the boat commanders ordered the transport to book it, full speed ahead.

“We bucked and rocked like crazy,” he recounted, as the ship reached speeds of 40 knots.

He arrived in North Africa in April 1943, successfully eluding the Germans.

Once in Africa, Brecheisen’s primary duty was to patrol the countryside and collect German prisoners.

That lasted about a month when he was reassigned to the 30th Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, which was training for the eventual invasion of Sicily. Brecheisen was a machine gunner and squad leader in an anti-tank company.

He was there on Independence Day 1943, when a fleet of German bombers tried to attack his fleet.

Anti-aircraft artillery downed all but one.

The fierce battle “made it the biggest fireworks show I’d ever seen,” he recalled.

After successfully warding off the attack, Brecheisen’s regiment was headed to Sicily.

It took four days of travel, across the stormy Mediterranean, to get to the Sicilian island.

Once ashore, they began making their way north.

The 3rd Regiment soon received a plea for help. A company was pinned down by an Italian convoy and was in need of some heavy artillery.

“As a result of our fire, the Italian troops surrendered” in short order, Brecheisen said.

From there, the soldiers moved to Palermo for more than two weeks of training, where he began feeling ill. It turned out to be malaria.

By the time Brecheisen went to see the doctor, his temperature had spiked to 107.

“I remember the nurse saying ‘Oh, my Lord,’” Brecheisen recalled. “That was the last thing I remembered until I awoke in a hospital in a rubber tub.”

The tub was filled with alcohol to help break his fever. He eventually recovered, and was sent back to the front lines.

Getting back there was easier said than done. The soldiers were attempting to clear a beachhead near Alerno, on Italy’s southern coast.

“We had to hit the ground running,” Brecheisen laughed. “So I ran, and I ran and I ran.”

Thankfully, the fighting — while intense — was also brief. Within hours, the American forces had the enemy on the run.

The Americans headed north, capturing the royal city of Caserto, then along the Volturno River, where Brecheisen, et al, found the going much slower.

By that October, the warm climate had chilled dramatically. Wading across the ice-cold river was a constant, “but it was the only way to move,” he said.

Slowly, the Americans marched north, constantly barraged by German artillery.

“Got tired of that,” Brecheisen said. 

It took more than six months to make it to Cassino, and featured a series of intense exchanges between a host of Allied forces and the Axis countries.

His primary mission was to clear out enemy forces, or to help provide supplies to forces atop a nearby mountain range. The most effective mode of transportation was via mule, he noted. Soon, the mules were used to do more than ferry supplies. “They also carried the wounded down from the mountains,’’ Brecheisen said. 

While the battle was still raging, Brecheisen’s unit was relieved by the 36th Infantry, so he moved back south to Naples, for an amphibious landing elsewhere.

Elsewhere, turned out to be Anzio, a marshy wetlands chosen in part because the Allies figured the Germans wouldn’t anticipate an attack from there.

They were correct. The Americans caught the Germans by surprise — but not for long.

What followed over the next six months was some of the bloodiest fighting of the Italian Campaign.

“The Germans brought their best, and we kept turning them back,” he said. “Sometimes, they’d make gains, but each time, we’d drive them back behind their defense line.”

The mountainous terrain made it ideal for the German defenses. And with the Americans still in the low-lying areas, simple tasks such as digging foxholes was difficult, because the holes would quickly fill with water.

“No place was safe,” Brecheisen said.

Amid the fighting, Brecheisen fought off another bout of malaria, leading to his hospitalization, where Germans were indiscriminate with their artillery. As mortars landed nearby, Brecheisen and staffers helped clear the rooms of wounded soldiers, seeking refuge in a trench he’d dug alongside the tent.

The evacuation was mostly successful, although one shell killed 11 patients in the attack.

Brecheisen recovered once again, and re-entered the quagmire.

“The Germans would attack an area to see if they could break through our defense,” he recalled. “Every few days, they’d probe an area along the defense line to see if there was a weak spot.”

In part because of offshore support, the Americans fended off each parry.

It took five months before the Allies were able to advance much, but the gains were significant. By May 1944, the German forces had weakened, and the Italians were teetering on total collapse. The Allies forged their way northward, liberating Rome on June 5, 1944.

The liberation gave the Americans a brief, but welcome respite from the war.

“We got to stay in one of the best hotels in town, with hot, running water,” Brecheisen recalled.

The troops were even treated to a show from Kate Smith, “The First Lady of Radio,” who sang a spirited rendition of “God Bless America.”

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater,” Brecheisen recalled.

Rome’s liberation, while obviously significant, often is relegated to the back pages of the history books because of an even larger Allied assault in the works.

