UNITED STATES ARMY
559th Anti-Aircraft Battalion
(As related to his daughter, Carol Cummins Salter,
and his grandson, Adam Salter, contributor)
While on a five-day leave from the United States Army in August 1943, Charles Cummins met Jane Smith who, upon his return from World War II, would become his wife. Although he promised to come home to Jane, Charles was unable to tell her when. “To this day letting her go at that moment was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, because I knew I had made her a promise I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep,” Charles reflects. “In war, people die.”
Charles Cummins reported for duty to the U.S. Army at age 19, from January 1943 to January 1946. As a private first class, he served as a machine gunner in the 559th Anti-Aircraft Battalion in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany during World War II. His battalion was in General George Patton’s 3rd Army, but was later transferred to the 9th Army due to the need for anti-aircraft. Charles’s campaigns included the Roer River, Germany; Battle of the Bulge, Belgium and Germany; Rhine River, Germany; and the Elbe River, Germany. By the end of the war, Charles’s battalion had shot down 50 German planes. It was the best record of U.S. anti-aircraft battalions in Europe during World War II and is documented in military records in Washington, D.C. Charles received the European Theater Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Occupation Medal, and the World War II Expert Rifle Medal. He was also chosen to serve in the Honor Guard for President Harry Truman during the Potsdam Conference in Germany, 1945.
Born on December 21, 1923, Charles lived in Stratford, Pennsylvania, with his mother Leona, a German who immigrated to America in 1914; his father, William; and three siblings. His older brother, Arthur, served in the U.S. Air Force and is also a World War II veteran. Charles often ponders about his life’s experiences. “Every morning that I wake up, I’m happy,” says Charles. “Eighty-some years are a long time to me. I remember when I was 20, thinking that I may only see but a couple more years.” This thought occurred to Charles, because in July 1944 at the age of 20, he was in Liverpool, England, training for combat to represent the United States in World War II.
As Charles progressed onto the gruesome battlefields that hosted World War II, he quickly became a man. At times he felt like he had turned to stone. “Here I was, in my early twenties shooting down German planes and saying things I never would on an average day. The only emotion I felt was towards my family and Jane. I think as the war went on, I kept hoping it would just end so I could go home. But it didn’t.”
In September 1944, the 559th Battalion crossed the German border near Aachen. Charles was in a group of four who were digging their machine and anti-aircraft guns into the ground. About halfway down, a bullet whistled past Charles’s ear. Several more shots followed, hitting the bank where the four soldiers had been digging. Charles and his fellow troops flattened themselves in the pit. After the shooting ceased, the gun crew climbed out of the trench. They stood and watched as German soldiers, hands held up in surrender, emerged from a house on a hill in front of them. Charles and the other men then realized from where the onslaught of bullets had come. Without their knowledge, the U.S. Infantry had surrounded the house and taken the Germans prisoners.
The emptiness which replaced Christmas joy could not be better described than what was written by Charles in a letter to Jane on Christmas Day, 1944. “I heard that today is Christmas. It does resemble it in some ways, but I’d rather not think of today as Christmas at all, just as a day for everyone to hope and pray for the best. Maybe next year at this time this will be over. Things are the same today as any other day over here. The guns are still pounding and the skies are troubled as always.” Nonetheless, Charles attempted to look for the best in a situation that was forced upon him and millions of others who were called to defend the cause of freedom. “It seems all I’m doing in this letter is complaining. That’s no way to be, is it? A lot of people in this world are much worse off than I am.” Charles adds, “The Colonel was around to see us yesterday. He said he wouldn’t wish us a ‘Merry Christmas,’ because we all know different, but he just thanked us for the fine job we have done. It was very thoughtful of him, I think.”
It was on New Year’s Day in 1945 when Charles and his battalion had to protect the U.S. Infantry at the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive which began on December 16, 1944 in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium and northern Luxembourg. It was known as the bloodiest and largest battle fought by the Americans, where the Germans’ huge assault created a bulge 50 miles into the Allied front line. “We weren’t up front with the infantry, although we were close,” Charles acknowledges. “Our job was to protect the infantry from the German planes. We never got really into it, although we got shelled a couple of times. The guys who took it the worst were the infantry.” Charles’s battalion shot down twelve German planes, two of which were by his gun crew. Towards the end of January, the Americans succeeded and returned to the original lines. However, the casualties were massive, with almost 80,000 Americans killed, captured, or wounded.
