The 36th Division Archive
Sergeant William A. Fraser Jr.
F Company, 386th Infantry Regiment, 97th Infantry Division
William A. Fraser Jr. was born to a small rural family outside the northern town of Valparaiso, Indiana in 1924. A farmer’s son, William’s daily life consisted of Indiana corn and wheat fields as he grew up in the small but growing city of 8,000. He entered high school in 1939, exploring a range of activities like a debate club, Hi-Y, the science club, and even running for the track team. In his junior year, however, his world was shaken by the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. Losing some friends from school and his brother to the Coast Guard, 16-year-old William had to sit and watch as global events enraptured his small coastal midwestern town. As the war went on William took on more leadership roles in his classes, leading several clubs, finally graduating in May 1943. Within a month of graduation, however, William was drafted for service in the U.S. Army, officially enlisting on 30 June in Indianapolis.
Upon completing basic training William was attached to the infantry branch and sent to join a growing division on the west coast, the 97th Infantry Division. In February 1944 they moved eastward to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri where numerous other troops from the division were stripped and sent as replacements overseas. Towards the end of the summer, however, William and the remainders were finally given orders to train as a cohesive division. Intended to serve as a replacement division in the Pacific, they moved out west for amphibious training at Camp Callan, near San Diego, and continued with more training at Camp Cooke. Although the 97th was intended for the Pacific, German advances in the Bulge worried Eisenhower, and thus in January, the division was reflagged for service in Europe, traveling back across the United States, and setting sail on 19 February 1945.
They arrived in Europe a few weeks later and spent a few weeks mucking about waiting for orders. Likely during this period, now a member of F Company, 386th Infantry Regiment and a longstanding member of the division, was assigned as a squad leader and thus became responsible for leading a small group of men into combat. Although far from the lines, they first saw action on their way to Camp Lucky Strike when a stray German flight strafed their convoy. After a series of 40-and-8 rides and truck convoys, however, William and his comrades finally found themselves at the front on 28 March 1945. First taking positions opposite of Dusseldorf near the Rhine, their first week of combat was spent patrolling up and down the Rhine watching enemy movement and sending out combat patrols that did not prove extremely fruitful. It wasn’t until 6 April they were finally given a chance to prove their mettle as William and his company jumped off as part of a large army-wide push to close the Ruhr Pocket with a mass, fast-paced advance deep into the German heartland. F Company began the attack at 1830, clearing out a draw on their right flank with only light casualties and taking their first POWs. The next day consisted of similar movements, crossing the Sieg River, taking artillery fire, and capturing more Germans. On the third day of the advance, the battalion began what would become a streak of quick movement followed by brief battle and town clearing which was then repeated multiple times a day. Although first held up by German counterattack, by the end of 9 April the company had captured over 17 towns, moving many miles into Germany. The numbers continued to rise over the next several days, taking roughly 12-15 towns a day, although at times facing fierce resistance from fanatical German troops equipped with artillery, flak cannons, self-propelled guns, and other well-armed strongpoints.
By 13 April the 97th’s advance had pushed over 250 miles, that day capturing a whopping 23 towns and ending with the 3rd Army along the Czechoslovakian border. It was here that F Company met up with forces of the 13th Armored Division before pushing into Bechen where they faced heavy 88mm artillery and automatic weapons fire on the town's outskirts. Despite this, the now armored force wiped their way through the enemies and made their way through 29 more towns and villages. The day after was much of the same until 16 April when William and the company came upon a larger German force that, thankfully, surrendered without much incident, only causing problems with how many prisoners they were now having to watch and process as a single company in a fast-paced advance. Taking advantage of their prisoners’ former equipment, William and F Company left them behind by walking alongside a convoy of freshly “liberated” German vehicles occupied by other men of their battalion. They finished clearing a set of woods near Grotenbeck, gathering numerous POWs in the process, before settling in the town for their first day of relaxation since the campaign began.
