By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
Yet the dozens of letters he wrote home to his wife and family in Phoenix during World War II described the luck that had made all of those things possible. Penned in far-off cities like Marseilles, Avignon, Darmstadt and Würzburg, they chronicled the sweep of American forces through France and Germany in the last months of the war. They underscored just how different Creasman's wartime experiences and fate were from David Murdock's, whose war letters New Times wrote about last week in "Letter in a Battle."
Both men were the same age -- 27 -- when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Both were older than the average recruit and had the beginnings of promising lives. Murdock, a popular and talented local athlete, music teacher and son of an Arizona congressman, was killed leading an Army infantry company in arduous fighting in Sicily in August 1943. He saw the war often from his belly and wrote about it from his gut. Creasman didn't enter the war until its final months, in 1945. When he did, it was as a staffer at his infantry division's headquarters. He witnessed the war standing up. He was able to write about it as a personal travelogue, with just enough distance for him to bring into focus the larger forces and scenes of the war's chaos and wreckage.
BOTTOM: Jimmy Creasman brought home an SS insignia and a site plan from the Dachau concentration camp.
Creasman's letters conveyed an immediacy about how the war reshaped what he thought he knew about himself, other people, his country and the world.
That immediacy was apparent in December 1997. Standing in the alley talking with me, he spoke of the war years as if they were yesterday.
Creasman had been a broadcaster with Phoenix's KTAR radio before the war, where he worked with J. Howard Pyle, a well-known broadcaster and later governor of Arizona. In 1942, he moved to New York to broadcast programs in Spanish to Latin America for the government agency that would eventually become the Voice of America. The job had qualified him for a draft deferment. But in August 1943, a few weeks after David Murdock was killed, his draft board notified him that his deferment was ending.
Among the first persons he turned to were Murdock's parents. Murdock's father, John, was Arizona's only congressman at the time. Creasman and his wife had studied with him at Arizona State College before he was elected to Congress in 1936. They admired him greatly. From Murdock's standpoint, Creasman had stood out as an energetic student body president in 1934 and 1935 -- a young man as promising as their own son.
Before packing up his family to resettle them in Arizona, Creasman wired the Murdocks in Washington, D.C., to ask their help in landing a military position that would make use of his broadcast experience. It was a long shot. Their own son hadn't been able to convince the Army to let him put his musical talents to use. Yet his death gave the Murdocks ample reason to do what they could for friends from home.
Myrtle Murdock told him nothing could be done to keep him out of the Army. But "I still think that all of us working together should get you where you can be of the most service," she wrote. "Don't thank me. Remember, I'm doing this with eyes full of tears, remembering David."
She sent his credentials to the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Meanwhile, Creasman entered the Army in December 1943. The Army bounced him back and forth across the country. Eventually, he was assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division -- known as the Rainbow Division -- in Oklahoma.
In early 1944, the OSS notified Congressman Murdock that it had passed Creasman's file to two other branches of the military. Creasman's letters don't indicate whether anything ever came of the effort.
By Christmas 1944, he was headed east again, this time with orders to join the war.
"I have hung my stocking here in the berth and have been reading the story of Christmas from each of the Gospels," he wrote home on Christmas Eve. "It makes me feel better, and I needed this because the mood of the men has been childishly unhappy -- they hurt tonight, even sneering at 'Peace on Earth' to cover up that hurt. We all received little gifts from the Chaplain, and it was a good thing, but it didn't help much, and the gifts seemed to embarrass rather than please. So I needed something to help shake off the atmosphere and I have found it in the old Story...."
He left New York on a troop ship bound for France on January 6, and soon landed a job broadcasting the evening's news to soldiers aboard the ship. He wrote long letters home about life at sea.
The 12-day journey to France left many men "carrying their helmets with them in order not to mess up the decks.... Seas have been rather choppy at times," he wrote, "but today the long slow swells were almost oily smooth and a breathtaking cobalt blue under a bright sun. I viewed the whole panorama from the bridge of the ship today while the band played a concert down on the deck and the men crowded around to listen."
Creasman's transport followed a course similar to the one David Murdock's had sailed more than two years earlier. It headed for the Atlantic coast of Africa, but, instead of landing there, it slipped north through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, then turned toward the southern coast of France. The change reflected Allied progress in the war.
Germany's power was at its peak when Murdock sailed. The Nazi realm stretched from northern Europe south through France, Italy and around the Mediterranean to parts of North Africa. It reached across Eastern Europe, north through Poland, and northeastward to the outskirts of Stalingrad, in the Soviet Union. Through 1943 and 1944, Allied and Soviet forces had steadily pushed German troops back toward their own borders, shrinking their domain. By January 1945, large parts of France, including its Mediterranean coast, had been reclaimed by the Allies. Creasman and the Rainbow Division were headed for Marseilles, which the Allies had turned into a main line for troops, armaments and supplies headed for the fronts in southeastern France.
