The Historical Society of Easton’s continuing Easton in the Service series.
Were he to die beneath a foeman’s hand
Loving life so, in some bleak, alien land
Help me dear God, that I may understand
Up hill or down, wherever I may tread
In peaceful ways, or under skies blood red
I shall be bitter – if my son lies dead
For years ago, across this self same sea
While comrades died that free men might stay free
I waged a war – that this war should not be
The above verse was sent from his mother to a young Connecticut soldier fighting in Europe during World War II. The author is unidentified. The soldier was Hugo Ewald Pedersen.
It is a great honor for me to present the next two installments in our Easton in the Service series. Hugo Pedersen lived to be just shy of 100 years in age and I was lucky enough to consider him my friend for over 51 of those years. Most of the people in Easton knew him as Hugh, while many of his closer friends and colleagues simply called him Pete. To me he was the Silver Fox, a moniker his eldest son Eric had bestowed on him when we were probably just beginning our journey through life at Joel Barlow in the early ‘60’s. Hugh’s full, but premature, silver mane made him a rather dapper and distinguished looking gentleman. In his later years, he added a neatly trimmed silver mustache and goatee to enhance his already handsome profile. The Pedersen family lived on Bayberry Lane in Easton.
Fox was one of the best story tellers I have ever met. He was also one of the most naturally talented writers I have had the pleasure of reading. Had he not chosen a successful career in manufacturing, he could have easily seen success as an author or journalist. His thought-provoking reflections on his wartime experiences are evident in all his writings. Seeing the war through the eyes of a young soldier is something that no person who has not lived those experiences could possibly express as well as Hugh did. What you will read in these two articles are mostly words taken directly from his letters home to his family and young wife during WWII, and his incredible recollections of his war years that appear in his manuscript My Army Life.
Among Hugh’s many military decorations are four Battle Stars, a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, and a Bronze Star.
Hugo Ewald Pedersen was born on May 5, 1915. He was the middle child of Danish immigrant Charles Hugo Pedersen and his wife Anna Ludwig Pedersen.
After graduating from Roger Ludlow in Fairfield in 1933, Hugh traveled to New York City where he found work as an office boy for $16.50 a week. He soon decided to go to college, knowing that a degree would allow him far more opportunities in life than his high school diploma ever would. He attended Bentley College in Massachusetts. Upon graduating with a degree in Accounting & Finance in June of 1936, he returned to Connecticut to commence work at the Remington Arms Company in Bridgeport. The company had 15,000 employees during World War II and Hugh worked in the treasury department.
In 1939, Hugh married Dorothy Schroeder, the daughter of an Episcopalian minister.
Because of the nature of the work Remington did, Hugh was given a permanent deferment from the war. Being a healthy young male in 1943 America and not wearing a military uniform often resulted in confrontations with middle aged men who had served in WWI and who then had sons or daughters serving their country. It didn’t matter that you might be serving the war effort in a different capacity at home – you weren’t on the front lines over there! One day after seeing many of his friends and family go off to war, Hugh went to his boss and asked him if he could be taken off deferment so that he might serve his country in active duty. He was quickly drafted, and he entered the U.S. Army in January 1944, where he was immediately placed in the infantry. Many years later, he lamented to his son, Eric, that his hesitation in voluntarily enlisting the very day his deferment had ended had been a mistake, as draftees were offered no options when it came to choosing the various divisions in the army where they thought they might be the most useful. By early 1944, most draftees were being trained as infantrymen, the job with the least chance of surviving the war intact.
Hugh left for military duty on January 31, 1944, shipping out to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, the assembly point of most New England soldiers during their initial days of service. Within about a week, Hugh was put on a train to Camp Wheeler in Georgia. In addition to being used to train entire units, Camp Wheeler had become an Infantry Replacement Training Center (IRTC) where soldiers in the infantry received advanced individual training to replace combat casualties during the war.
After a miserable 17 weeks of training in the humid heat of Georgia, Hugh was given a twelve day “delay-enroute” leave to return home to say goodbye to his wife before being sent to England. He honestly didn’t know if he would ever see her again. He later recalled, “Dorothy had a very solid job as secretary to the president of Columbia Records. She had an apartment not far from the office and a second-hand car, so I felt she would manage very well without me. I left with the hope that if I were killed, she would remarry and have a couple of children.”
