At one point, the real war nearly caught up with me. It was during the Battle of the Bulge which began on December 17, 1944, when the U.S. Army was cut off during a desperate counterattack by the German army near Bastogne. This was to be the last-ditch battle by the Nazis in France.
During the Battle of the Bulge, at Bastone, the situation was tenuous and it looked as though the enemy and the cold might ultimately win out as there were nearly as many casualties from frostbite as from enemy action. The US troops held out against overwhelming odds in one of the costliest and most heroic battles of the war. When the GIs finally broke through, it was discovered that 84 GI prisoners of war were disarmed and summarily executed in a field.
When we soldiers in Paris heard of that massacre, we were stunned and angered, and I, having missed being there by only a hair, had feelings of deja vu.
Although American forces were badly outnumbered, the commanding general, Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, famously responded to the German demand for surrender with the single word reply, “Nuts!”. (a bit of American slang that proved a puzzlement for the Germans).
Here’s how I came into the equation: The closest replacements were the headquarters troops in Paris, and the plan was to send those of us who were physically capable to the front. All personnel in the Com Z, S.O.S. Seine Section was ordered to report for a physical exam. The call-up was alphabetical, starting from A to G. This placed me in the first group and I, once again, gave away my garrison equipment because of my probable future. I speculated that because of all the many times I had heard the phrase “kill or be killed,” my odds were, by definition, short.
When the orders were published I couldn’t believe my name was not on the list. Since then, when I read accounts or see movies about that horrific battle, I wonder, to this day, had I been selected would I have survived and, if so, would the horrors I’d have most probably seen haunt me for the rest of my life in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
I don’t know how I didn’t pass the physical exam when the fellow who was ahead of me wore”coke bottle” glasses and passed. I can only guess that the officer who I worked for might have put me in as essential. I never pursued it because I was not sure how something like that might go over.
Not long after that episode, when the tide of battle was changing in favor of the Allies, we, the military and civilians in Paris, waited virtually in safety while the real heroes, the combat soldiers, were making it possible for us to finally celebrate V.E. (Victory in Europe) Day, on May 8th, 1945.
It was a day to remember! It began with civilians and service-people of every stripe, pouring onto the Champs Elysees by the thousands– dancing, kissing, drinking, eating, and parading. My first reaction to the news was a feeling of great relief followed by the desire to go out onto the street, in this case the Champs Elysses, and celebrate with the masses who were already out rejoicing. However, after a short time, I felt the need to be with my French friends who had been so wonderful to me. It was the celebration of all celebrations, with each of us celebrating in our way with our own memories, both good and bad.
The celebration continued for several days, but, for me, the most poignant moment of all was when I joined some of my French friends on the terrace of the Trocadero, overlooking the Seine and on to the Eiffel Tower. It was at the very moment that the Tower was re-lit after a darkness of four years. A darkness that was much darker than just the extinguishing of lights. It was a darkness that threatened to undo the gains of human development which had been painstakingly developing over the previous several hundred years of man’s attempt to become civilized. And further undo the gains of human development which had been painstakingly developing since the first World War, which was falsely touted to be “The war to end all wars,” man’s declaration to become totally civilized.
I cannot vouch for others, but I found myself wondering if, after the carnage on the battlefields, the ravaging of the cities, the deaths of untold millions who were wantonly slaughtered, a new page could be turned and all would be as before.
Then, after putting all philosophical thinking aside in favor of the moment, I decided to celebrate with my French friends, who I was sure would be ecstatic. I didn’t get what I had expected, however. On arriving at their door, I found it open and the woman of the house weeping inconsolably. When I finally got her to listen, I asked why she was so sad on this most wonderful day. She looked up at me, and, in an accusatory voice I had never heard her use before, she cried out, “You Americans are so naive! Next, you will be fighting the Russians.”
I tried to console her, but she went on to explain that by letting Stalin take on such importance, along with territory, Russia would gain a position of dominance, impossible to neutralize.
I remember that outburst causing me a moment of reflection, but, later that night, I recouped when the mood in our billet was upbeat. That is, except for the speculation as to the rotation of troops. The word was out that since the war in Asia was still raging, we would be going home for a furlough and then on to the C.B.I. (China, Burma, India Theater of Operations) to participate in the Japanese invasion.
Fortunately, for us that is, all of that planning was canceled due to the atomic bombing and subsequent defeat of Japan. So instead of worrying about going to the Orient, we had to sweat out “the point system” which determined when we, as individuals, could return home. It worked like this: we were each given points for our time in the service, time spent overseas, time in combat, and other accomplishments, and when the numbers added up to the required total – 70 I think – I remember, we were ready to ship home and be discharged.