"I saw the famous rock early one morning." Creasman wrote about passing Gibraltar. "I looked over at the mountains along the Spanish coast and thought how I would like to travel there. Also saw the coast of Spanish Morocco.... We passed Tangiers before dawn. I mused about the historical fact that Paul [the Apostle] traveled on the Mediterranean during his missionary journeys. And one clear, starry night on this bluest of seas I watched the slight phosphorescent glow of our bow wave and then -- thinking thoughts of you two -- saw the thin shell of a moon dip into the water astern.... Someday we shall make a pleasure cruise together and see all these things...."
Other elements of Creasman's division had begun arriving at Marseilles more than a month earlier. Many had already pushed north into action along the Rhone Valley toward Strasbourg.
Creasman had come out of basic training as a crack shot, with sharpshooter credentials. But he lucked into a relatively safe slot behind the front lines. Initially, he was attached to an ordinance company, loading and hauling materials and equipment.
In spare moments, he wrote home. He applied a foreigner's curiosity to everything he saw. And he drew upon his radio reporter's skills to delve below the surface of the people and places he encountered and describe the texture of life in the path of war.
"The streets are narrow and paved with cobblestones that show the wear of centuries," he wrote from Marseilles. "You see lots of two-wheeled carts. The tiny trolleys run coupled in twos and the people never seem to pay any fares, just run and climb on.... The city shows many scars as result of bombing. Little has been done yet to repair. Saw hotels many stories high simply sliced in two from roof to basement.
"But life continues -- mobs of it."
At the city's zoo, he found "hundreds of mothers and children sunning themselves. Some were playing in the sand with little wood buckets and shovels.... I saw more toys," he wrote weeks later, "than anywhere in France. Even tricycles and children's bicycles. It was good to see children playing."
Stores had merchandise in their windows but not much on the shelves. Food was scarce, he wrote home. Shop signs advised "people to sign up for cheese, eggs and fresh milk. [But] there just aren't any. In fact, the food situation is deplorable. People get about a pound of sugar every 3 months, about half a loaf of bread per day, almost no meat or fish, no vegetables. There is 1 egg a month (sometimes spoiled). I think they get 1/4 ton of coal per family to last the whole winter. There is milk for only babies less than 9 months of age. So they're cold and hungry.... But the people bear up well."
Scarcities and high prices had created a thriving black market and plenty of bartering for things like American cigarettes ("French people will pay 50 franc [about $1] for a pack...") and soap (another 50 francs a bar) or candy bars.
In early February, Creasman moved by truck convoy up the Rhone River Valley through Avignon, Lyon and Dijon, toward the Rainbow's front-line positions in Alsace-Lorraine on the western edge of the German border. By then, Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Essen, Düsseldorf and most other major German cities had been bombed nearly to dust. The Soviets were hammering at Germany's eastern front, pushing it swiftly back toward Berlin. All along the western front, from Holland to central France, American, British and Canadian troops were steadily destroying Germany's defenses protecting the Rhine.
Creasman was living the history, and his letters often displayed his keen sense of context. The Lorraine region, he wrote February 11, was a "part of France so long in dispute between the French and Germans. This ground has been fought over so many times -- in 1870-71, 1914, 1918, 1940 and 1944 -- that it shows many scars. This village has been beaten up six times in scarcely two generations."
He told of attending a Mass "in a little Catholic Church filled with people who had survived the recent fighting, and a marble plaque on the wall said that this church had been erected on the ruins of the one burned and destroyed by les Allemands in September 5th, 1914. On the wall of this room is a German calendar advertising 'Eutra,' a canned milk, and the month designation is Februar, so you see we have reminders that the enemy was here. In the darkroom adjoining we are using captured photographic supplies... all recently property of the German army, taken in battle by the 42nd Division."
Coming through the Rhone Valley, "We passed through hundreds of little villages and several large cities," he wrote, "and everywhere, at all hours, school children, little boys rolling hoops, peasants trimming their vineyards, old men in wooden shoes driving two-wheeled oxcarts, women young and old riding bicycles, all of them looking up, smiling, waving and signaling the 'V.' Some of the men, who doubtless fought in the last war, straightened and gave us the French salute, palm of the hand out. One old fellow pushing a heavily loaded bicycle grinned and gesticulated wildly, pointing toward the front, and going through the motions of 'mowing 'em down.' I'm afraid I must confess that all this attention -- almost adulation -- made us feel almost like 'heroes.' Made us feel proud, and realize that we had come here for a real and worthwhile purpose."
For Creasman, the serenity of the surrounding landscape -- "neat fields, nearly always small, with tall poplars green against the sky along the fences as windbreaks" -- seemed disconnected from the roadside wreckage left by the war.
The highways, he wrote, "are invariably lined on both sides with sycamores, precisely pruned, beautifully spaced with a ruler, it seems. One can imagine how lovely these roads will be when all the trees have their leaves and touch in an arch overhead for hundreds of miles. And the vineyards! Just now putting out long tender new shoots which the keepers are busy trimming, and right behind them are women bundling up the twigs to be used as firewood, I suppose. The French waste absolutely nothing. In one field I actually saw an almost perfect reproduction in real life of the famous painting of 'the Gleaners' -- women picking up little branches in a wood and putting them in baskets...."
On the road itself, "we saw wrecked German equipment, strewn for miles, thousands of trucks overturned and burned, huge cannons, deadly 88's with stripes around the barrels indicating American tanks knocked out, now hopelessly smashed and abandoned, wicked looking tanks with the black swastikas still showing, German helmets on the ground, one hanging on a little wood cross."