Early in 1945, Charles and the 559th Battalion were the first Americans to arrive in a convoy in the town of Hoeselt, Belgium. Charles fondly describes the Belgian people as wonderful and very grateful. “They were so glad to see us, and we were so overwhelmed. They came over and hugged us, giving us flowers, fruit, and beer. An old woman in her eighties handed me a cigar.” The battalion’s assignment was to protect the town’s only bridge from being bombed by German planes. “When we first arrived at the river, we were wearing our green work uniforms called fatigues,” Charles explains. “The Belgian people along the banks of the river weren’t sure who we were at first. But once they realized we were Americans, they eagerly helped us dig in the guns.” After the German planes began their attack and faced the battalion’s anti-aircraft, the Germans retreated and the bridge was saved. From there Charles and the other soldiers moved out of Hoeselt and proceeded to Germany. Charles adds, “We each received a ribbon from Belgium to thank us for chasing out the Germans.” Today, a monument stands in Hoeselt to honor the 559th Battalion, as well as three other battalions that helped to free Belgium from the Nazis.
In February 1945, the 559th Battalion in the 9th Army was assigned to protect another bridge built by Americans across the Roer River from German aircraft. Charles speaks somberly about the mission. “Before we started out for the river, we were called into an abandoned school auditorium. The officers told us when we were going to leave. Then the chaplain spoke and said, ‘We have to face facts. Some of us will not be here tomorrow.’ It was depressing, but it was true.”
When the U.S. troops arrived at two o’clock in the morning, they began digging in their guns. However, they were bombarded heavily by German artillery and mortars. Although the battalion lost some men, Charles’s gun crew was safe. The 9th Army eventually had 2,000 guns lined up along the Roer River, and the Americans shelled the other side of the river until six o’clock in the morning. “For four solid hours, the noise was so unbearable, and the ground shook,” Charles reflects. Even then the Germans continued fighting back and shelling heavily on all positions the entire day. Furthermore, the Germans floated plastic mines down the river in an attempt to knock out the bridges.
The next day was bitter cold, and five men in the battalion, including Charles, had built a small fire in an attempt to keep warm. Suddenly, they heard a shell coming toward them. All five of the men piled in a heap on the ground. The shell exploded nearby with a tremendous blast and flames. When the men got up one by one, each looked at one another to see if they were all in one piece. Charles remembers they could barely hear from the concussion, but none of them were hurt. “The ground was frozen solid, and we believe that saved us from being injured or killed. We think that when the shell landed and exploded, it had probably skidded on the frozen ground and threw all the shrapnel in the other direction,” Charles surmises.
The following day before crossing the Roer River, Charles’s battalion was overcome with profound grief when they saw two U.S. Army trucks “loaded to the hilt” with dead American soldiers. As they reached the top of a hill, the battalion discovered a German 88. Charles describes it as “a remarkable gun, which was said to have been the best gun in the war.” It was pointed down to where the Americans had been. There at the gun were five, young dead German soldiers, who were probably the ones who had shot at Charles and his fellow troops. Two of the dead soldiers were sitting in the seats behind the gun, and the rest lay on the ground. Charles pauses for a moment, and then replies solemnly, “Even though they were the enemy, we felt a sense of sadness for these young men also.”
Since the Germans had already dug a bunker with a roof over it, the American soldiers slept there that evening. When morning arrived, Charles remembers feeling especially relieved to get out of the area and move on. “We thought about those five young German men. It just proves how horrific wars can be. When the war was over, we had many German prisoners of war working for us in Belgium. We found that they were no different than us. They were put in there to do their jobs, just like us. I knew many of these men had someone like Jane at home, waiting for them. When I was ready to go home, some of the prisoners came over and shook hands with me and wished me well. I did the same for them. I knew what they were going back to—cities destroyed and millions of people killed.”
Charles recalls one German in particular. “We had one prisoner, who was an older man. While I was talking to him, he asked me if I had gone through a city called Duren, which was across the Roer River. Well, we had gone through Duren and there was absolutely nothing left but rubble, burning and smoking. The whole town had been destroyed. This man told me he was a photographer, that he had a shop in Duren, and that his wife and children lived there. I told him that I had never been there, because I couldn’t bear to tell him the truth.”
