106th Infantry Division Private First Class, Kurt Vonnegut’s War:

It was raining when Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut Jr. arrived at La Havre, France in December. 1944. The men around him joked about how sunny France was supposed to be. On December 6, Vonnegut’s 106th Infantry Division received orders to go to St. Vith to relieve the 2nd Infantry Division.

106th Infantry Division

Insignia of the 106th Infantry Division

Vonnegut had been part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), a group made up of bright college kids who were training to become officers. By 1944, the Army decided it needed infantry privates more than officers. The program was canceled and all its men were re-assigned as riflemen. Vonnegut rode nearly 300 miles in a truck from France to the front lines in Belgium. Around him was the destruction of Europe: the smashed homes and streets, destroyed cities and shattered weapons of war. Vonnegut felt honorable. He joined the Army in 1943 with failing grades from Cornell. His brother, a scientific genius was doing secret things to win the war, but Kurt Vonnegut was putting his life on the line. He looked at the men in his truck, all young without need for razors, boys, doing men’s work for their country.

The war had been advancing quickly and by December 1944, the Allies had made it all the way into Germany, stopping at the Siegfried Line. After suffering heavy casualties in places like Aachen and the Hurtgen Forest, the Americans needed to rest and refit many of their battle weary divisions. The high command wanted the place the 106th Infantry Division somewhere quiet, away from the fighting, where it could gradually adjust to the war. Vonnegut’s 423rd Infantry Regiment was ordered to relieve the veteran 38th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division which had been in combat since Normandy. When Vonnegut got off the truck in St. Vith, he was met by dirty GI’s, men with beards who hadn’t bathed in weeks. The men looked like savages, smiling at the newly arrived men in clean clothes. “You’ll be sorry!” the veterans said as they climbed into the trucks to be taken off the lines. As they drove away they added “Good luck, assholes!”

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Kurt Vonnegut during and after WWII

From St. Vith, the men of the 423rd Infantry Regiment marched twelve miles to their positions around Schnee Eifel, a raised wooded area in the Ardennes Forest. The 423rd finished their relief of the 38th by December 11 and Colonel Francis Boos, commander of the 38th told Colonel Charles Cavender, commander of the 423rd Infantry Regiment that “It has been very quiet up here and your men will learn the easy way”. The 106th Infantry Division was ordered to hold a line nearly 27 miles long, leaving the Division stretched to the breaking point with no one in reserve except cooks, clerks and mechanics. Even with the thin lines, the Allied commanders weren’t worried about a German attack. They knew the Germans were almost defeated and were busy preparing their defenses for the next Allied offensive.

The 106th Infantry Division took their positions at the front lines. It was foggy with a terrible chill. The 2nd Division men took their stoves with them when they left, leaving the new men in the cold. Over the next few days, the 106th Division got the lay of the land and prepared their positions. At night, while the Americans huddled in their lines, they could hear the squeak of armored vehicles from the German lines across the valley. Perhaps the Germans were up to something, but the American high command was not worried, no new orders were given to be alert or to prepare for action.

At 5:30 in the morning on December 16, the sky erupted as rockets and artillery landed in the American lines. The Germans turned on searchlights, blinding the Americans as they launched their infantry and armor attack. Communication lines were cut, but the 106th Infantry Division held their lines for the first day. Over the next few days, the Germans struck in force, the Americans fought a fighting retreat, holding out for reinforcements or resupply by air, neither of which appeared.

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Soldiers of the 106th Infantry Division surrender to the Germans

By December 19th, the 106th Infantry Division’s situation was bad, they were low on food and ammunition and worse, Vonnegut’s  423rd Infantry Regiment and its sister regiment, the 422nd, were surrounded and cut off. Vonnegut was part of a scouting patrol to find information about the 423rd’s right flank. His patrol was forced back when it ran into heavy German opposition.

Returning to American lines, Kurt Vonnegut huddled in a ditch. He was exhausted and carried only a few rounds of ammunition. Men around him fixed their bayonets since they had nothing left to fight the enemy with. German voices came on over loudspeakers, calling for the Americans to surrender. When no one got up, the Germans bombarded them with artillery and machine gun fire. The American commander gave the order to destroy weapons and surrender. Vonnegut watched as his rifle bolt, trigger and piston fell into the snow. He threw the rest of the rifle as far as he could and it landed in a creek. The Germans came in white uniforms and Vonnegut laughed to himself at how stupid it was that the Americans had on green uniforms as if wars were never fought in winter.

Vonnegut put his hands on his helmet and waited. He tried out some of his German, which his parents spoke and he studied in school. The German soldiers asked him if he was of German descent and asked for his last name. They then asked him “Why are you making war on your brothers?” and told him that the war was over for him.

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Dresden after the fire bombing

Kurt Vonnegut and thousands of other prisoners were marched east towards Germany as Nazi cameramen filmed their humiliation. They marched for two days until they were loaded onto boxcars and sent to Stalag IV-B in Mülhberg. He saw men die from the cold; he saw starving Russian prisoners who were left to die and saw men turn into animals. Stalag IV-B became overcrowded from the arrival of so many prisoners. A work party was organized to do manual labor in German cities and Vonnegut was among the 150 men chosen. He left Stalag IV-B on January 12 on route to Dresden.

In Dresden, Vonnegut worked in a malt syrup factory and lived in a slaughterhouse. A month after his arrival, Dresden became the target of one of the largest fire bombing raids of the war. Vonnegut survived the bombing by hiding in a meat locker three stories underground where it was cool. When he came up the city had disappeared. Kurt Vonnegut and other prisoners were used to find bodies amongst the debris.

As the war progressed, Kurt Vonnegut and the other American prisoners were forced to march east to keep them from being liberated by the approaching Allies. They were eventually abandoned by their guards and Vonnegut made his way back to American lines. For wounds received in the war, Vonnegut received a decoration for which he later said: “I myself was awarded my country’s second lowest decoration, a Purple Heart for frostbite”.

After the WWII, Kurt Vonnegut went back to school but did not get his degree. He worked various jobs and submitted stories to magazines but struggled as a writer. His wartime experiences continued to haunt him, appearing in various forms in his early novels. It wasn’t until 1969, that Private Kurt Vonnegut’s war finally came out in his classic novel Slaughterhouse 5, the book that cemented his fame and forever linked him with the Battle of the Bulge and the bombing of Dresden.

For More on Kurt Vonnegut Check Out:

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

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