Advancing Into Germany

Benjamin B. Ferencz

If young men are to be trained to kill on command they must first by taught not to think. Countless times, when I politely let it be known to my army superiors that I thought a military mandate was particularly stupid, I was screamed at with the warning, “You’re not supposed to think!” I must confess that I found that very difficult to do. It was not that I was trying to outsmart anyone, it was all a matter of self-defense. A rational human being whose mind is under assault can be expected to react to retain his freedom of thought, if not his sanity. The first article of the Bill of Rights guarantees the right of every citizen to “petition for a redress of grievances”—my right to complain is protected by the U.S. Constitution! He who commands me not to think is challenging my rights as a citizen and should beware.

There were many times in my undistinguished army career that my patriotic fervor was aroused. The usual official response to my effort to improve the army was, “Let’s court martial the (expletive)!” Since my commanding officers in the artillery usually lacked the rudiments of legal education or human intelligence, they never succeeded in their ambition to send me to prison forever. A few examples will illustrate my point.

It is well known that the U.S. Army is not the greatest haberdasher in the world. Raincoats start at size “Extra Tall.” My body ends at size “Extra Short.” For me, this actually turned out to be an advantage. One rainy day, I was standing guard and reading one of the Pocket Books distributed by the Red Cross to keep soldiers from going mad. Along came a vehicle clearly marked as a General’s staff car. It might have been the mighty Patton himself. I quickly waived him through into the camp area. I even remembered to salute. I was therefore surprised when, shortly thereafter, I was summoned to appear and answer the charge that I had been seen sitting on duty in violation of sacred army regulations. No threat was made that I would face a firing squad but a court martial was assured. Calling upon my legal acumen, I demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that while I was wearing my army raincoat it was utterly impossible for anyone in a passing vehicle to detect whether I was sitting or standing. Case dismissed!

That raincoat proved very handy on other occasions. I recall a time when I was required to stand guard duty on the German border in the freezing cold. I can think of more entertaining things than crouching immobile for four hours in the snow on a dark and stormy night peering into the darkness for any sign of enemy movement or to see if I could spot someone trying to kill me. I wore every bit of clothing the army supplied. I also carried a canteen and wore a cartridge belt. Using an old ration can containing some gasoline, I started a fire in the can on which I placed my canteen cup half filled with water. From my cartridge belt I withdrew not a bullet that could take life, but something to save a life—especially mine. Half of my cartridge belt was loaded with bullion cubes borrowed from the kitchen. Drop the cube into the water and what have you got? Hot chicken soup! As far as I know, there is no army regulation that prohibits drinking hot soup when you are freezing. Lighting a fire on a dark night in face of the enemy is another story. For that you can get shot from both sides. My good old army raincoat came to the rescue. I wrapped it around myself and around the can of burning fuel. No one could possibly detect any sign of life or light. I certainly would never have done anything to endanger my comrades. Since no one was the wiser, I was not even threatened with a firing squad. If I had not acted in my own self-defense, I probably would have turned into an icicle.

One day we were surprised to receive an unusual shipment of Scotch. The commandant declared that each officer was entitled to one bottle. Each enlisted man was rationed to one tablespoon poured into his mess cup. When one of the officers, a friendly chap, Captain Sloop of North Carolina, accidentally shot himself in the toe, all further distribution of liquor to the enlisted men was immediately halted. This failure to provide equal treatment so violated my sense of justice that I promptly sought ways to correct the imbalance.

We were encamped not far from a town where I had noticed an ice cream parlor. I had located the owner who explained that he couldn’t produce ice cream because he lacked the necessary sugar and vanilla bean extract. I recalled that our supply room had boxes of genuine “Imitation Vanilla Flavor,” and one tablet could produce a gallon. We had plenty of sugar. I borrowed an adequate supply of both and made a deal with the dealer. I gave him the missing supplies in exchange for which he could keep half of what he produced. I wanted enough to feed a battalion of 1500 men. In due course, I loaded a truck and delivered gallons of delicious sweet vanilla ice cream to each of the four companies of the 115th. It was a very welcomed touch of home. My instruction to the cooks was that every enlisted man would first get a good portion of the treat and the rest could then go to the officers—one tablespoon at a time.

I was not a man to be soon forgotten. To maintain the morale of the troops, the bulletin board carried an announcement that Good Conduct medals had been awarded to the men. The list of those so decorated was the complete roster of every man in the battalion. Only one name was crossed out, in bright red ink. It was mine! It was my proudest moment. I was curious to know what I had done to earn such a rare distinction. I called upon the captain and told him that I was flattered to be singled out, but I would be grateful for an explanation. His reply was, “The Colonel remembered the incident with the cooking.”

You see, not too long before the posting of the awards, the colonel had posted a different bulletin on the board. “There shall be no more individual cooking in the area!” That mandate had been prompted by the fact that many soldiers had, from time to time, managed to acquire some fresh eggs from local French farmers. Like my ice cream, it was a relief from the canned goods and powdered stuff that passed for army food. In due course, the bivouac area was intermittently strewn with egg shells. But, after all, we were at war, we were a rapidly advancing outfit, and the shells were biodegradable. The Colonel may have wanted to impress General Patton with his neatness but he sure didn’t impress me. So I exercised my constitutional rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I persuaded some French friends to get me a raw chicken in exchange for more glamorous edibles. I borrowed potatoes and pots from the kitchen, set them up on a field stove in the supply tent and began to cook a chicken supper to which I invited three of my enlisted men friends. The meal was almost ready when the captain passed through the tent but said nothing. A few minutes later, he came back and said we were all to report immediately to the colonel. No sooner did we appear, salute and line up before the commanding officer than he began his tirade. “Did you men see that sign about individual cooking?” Realizing what caused us to appear, I promptly said, “Sir, these men were my guests. They had nothing to do with it. The responsibility is all mine.” “Good” he said, “the rest of you are dismissed.”

Then he began to work me over. “Do you know what it means, soldier, to disobey an order in time of war?” “Yes, Sir” came my meek reply. “I’m going to make an example of you, soldier! You have defied my orders for the last time.” I began to wonder if he planned to shoot me. “I am going to have you court-martialed to teach you what it means to disobey a commanding officer in time of war!” I replied softly, “I wouldn’t do that, Sir, if I were you.” “Why not?” he bellowed. “Well, Sir,” I replied gently,” I would never disobey your order at any time. The order said ‘No individual cooking.’ You could see from my guests, who would be witnesses, that it was group cooking—and that was not prohibited.” There was silence. He seemed to be thinking over what I said. It finally sank in. He turned red, then white, then blue. A real patriot. Then he screamed at the top of his voice, “Get out of here! Get out! Get out!” I ran. And that’s how I lost my Good Conduct medal.