A son of Texas recalls a hard road into Germany
Gilbert Loera, originally from Lockhart, returned to Texas in 2004 after decades in California. He’d had a good career with Boeing, raised four children, and become a widower. Seven years ago, Gilbert found new joy in marrying Katheran; they have an active life in Lago Vista, including dancing often at various venues.
Katheran has also encouraged Gilbert to record a brief but significant chapter of his past in France and Germany between October, 1944, and March, 1946. Gilbert had only “talked a little bit to family” over the years about his war experiences; like so many of the Greatest Generation, he simply returned home and moved on. Now, in his ninth decade, Gilbert’s memories are clear but less painful, recollections of hard-fought events that deserve to be told. He served proudly in Company A, 398th Infantry Regiment of the 100th Division, in the Battle of Bitche. Military documents describe the objective as “highly systemized fortifications on commanding terrain,” and the soldiers who endured the combat call themselves the Sons of Bitche.
Gilbert was called to service late in 1943, shortly after his 18th birthday, and began his training, zigzagging from Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio to military bases in Alabama, Texas again, and then to Maryland. It was from Maryland that these new recruits departed for Europe as replacement forces in southern France in1944. Gilbert’s division landed in Marseilles, France, on October 20, 1944.
“We were close to this wooded area at the foot of a mountain. The weather was terrible. We cautiously walked into the woods . . . when I experienced, for the first time in my life, being shot at by the enemy. I heard and saw the artillery going over my head and hitting the tops of trees, which sprayed us with wood debris just as bad as the shrapnel hitting us. Many guys were wounded and some killed.” As Gilbert’s unit pushed onward, they had a clear view of hundreds of German pillboxes (sheltered placements for machine guns) lined across the mountainside, all potentially deadly threats to the advancing Americans. With a command to “get them out of there,” a sergeant exchanged Gilbert’s rifle for a flamethrower. It was the young soldier’s first experience in firing that weapon.
“I saw the Germans running out, some yelling for help . . . . As me and my buddy Terry came around a small area, we saw this white thing on a stick coming up. We stood in combat position; I pulled out my pistol and shot at them but missed, they [were] throwing up their arms in surrender. Terry was telling me to kill them. I said no, they were German prisoners now. We took them to the MP camp.” Gilbert recalls helping bring some of the wounded down that day, being shocked at the devastation, and offering almost constant prayers in Spanish.
This was the first of many cold, hard days at Bitche, from the first American attack followed by German counterattacks, to maintaining a defensive line for two months until the final offensive and capture of Bitche in mid-March of 1945. That was the first time Bitche’s 200-year-old fortifications had been breached. Gilbert is grateful to have a large map in four segments detailing the military positions and movements during combat. Despite the fog of war and the passage of seventy years, certain vignettes remain crystal-clear in Gilbert’s memory.
“We came to this house . . . and the guys started playing cards. I stood there watching when I saw the door move and the end of a rifle moving into the room . . . . I grabbed the rifle and pulled the man in with it. The man behind him threw his rifle on the floor. We all made a jump and surrounded the Germans! Two more were with them; they came in, too, their hands in the air.”
“We would dig foxholes and set up mortars to fire back . . . . At one point, the U.S. Air Corps accidentally sprayed us with bullets, thinking that we were the enemy.”
“I was in a shallow foxhole, facing down. I could feel the dirt spraying me as the bullets flew just over my body . . . . [The enemy soldier] finally changed direction and continued shooting at the others. He must have thought I was dead. One of our guys somehow . . . got him with a hand grenade.”
“Three of us were on patrol up in the Vosges Mountain in our white uniforms to see where the enemy was exactly. Everything was white. I hated that! I have hated snow and cold weather ever since. It is recorded that the temperature was the worst to this day.”
Gilbert remembers, too, the joy of a hot meal on Christmas day and the fun of a performance by Marlene Dietrich near the front line. She wore the insignia patch of the 100th Infantry in her garter to honor (and tease) the soldiers. He remembers reaching the Rhine River and waiting as American engineers finished the bridges; then Company A 398th streamed across into Germany on foot, knowing that more fighting still lay ahead. And then, he remembers May 8, 1945, when Allied leaders formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender. Gilbert was safe in Frankfurt on Victory in Europe Day, recovering from a slight ankle injury and knowing that he was one of the lucky ones.
He remained in Frankfurt until his honorable discharge in March, 1946. In 1949 Gilbert was accepted into the National Guard Military Police, where he served three more years.
Gilbert Loera served proudly and steadfastly; he is satisfied with the contributions he made so long ago, knowing that efforts of the 100th Infantry Division in France made a difference. He ends his narrative with this comment: “My Uncle Tamayo came to pick me up at the bus station. I was glad to be home. God bless America.”