Every so often, to jam memorable scenes into his letters, he simply scribbled out snapshots with words: "a woman herding geese with a stick; a little boy shoveling snow with a wooden shovel; beautiful lace curtains in windows, draped and stretched very tight in many different fashions... everywhere rivers running brim full because of the spring thaw. France is full of rivers and everywhere the bridges have been blown up, beautiful old stone bridges with fine arches lying in heaps; and gruesome reminders that war has passed through here -- dead cattle and horses still lying where they fell, recently uncovered by melting snows...
"At night... French villages are closed up tight; not a light shows. The people simply vanish from the streets and close their shutters. The only people moving about are American soldiers, in black villages...
"Most of the boucheries (butcher shops) are closed, with signs telling when they are to be open for business, a few hours each day or week. Often there are knots of people with their milk cans waiting outside a dairy shop.... The only place I saw fresh meat for sale was in Lyon, large silk industry city. In most other places, the people seem to exist on bread and wine. We did see a few bunches of celery being carried home from market, and some huge green onions.
"Everywhere the children call to us and wave, then stick out their hands and ask for 'shoong gawm.' That's about the way Martha Dee [his daughter] says it, and I always think of her when I hear them say it.
"One woman innkeeper was talking and gesturing about how hard it is for her to change her language so often. She said she speaks 'half German, half French and half English!' All of these different troops have stopped at her inn and ordered service. She has to stop to think which language to use! Where we spent the night once there was a sign Brot ausgabe... German for 'bread is given out.' And just a few feet away there was a new sign reading 'Bread issued today.' Today I passed thru a little town that now has a French name. A short time ago it had a German name. And so it goes."
The second week of February, Creasman was reassigned from the ordinance company to the headquarters of the Rainbow Division, where he put his writing skills to use banging out citations, reports and press releases about the division's fighting. As the Allies moved closer to victory, he prepared information about what troops should expect as the occupying force in Germany.
In the weeks prior to his transfer, the front lines of the Rainbow Division had repelled the last major German offensive in southern France, and regrouped near Nancy. The intense fighting had resulted in heavy casualties and crumpled French towns.
"We have taken over an entire 3-story house," he wrote in mid-February. "...Apparently a fairly well-to-do family lived here. Upstairs there are rooms with huge mirrors on every wall. What's left of the furniture is comfortable, and the photographer has 'scrounged' (a nice word for stealing...) a feather mattress from a ruined hotel across the street. This town was badly damaged. Hardly a building escaped being hit, and in every street are shops with fronts bashed in, counters looted. The wreckage is heartbreaking, appalling, depressing. Apartment house close by has several floors visible from the front, just hanging with the whole wall gone on two sides, and one can see divans, etc., ripped and torn among the debris. All around us are villages in much worse shape even than this one. I wonder how life can ever be resumed on a normal basis.
"But we are enjoying a close comradeship here.... We have electric lights from our portable gasoline generator. I am dashing all over the countryside, contacting various units of the Division. Today I found the... platoon to which I was assigned for several months in the States, and had a warm reunion with men who have gone thru a lot since I last saw them.... My work here is not dangerous. So far I have not been under fire. Please tell this to Mother so she won't be worrying...."
It was music to ears on the home front. Creasman's wife, Dorothy, recalled recently that the arrival of letters from Jimmy and other family soldiers overseas were no small thing. "Everyone would always ask, 'Did you get a letter today?'" she said. "And then they'd want to know if they could read it. Of course, I'd always say, 'Well, I don't know, I'm going to have to look it over first and weed out a few things before I let you have it.'"
From the last weeks of February through the early weeks of March 1944, Creasman's division patrolled the front lines along the Hardt Mountains northwest of Haguenau, gearing up for the final thrust into Germany.
"I have mentioned the fact that Alsace has been fought over so many times," Creasman wrote during the lull, "and today... I learned of a woman 92 years old who has changed her nationality four times without ever leaving this vicinity. As one interpreter put it, these people are afraid to express their opinions, afraid to build up much of anything, because they have always been subject to upheavals which take everything away, and which have made opinions dangerous. This interpreter said that most of these people have German sympathies, but are anti-Nazi."
On March 18, just before the Rainbow Division broke through the Hardt Mountains, Creasman was sent west to Paris for 10 days. Envisioning the imminent collapse of Germany, the American command was preparing education programs for troops who would have to occupy postwar Europe. Creasman was tapped to help organize the "Rainbow University," which offered college courses to GIs overseas. While he was in Paris, his division stormed through Germany's vaunted -- but largely abandoned -- Ziegfried Line of defense. Then it rumbled down the slopes of the mountains and captured the German towns of Dahn and Worms, before racing east across the Rhine toward Würzburg.
It took Creasman five days to catch up with his comrades.