On Monday, July 9, 1944, Hugh sailed aboard the U.S.S. Mail out of Brooklyn in a convoy made up of 53 ships, all accompanied by 12 Destroyer Escorts and a blimp for protection against attacks by German submarines. They arrived in Liverpool, England at noon on July 22. On the first day of August, he arrived at Omaha Beach as a member of a replacement pool of infantrymen destined to be divided and sent to units that had already lost men during the early days of the Allied invasion of France.
Hugh was assigned to the 35th Division of the Infantry, First Battalion of the 320th Regiment, Company A. His introduction to battle would come in less than a week at Mortain, where his battalion would be awarded a Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for “extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in the vicinity of Mortain, France, from 10 to 13 August 1944.” (War Department General Orders No. 55, 1945).
Much of the narrative that follows is something the reader will find quite rare – first-hand accounts of battle conditions beginning at Mortain and continuing on through the Battle of the Bulge. For most of us who grew up with a father who served in WWII, we seldom, if ever, heard some of the horrific experiences that our fathers experienced. Most of those men recounted many stories about their service during that war, but not the ones most people would rather forget than vividly recall.
I can’t recall exactly how many times I listened to my dad tell of Benny Rubin from New Haven who became seasick while walking up the gang plank to board the ship for their crossing to England in November of 1943. But never once did I hear a story recounting the loss of many of the tanks and men in my father’s unit as it made its way across France during the summer and autumn of 1944.
Hugh Pedersen was somehow brave enough to muster the courage to recount his harrowing journey across France and into Germany, and most of what follows is either paraphrased from his journal or direct quotations. Some of this is difficult and disturbing to read, but it had to be much more difficult and disturbing to recall and put it on paper. War is real and the sacrifices these men made should never be diminished by our lack of fortitude with our hesitancy to read about them.
First day in action. Operation Lüttich, the Battle for Mortain, August 10, 1944:
“The 88’s just rained down on that road…The cry for medics and litter bearers passed up and down the line all afternoon. Any dough who was present can hear that dreaded call, ‘Medic, medic,’ still ringing in his ears today when you mention Mortain. I remember passing two of my buddies lying wounded in the road. One was Pawlowski and the other Perkins. On the boat coming over, Pedersen was the name that fit between those two names and was called that way daily on the roster. I had been skipped this time. It was the first action for the three of us and two were out of action in the first twenty minutes. As I passed the medic working on Pawlowski, the latter said, ‘Don’t look, Pete. I’ll be okay.’ I can still remember saying, ‘I expected this, kid, and it doesn’t bother me.’ I was only fooling myself, as the thought kept running back and forth across my mind – how long will you last – five minutes, ten minutes, a day? Every dough prayed to God over and over again to help him over this greatest obstacle in his life. I can remember praying, ‘Please, God, don’t let them blow a leg off; make it a direct hit. I don’t want to be maimed.’ What a request to make, but many others wished the same.
“Before the day was over, we had seen tankers running down the road with just their shorts on, their bodies a mass of blisters from the fire of their wounded tanks. There were boys sitting holding their guns over a hedgerow where they died while engaging the fanatical SS soldiers who seemed to have machine guns everywhere…”
Welcome to France, Private First-Class Hugo Pedersen. It wasn’t about to get any better.
Chateau-Salins Forest. November 8, 1944:
“Throughout the entire night it rained like it had never rained before. Donald Kline and I buttoned our raincoats together and slept under our makeshift tent in two inches of water.
“At 04:30 on the 9th, a messenger came around and told us to be ready to move in ten minutes. We folded our packs the best we could and stood silently in the rain. As you looked about at the bearded, water-soaked figures, you wondered if the folks back home realized what each one of us was enduring so that we might live in a world free of such people as our enemy. We were told to move out toward the town of Fresnes. As we sloshed along the muddy Alsacian road, I peered into the mist ahead at what looked like an overturned vehicle. As I came closer, I saw one of our jeeps overturned in the road, and there lying alongside was the dead driver, white as a ghost. He had been struck by shrapnel in the chest and bled to death…”
The following morning, November 10th, Hugh’s platoon was dug in across a field from two German tanks that were in plain view. Two Allied tank destroyers approached and stopped about 300 yards to their rear. They would attempt to disable the German units so that the men from the 320th could advance. The first TD was knocked out by the German tanks while the second one did its job:
“Not long after, we heard a voice say, ‘Have you got a cigarette, Bud?’ We turned around, and there was one of our guys from the first TD. He was young and very boyish. He was crawling on his knees, and by using one arm for support, he had managed to drag himself about 300 yards. His feet were dragging behind him, lifeless and held to his legs by barely a thread. A German shell had severed his legs as it entered his TD, and because he could not jump after he scrambled out, he had rolled off and broken his arm upon striking the ground.
