by Forrest Longwell
Sergeant in Patton's Third Army, 6th Armored Division, 9th Arm'd Infantry Division, Company C
© family of F. Longwell, Alice Longwell & Valerie Longwell Collins
Spring is a time for new life. Germany's April of 1945 could have been like any spring month. A month when flowers and grass are born again and apple, cherry and peach trees are showing signs of their pregnancy with colorful pink and white blossoms. This April however, Germany was having a war. Bombs, shells and bullets were upstaging nature's coming out party, and an old oak tree was near death.
General Patton had his Third Army rolling like a juggernaut on the Autobahn, Germany's famous four lane freeway. The tanks looked like huge eager fire-spouting monsters ready to destroy anything or anybody that dare block their path. So devastating was the onslaught that entire hungry, war weary, Nazi divisions were surrendering. The mass surrenders forced the US Army to set up temporary makeshift prisons; anything with a substantial fence was being used for a stockade.
At Langensalza, somewhere near Kassel, Germany, one such stockade was an old school yard. One could detect that the school was at least a hundred years old by the architecture and materials used in construction. The window casings and sills were a weather-beaten gray with paint chips lying layer upon layer, showing that maintenance had tried to keep them in repair over the years. In this school yard was a critically wounded war casualty.
Standing alone and silent was a huge, thick-barked majestic oak tree with its trunk ripped open by an exploding artillery shell. The tree must have been as old as the school, but had withstood the elements better over the years.
I was a platoon sergeant in one of Gen. Patton's Third Army units (Sixth Armd., 9th AIB) when the old tree and I met. It was my group's mission to herd a couple of hundred kraut prisoners into the confines of the old school yard and guard them until rear area MP's could advance and relieve us. Guarding prisoners is like a rest and recreation furlough to an armored infantryman, and our platoon was lolling around, relishing the welcome break from the usual assault action of combat.
My mind began to play its favorite game called "forget the war" as I sat slumped against the trunk of the wounded oak. I thought of the great life this tree must have had. Rope grooves where swings had swung stood out like tattoos on its powerful limbs. Surely, the big trunk had to have been a great home base for children picnicking under these same shade producing branches. I wondered how many frisky little squirrels and their offspring had leaped from branch to branch like performing trapeze artists. I envisioned multitudes of small animals scurrying about, ahead of an impending storm, gathering and storing the tree's acorns to insure their winter survival.
It is really of no consequence, but which side will take credit for destroying this magnificent centenarian that was benefactor to so many? The old tree had no quarrel; it was just another innocent neutral victim of the senseless act of destruction called war.
The Military Police, who were to take over the stockade, showed up and my outfit was moving out. As I looked back, some of the German prisoners were sitting in the shade of the wounded oak.
I paused to whisper a prayer that the old tree might make it somehow.
Forrest C. Longwell