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