Lester Raymond Fleming

I am Lester Fleming of Mattoon, Illinois, a former military man with the 6th Armored Division, 44th Infantry Battalion, I was discharged as a staff sergeant. I entered the military through the draft. I took my training in Camp Fanning, Texas. I believe it was 16 weeks. I was appointed a squad leader along with 3 other men. During the training, marching also weaponry, inspection, several times we would meet out in the desert on benches for talks and explanations of our activities to come. I enjoyed the training and would like to relate to you the highlight of the training. It was not the condition of the training. It was that we awoke one morning went to breakfast and after breakfast when we came out of the kitchen area there was a crate of oranges there. Everybody was invited to take one. Well since I had my fatigues on I decided to put that orange just in my pocket on my chest. And so we went around the rest of our business and back to our barracks. Later on we fell out to go out for problems and we marched out this area to where there was stakes and things put up with line for us to crawl under in the sand while machine guns fired over our heads. As I was a squad leader I volunteered to go first but they picked another guy and so he got a head start and I start to go through there. When I got to the end of the area of this exercise, I stood up, the other fellow stood up and he yells: “My god, Fleming you have been shot!”. To my dismay I had smashed the devil out of the orange in my pocket.

I enjoyed the training, I enjoyed the inspections I had previous marching experience in other exercises. I liked going out on the machine gun range. And then there was rifle training. And I was really proud of my activity there as I was really running up good scores every time.

On our last day to fire the m1 rifle, my m1 jammed. And since we were on a time schedule I didn’t have time to get it fixed. So they asked me to pick up another, but no time to check it so I fired that one and ended up with a rating just below expert.

I enjoyed going out on hikes in Texas as we went on through some swampy lands. And the senior Sergeant and Corporals enjoyed taking us through there as they told us to stay on the road, walk straight and if any snakes come through to continue on. Well there was a horrible odor about that swampy land and we were very alert. Needless to say training was fun some times. I enjoyed shooting the BAR. I thought if I ever go to war, this is the weapon I want to carry. Although it was heavy, I liked it.

The war training finally ended and we were sent home via land route and then we had to report back to Camp Grand and there we would receive our shots.

Then we were sent to Fort Ord where we joined others on the 3rd largest ship, it was de Isle de France, at that time.

I enjoyed the crossing of the Atlantic. Although I got a little sick. Occasionally we would see a plane and when we finally landed in Glasgow, Scotland and unloaded and got ready to go on a train I was truly thrilled. I loved that country. The apple trees. The cattle. The horses were magnificent. We ended up in Southampton where we boarded a ship to cross the channel. We finally reached Omaha beach. And to my dismay, the destruction, the sunken ships. There we unloaded, and there we were organised to advance further to where we would get some more training. Several critiques were held for us and as we finally loaded up in trucks to another area where we would be separated and sent to outfits where would be the rest of the time.

At this area some of the guys got a football and went out into an open area to play and suddenly we had a football game going. Once they got going good one of the boys threw a pass. It was missed and went into a fence row. A member of the opposing team ran over to get it and died there. Booby-trap. This was a rude awaking to what war could be like.

After we had been assigned, we were sent to our groups to who we would be with the rest of our time. I was fortunate to go to the 6th Armored Division and there 44th infantry battalion, C Company. When we joined that outfit. I felt like I was a member of finally a good group. We were in Nancy France and there they introduced me to members of the squad. And I felt that I fit right in. After a little time of rest and relaxation they were shipped out to become a part of the fighting army.

I was happy because we got to ride in halftracks and not so much walking. It seemed like we covered much more ground and it was much more able to navigate to certain areas where we needed to be.

As we went along we had several short fights in different areas and the people that we met on the way actually greeted us with waves and stuff which I could not understand. We were the enemy.

But as we processed through the war. Fighting here and there. Generally attached to the 3rd army. It was suddenly a shot to me as we come in to this small town and we were fired upon. So everybody stopped. Immediately the man that manned the .30 cal. machine gun started to fire bullets over into this wooded area and some artillery started shooting. And I thought: Gee wiz. Here I sit in a halftrack and there is a .30 cal. machine gun in the back not being used so as I started to get back to it, an old buddy of mine told me to get my butt out of there and get on down into a ditch. And so I did.  And I went along and that .30 cal. machine gun joined me there in that ditch entirely clipped off by a German shell. So I have, from that point on, great respect for those who had more experience in war than I had.

