Memorial Day. Remembrance Day.
Al Rusch doesn’t like to remember his days trudging through France to Germany and then to Czechoslovakia. In fact, he says he tries not to remember. But he does remember. And stayed in touch with several of the men who did that trudging with him. But they are all dead now. So, he shared some of his memories with us. Perhaps for the friends with whom he can no longer share stories.
Rusch, at 18, tried to enlist with the Air Corps, but they turned him down. So he waited at home in Wisconsin to be drafted. The Army came calling and he left the Midwest for basic training in South Carolina.
He was assigned to Yankee Division of the 180th Field Artillery Battalion.
“It was an old Massachusetts outfit they (Army officials) busted up and brought in a bunch of Midwesterners,” Rusch said.
The best of the officers and noncommissioned leaders stayed with the unit, he said.
One of them said if they didn’t want to be shipped out to the frontlines, they could flunk basic training and their core tests. Rusch said he went through basic three times and took the tests twice. Basic was in South Carolina, core tests were in Georgia and field maneuvers were in Tennessee – in winter, and all they had were summer fatigues.
“But by the time we got over there we were all really well trained,” he said.
They left New York on a small ship in August 1944. It was so small everyone was stuck in the hold, Rusch said. They hit bad weather on the Atlantic and just about everyone was seasick. One of his friends, Hugh Alexander, was sick from the moment he set foot on the deck until he was on dry land in France.
“It wasn’t too bad for me. When the bad weather settled, they let us back on deck and gave us something to eat. It was greasy and cold and that’s when I lost it,” he said.
Yankee Division landed on Utah Beach and made its way to Videcosville, France.
Rusch was a member of the survey section, his job was to go ahead of the men and map out what was ahead of them, take the maps back from the frontline to the fire batteries and another in his group would take the information to the guns.
“It was a month before we saw combat,” Rusch said. Then they were in the thick of it until around Christmas, when they were pulled back for a three day break and then sent into what was is now known as the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes.
He said they were in it for five to six weeks and then pulled back for another three days of rest. After that they were in it until the end of the war.
From they time the 180th established a command post at Videcosville on Sept. 7, 1944 until May 8, 1945, Rusch and his fellow soldiers were in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
Part of Rusch’s job was to take the maps they made back to the command post. One of his most harrowing experiences was making one of those journeys. After his group had finished for the day, they were going to find a place to shelter overnight. Rusch took the maps and headed back to the command post.
The maps were delivered and he started back to where his team was. It was raining and sleeting and the mud was so deep, it was hard to make progress. He started across an open field and the German’s 88mm field artillery started coming in.
“I flopped down in the mud. The shelling was so heavy it shook the ground. And I thought that was going to be one hell of a way to die.”
He said one shell came in right beside him, but didn’t explode and he knew he had to get out of there, so he did.
“I couldn’t see where I was going. I just started moving. I did not know how long or how far. I came up on a stone fence and just flopped down and stayed there until it was over.”
He found his team taking shelter in a root cellar, a place that would have survived all but a direct hit.
It had a little stove in the corner and they were baking potatoes. They fixed him one with butter and salt and pepper.
“It tasted like heaven. I had more than one of those baked potatoes,” he said.
Rusch said they crossed the Rhine and were headed for Berlin and could have taken it, but they were pulled back so the Russians could take it.
For his service, Rusch was awarded a Bronze Star “for heroic achievement in connection with military operations against the armed enemy in the vicinity of Moyenvic, France,” according to a newspaper account in his archives.
“I think they gave it to me because I made it through without getting hurt,” he said.
When Rusch came home, he was among the U.S. military personnel transported on the original Queen Mary.
He came to Arizona and worked for feed companies and then in 1988, retired to Payson.