"At 4 o'clock in the morning," he wrote on April 3, "...I crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge at a large, ruined German city. The huge stone span lay on its side, only chunks of it and the two end approaches visible after our skip bombing tactics. After we rode as far as the railroads run east of Paris, we asked how we could reach the Division and even Army headquarters didn't tell us exactly where it was -- things were moving so fast. All they said was 'The 42nd is on the jump today and if you can hitch a ride to the [CENSORED] bridge, maybe you can catch 'em!' So we hitched a ride with a convoy of trucks which became lost and finally got us to the bridge at 4 AM, too late as the Division had crossed in the middle of the night. Still hitch-hiking we set out, finding that no one could tell us much, and so it was largely guesswork, riding along with one outfit and a bit farther with another, arriving in a town always an hour or so after corps headquarters had moved out, it seemed."
One of the rides he caught was with Margaret Bourke-White, the renowned photojournalist for Life magazine, and a correspondent for Vogue -- possibly Lee Miller, another renowned photographer. Like Creasman, the two correspondents were racing to catch up with the American vanguard in Germany.
"This afternoon after catching 8 different rides we have finally reached corps Hq and while the Lt. is resting (he will go right into combat with his platoon up ahead where the 42d is mopping up a big city) I am sitting at a desk in what looks like a Nazi school...
"Germany is a beautiful country, and in spite of awful destruction to such places as Darmstadt which I saw yesterday, the people are well dressed and seem well fed and much more prosperous than the French. I watched the Easter Parade in Kaiserslautern Sunday, and if one overlooked wrecked buildings and white flags it didn't seem that a war was going on. People in very good, stylish clothes were going to church, not looking war weary or particularly angry, although they carefully tried to ignore us and of course we are not fraternizing. I thought they had put on every stitch of finery in an effort to show defiance. German lights still burn and there's running water in taps and toilets. In France, outside Paris, this was not the case. Is this 'German efficiency,' or is it merely because they have been able to benefit from looting and plundering all of Europe? I'm inclined to think the latter.
"White flags flutter from nearly every building. American trucks thunder thru the streets 24 hours a day and Germans timidly wait for a chance to cross the street, scurrying like rabbits when an opening comes. In Bürstadt, I stood at the corner of Adolf Hitlerstrasse and Bielungstrasse and saw more people going to church. Suddenly 13 big trucks went by loaded with German prisoners. Some prisoners waved and the people flickered a few hands in response (the women held their hands to their mouths, as about to cry), and in the next to the last truck they caught sight of a little boy still in short trousers and wearing a civilian shirt & tie, and they stifled a little exclamation of shock. He evidently had been captured with the rest -- a fanatic member of the Hitler Jugend.
"I have seen bombed towns, but never have I seen anything like Darmstadt. It must be larger than Phoenix, and I drove all thru it, but I did not see more than about three buildings still usable. Block after block of walls with no roofs or floors, just skeletons. Many of them 4 and 5 story buildings. UNBELIEVABLE destruction. Utterly gutted, smashed, crumbled.
"So far I have not seen any examples of Nazi hatred. It's just like the training films told us -- Nazi flags gone; Hitler, just pictures left here and there on the walls of official buildings; and the army, in our trucks going back to the rear. But the Nazi system has only disappeared from the surface. Just before crossing the Rhine I saw a sign in big white letters on an underpass 'You Go to Berlin and Moscow Gets You.' So you see they're up to the old trick of trying to spread suspicion between the allies. And the little boys seem harmless, but they have a funny look, sort of like they were trying to hide a secret, or am I just reading my own suspicion into their look? And of course we run into such things as time bombs in buildings and armed resistance at the front to remind us of the Nazi regime...
"We see hundreds of Poles, Russians, Italians & French straggling down the roads, after our troops liberated them from the Germans who had forced them to fight and work for them. Each has a pack and all seem to be hungry. The movement is so fast and so great that there simply hasn't been time to organize everything. Even some of the German army has been by-passed, particularly service troops, and we don't seem to have room for all of them in the PW enclosures.
"Here in Germany the GI is picking up plenty of 'souvenirs.' Whenever they see something attractive and have room for it in the truck, they 'liberate' it. I have seen them go through a marble works (where headstones were made) and they carried off arm-loads of paper, light bulbs, chinaware, electrical fixtures -- even a fancy telephone. Nearly every truck has a German motorbike and a bicycle or two tied onto the side. Mattresses, typewriters, brief cases, cars, trailers -- nearly everything you can imagine, all being liberated...."
He wrote home the next day: "Still trying to size up these Germans. Saw one old man run over to a jeep load of German prisoners this afternoon and shake hands with one of them. An officer pushed him away. The people seem docile, though. One woman came by and asked if it was all right for the butcher to slaughter a beef. We sent her to the Military Government office. We do not fraternize, but do try to help things keep running. For example, we heard a cow mooing in the barn behind the house and, figuring that she was hungry or needed milking, we induced a couple of Germans to take care of her. They had been afraid to go into the barn and seemed very grateful that we took an interest.
"Tonight a Lutheran Chaplain held a service at the local Lutheran Church. I attended. There were only a few of us. The organ has a beautiful tone and the church is also beautiful in an austere Lutheran way. There's a picture -- American soldiers worshipping in a church built by the enemy. It was for soldiers only, but the civilians must have heard the music...."
By April 9, the Rainbow Division had shot past Würzburg and was poised to take Schweinfurt, whose ball-bearing works and other industries had made the city a target of intense Allied bombings.
