Arno Mehrens, of Lincoln, learned military service could be both a picnic and hell.
The picnic part started when he was drafted at 24. He was inducted at Jefferson Barracks in 1942. Because he had a “fluttery” heart, he thought he would get out, but he didn’t.
He was sent to Washington, D.C., for basic training and was assigned guard duty with the 176th Infantry. He guarded numerous national monuments. On his days off, he visited the Capitol. “What I liked about it is we could go into the Capitol as guides,” said Mehrens. He enjoyed showing people the rotunda.
The easy work of guard duty came to an end, when soldiers wounded in North Africa took over the posts. Mehrens was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for infantry school. “What I learned there really helped me for when I went on and got overseas,” he said.
He was sent as a replacement in the 83rd Division. He landed in Scotland and took a troop train to England. London was filled with tanks getting ready for the invasion across the channel.
“Well, that part of it was a sight to see. All them barrage balloons were hanging there,” said Mehrens. He laughed when he said some of the men were tricked into believing the balloons were there to keep England afloat.
The division went on to Cherbourg, France, and Mehrens was a replacement in E Company. He carried a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), a light machine-gun. The men who had experience going through the hedgerows told Mehrens he needed to take the bipod from his BAR. Otherwise, he could get tangled up in the hedgerows and not be able move. He took their advice and had a lighter weapon.
“I was a pretty strong guy then. I could handle that BAR and shoot it like a .22,” said Mehrens.
In Normandy, Mehrens walked through orchards clogged with human bodies and dead cows.
“Them Germans, I think they could drop a mortar shell in your hip pocket. They were that accurate,” said Mehrens. “We had some boys that could do that too.”
He helped cut off the Cherbourg peninsula before his unit was assigned to liberate Luxembourg. Mehrens was a squad leader of 12 men. They had to protect the artillery men, who were laying more than two miles of telephone wire.
“Luxembourg was a terrible place to run patrols on, but they had awful good wine in the cellars. That kind of took the edge off the bad things,” said Mehrens.
His unit moved north to the lowlands around the Hurtgen Forest right before Christmas. They relieved the 4th Division, which took a lot of casualties and was shot up badly.
“I learned one thing in the Hurtgen Forest that helped me a lot and that’s where to get when you get under a barrage of incoming artillery.” said Mehrens. “And that was right at the down side of a tree trunk. I hugged a lot of trees.”
If a tree burst and the soldier was close to the trunk, he wouldn’t get hit. Mud was a huge problem and the men had to be creative to get their vehicles to move. They cut timbers to make bridges for jeeps to get across.
During this time, the enemy broke through around Luxembourg and the Battle of the Bulge began.
“The Battle of the Bulge was terrible. You fought the weather, you fought the elements and you fought the snow,” said Mehrens. The snow was sometimes two feet deep. A lot of casualties resulted from the weather rather than enemy fire.
Mehrens said he didn’t lose his feet because of a pair of buckled overshoes he was issued before the storms came. He also kept his socks dry. He had only two pairs and pinned the pair he wasn’t wearing under his arms.
Mehrens saw a lot of good friends die, including three of his ammunition men. Two died from trench foot and one from shell fire. He also lost a friend from Steelville, a squad leader hit by an artillery shell. Mehrens had to bring the medic out to the foxhole where he died so he could be tagged.
Mehrens was on the front line through the battles of Normandy, Brittany, Central Europe, Ardennes and Rhineland.
What hurt him most was watching a British division open the gates on one of the Nazi concentration camps.
“We got to ride in trucks, watch them open the gates and see the skeletons walking out heading for the American lines,” said Mehrens. “That was a painful sight. The stink, I can smell that today.”
After the war ended in Europe, he was sent to Bavaria, where he guarded prison camps. He was one of 27 sergeants who had led patrols but didn’t have enough points to get out, so he was sent to a German training camp. The men were told they were being sent to Japan.
“I went through all five of these battles and lost a lot of boys. That was about all I could take. If I had to go to the other war leading boys in there, I don’t know whether I could have done it or not. I’d seen too much,” said Mehrens.
Ten days after he arrived at the camp the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.
When he returned home, he went back to farming.
“I’m proud that I went. My stint here in the United States was a picnic and the one overseas was just nothing but hell,” said Mehrens.