Two weeks ago: R.D. Cotten faced the Battle of the Bulge, was hospitalized with frostbite, and had just crossed the Rhine River over the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.
They are called the “greatest generation,” and their numbers are dwindling by the hundreds every day. R.D. “Joe” Cotten, a World War II veteran, is well aware of this. The Robinson resident is one of only two men remaining from the 47th Tank Battalion’s company in which he served during World War II.
Cotten, 95, served in two companies during the war, first A, then D Company, with the 14th Armored Division. He also would go on to serve three times in Korea and during the Cold War before he retired from the U.S. Army.
He was drafted in 1942, and by the spring of 1945, he had been in the Battle of the Bulge, was hospitalized with frostbite, and had just crossed the Rhine River over the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.
It had been a long, arduous trip through France and Belgium, punctuated by combative skirmishes, freezing temperatures and often, fatigue. Along the way, Cotten and the 14th became part of the famed “Liberators” who freed thousands of people imprisoned in labor/concentration camps.
After the crossing, the division looped around, sweeping through Mannheim, Darmstadt, Lohr and Hammelburg, the last of which was the site of a German Nazi camp for Allied prisoners, among others.
“As we approached with several tanks, they dropped their weapons …” he said. “By then, people inside were cheering; they were glad to see us.”
Research from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum revealed the Nazis had some 42,000 camps/ghettoes between 1933-45, including forced labor, prisoner-of-war and extermination camps, among others. Cotten thought it might be a labor camp they freed, but wasn’t sure.
He met one man – not American – who was unable to walk and very thin; he was lying on cot springs without a mattress and had swollen, black knees that possibly signaled malnourishment, he added.
“It was very poor food conditions and no medical facilities. It was pitiful,” he said. They handed over their C-Rations and moved on, leaving another unit to sort things out.
Cotten’s journey under Patton’s 3rd Army, which had absorbed the 14th, continued through Neustadt, turned around and went back to Bayreuth and then to Nurnberg.
Meanwhile, Germans in France were fleeing home when they encountered the 47th and got into battle. Cotten, a platoon leader, said one person was killed and several from his company were captured. “These people were moving at night and they captured a bunch of our people … and killed one in our company (D),” he said.
Afterward, the 14th split off and went on to Ingolstadt, and then rejoined the others in Moosburg, where there was another prison camp with more than 100,000 allied prisoners, including Americans. “Six of them were ours – from my company,” Cotten said, including one he had inadvertently reported killed in action, for which he still feels bad about today.
Cotten’s division was eventually deactivated; those who there the longest were sent home, and the rest prepared for the invasion of Japan. Cotten went to Linz, Austria, where he and others went by railroad in boxcars with no beds, seats or any way to cook their meal rations each had received.
“We thought we were flying home,” he laughed, recalling.
The trip took four days to get to La Havre, before they could board a ship Cotten said the men called a “Kaiser tin can” bound for home. It had bare minimum facilities, and the men slept in canvas bunks that were five to a row.
“If anyone got sick — which many people did — it was usually someone from the top bunk,” Cotten said, laughing. The ship broke down about half-way to the States and could only go in circles, and many people got sick.
“It went in circle for days before a repair crew came out,” he said.
Finally, they arrived in Boston. Cotten recalls there was no homecoming “no dancing girls or spraying water,” as they came in from an unexpected northerly route. The troops were hauled off to Camp Devens, New York, where he had his first memorable meal since he left the States: steak, sweet milk and ice cream.
The train trip back to Texas and Fort Sam Houston for separation took five days, and Cotten was charged with commanding the troops on the train, including coordinating meal times and keeping track of men. He lost two along the way, who got off at their home towns, but fortunately they turned up at Fort Sam on time.
By now, he was a first sergeant, about to take his three-month leave, and the recruiters were “there in full force,” Cotten said. He had a decision to make – stay in the military or go?
Concluding next week: Cotten goes to Korea, marries and raises a family before retiring from the military after 21 years of service.