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"Being a Switchboard Operator . . .
You Got to Know a Lot of What Was Going On,"
WWII Experiences

Douglas George

December 20, 1994
Interviewer: Rheba Massey

Douglas George was born December 12, 1922 in Emporia, Kansas, where he lived until he went to college at Manhattan, Kansas. He was a freshman living in a boarding house when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He and the other boys had a sense they wouldn't be finishing college. He enlisted eleven months later, he could have stayed home to work the farm because his two older brothers were in the service. He didn't want his brothers to be able to say, "we were there and you weren't," so he quit college, expecting to be called up. Ironically when he was drafted, he was sent to a small college in Alfred, New York, to study engineering. The government paid for this education, mostly George thinks, so that the colleges wouldn't go under from the sudden decrease in their enrollments. Some of the students had not been to college before and if they flunked out, they were demoted and sent back to the army. George's education lasted two and a half more semesters and then was interrupted again as the military prepared for the D-Day invasion.

Along with many of his classmates, George joined the 69th Infantry Division in April of 1944. After training in Mississippi, he was sent to Bristol, England, and later to Southampton, attached to the 273rd Regimental Headquarters as a switchboard operator. Several months after the actual D-Day Invasion, his division was sent to France and landed on the beach in mid January. His first experience of being on the front line occurred on the German border. The troops were transported in the back of trucks and it was hard for the men inside to know where they were going. This was just after the Battle of the Bulge; and the "Massacre of Malmedy," where 80 GIs were shot down on an open field, was on everybody's minds. As they passed through a small town, someone looked back and saw a sign that said "Malmedy." They camped just beyond this town and George drew a midnight guard duty at a lonely cross road where they could hear the shelling in the distance.

That was his only time on guard duty, as he was part of a four- man crew that manned the switchboards. Often all four would be around the same switchboard listening to conversations, so they knew a great deal of what was going on and whose conversations would be most interesting. "We often laughed about our captain who was married and had a girlfriend in England."

One of the most interesting overheard conversations occurred when they were on the Siegfried line. One night twenty-six Americans went to blow up a German pill box. They were loaded with a dynamite-like substance called "mashed potatoes," which could be stuck against a structure and should not explode until the fuse was lit. Twenty-four of the men were in the house with the guard and the Lieutenant outside, when the farm house blew up. George was on switchboard duty when the lieutenant called the major to report this accident, saying he would never get over it. The men listening in heard the major's reply that he would get over it. "It's not so bad."

Another story was that of a colonel who called down to the major saying, "The war is getting about over and I haven't seen any combat. I've been stuck up here in division headquarters and I don't even have a Bronze Star. I can't go home without a Bronze Star. I've got to see some combat."

Despite the major's objections, the colonel insisted on going toward the front in a party of three officers and drivers in three jeeps. The colonel's jeep hit a mine and the colonel was blown to bits. George heard the frantic report to division headquarters and the command to "Go and find his West Point ring. I've got to send it home to his wife."

After telling the story of the frantic efforts to make this one man's death seem heroic, George concluded "And that's what left me with impression that when 24 GI's get killed, it wasn't so bad."

The danger of working in communications was making an officer angry when they mistakenly pulled a plug and accidentally cut a conversation off the switchboard. However, any threats to punish them for their mistakes with a transfer to a rifle company could usually be mitigated by saying, "There must have been a shell. We heard a shell."

Near the end of the war while headquartered in the German town of Tresben, George overheard a series of conversations he thought "delightful," concerning the issue of who would be first to meet the Russians, our allies who were about 60 miles away at the Elbe River. "I heard a captain and a lieutenant and a major all call and say they wanted to take a patrol to go meet the Russians. They were all told they could not go with vague references to "somebody high up" wanting to reserve that right. Later they found out Eisenhower had planned that the Russians be met officially in Berlin. Instead, according to George, Lieutenant Robertson, Captain Kotzebve and Major Craig in separate patrols, "took off into the wild blue yonder looking for the Russians." He wasn't sure who was actually the first to spot the Russians across the river and holler at them, but he overheard the phone call saying it had happened. "First thing we knew, those guys were going to be court-martialed because they disobeyed orders. Well, then the American press got hold of it and . . . correspondents started to show up in their jeeps. If they weren't a wild bunch of people, dressed every which way! Women and men and Ernest Hemingway, Hal Boyle and, I think, Andy Rooney probably was an 18-year old kid riding in the car with the Stars and Stripes."

George and the other switchboard operators watched all this from a second story window. "By the time the American press got a hold of it, it was too late to court martial them; instead they 'heroed' them. . . It was very exciting to see all this." The war correspondents and their commander drank vodka with the Russians. "That really was the end of the war when we met the Russians." A few days later the meeting took place in Berlin, Hitler had committed suicide and "it just all collapsed." The celebrations were all over by the time George returned from the war in March of 1946. By September he was back in college and used his G. I. bill to get a degree in Agriculture. He concluded that the war had made him grow up in a hurry. "I'd do it again if I had to do it over, but I'd never re-enlist. I'm glad of the experience and feel very fortunate that I got home alive."

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