For us who didn’t have enough points, the army made arrangements for us to take a week or 10 day leave in specified places in Europe. I wanted to go with an Italian soldier friend to visit his family in Italy, but was denied because food was scarce there, and only soldiers with relatives in that countrywide were allowed. I chose instead to go with another friend on a wonderful tour of a European country that had remained neutral and untouched by the war due to the necessity for a central banking and communication central, Switzerland.
Our train tour through practically the entire Swiss country was quite deluxe and the locals treated us very well. While there we heard of many reasons why Switzerland was designated to be neutral during the war, but the best ones were the ones we heard from some of the older men in the pubs who said that Germany decided to make the country neutral because they couldn’t beat the Swiss in the mountains. An exaggeration, true, but it made the Swiss feel proud. One evening I remember having heard this account in a bar by an older Swiss man who told the story with an old blunderbuss hanging from his arm.
When I returned from Switzerland I had nearly enough points to go home but was offered a job with the Army of Occupation to be part of a cadre that was opening the G.I. University for Occupation troops in Biarritz. Although I never advanced that far, I considered it only briefly. But my folks wanted me to come home and so did I.
However, while transiting to the port of Le Havre, the last and most bizarre coincidence of my entire army career occurred. I had forgotten something at Avenue d’Iena, so I picked up the phone and called my roommate back in Paris. Bob Rieders. The person who answered the phone yelled something like, “Rieders, Corren is on the phone for you.” And, at that very moment, my cousin Irv., who was traveling through Paris and didn’t know that I was on my way home, had just walked in the door, and when he heard that yell, he found Bob, picked up the phone, and spoke to me. We set up a meeting place and got together for a last visit in Europe where I passed on my garrison equipment – this time to my cousin, who was staying on for a little while longer.
I was on my way home, but, shortly after we boarded ship, another unbelievable thing occurred: we received a ship’s bulletin which took us all completely by surprise.
“Nazi Jailers Among Sailors” was the heading of this communiqué and it went on to tell that on our ship sailing to the USA, were the eight soldiers who built the jail compound for the most formidable Nazi war criminals: Herman Goering, Rudolf Hess, and Joachin von Ribbentrop.
Seven of these jailers had been inducted from Wisconsin and one from Chicago.
The soldiers I sailed home with were a collection of men who were, for the most part, only acquaintances, since they didn’t become very well connected during the short time it took for us to assemble in Le Havre.
However, we melded into one sentimental unit at that memorable moment when we passed the Statue of Liberty.
We were standing on deck, and the first one to spot the Lady in the harbor let out a yell and we broke into song. We sang at the top of our lungs some of the songs dedicated to the country we had spent the last years and months serving. At least one of the songs was composed by Irving Berlin, the man who my grandmother had claimed to be our relative.
It was a highly emotional moment, and I don’t think even the most callous of us had a dry eye. It was yet another unforgettable experience to add to all those we had already lived through.
After that tearful moment, we set our sights on going back to that unique place in America each of us called home.
First, though, I had to fulfill my promise to Bob to visit his parents. So after I got off the ship and settled in at camp, I called the number he had given me and arranged to dine with them in their apartment in Washington Heights. I made a date for seven p.m. but didn’t arrive until about nine because I hadn’t realized how long it would take to go through the Lincoln Tunnel and locate their apartment building which occupied a solid block, but It was good to talk with them about Bob and me.
The next morning I boarded a plane for my second-ever airplane ride, from New Jersey to Sacramento.
I was discharged at Camp Beale where I began to fully realize how lucky I was to be included with those who had won the mega prize in what was undoubtedly the deadliest lottery of all time.
When I arrived home, I found that so much had changed – including myself – that it was difficult to get back into the swing of things. For almost a year I was hard to live with, as I’ve often been reminded by my family. What should have been a happy time was, in reality, a difficult one. Everything was or seemed to be, so much different from what I had known it to be when I left for the army.
Had I actually been in combat it might have been considered a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder, but since I wasn’t, it was probably a case of disorientation which only lasted only a short while.
Although short-lived, it was yet another poignant memory to add to those we all would take home with us.
Mel Corren was born in Stockton in 1924, attended local schools, served in Europe during World War II, and after returning home joined his family’s furniture business, M. Corren and Sons. In 1961 he and his brother Hillard opened The Brothers, a home furnishing/design studio, which ran until they both retired in 2000. Mel, his wife Harriet, their two sons, two grandchildren, along with their respective mates, make up their far-flung family. His literary accomplishments are the memoirs “I’ve Live It, I’ve Loved It” and “Schoolboy, Soldier Boy”, both on Amazon, as well as a collection of short stories. At 96, he remains active in civic affairs, including his ongoing advocacy for the revitalization of Stockton’s historic downtown district. Mel was honored as Stocktonian of the Year for 2015.