"Everywhere, the German army's moved out, we move in," wrote Creasman on April 10, "occupying the finest houses in town, sleeping on feather beds, burning German wood in fine German stoves, listening to German music (very good) on German radios (also very good)...
"You write that you listen quite regularly to the Army Hour, and I hope you heard the Rainbow's 3 minute spot on Sunday's program... featuring an interview with a Lieutenant and a sergeant who were the first to cross the Main River into Würzburg when the Division assaulted the town...
"Some heavy artillery pieces are almost in our back yard and every time they fire, the radio, which has a habit of fading suddenly begins playing again. Incidentally I jump. The walls shake like the house is going to fall...."
In every part of captured Germany, the roads began to swell with some of the more than seven million Europeans displaced by the war. They moved in bedraggled droves.
"I have seen these little milk carts pulled by many," Creasman wrote. "Some have their stuff loaded on farm wagons which they pull, having no horses. I even saw one woman pushing a little two-wheeled 'dolly' or warehouse hand-truck! One man was actually pushing a baby buggy loaded with his belongings. A girl was carrying a huge bundle on her head. About fifty Frenchmen were loaded in a big rubber-tired wagon which was pulled by a tractor which shook... every time the motor turned over. At a snail's pace it was chugging along, and the men waved tri-color flags, while on the back and on the motor were chalked 'France' and 'Paris.'
"Every few kilometers these people would collect in pathetic groups, trying to decide where to go and where to get something to eat.... One old couple made a pitiful sight; he was pulling the cart and she, with the aid of a cane, and holding onto the back of the cart with the other hand, hobbled down the road, bent almost double. Three girls carried all their belongings on a long stick held between them. In one town about thirty poor refugees were eating lunch. They were definitely backwoods Poles. The men wore those 'hick' caps with big bills, and the women wore shawls. Out of sacks and boxes tied to carts and bicycles, they dragged black bread, sausages, sow-belly (one woman was eating it like cheese) preserved fruits, and cheese. A young mother came over to where our mess had hot water for washing and asked for a little to heat a bottle of milk for her tiny baby. Where she had obtained the milk I do not know, but imagine how unsanitary it must have been. And, sadly, one of the young women was taking long swigs from a bottle of what appeared to be schnaps -- very potent German wine..."
"Get the picture, thousands of these poor slaves, on the roads, been away from home as many as five years, may never find their families again, nothing in the world but what they carry with them; starved, beaten, neglected. Bad teeth, lame, homeless, drifting. And still the 'master race' has the gall to come to us and 'cry' about being displaced. Yes, in one town we were the last to leave when the division moved, and for several hours were the only soldiers there. The Burgomaster brought his troubles to us, and these included two German women who wanted to reach some town down the road where there was a 'friendly family' and wanted a pass to leave town. One spoke fairly good English and explained that she didn't know how to carry all her stuff with her. Actually it appeared that she expected the U.S. Army to furnish a truck to move her! When we gently suggested that she leave her stuff in the town until she could send for it, she had the gall to say, 'If I do, the American soldiers will take it!'
"One of our men who is Jewish... flared up and said, 'The French people carried their stuff on their backs when you drove them out of their homes. I saw them do it, and they didn't cry. Now it's your turn, so solve your own problem.'
"Confusion, displaced people, both friend and foe, broken homes, despair, hope, suffering, joy. A strange mixture of emotions and events we see each day here. Too much to grasp; to comprehend. We're too close to it all. On that same day two French officers came to us, saying, 'We have 100 comrades up here at the next town; we've hidden in the woods for 10 days to escape recapture; where do we go?' Questions like that are hard to answer. And, strangely, the Frenchman is speaking English mixed in more German than French. He called the forest walde and 'camp' stalag and American Amerikaner. That shows what five years in a Nazi environment will do. A few minutes later four Russians showed up, one an aviator -- fine looking men -- and their question was the same: 'Where do we go?' They could only make themselves understood by speaking German too. What irony...
"To give you some idea of just how fast this thing is moving, I can say that our Division has pushed 175 miles in the past month!! We will soon run out of German territory in which to push...."
Creasman and his division rarely stayed more than a day in one place. "Our daily news reports have read almost like earlier Russian dispatches lately. 'The Rainbow captured 100 towns today.' And 'The Rainbow cleared 75 towns today.' The infantry have to be mounted in trucks and the opposition has been withdrawing so fast they dismount for only a few minutes at most towns merely to see if there are any troops there. White flags are usually out already, so there's a quick check and they move on. Somewhere, soon, the enemy must stop to fight a determined action if he is planning any fight at all. Hitler is said to be planning a last-ditch fanatical stand at a 'last redoubt' here in the south, probably close to Berchtesgaden [his country retreat] in the mountains of Austria, and if so it may easily be the Rainbow that will have to dig him out."
The German countryside that spring was "so full of beauty, it hurts to look at," he wrote. "Green fields covering low rolling hills, pink-tiled villages nestling in little valleys and reflecting the afternoon sun for their roofs, with the church steeple invariably dominating their skyline. White swans in the town pond, age-crusted watch towers at every town gate, and the road passes under the tower thru a great arch. Forests and hills that surprise you by leaping suddenly from the farmlands... castles dominate these heights. Fruit trees are in bloom, everything is green, the roads are good and pleasantly winding, with intriguing country lanes leading off to the side."
