Staff Sergeant Bob Martinson: first hand account of WWII in Europe

Sunday, March 29, 2015

On March 28, 2015, 90 year old Bob Martinson was honored by the French government with the French Legion of Honor for his service during WW II. (see companion story) Following is his first-hand account of his war service in Europe, where he was in the forefront of pivotal battles and events.

Staff Sergeant Robert A. Martinson 1943

By Robert A. Martinson

Branch of Service:  United States Army
Unit:  Headquarters Company 242nd Regiment, 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division
Dates of Service:  July 1943 – April 1946
Training Locations: 
  • Basic Training, La Jolla, CA – July 1943
  • Army Air Corps-Buckley Field, Denver, CO – October 1943
  • Army Air Corps Cadet-West Texas State College – January 1944
  • Camp Gruber, OK – March 1944
Combat Locations: 
  • France – 1944-45
  • Germany – 1945
  • Austria – 1945

I left New York City on a transport in November, 1944 and landed in Marseille, France on December 8th, 1944.

On December 16th Germany launched its great and final offensive of World War II, commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge (Bataille des Ardennes in France).

Taken totally by surprise, all available American forces were rushed to the front to stop the onslaught of the German offensive. To this end we were formed into Task Force Linden and moved across France through Lyon to the vicinity of Strasbourg in the Alsace region.

On Christmas Eve, 24 December we went into the line and combat against the Germans. We did so without our own tanks or artillery which were still back in the States; such equipment as to be found was hurriedly borrowed from other units.

On January 2nd, as the German offensive began to falter, they swung down and tried to come through our sector. Task Force Linden had been positioned to defend a 31 mile sector on the French side of the Rhine; an area north and south of Strasbourg.

At this time, our division was outmanned, outgunned and badly inexperienced, but even so we repulsed a number of German counterattacks at Hatten and other locations.

We held until January 22nd. On that date, in the middle of a snow storm and beginning at 10 o’clock at night, our units pulled back some 15 miles to better defensive positions. When the Germans attacked our positions again, they suffered very high casualties such that it ended the final enemy offensive of the war on the Western Front.

The cost of the January battle, however, was very high to our division. We lost over 50% of our front line troops including well over 1,000 men who were captured by the enemy.

At the end of this fighting we were relieved by the 101st Airborne Division and were sent to the rear for R and R. We had fought in Strasbourg, Hatten, Betschdorf, Hindburg and Haguenau and many small French crossroads. During this break in fighting, the division tanks, artillery and other special units caught up to us and we were finally a complete division again.

For myself, I would later be recognized with the award of the Bronze Star Medal for my contributions during this period of combat.

On February 14, 1945, the division was ordered to take frontline positions once more. On March 15th we attacked in the Haardt Mountains where we encountered fierce fighting. However, the enemy was now on the run and we soon pushed into Germany.

Easter Sunday, April 1st, we crossed the Rhine at Worms and entered Germany for the first time. For the next 54 days the division attacked and captured the following enemy cities: Wertheim, Wurzburg, Schweinfurt, Furth, part of Nurnberg, Donaworth, Munich, Salzburg and many smaller towns and villages in between.

In what was a most horrific experience, our division was the liberator of Dachau concentration camp. I was in one of the first groups to come upon the camp. When I arrived the guards were gone having fled, surrendered, been wounded or killed. All shooting had ceased.

I arrived at the south side of the camp which was fenced-off with electric wire. There were many dead bodies lying around the camp and many, many inmates milling around aimlessly or sitting/ laying against the barrack’s walls. There was a railroad siding next to a moat beside a fence. There were many boxcars on the tracks holding about 1,500 dead prisoners in them. They had been shipped from Buchenwald concentration camp and had died from starvation, dysentery and cold weather. Some of the dead were naked because after they died the live prisoners took their clothing to keep warm.

The scene was horrible as was the stench of the dead bodies. I learned that our medics found one live prisoner among all those dead.

The camp held about 33,000 prisoners at that time. After viewing the scene for about half an hour or more, we moved out, driving into Munich which was in the process of being captured or “liberated” as it became known.

Our division would ultimately become part of the occupation forces in Salzburg, several Tyrolean Alps villages and in Vienna. Vienna was a four-nation occupation city like Berlin.

I remained as part of the occupation troops for some period. I was offered a promotion to Master Sergeant if I would stay longer. However, I turned this down as I wanted to return home as quickly as possible.

I was discharged in the separation center at Fort Meade, Maryland on April 7, 1946 and returned to my home town of Hoquiam, Washington shortly thereafter.

Bob Martinson 2015


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