That happened two days later, when Americans landed on the southern coast of France — D Day.

BRECHEISEN had about two weeks of R&R before being sent back into the muck. He was sent back to Naples to train for another invasion.

That lasted about two weeks before the 3rd Infantry was sent to France, after the Allied forces hit Normandy.

“We didn’t even know where we were going, but we found out after we loaded on our LST,” Brecheisen said. “It was southern France.”

In what by then had become a repeat occurrence, Brecheisen “hit the beach running,” 

The troops quickly made their way up the Rhone River Valley.

“We captured and killed a lot of German soldiers,” Brecheisen recalled. “But the Allies also met several Polish and others seeking refuge from places the Germans had overrun.”

But the fighting was still heavy.

He recalled one nasty battle, when the gunner manning a .50 machine gun was hit in the forehead with a piece of shrapnel. He was taken to a nearby aid station, but later succumbed to his injuries.

“That left me alone in that position by myself for a while,” Brecheisen said. “It was real scary.”

Reinforcements arrived the next night, and the Americans proceeded at dark. So dark, Brecheisen had to grasp the belt of the soldier in front of him as he walked.

At one point, he became separated as he struggled to carry his weapon — an M9 bazooka launcher.

“I just sat down by a tree, and waited for someone to come get me in the morning,” he said. “It was better than carrying the M9 all night in the dark.”

Brecheisn arrived in Kaysersberg, France on Christmas morning. Peace on earth, however, was just a pipe dream.

Germans were bombarding his position, so Brecheisen’s commanders ordered a  battalion to open fire on the enemy forces.

“They soon cleared the area,” Brecheisen said. “All the cover left was short stumps of trees.”

The pummeling did the trick. “We had no more fire from that area,” he noted.

But the fighting continued, as the Allies struggled to maneuver along the labyrinth of rivers and canals.

Brecheisen was wounded in the leg in one battle, earning the Bronze Star for his heroics.

He also got his first haircut in about six months, which turned out to be foolhardy.

“It got pretty cold that night, and I didn’t have a hat,” he laughed. “They’d shaved off all my hair. It got cold, cold.”

As the days and weeks progressed, Brecheisen moved closer and closer to Germany.

He eventually reached the Rhine River, still engaged in brutal fighting.

Brecheisen watched hopelessly when a 17-year-old soldier took a round in the stomach.

“Held him in my arms until he died.”

Afterward, Brecheisen’s unit went “tank hunting.”

“We finally got around a field, where the U.S. planes got rid of them,” he said.

Then, finally, the German resistance began to ebb.

By the time Brecheisen reached Nuremberg, the Axis fighters had largely begun to realize their fate.

“They really weren’t interested in fighting that much,” he recalled. 

That may have had something to do with the American air power, and two armored divisions in support.

“All we’d have to do was yell at them, and there wouldn’t be a building left standing,” he noted. “We’d make a dirt pile out of it.”

By then, the Americans were rescuing Allied prisoners. German nurses were more than happy to be taken prisoner, then returned back to duty as free citizens.

A few fierce battles remained, but for the most part the war in Europe was nearly complete.

Brecheisen stayed in Germany to monitor German prisoners, as well as advancing Russian troops, anticipating orders to head to the Pacific. But instead of a full-on invasion of Japan, the Americans dropped a pair of atomic bombs, and within days, the war was over.

Freed from the horrors of war, Brecheisen stayed in Germany for another month or so, until he got an inkling things were still awry.

“We were traveling on the Autobahn, and suddenly I see this huge heavy metal gate with two tanks to support it,” he recalled.

The tanks were Russian.

Little did he know, but the maneuvers were the initial salvos in the Cold War that stretched over the next 50 years.

“It didn’t take them long to get us out of there,” Brecheisen laughed.

Officially, Brecheisen’s 500 days of hell incorporated three seaborne assaults.

WHILE HIS active duty days ended with the war, his military service was still ongoing. He remained a part of the U.S. Army Reserves for the next 39 years, retiring as staff sergeant.

“They wouldn’t let me go the whole 40 years,” he laughed. (His forced retirement came 28 days before his 40th anniversary.)

By war’s end, Brecheisen had earned distinctions including the Purple Heart Medal, the Bronze Star, the Distinguished Unit Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the medal of the France Libérée, and finally, the prestigious French Croix de Guerre with Palm for the Battle of the Colmar Pocket.

He returned home to work on the farm in Anderson County, where Brecheisen married wife, Lucille. They had four children, all of whom still live in southeast Kansas, before her death in 1973. Bill eventually remarried, to wife Eva Marie in 1975. They continued raising foster children through the years, and spending much of their time “spoiling their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Eva Marie died in 2013.

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