His division was driving deeper into Bavaria: "home of Wagner -- supposed to be inhabited with the least war-like of Germans, large, easy-going, fun-loving peasant people. Well, they are peasants all right. They live in stone houses with built-in barns and stables, and have many privies, community pumps, manure piles, home-made brush brooms, cellars full of potatoes and sugar beets (the beets are for the livestock quartered in the house).... In the bigger towns these simple houses are mixed up with modern, luxurious houses. These last give the impression of having every comfort, and led one of our men to ask the other day, 'Why did these people want to go out and conquer the world when they had all of this?'
"That brings us to the Germans themselves. They seem docile enough, but it must be an act. As a cartoon shows it in today's Stars and Stripes, a G.I. is walking down the street of an occupied German village and from a hundred windows people wave white flags and shout 'Nobody here but us Anti-Nazis.' Yes, they are anxious to be Anti-Nazis now for a time while they hope it will do them some good, but just a week ago they were waving swastikas. And there is pathos. They are human. Two women were pulling a cart full of their clothes away from their living quarters in this castle yesterday -- they had just been ordered to vacate to make room for us. One of them -- perhaps with a touch of defiance -- asked, 'How long are you going to be here? This is our home and we're coming back.'
"This is the problem of Germany. A defeated nation with ruined cities, millions of the best (maybe that isn't the word) of them dead. No transportation. Very little food, burdened with the psychological nightmare of defeat. Feeling guilty, depressed, hopeless, vengeful, and full of self pity all at once. This is a hideous problem for the Allies. As one analyst put it in Time, these people seem willing enough to be told what to do by us.... They've always been used to having people tell them what to do. The general attitude seems to be, 'Germany is an Allied problem: go ahead and solve it for us, tell us what to do.' In a survey conducted not long ago, most Germans said they wished to be made some sort of American colony or protectorate. But on the heels of this attempt to shove all their problems onto our shoulders will come almost unbearable depression and frustration and discouragement.... These people have shown all the symptoms of the unstable people we study in abnormal psychology -- fits of high spirit and hope followed by plunges into the blackest despondency. And out of that plunge comes the pathological cruelty... and mental sickness that the world has seen too much of already, sickness called Naziism."
At the end of April 1945, with the Rainbow Division closing in from the north on the outskirts of Munich, Creasman saw just how far that sickness had gone. It was something he could never have imagined and would never forget.
On April 28, the Rainbow Division advanced to the small town of Dachau.
Allied commanders had known about Germany's concentration camps for some time. Soviet forces had liberated Majdanek in July 1944. In the months since January 1945, theirs and other Allied armies had taken Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Ohrdruff. At some of these camps, Nazi forces had tried to kill or ship prisoners by train ahead of the onrushing Allies. But the Dachau concentration camp was intact when the Rainbow Division got there on the morning of April 29.
Opened in 1933, it was the oldest of Hitler's solutions for undesirables and his political opposition. That morning, it held an estimated 32,000 prisoners. Many were sick and dying. On a rail line that terminated not far from the camp's metal gates inscribed with the Nazi slogan Arbeit Macht Frei -- [Work Makes One Free] -- was a 40- to 50-car train that reportedly had left Buchenwald earlier that month with a load of inmates. All but one of the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people packed into its cars were dead when the Americans liberated the camp. Most had died of starvation and exposure in the cold. Others had been shot.
Creasman spent all day April 30 escorting Associated Press writer Louis Lochner through the camp. They toured the wooden barracks that still held many of the prisoners. They spoke with prisoners and walked through the crematorium. They visited the laboratories where Nazis had tortured prisoners in the name of medicine.
Creasman clipped an SS patch off the uniform of a dead German soldier, folded up a site plan that the Germans had drawn of the camp in 1944, and went back to write an account of what he had seen there. It appeared in the next day's edition of the Rainbow Division's "World News":
"Dachau is no longer a name of terror for hunted men.... The crime done behind the walls of this worst of Nazi concentration camps now live only in the memories of the Rainbowmen... who first saw its misery...
"But no human imagination fed with the most fantastic of the tales that have leaked out from the earliest and most notorious of all Nazi concentration camps, could have been prepared for what they did see there.
"The keen descriptive powers of a score of ace correspondents who entered the camp while the battle of liberation was still in progress, and through whose eyes the whole world looked upon that scene, could not do justice to this story. Seasoned as they were by long acquaintanceship with stark reality, these trained observers gazed at freightcars full of piled cadavers no more than bones covered with skin and they could not believe what they saw with their own eyes.
"Riflemen accustomed to witnessing death had no stomach for rooms stacked almost ceiling-high with tangled human bodies adjoining the cremation furnaces, looking like some maniac's woodpile.
"And when an officer pressed thru mobs of the forgotten men of all nations inside the electric barbed wire enclosure and entered a room where lay the dying survivors of the horror train, he wept unashamedly as limp ghosts under filthy blankets, lying in human excreta, tried to salute him with broom-stick arms, falling back in deathly stupor from which most would never rouse.