Another large city Charles had seen on the other side of the Rhine River was so destroyed that bulldozers were used to sweep the ruins off the street so that they could get their trucks through. The city had been bombed relentlessly, and the stench of death was overpowering. “God knows how many people had died and were buried under that rubble,” Charles comments sadly.
In the middle of March 1945, during the last six weeks of the war, Charles’s battalion was moving quickly into northern Germany, because the Germans were retreating at that time. As in past battles, the 559th Battalion set up their guns, both machine and anti-aircraft, by digging them into the ground of this hilly countryside. Charles describes these lethal weapons. “The machine guns were on what was known as an M-51. It was a trailer, and on it was a turret with four machine guns. You could turn it completely around 360 degrees and raise and lower the guns. It was a deadly machine, because once you pushed the trigger inside the turret, you could shoot about 1,200 bullets in one minute’s time. If you weren’t on the trailer’s platform, you would be ankle-deep in empty shells.”
At this point, Charles and his crew were deep into Germany. Early on this March evening, the German artillery attacked them with large shells from tanks which were blowing huge holes in the ground surrounding Charles and his fellow gunners. Charles relays the story with intensity. “The Germans were so close that we could actually hear them put the shell in and slam the breach on the guns. I was in a foxhole with my Jewish friend, Ralph Glasier. The shells were fired all around us, and we were especially aware of one heading towards us. Although all of this happened in a matter of seconds, we knew from experience that this shell was either going to land on top of us, or in very close proximity to us, and kill us both. Instinctively, I uttered a short, silent prayer, ‘Lord, please save me.’ Ralph prayed aloud in Hebrew. After praying I immediately thought of my girlfriend, Jane, back home, and that I would never see her again.”
“The shell landed with a loud thud when it hit the ground, causing the ground to shake, but miraculously the shell did not explode. We were frightened, of course, but we were also in disbelief as we looked at each other.”
“Finally, after the shelling stopped, I gathered enough nerve to peer out of the foxhole. About six feet away from us was this hump in the ground where the shell had buried itself. If it had exploded, it would have blown us to pieces. They would have been lucky to have found our dog tags. Ralph looked at me and said, ‘What are we going to do, Charlie?’ I replied, ‘Ralph, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out of this hole and running down this hill as fast as I can go!’ Ralph answered at once, ‘I’m with you!’”
Charles and Ralph ran for their lives down the hill, never looking back. They found an empty house which had a cellar with concrete walls that were almost two feet thick. Meanwhile, their gun crew up on the hill got a phone call to get out of their location. They all spent the entire night sheltered in the cellar of that house.
The next morning the 559th Battalion got another call that it would have to move out immediately. Charles and his crew returned to the hill and, with a truck, pulled the trailer out of the hole they had dug the day before without disturbing the unexploded shell.
Charles said that three American soldiers, one of whom was a captain, from another unit had been killed before he and Ralph had raced down that hill. One of the shells from the German artillery hit the roof of a house where these soldiers had apparently taken cover. Charles and Ralph saw the house explode while they were being shelled, just before they jumped into the foxhole.
Charles finishes this incredible story with a sense of reverence. “I estimate that the Germans sent at least 25 shells in that area all around us. They made huge holes in the ground, about four feet deep and five to six feet in diameter. The most amazing part was that the shell which landed closest to us was the only one that did not explode. So I believe, and still do, that God heard our prayers.”
After the war, Charles said he was surprised and honored to have been chosen for the Honor Guard for President Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference in Germany, July 1945. Only ten men out of a thousand in the 559th Battalion had been selected. Winston Churchill was there, along with General Dwight Eisenhower. Charles remembers being within a few feet of President Truman, who wore a dark blue suit and a straw hat which he tipped as he passed by each soldier. The soldiers responded with a rifle salute. It was an event Charles has never forgotten.