“The next day, this nineteen-year-old baby-faced kid died. At the aid station, he had told the medic attending him, ‘Doc, take care of the others first. I’m okay.’ He was a real soldier – a real guy.”
Some days are better than others: Uberkinger, France, Thanksgiving November 24, 1944:
“At 05:30 on November 24th -Thanksgiving Day – we walked to the bank of the stream and built a small footbridge. Half of the boys fell in, but some managed to keep dry. By 06:45 we were nearing the town just as it was getting light. Two German tanks were spotted off to our left. Sgt. Heiman gave the order to run for the town and get into houses. With forty-five men in the entire company, we piled into the first houses in town. We knew our artillery wouldn’t fire on the town with us in it; our tanks and TD’s couldn’t move up because of the water; and we were supposed to be thankful today.
“At 08:00 an American jeep came down the street driven by a German soldier with a captain sitting alongside him. The boys opened fire from either side of the road, killing the driver and wounding the captain. A short time later, a German command car came down the street, and it suffered the same fate. In both cases the drivers were killed, and the officers wounded and taken prisoner.
“Not long after, a half-track came down the road. Sgt. Moore promptly knocked it out by hitting the track with a bazooka shell fired from the cellar of one of the houses. As fast as the Germans bailed out of the vehicle, they were cut to ribbons by our murderous crossfire. Not one of the eight men escaped death. The enemy was befuddled; they thought the town was theirs and had been riding around at ease.
“Around 09:00, a Mark IV Panther tank lumbered around the corner and headed in our direction. This was the logical spot for our union representative to ask for an 18 ½ cent raise and an eight-hour day. As the tank neared our position, Sgt. Moore fired the bazooka again, but outside of a loud explosion, it had no effect, but the German soldiers inside, fearing their tank was on fire, bailed out, only to meet a sudden death.
“Here it was early morning, and our day had just begun. By noon we had fought off a Tiger tank and chased the last of the Germans from the town. We didn’t have one casualty all that day, but the enemy had suffered eighteen dead and three wounded. It truly was a day of Thanksgiving!”
The next two months were spent enduring the bitter cold rains and snow along the French and German border during the Battle of the Bulge. Heavy casualties continued unabated through mid-January of 1945 until the Germans began to break. Heavy losses, lack of supplies, a depleted Luftwaffe that could no longer provide adequate assistance from the air all began to take their toll. The Allied soldiers kept coming in droves. Infantrymen who had fallen the previous day were replaced with fresh troops the next. Hugh remarked in an interview years later that one morning they had eight replacements assigned to his unit and that by the end of the day those eight fresh faces had been reduced to four.
It would take until the 8th of May before Germany would officially surrender, but in reality, most of the fighting was winding down in early April. By then, Hugh had been assigned to write the stories of the men of the 320th and send them back to the states where hometown newspapers published the accounts of their local heroes. He contributed articles to the Stars & Stripes, and he wrote recommendations for over two hundred combat decorations.
After the war ended in Europe, Hugh’s regiment was told it would be re-outfitted and sent to the Pacific where the war with Japan was still raging. But, shortly before that was scheduled to take place, the Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945, concluding it was useless to go on after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier that month.
Hugh could finally go home! His unit sailed aboard the Queen Mary for New York on September 15th.
In 2011, when Hugh was 96 -years young, a reporter asked him, “What does it feel like to be a war hero?”
His reply, “I am not a hero, I am just a guy who did what he had to do.”
And the true heroes of that war – or any war – actually felt that way. Their heroes were the men and women who didn’t return. The ones that paid the ultimate price for our freedom.
Hugo Ewald Pedersen – the Silver Fox, passed away on August 28, 2014, at the age of 99.
Next up in our continuing series of Easton in the Service – Letters to Home from Pete – Hugh Pedersen’s personal correspondence to his wife and family during WWII.