We finally got into this little town and it was really my first combat.  We took the town and moved through to the other side of it. We posted guards, ate and night fell.

During the darkness of the next morning the Germans counter attacked. Here came a big tank and we let it go right on through. And that big tank pulled up in front of our command post and I said, as those two drivers started to get out of the tank, they raised the hatches, our two guards of that CP were nice enough to go out and drop two hand grenades down the hatch.

Back where we were at, there was suddenly another truck and jeep and we fired on them and that was repulsed. And so we sat guard through the rest of the day.

The next morning, we looked around and one of us was missing. He had chosen a fox hole which had received a shell from the Germans.

Also at this time the next morning the mail came. They went to take the mail to this one guy and we realized he was missing also. They found him. He had received a Dear John letter a couple of days ago because his wife wanted a divorce and he shot himself.

That kinda took some of the morale out of the people, myself included.

We moved on from that point to another area and took off across a field. And it was kind of open but we were spread out and as we were going along there were horses in this field and I saw a little calve maybe six months old and it came over to me and it came up and it nuzzled to me and I couldn’t understand what was wrong. Then I saw it had been hit by a piece of shrapnel in its lower ja wand it had a locked jaw. It couldn’t open its mouth.

So being a farm boy, knowing what to do, I put it out of its misery.

We went on from that day through various battles, various towns and some places we were greeted, other places we were ignored. I must say that there were some places I didn’t care for but other places made me think of home.

Now as we went along we had various fights. It was a daily thing. And finally we came to an area where we got to the Our river. The bridge there is famous as I know that General Patton had his picture taken there. Not that I saw it happen but I know about it.

As we pulled about along the area there they chose a few of us to go into a boat and cross this river. It wasn’t swift. As we got about 10 yards out into that river, there started bullets snapping in the water around us so we peddled back to the shore and got out.

In the meantime, the halftracks up there two or three of the machine gunners turned the .30 cal. machine gun on that corner where the fire was coming from and gutted it.

Later on we crossed that bridge and others went down there and discovered that they were teenage German soldiers. They had been used by their own people.

We went on and so it goes with the war. Fight one day, fight two days, take a leave, rest and back to the fighting. But as we were in an area to rest one time, a wooded area, we had dug in and we were relaxed. I was walking out to the edge of that wooded area and suddenly here comes a jeep. And it comes out within about a 100 feet of myself and stops. I thought well what in the world are they doing there? I didn’t have to wonder long because when the first person came out of it he had this silver shiny helmet on and it was General Patton. And believe me was I shocked when he looked at me and said: “Soldier”, I said: “Yes sir”, I didn’t salute. He said: “I would like to ask you, have you seen a tank group?”. I said, “Yes sir, they just passed through our left front about an hour, hour and a half ago”. He says: “Thank you”, got back in the jeep with his shiny helmet and took off. I didn’t realize until a little later that I had failed to salute the general. Maybe it didn’t matter to him but about that time, my own captain called me and I went back and reported to him where they were discussing our taking off the following afternoon.

It was a privilege to meet that man.

Later on in our fighting we came to the Bastogne area. And that area will remain forever in my mind. It was this area where they had little grows. of trees maybe 15 feet wide and several yards long where they had hidden their tanks in. We got beyond this and then to the area were we met resistance. We finally overcame the resistance and there didn’t seem to be much ahead of us so they asked for volunteers to go ahead and scout. I had an assistant sergeant in my squad. Sergeant Chen, he was from China. He had two teenage boys fighting in China at that time. It was me who moved him up for he had been overlooked in the ranks previous tot his. I asked Sergeant Chen if he would go with me and left another member of the squad in charge and we took off and we went up to an area where we found a tremendous nice fox hole. We checked it for booby-traps and moved in. We hadn’t been there over 15 minutes until there was opposition firing from the other side to our left about 150 yards away. While we were there observing we suddenly were aware that there was somebody else in our presence. So while Sergeant Chen looked to the front I looked around to the back and they had moved several other troops up behind us. Then in about 20 minutes, Sergeant Chen, he was a good soldier, suddenly noticed a movement and he signaled me. I moved my BAR over for this is what I carried through the whole war. I really admired that gun. To my surprise following Sergeant Chen’s finger I saw a scout from the Germans moving up. Sergeant Chen signaled me and with his fingers pointed that he would take scouts one and two. About the time that he fired at number one and dropped him I noticed movement in the brush further back about 80-90 yards away. And immediately started firing with my BAR into this area. Sergeant Chen dropped another one and then a couple of tanks moved up and covered the area. So while we covered that, another man with a tank got down and started looking around. He checked the fox holes and found another man in a third fox hole which they shot. To our relieve this was the last of that firing. To our surprise Sergeant Chen and I looked around, previous to that they had moved up more troops behind us. To our surprise those troops were gone. We finally got up and walked around a little more. I would cover him and he would cover me when another zip gun to our left started firing straight ahead about 60 yards away. I immediately dropped to the ground my BAR focused in and brought him down. That’s when the rest of the group came up and we were able to overcome the problems in Bastogne.