Charles stayed in a town outside of Antwerp, Belgium for six months after the war ended, waiting to return to the United States. From Belgium, Charles rode a train to Le Havre, France, where he stayed in a U.S. Army camp for about a month, waiting to board a ship to New York. Every night a group of French women who were desperate for food to feed their families would walk to the camp. They brought pots and pans and went through the garbage cans from the army mess hall. The camp commander decided that he no longer wanted these women coming, due to the mess they left behind. He ordered that a guard be posted at the gate to turn the women away. Charles gives a sigh as he remembers his commander’s order. “So guess who got the first guard duty? Me!”
Around ten o’clock that night, Charles heard the familiar banging of pots and pans as the women approached. One of the women spoke English, and when she saw Charles she asked what the problem was. Charles reluctantly had to inform her and the others of his commander’s decision. The women became very upset, and several of them started to cry. Charles felt pity for these women and was torn. He told them, “If you are very, very quiet, I’ll give you fifteen minutes to get the food and get out.” The women were extremely appreciative, quietly filled their pots and pans, and left in silence. Charles never regretted his decision, but admits that he never told anyone about it. Interestingly, the order was retracted the following day, and the women were permitted to come during daylight hours and take any leftover food from the U.S. soldiers. Charles recalls, “The women would even stand there holding cans that soldiers would pour leftover coffee into.” Charles remembers that some children accompanied their mothers, and one small, hungry boy grabbed a half-eaten pork chop from him. “It was sad to see him and everyone else so hungry,” Charles notes with compassion.
When Charles first traveled to Liverpool, England in 1943, he sailed on a liner called the Mauretania. For 23 years this ship held a speed record of five days to cross the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Liverpool. Yet, Charles thinks back instead on the eleven long, treacherous days it took when he finally left Belgium for New York in January 1946 on what was known as a “victory ship,” which originally had been built for hauling supplies. “I woke up at six in the morning. It was pitch black, and the ship was rolling from one side to the other and from the front to the back. I remember hearing music playing at that early hour, and it was ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ I thought we were doomed. All I could think of was the Titanic. And to think that I had made it through the war, and that I was going to sink on this tub! Then shortly after that I heard another song called ‘Twilight Time,’ and I thought, ‘Well, maybe we’re not going to sink after all!’”
“Nevertheless, everybody was scared to death. We were on the north Atlantic, and the weather was dreadful. About 90 percent of the men on board were seasick. The waves were very high—15, 20, up to 30 feet. We were not allowed on deck for eight days. However, a friend and I were desperate for some fresh air, and we decided to slip onto the deck anyway. Well, the ship was rolling something awful; the sky and ocean were dark and stormy. We ran up front where the anchor chain was, with a cover over the top, and we each smoked a cigarette in there. When we were ready to go back down and were halfway to the stairway entrance, the front end of the ship abruptly dropped downward and the waves came overboard pounding right on top of us. We were knocked off our feet and slid across the deck. I grabbed onto a steel structure around which the ropes were wrapped, and my friend grabbed hold of me. We could have been swept overboard. Needless to say, we learned our lesson when we finally made it downstairs, soaking wet.”
When the ship finally arrived in New York at two o’clock in the morning, someone called out, “Statue of Liberty!” and everyone ran up on deck. “It was the most beautiful sight,” Charles remembers. “It was all lit up, shining brightly. After being overseas for almost two years, it looked so good. We needed to see that. It raised everyone’s spirits.” An army band played as the soldiers disembarked the ship. The Americans were taken to an army dining room for a steak dinner, where German prisoners were serving food. Charles recalls one of the prisoners giving him two steaks. “When I got my discharge, there was a major on deck, and a fan was blowing the American flag. The major handed me my discharge, and I said, ‘Thank you, Sir!’”
The next day Charles was on a train bound for Norristown, Pennsylvania. When he got off the train, he did not see anyone waiting for his arrival. “There’s nobody here,” Charles thought with disappointment. “It was kind of depressing.” Then, after the train pulled away, someone called out excitedly, “There he is!” Charles’s family and friends had been eagerly waiting on the other side of the tracks, and the train had blocked their view. When they spotted Charles, the group began hollering and waving. They all rushed through the tunnel under the tracks to the other side with Charles’s girlfriend, Jane, in the lead. He kept his promise to her—Charles came home.
Charles and Jane were married later that year on September 21. Today, Charles and Jane Cummins reside in Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania. They have three daughters, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild so far.