While enjoying a few hours of rest in the small German town, William took the opportunity to write home to his family describing the whirlwind of action he had just seen. In a long letter published in his hometown paper, he explained how he and his company had “been going along so fast” for almost three weeks that “the censors haven’t even had time to censor the stuff, let alone time enough for us to write.” In the letter he describes Grotenbeck as a “good-sized city,” praising his lodgings in a well-to-do apartment building equipped with all sorts of amenities, only complaining about its lack of running water. Supposedly, this was a luxury he had come to enjoy, as he admitted to only spending a single night in a foxhole thus far in his combat career. Every other night was spent in warm German houses in occupied towns along the way of their impressive advance. He claimed that boys “in the CBI would give us a laugh,” for the conditions they were in, “sleeping in beds every night, eating preserves to supplement our rations, breaking open a bottle of wine,” finding new pairs of German slippers, and much more. To William, he felt it really was a “gentleman’s war” compared to the horror stories he heard about in the Pacific, stating how he really “couldn’t ask for a better war.” The downside, he found, was his changing attitude towards property. Believing he had now been through more houses in Germany than he had ever been in the US, he described the likely difficulty he would face back home not being able to simply cut down a fence he needed to get around or kicking/shooting in the kitchen door when it was locked and in his way. He even apologized to his family for requesting a personal knife as he had “thrown away” more German knives in two weeks than his local hometown hardware store had “sold in the past five years.” Some of the more emotional parts of his letter came in discussing the people he came across. Alongside the general German populace, William found himself interacting with hundreds of Russian, Polish, and French imported slave laborers who were now freed from their masters. They filled the areas he occupied and became a rather unpredictable mass of drunkards, looters, and simple gawkers who only wanted to walk around with big smiles as they prepared for a long walk home. The group he felt bad for, however, were the German prisoners themselves. Although many of his buddies enjoyed taking watches and other items from the POWs, William “couldn’t bring” himself to take personal possessions, even though he admitted to knowing “they would have taken ours if they had the chance.” Regardless, he could not view the kids and old men running out with hands up as the same guys “sending slugs over our heads a few minutes before,” making him soft-hearted and leaving them to be. For all his sympathy for the German POW, William was ironically unaware that within a few days, he would be in their exact same shoes.
After a few more days of occupation and administrative duties, William’s company once again went on the move starting on 22 April, trucking over 235 miles in two days as they drove further and further towards the Czechoslovakian border amidst a mass, disheveled retreat from disorganized German forces. On 24 April, however, William’s war of quick and easy conquest came to a grinding halt. F Company, divided into several trucks, was ordered to move by motor from Silberbech to Sommerhau. William and 26 others from his platoon were traveling by themselves in a truck with their platoon sergeant. While traveling, the sergeant accidentally ordered their driver down a wrong turn, causing him to miss the town and instead take them to the Eger River where they quite blissfully drove straight into the town of Hohenberg, which just so happened to be occupied by a large German detachment. The truck ride came to a swift halt as Germans popped out onto the main street in front of their truck, shooting the driver and setting the truck ablaze. William and his men quickly jumped into action, dismounting and attempting to form a hasty defense amidst the overwhelming odds they now found themselves facing. Unfortunately, the ⅔ platoon was unable to stand up to the entire German company and within a matter of minutes was forced to surrender. Stripped of their weapons and helmets, the former conquerors were quickly turned into prisoners as they were marched into a nearby field and looted by their own German captors. While standing here the GIs were moved into a flat line when, to their horror, a German at the other end of the field began setting up a machine gun facing directly toward them. As the gunner was finishing his set up, to the Americans’ surprise, a German officer strolled up and ordered the gun to be dismantled and the prisoners instead marched off for evacuation. For the next few days, William and his platoon-mates were shipped through a German army in disarray and moved hundreds of miles through Czechoslovakian territory until they reached the closest camp, Stalag IVc in Wistritz bei Teplitz Schone, sometime in early May. The camp was an old one, providing laborers for nearby coal mines, but as such consisted primarily of Commonwealth, Soviet, and other eastern prisoners with a very minimal American presence outside of William and his platoon. The newly-captured Americans were met with a bit of a culture shock as they joined their fellow allies behind bars, now turning from liberated wine and preserves to turnip and dandelion soup as German logistics had disintegrated. Conditions were rough, but William and his men only ended up being in the camp for around a week before they were liberated by Russian troops on 8 May 1945, the end of the war in Europe.
One week driving through Germany and taking as they please, the next sitting behind barbed-wire fences scouring dandelions for nourishment, it was a truly shocking and confusing series of events for William and his platoon. According to postwar reports the 97th Infantry Division suffered a grand total of 61 captured troops for its month in combat, almost half of them accounted for with William and the lost truck incident. Once liberated the GIs were kept in Russian custody before being returned to the Americans a few days later, keeping them together, bumping their ranks, and sending them home immediately for an automatic 66-day furlough in the states. Given his minuscule stay in captivity, however, William was required to stay in the army for a while longer before he was finally discharged in January 1946. Once he returned home he did not let the war hold him back, instead utilizing his GI Bill to attend Indiana University Bloomington to study business, specializing in broadcasting, which he worked heavily at before breaking into the radio station industry after graduation where he began a long career. William never did forget his wartime experiences, though, remaining active in veterans groups and even requesting a POW medal when they were made available for issuance. Describing his capture as “nothing to be proud of,” he nonetheless wanted some recognition for the “dramatic” events that had happened while he was in the army, paying homage to the brief but drastic circumstances that took him across Europe and into German custody as the Reich was crumbling around him.