"Ten days before the arrival of the Rainbow Division, fifty carloads of prisoners arrived at Dachau from the Buchenwald concentration camp in a starving condition after 27 days without food. 27 days later -- days of exposure to freezing weather without anything to eat, a trainload of human suffering arrived at Dachau only to be left to die in the railyard leading into this extermination camp.
"In those stinking cars were seen the bodies of those prisoners too weak even to get out. A few tried, and they made a bloody heap in the door of one of the cars. They had been machine gunned by the SS. A little girl was in that car.
"In another car, sitting on the bodies of his comrades, his face contorted with pain frozen by death, was the body of one who completed the amputation of his gangrenous leg with his own hands and covered the stump with paper. Underneath was one with a crushed skull. 'He's better off now' was the comment of one newsman. Close by was one who had been beaten until his entrails protruded from his back.
"But most of them had simply died in the attitudes of absolute exhaustion that only starving men can assume. Curled up with their faces resting in fingers tipped with blue nails. With naked buttocks angling up to pivot on a skeletal pelvis. Or twisted over to show an abdomen stretched drum-tight against the spine with ribs making an overhanging bulge.
"Some of the cars had been emptied and the bodies carted to the crematory. In one room adjoining the furnace-room on the left they were neatly stacked. The stripped corpses were very straight. But in the room on the right they were piled in complete disorder, still clothed.
"With the help of a husky Yugoslav inmate, who worked at the furnaces and who told that all four of them had been going tag und nacht 'day and night' with a capacity for 7 bodies each, the explanation partially unfolded. The straight neat ones had probably been brought in alive, showered in the Brausebad or shower-room, then gassed or hanged from hooks on the rafters in front of the furnaces. Those on the right were just as they were dumped out of the freight cars where they had died of starvation.
"It was incredible that such things could happen today, but there was the visible proof...."
Creasman sent copies of his account to his family, to KTAR and to the Arizona Republic, which reprinted it in mid-June 1945. He wrote home that the general ordered a copy made for every soldier in the division and attached units. "This is pretty strong, but it needs to be told. It is all true. I saw it."
While Creasman lingered at Dachau, his division roared down one of Hitler's prized four-lane highways leading to Munich -- part of a tremendous convoy of Americans sweeping into the birthplace of Nazism and mopping up what remained of them and the war.
"For days now I have been witnessing the complete defeat of the German army," Creasman wrote on May 8, the day after Germany's surrender, "...Prisoners are everywhere -- still coming out of the woods and mountains to surrender. Hundreds of thousands of them jamming every type of vehicle imaginable and streaming on foot back to the PW cages. These are the first German vehicles we have yet to see that run. Seems strange to see anything but wrecked and burned German trucks. The beaten Germans even come along in wagons...."
These were the survivors. On his way across Germany, in every house his division had occupied, Creasman had seen other evidence of the Reich's losses.
"Behind every room we live in there's a history," he wrote a few weeks later from his quarters in Kitzbuhel, Austria, "and the history of this one is told in the photograph album on the chest of drawers here in the front room. There are many snapshots -- and very artistic ones -- of Alpine snow scenes. Two people, a young man and woman, are in nearly all of them -- climbing the face of a cliff with ropes, playing with a dog, eating with a group of friends in a cabin high in the Alps. Then there is a picture -- evidently a wedding picture -- showing the two. He is in uniform, a German soldier. Very handsome. There are no more pictures of the couple after that. Just a black card, of the kind so common in so many German homes, a card announcing that Sepp Siberer was killed on the 21st of October 1944 in the field against der Sowjets fur Grossdeutschland -- greater Germany. Then there is a picture of a woman and a baby. Nothing more...."
Creasman's story didn't end there. "Day before yesterday," he continued, "just before the 9 o'clock curfew, I saw a young woman dressed entirely in black in the hallway, getting some linens from a closet. She looked up and -- as I came out of my room -- asked in English, 'You live there?' When I answered yes and asked if that were her room, she answered, 'the whole house is mine.' It was the same woman whose pictures are in the album. I assured her that I would take good care of the rooms, and she said she was sure of that and 'I hope you boys stay here -- that no others come -- because you really seem like such a nice bunch.' Hmmmmm. These people really know how to 'soft soap.'
"You can get an idea of the cost of this war in German lives by the death notices you see in nearly all the houses. All the way from the Rhine to Austria, wherever we stopped, there was in about 90% of the cases at least one black-bordered card with a soldier's picture and the date and place of his death. Sometimes two cards. And 'sharp' looking men too. What a shame that their minds were twisted by a little maniac. And the gal I mentioned talked to some of the other men here the other day, asking 'what about the Russians? Now you will have to fight them.' These people still believe Hitler's propaganda."
In the weeks following the German surrender, Creasman took a Jeep out to Berchtesgaden, where Hitler had built himself a fortress with a view of the Alps. The place had been overrun and trashed by American troops. Nevertheless, he found what remained of Hitler's movie room, and he filched the carbon lighting filaments out of the projector Hitler had used to watch the triumphal movies Leni Reifenstahl had made of him.
In July, Creasman left Kitzbuhel for Salzburg, to organize the Rainbow University.
