Merton L. Haynes was trained as a forward observer aboard an L-4 airplane, a job that provided ground troops with the latest information on where the enemy was located or headed.
But as is often the case in the military, there was a change of plans.
“The captain told me there were too many forward observers when I arrived in England and that I could pick any other job that I wanted. I decided to be on the M-7 tank,” Haynes said. “My naïvete at the time led me to think a tank would be the safest place to be.”
He soon found out that serving in a tank corps was dangerous business.
During the Battle of the Bulge, he recalled how the tanks moved under the cover of night, but that Germans were often aware of their movement and fired 88 mm shells to stop their progress.
“They shot the shells about three feet above the ground trying to hit us. You never knew if you were going to be hit,” Haynes said. “I was fortunate, but the driver of our tank wasn’t. The tank was open on top, and he had gotten a cinder in his eye. He stood up and tried to get it out and was shot by a sniper who was in a tree and could see into our tank.”
A moment later, Haynes received a follow-up lesson in the brutality of war.
“The sergeant in charge of our tank pulled the driver’s body from the floor and pushed him out onto road and we pulled over to the side and waited for the medic to collect the body.”
Many other lessons awaited him.
“It was one incident after another in the Battle of Bulge. There was 20 to 30 inches of snow on the ground, and we lived on K-rations, but I never got a cold for all the time I was outside,” he said.
One of the worst incidents occurred outside a small Belgium town when hot meals were being served over a stretch of about four days. The kitchen truck was parked beside a barn, he said, and each day he and his crew members eagerly showed up for chow.
“We’d sit on what we thought were logs but one day when the snow melted we realized we were sitting on German soldiers who had been frozen,” he said,
His closest brush with death occurred one night when he was preparing shells for the next day’s artillery barrage.
“It was hard work, and sometimes I broke a sweat even in the winter getting the shells ready,” he said. “My uniform was soaking wet with sweat, and I got out of it and went into my bedroll in my long johns.
“I was in this foxhole sleeping when an ammo truck drove over it and caved in the walls. I must have been there five hours and it was hard to breathe. I could hear soldiers walking around above me in the morning. One of my friends said, ‘You know Mert always gets up at the crack of dawn. Something must be wrong.’ They started digging where my foxhole had been and first they found my pants, then my jacket, helmet and they finally found me and pulled me out.”
“I couldn’t move. It took about two hours beside a fire before I could move,” he said.
The horror continued in the coming weeks and months.
“We liberated the two concentrations camps, Mauthausen and Gusen. The prisoners were skin and bones. I remember they fought over bread. We gave them everything we had.”
Other liberated prisoners, he said, beat captured German soldiers as payback for the horrendous treatment they had inflicted at the camps.
Decades later, his memories of the liberations came flooding back when he and other members of the 11th Armored Division met for a reunion in Washington, D.C.
“We visited the Holocaust Museum, and they had opened it specifically to receive the battle of colors of the 11th Armored Division. It was very real, the only thing missing was the odors and sounds of the concentration camps.”
A modest man, Haynes said the reason he shared his memories was to ensure that the bravery of the 11th Armored Division would not be forgotten.
Merton L. Haynes, 92
Hometown: Bingham, Iowa
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: March 1943 – February 1946
Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal, two battle stars, Good Conduct Medal
Specialty: Tank ammunition handler