OPELOUSAS -- There’s more than superficial concern expressed by 90-year-old Paul Kimball Sr. when he contemplates the type of combat facing U.S. soldiers now fighting in Iraq.
“That’s urban warfare, it’s the worse kind,” says Kimball, while sitting in a quiet room of his secluded farmhouse several miles south of Opelousas.
If anyone knows the ferocity of house-to-house fighting, it’s Kimball, who served as a World War II ammunition and supply sergeant with the 75th Infantry Division in Europe from 1944 until May 1945.
Recently, just days before Veterans Day, Kimball took time to recall how just weeks after he arrived in France, he was rushed to Belgium near Bastogne, to help repulse the mid-December German counteroffensive launched through the Ardennes Forest.
Later he and members of his division moved into Holland, and then the Alsace-Lorraine area of France, fought along the Maginot Line, crossed the Rhine River and then finished the war in Germany, where they helped liberate a slave labor camp.
According to an official report compiled by the Army Office of the Theater Historian for the European Theater of Operations, the 75th Infantry Division was in combat for 94 days beginning Dec. 25, 1944.
During that time, the division suffered 3,954 combat casualties — killed, wounded and missing — and another 4,062 noncombat casualties.
Most of the fighting Kimball and his men experienced was in rural villages or in open countryside, where soldiers lived for days in foxholes. They faced machine gun fire, strafing from fighter planes and shelling from German artillery.
“The one thing the war did for me was make me a Christian. I say the rosary twice a day now and go to Mass every day. The old saying about no atheists in a foxhole is true,” he said.
Kimball said he never intended to serve in the Army. However, because it was difficult to find employment during the Great Depression in St. Landry Parish, Kimball said he and his brother, Pete, joined the Marine Corps in 1937.
Kimball served four years in the Corps but decided not to re-enlist. He also got a warning from a Marine officer which proved prophetic.
“He told me if I didn’t join up again, I’d be drafted into the Army,” Kimball said. Three months after being discharged from the Marines, Kimball was an Army staff sergeant in charge of an ammunition and pioneer platoon at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
The 75th Infantry Division arrived at Le Harve, France, in November 1944 and moved on to nearby Rouen, in Normandy province, where Kimball once traded Army rations for a butchered cow.
By early December, Kimball went to Vise, Belgium, and then the nearby town of Liege, where he took cover in a barn during a concentrated rocket attack.
“The rockets were coming in so low, we shot at them with our rifles, but it didn’t stop them,” he said.
Three days later Kimball moved to Charleroi and then onto Ny, about 6 miles from Bastogne, where the Germans eventually surrounded the American infantry.
Kimble said he and his soldiers accidentally dug into the Belgian forest 5 miles behind German lines, where they supplied rifle companies with ammunition.
“We fought all Christmas day and the day afterward. We took a lot of casualties, killed or wounded,” he said.
Kimball remembered that Christmas night as being clear and extremely cold, with a vivid full moon.
Kimball said one of his saddest memories of that engagement was knowing that a good friend, a lieutenant, died a few days after the man received a letter saying said his wife had delivered a baby boy.
Another scene Kimball can’t forget is watching an American P-38 Lightning fighter plane get shot down during a dogfight with a German Messerschmitt over Belgium.
“When the P-38 crashed, we all cried,” he said.
On New Year’s Day, 1945, Kimball was summoned to the front line, a hill held by the Americans.
For close to an hour, Kimball was in an earthen dugout where German artillery fire toppled trees over his protection.
Kimball said his knowledge of French allowed him to ride at the head of troop convoys.
In Alsace, France, he said the 75th joined the First French Army and the Third U.S. Army to flush the Germans out of a mountainous region.
Kimball recalled dining on cheese and champagne before a German artillery round exploded and cut off the leg of a cook sitting near him.
“Nobody ate anything after that,” he said.
A few days later at Weckleshiem, Kimball said he “almost vomited my guts out” when he was assigned to organize the burial of 30 German bodies, which had been stored in a barn for several days.
Several days afterward, he took a Luger pistol off a dead German officer lying face down at the Maginot Line.
“This officer was dressed to kill and he got killed, too. He must have been important, because the holster had the German Order of the Iron Cross on it,” Kimball said.
While in Germany, Kimball and his men were under siege in Dortmund before heading to Wesel and then Hemer.
It was near Hemer where Kimball said the Germans had established a slave labor camp which included Russian prisoners.
“Most of them looked like skeletons when we got there. They were dying at a rate of 250 per day,” he said.
Kimball said he helped organize a 50-man civilian detail to help bury the camp’s dead until “the graves looked like a big levee.”
During the past 63 years Kimball said he contemplated revisiting Europe.
Over time that changed.
“I thought about it, but then I decided not to. The memories are not that good,” he said.
What an impressive story! I have nothing but the utmost respect for what that man and all members of the greatest generation went through.
Always honor our veterans... they have fought for our freedom and deserve our respect at all times!