He remained in Europe long after the Pacific war ended in August. What he saw heading into the winter of 1945 disturbed him.
"Conditions are almost frightening in places like Vienna," he wrote home in October 1945. "There is so little of everything that people will give anything for food. Black market prices are fantastic. I know people who are getting rich right today -- Army people -- simply by making a business out of selling soap, cigarettes, candy, cloth, shoes, and Scotch in Vienna. Some people are having their families mail them Crisco and cooking oil. These items bring about 35 dollars a pound. Cigarettes sell for 10 dollars a package. You can just about name your own price for a yard of cloth or a new pair of shoes. Some people have recently told me they have cleared 1,500 and as much as 3,000 dollars off of this traffic in the past few weeks. Some of the soldiers stationed in Vienna are carrying 5, 10 and 15 thousand dollars on their person. Restrictions have been placed on the amount anyone can send home from Europe, but men are bribing Army postal officials, sometimes splitting their wad 50-50 with them in order to get their money orders passed, I hear...
"Coupled with this economic unrest and instability is the frightful distrust which the Viennese have for the Russians.... The smart Austrians fill the easy-going dumb Americans with horror stories about the Russians (which all our boys believe). And then they also tell the Russians horror stories about the Americans. Play both sides against the middle. It's amazing how many of our officers and men fear the Russians.... I'm afraid the net result of this war is that most American soldiers now say that the Germans and Austrians are the finest, cleanest, prettiest, sweetest people they have seen anywhere outside the U.S. Also that the Russians are swine, and the Displaced Persons are dirty, undesireable [sic], unambitious, and deserve to be outcasts. In other words, they like their former enemies and hate their allies and the poor enslaved people we were supposed to be 'liberating.'
"Have you read the stories about the furor caused about the Jews here? We 'liberated' them. Yet up until a week or so ago they were being treated almost as badly as they were under the Nazis. It took a personal visit from General Eisenhower and several scorching directives from him to get anything done. Now that we're at least trying to get them decent places to live, about 500 of them are being sent to Salzburg and we have been ordered to find them billets 'at least as good as those occupied by American troops.' I've heard quite a bit of squawking about that already. In other words, we aren't living up to all that we preached while we were fighting...
"The crux of the matter is this: no people on earth are as inexperienced and untrained to govern anybody as the American Army. We just ain't got it.... Every day I hear men in our own Headquarters say, shaking their heads, 'We might be trained to fight a war, but I'll be g--------d if we can run a country.'
"However, I shouldn't be too harsh. Never in history has any Army tackled a problem as big as ours.... It's colossal. And I see signs that in spite of our inefficiency and confusion, we're pulling through.... We're at least TRYING to be fair.... We are not being cruel...
"Europe is sick unto death. I sometimes despair of ever seeing it otherwise. And this despair is deepened when I realize that Europe's sickness is catching.
"...Please forgive the doleful dismal note upon which I end this. Things may not be as bad as all that. Darling, please show this letter to Mom and Dad. You are the only link they have had with me for a long time...."
By the time Jimmy Creasman came home in the summer of 1946, his daughter, Martha Dee, had lived longer without him than with him. He landed in New York and caught a train to Phoenix. The family legend about his return to Litchfield Park has it that when his daughter laid eyes on him, she insisted, 'You're not my Daddy. You're just a funny little man. That's my Daddy,' she said, pointing to the photographs Creasman's wife had placed around the living room.
She quickly got over it.
Creasman moved his family to New York that year, and resumed working for Voice of America. In 1947, Grady Gammage, then-president of Arizona State College, offered Creasman the job as the school's first full-time alumni director. Dorothy Creasman recalls sitting at the kitchen table in New York and drawing up a list of pros and cons. The pros won, so back they came.
Except for a stint running an ASU-sponsored Peace Corps program in Brazil, from 1964 to 1967, this is where the Creasmans remained. Creasman became the school's director of university relations in 1967. He came to be known as "Mr. ASU" for his long service with the school. He led the successful ballot effort in 1958 to change the school's name to Arizona State University. For years, he showed up at just about every Saturday home football game to be the voice of the Sun Devil Marching Band. He retired from the university in 1984, but kept an office there for years afterward.
Creasman had been right about Dachau. He carried it with him the rest of his life. Whenever a book was written about it, he bought it. Whenever he came across articles featuring old Rainbow Division soldiers recounting their experiences at Dachau, he wrote to them. He kept dozens of photocopies of the article he'd written for the Rainbow Division's newsletter and distributed them to anyone who asked. He also kept photographs of the terrible things he witnessed there.
Dachau was the first thing he mentioned to me about the war when I met him in the alley two years ago. The thoughts and images it stirred up still made him shake his head. "I just had no idea," he told me. "All those bodies and the smell. You just couldn't have imagined anything that perverse."
In the few months before he died, Creasman had very little strength, his grandson Robert Miller, an attorney with the state Attorney General's Office, told me recently. "He couldn't get out of bed, and he couldn't speak very loudly at all. Yet he talked over and over about Dachau and what he had seen there. And he kept the books about it right there beside his bed."
Creasman died last August, at age 85.
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: email@example.com