That evening our officer had us advance up far enough that we got to the crest and he had us move down to a low spot. None of those in charge. The Sergeants and myself included could understand this action. We had always been thought to stay at a high point for observation and protection. Needless to say we were still ordered to dig in. And so we did.

That night just before turning in I was called to the point of interest and he introduced me to a young man from Ohio by the name of Fair. We called him “Red Fair” for his red hair.

He said: “Sergeant I have travelled most of the day, I slept most of the way and I’ll volunteer to take the worst time for guard duty to relieve one of your men”. I thanked him, I talked to the men and agreed that hour before sunrise was the worst time. Red Fair took that through his own choice. Now we turned in. Later on, early in the morning I was woken by a shot. Everybody else got up gathered over that area and our new member Red Fair was lying dead. I did not approve, as a Sergeant, of digging in in a low area when the area around was higher. But I was met with orders. So that is where we dug in and Red Fair lost his life.

Shortly after that we got over that and it wasn’t too long that it seemed like the war was over and then they separated us for guard duty around different areas. Our group was sent to a little village and that was where we stayed at that time. We were told to commandeer places to stay. We were fortunate when we went down the street, this lady came out and I told her what we were doing. She says: “Sir you may have my house. I have other places to stay. My son and I can stay there.” I thanked her, she had a maid who came and took care of the house. I told her that maid could come any time and she could come any time and check that house for cleanliness. And my men, they kept it clean. The men were sensitive to being nice to the ladies and that’s the way it remained.

While I was there I had this wonderful experience. The lady of the house had a young son. I think he was eleven years old. His name was Helmut. So she introduced me to Helmut and all I got was a turned up nose. Well after Helmut went away I told her: “Ma’am, before I leave this place, that boy and I are going to be like brothers or father and son”. “Nein, Nein, Nein” she says, it will never happen. Well, later on, maybe two or three days after we had been there we had supplies come in those supplies were some chocolate bars. So we got some and the next day I’m sitting on a flat step. I can see it as plain as day now, it really weakens me, for as I sat there, here comes Helmut down the street. I held up the chocolate bar and I say: “Helmut, chocolate. Essen mit mich?”. Chocolate, eat with me? And boy he just stuck his nose there and rode on past. His mother stuck her head out the door as if to say: “I told you so”. I told her: “I told you, I’ll win him over”. The next day I’m sitting there and when he walks past I act like I’m taking a bite and I say: “Yum, Yum, Yum”. He hesitated and went on.

She says: “I told you so”. “No”, I said. “Tomorrow he’s going to sit with me on the step”. Sure enough, here he comes. I’m sitting there. I break the bar in two and say: “Helmut, ein fur Helmut, ein fur mich”. He came over, he took the chocolate half and I say: “Sitsen se Helmut. Essen mit mich”. Eat with me. He sat down and we ate the chocolate.  And we became friends. I would’ve liked to have had him as a son. He was a good blond-headed young kid who had been misguided by his own country. When we left there he was a good everyday boy. But we parted sadly for when we got ready to leave, our Captain came through and said we’re loading up, we’re getting out we’re going home. He says: “The squad leaders will sit in front with the truck drivers. The assistant squad leader will be in charge in the back”. I looked at Chen and he looked at me and he knew what I was thinking. So as we got ready to load out the next morning, I said: “Sergeant Chen, you have been promoted. You are in charge of the squad. I’m demoting myself, I’m going to sit in the back of that truck and say goodbye to Helmut.” When we were pulling out, here comes Helmut, running and crying and holding out his hand. And that is the way we parted and I’ll never forget it.

