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In the Trenches of History
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Joseph McManus enlisted in the New York National Guard as a private in Company H, 108th Infantry Regiment, in January of 1938. Little did he know that he would travel to the Pacific to defend Hawaii after Pearl Harbor, sail to Europe to fight the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and see Berlin fall to the
Russians. He would later also serve in leadership positions with the 898th, 127th and 106th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalions, and the 270th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. His many decorations include two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars with “V” device. At 94, he looks back on his experiences during WWII and his 26 years of service to the Guard.
Why did you join the National Guard?
I had a brother who was a second lieutenant in the Guard, and I had several good buddies [who had] joined the Guard, so I figured I would join right along with them in 1938. [At one time, there were five McManus boys in the National Guard; Joseph was one of 10 children.] I became a .30 cal machine-gun assistant in H Company, a heavy weapons machine-gun company, in the 108th Infantry.
What was your early career like?
When they came up with the draft, we were told we wouldn’t have to register, because we would be part of the Active Duty for one year anyway. I graduated high school in 1939 and chose not to go to college, so on Oct. 15, 1940, we were inducted into federal [Active] Duty and took a train down to Fort McClellan, AL, to join the rest of the 27th Infantry Division. While there, I jumped up to staff sergeant. We had hopes of coming home in 1941 after our year was up. But we were told the Army would keep us a little longer, and we rebelled a little after we got that news. We were ready to go back home, but we settled down. Things were going fine, and then as you know, we became involved in a major war when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
What did you do after Pearl Harbor?
They moved the 27th Infantry Division to California after Pearl Harbor, and we trained there for a couple of months and got on board ships [for] a 13-day trip. We were heading to Manila, but Manila fell [in May of 1942] while we were still on the high seas, so we redirected toward Hawaii. The unit I was with landed at Maui, and we billeted on the beach for about a month. Because I was a staff sergeant and had a .50 cal machine-gun platoon, they moved us to the higher elevation for anti-aircraft defense on the island of Molokai. We were on the island for quite some time. I became the acting first sergeant for a bit, so I went to our captain and [asked]: “When the hell are you going to promote me to first sergeant?” He said, “I’m not. You’re doing a hell of a job, and since you wouldn’t volunteer to go to OCS [Officer Candidate School], I nominated you. I’m here to inform you now you have been selected to go to OCS at Fort Benning, Georgia.”
After OCS, I was assigned to the 84th Infantry Division, which was just being formed at the time. We went to Texas and began preparing for the war. All my time in the military, I had prided myself in never having to do KP. Well, I got down to Texas and there weren’t any enlisted boys yet, so I found myself doing KP! We washed the dishes and scrubbed the mess hall down. While we were there, D-Day had happened. And then we got orders on Sept. 20, 1944, to ship out to play our role after the invasion. And so we got ready and again we left New York Harbor. We landed in Southampton, England, and then we moved to France. We landed on Omaha Beach three or four months after D-Day.
What was going through your mind when you landed on Omaha Beach and began to fight the Germans?
Actually, it was with a great deal of apprehension. Landing at Omaha Beach, believe it or not, even though we weren’t there during D-Day, it brought up strong emotions as we knew how fortunate we were to not have to fight the way some Soldiers that landed there did. We went up through France; we encountered sporadic resistance here and there; and then we moved to Aachen, Germany [for the Battle of Aachen on Oct. 2–21, 1944]. We were blowing out the Germans. Once we were on the frontline, the company commander ordered everybody to start using foxholes. We hadn’t eaten in a few days, and one night somebody hollered that the chow trucks were here, so I got out of my foxhole and I was barely 15 feet from my hole when it took a direct artillery hit. If I had been in there, they wouldn’t have found enough of me to make a hamburger. That was my first close call.
After that, we went through everything you can think of, but that one [memory] still comes back to haunt me. We [routed] the Germans, and in December we were headed back to Holland for some R&R. Then the Battle of the Bulge broke out, so instead of heading to Holland for rest, we headed to the Bulge to fight, and we ended up in Marche, Belgium, next to one of the paratrooper outfits that was having a little trouble. We kicked the crap out of the Germans and ended up in Holland after the fight.
When was your first experience encountering a German troop?
The first one I encountered up close was right after the Malmedy massacre during the Battle of the Bulge. [The massacre at Malmedy included the murders of 84 American prisoners of war during WWII by their German captors near Malmedy, Belgium, which became part of the war crimes trials of 1946]. We were [under an] order to take no prisoners. I was sitting in my jeep, and two of my Soldiers came up and said they had a German soldier that had been shot through the knee by a .50 cal. They asked me what I wanted them to do with him, and I said, “Shoot the SOB.” And then I thought, “He wasn’t the one giving orders at Malmedy,” so I told them to take the wounded German to the hospital so he could get treatment. There was a certain bitterness that formed in all of us [who] fought in the Battle of the Bulge, especially those of us that were close to the Malmedy massacre. I’ve never seen so much bitterness as I have after the Germans lined up American troops and machine-gunned them to death. But I was glad we didn’t execute that young soldier.
Did the Germans try and infiltrate your lines?
There were times when the Germans dressed as MPs [military police] and parachuted behind our lines. And so you learned not to trust any MP. And while it sounds silly, when we came across an MP, we would ask them a stupid question, like “Do you think the Yankees are going to win the Super Bowl this year?” Or, “Do you think the Green Bay Packers are going to win the World Series?” [We asked] something that would be ridiculous to an American, so you say it to the guy and if he didn’t understand, then we would take him back to the rear. But it had to be something ridiculous, so you’d know if they were a German spy or not.
Did it make you mad that you were asked to stand down so the Russians could take Berlin in 1945?
That was the general feeling. We were told we could not advance any farther. Since the Germans really roughed up the Russians, [General Dwight] Eisenhower and [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill gave [Russian dictator Joseph] Stalin the honor to take Berlin. So we stopped at the Elbe River even though we could have taken Berlin days before the Russians got there. There was an excess of 200,000 German troops hoping to surrender to us instead of the Russians. We were forbidden from crossing the river to help the Germans get across. And then when the Russians did finally come across, their headquarters and our headquarters got together, and we toasted one another. It was an interesting experience. They were cocky bastards. The feeling was we shouldn’t have stopped there; we should have continued on and fought the Russians.
What words of wisdom would you give to the men and women of the National Guard today?
To know that the National Guard was the backbone of so many battles in Europe during WWII makes me proud to this day. Some of our greatest achievements in Europe and the Pacific came from Guard units. Be loyal to the Guard, to one another, and be loyal to your country. You can’t get anything better from a [Soldier] than that. And don’t pay any attention to the people who want to call you “Saturday Night Soldiers.” You are combat Soldiers, so be proud of the role you play in the military today.