I liked Germany, I liked the German people after the war was over. It was a blessing to have been there. And to my dying day I will always remember that blond-haired, blue-eyed boy waving to me frantically.

Well needless to say, we closed up shop later on, moved out and came home. I was welcomed home in a great way. It was good to be with my family again. Later on we had a reunion. My father, a veteran from the first world war, not in battle. I in the second world war and plenty of battle and my brothers who were in the Korean war. My brother next to me had a desk job, my baby brother was a cook, but we all served our country in a manner that was asked of us. I hope that there will be no more wars, but there still are people who seek it.

I was awarded the silver star for action in Bastogne. The purple heart I received early in the war. It was a situation where we came into a small town and I was very pleasantly surprised after a little bit of action to walk into where there was a large building there and somebody said: “Hello there, Yank!”. It was a German who had been gone over and couldn’t get back to America before the war. He had a nice dairy farm and while we were talking I kept moving my shoulder and he says: “What’s the matter?”, and I say: “Well I think I’m wounded.” and he says: “Yeah man, you are. You got blood all over your shirt there.” So I went to a place where there were some nurses there and they doctored it and later on at a special display of soldiers who were awarded medals I was awarded mine at that time.

I was wounded when we found a German gun in an orchard corner. We checked it all over, we didn’t have any phosphorus grenade to disable it, so we just left it. Later on, we took over a house, got settled down and while we were there I guess the Germans came back and fired that gun into the house. They shot through some of that lady’s glassware that was up on a ledge and a piece of that shell found my left shoulder and then that shell went on an ricocheted up through the ceiling and through the chimney. So later on I was awarded the purple heart.

The silver star I received for action in Bastogne because of what Sergeant Chen and I accomplished. I was badly hurt because Sergeant Chen was not recognized. He was a good soldier; he was a steady soldier. He was a steady factor for me.

 I joined the army through the draft. I was drafted and sent to draft board and I told the draft board then that my father was ill and I could not go but as soon as he recovered I would let them know. Later on when all was clear I went and let them know I was ready to go and awaited the call. We lived on a farm and I had got that deferment because my father was ill and could not do the farming. I had two younger brothers who were not old enough to help with that. We had 80 acres, so it was appointed to me to take care of the farm. My father had stomach ulcers which he said he got from when he was in service in World War I. He later on had to come home because of his father dying. So from that moment on I took care of the farm. One night as I came in from ploughing I told my father, it was a beautiful moonlit night, I’ll never forget it. I don’t know why but I suddenly decided that I had to go to service. I had to give up the deferment. I went to the house, my mother came out and set my supper out and I said “Would you send in dad please?”, we had company at that time. Dad came out and he looked up and said “Son, what is it?”. “Well, Mr. Fleming, your son has decided he has to go to service.” He said: “I’m proud of you. I couldn’t fulfil my obligation because of my father being sick. I’m proud of you”. So that’s the way it went. We notified the draft board that I was ready to go. So I went back home and awaited the call. Later on the call came and I was fortunate to go into the service with a great number of guys from the same area. A Mr. Talks, I was shocked because he was 38-years old and here I was 18. Then the two gentlemen who used to cut mine and my father’s hair. The Harrison’s, they were in the group too. There was a fellow that I knew who worked at the lumber yard in Tuscola, he was in too. So it was a well knowledgeable group and we went in almost as a family. The sad thing of it was, the train was great, the people were great, but some of us witnessed a situation, when we were out on the rifle range, I know I’ll never forget this, because you never will know the capability of an individual. There was one young man in the group who entirely hated Sergeant Casmeral. The rest of us admired him. He was a good leader, he was a good person to talk to, he didn’t try to be arrogant or anything. But because this other soldier kept neglecting and doing the wrong things, which was the Sergeant’s responsibility to correct him, out on the rifle range one day, we had a little bonfire going there, to get rid of excess stuff I presume. Sergeant Casmeral walked over to the fire and as I walked away another soldier walked up and I heard him say: “Serge, what’s the matter?”. And Sergeant Casmeral had been shot through the arm by this individual.

I truly enjoyed the comradery of the service. In training, in war and in peace.

Sources:

Oral History Interview

6th armored division