Jim Colling Adventure Series




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Chapter Five

December, 1945

The Battalion began to lose personnel at an even greater rate after Thanksgiving, as the Army worked to send as many 85-point men as possible home for discharge before Christmas. Colling was kept engaged with the resulting paperwork, and supervising PX operations, so that he had little time for anything else.

He had used the three-day pass that Major Harris had given as a reward for the successful hosting of the general officers to visit Austria. The weather had been miserable, however, and he had spent much of his time sitting in front of the fire in the ski lodge designated as an Army Recreational Facility, sipping bad Austrian brandy and reading tattered paperbacks that had been left behind by former guests. The place was filled with American soldiers, but aside from some older women who were employed by the hotel, there was no female companionship in evidence. He made two slogging walks in the wet snow to try and view some of the mountain scenery, but gave up after the second attempt badly soaked his one pair of Army dress shoes.

When he came back from Austria, Sergeant Ferguson presented him with his technician fifth class stripes, and told him that Major Harris had followed Colonel Harrington’s advice. The two chevrons with a “T” in a semicircle underneath meant he would draw more pay, and could be addressed as “Corporal.” Ferguson once again reminded him that in the pre-war Army, it would have taken as much as five years for promotion to corporal.

The work by Zinsmann and his crew at the Kummersfeld Luftwaffe field was proceeding well, in spite of the encroaching cold and some light snowfalls. The day after Pearl Harbor Day, however, newly-promoted Major Barretson telephoned from Third Battalion headquarters to ask Colling to come to Kummersfeld to translate so that the major and Zinsmann could discuss a “snafu” that had developed in the construction.

Zinsmann was waiting outside Barretson’s office when Colling arrived. The German did not have time to explain what was happening before they were summoned into the Major’s presence. Colling came to attention and saluted. Barretson off-handedly returned the salute and said, “It seems we have a problem, Corporal. Tell Herr Zinsmann that he will not get paid unless I can get my men under roof before the weather gets any worse.”

What’s the problem, sir?”

Herr Zinsmann tells me he cannot get windows for the barracks.”

Zinsmann explained to Colling in German, “All glass in Germany is allocated to the highest priority. It is impossible to find any.”

Colling translated the German’s explanation.

Barretson replied, “Our contract was for completion of the construction before winter set in. I’ve asked everywhere for glass, but nobody has any available. Only officially approved reconstruction can get any. And we’re not officially-approved, as you know.”

Sir, if you would, let me see if some contacts I have can dig up what you need.”

Zinsmann offered, “We can use boards over the windows if glass is not found.”

Colling did not offer to convey the German’s idea to Barretson, sensing that it would only make the Major angry. “I’ll let you know this afternoon, sir, if we can find some windows.” To Zinsmann, he asked, “Can you give me the measurements of the windows that you will need?”

The German produced a sheet torn from his notepad filled with figures. Colling told him that he would have to make a clearer list for him, then turned back to the Major, “I’ll have Herr Zinsmann give me a list, and I’ll call this afternoon, sir.”

Barretson conceded, but warned Colling he would expect to hear from him no later than that afternoon.

Outside, sitting in the jeep, Zinsmann carefully prepared a list of what was required. Colling read it over and, after asking a few questions for clarification, felt that he understood the German’s cramped writing. He dropped Zinsmann off at the airfield, then drove back to Grabensheim.

Colling explained the problem to Ferguson, who thought for a few minutes, then said, “You know, I know a guy who’s down in Italy with the Quartermasters. I haven’t seen him since we were in Panama together, but he dropped me a couple of letters, and I think I know his outfit. Maybe I can reach him.”

But can he get any glass, Sarge?”

Last I heard, he was supplying stuff for building for the Army down there.”

Ferguson searched through the drawers of his desk for some time before he pulled out some well-worn envelopes that had been clipped together. “Here they are, Master Sergeant Anthony Gaetano, 1067th Quartermaster Detachment. He was in Milan. I hope he’s still there.”

After several failed attempts to make the long-distance connection to Italy, Ferguson finally located the 1067th, and after several more static-filled connections punctuated by sudden disconnections, was able to get through to Gaetano. The two men chatted for awhile, and Colling listened to Ferguson’s end of the conversation as the master sergeant reminisced about their prior service together. Ferguson eventually asked Gaetano about the windows, and apparently the Quartermaster Sergeant assured him that Italy was the right place to come for glass. The Italian glass factories had returned to almost 75% of their previous production capacity, and for cash, whatever you wanted was available. Gaetano suggested that Ferguson wire him the sizes and quantity that was needed, and he would have them made up. Only one problem existed. This would be an unofficial transaction, and it was unlikely that he could arrange transportation, especially across Austria and into Germany. Ferguson responded that he would figure out a way to bring the windows to Germany if Gaetano would see that they were manufactured. With promises of a later telephone call to establish the details, Ferguson hung up the phone.

Colling immediately telephoned Barretson to advise him that there was a good chance that windows would be found in Italy. But Major Barretson would have to find a way to have the 61st Division Headquarters in Munich authorize the use of its teletype equipment to send the inventory of windows to the 1067th in Milan. Colling would type out Zinsmann’s list and have it in the Major’s hands by the following morning. Colling didn’t tell Barretson about the lack of transportation, even if the teletyped message could be sent.

Ferguson was tracing a route on a map spread out on his desk when Colling finished typing the list for Major Barretson. Colling looked over his shoulder and asked, “Trying to find a way to get them back here, Sarge?”

Yeah, but the only sure route over the mountains is by rail. The roads are in real bad shape. I was thinking about sending the Henschels, like we did for the fountain equipment from Frankfurt.”

Couldn’t the trucks be loaded on a flat-bed railroad car until they got to Milan?”

If Harrington would authorize it, it’s possible. There ain’t much freight going south these days, and he should be able to get a requisition for train space.”

Another call to Barretson elicited his assurance that Colonel Harrington would sign travel authorizations and a rail requisition for Italy. A preliminary assessment by Ferguson and Colling indicated that two flatbeds would be needed to handle the two Henschels. Because the First Battalion’s vehicles would be used, it would be Ferguson’s responsibility to pick the drivers and others who would go with them. Ferguson reminded Major Barretson that they would also need an authorization to draw additional gasoline that could be traded for diesel fuel. The Major would also have to arrange for Allied Military Marks to be drawn from Finance in a sum sufficient to pay for the windows. Gaetano had provided an estimate that 20,000 Marks would be needed.

The following afternoon, Major Barretson telephoned to let them know that he had been successful in having Division telegraph the list of needed windows to Gaetano at the 1067th. Ferguson called Gaetano and confirmed its receipt. Sergeant Gaetano informed Ferguson that the windows would be ready within two or three days.

Colling asked Ferguson to be allowed to make the trip to Italy, and the sergeant agreed. Colling’s presence would be justified on the grounds that a German translator might be needed, but Ferguson had another plan in mind, and wanted Colling to supervise it.

Ferguson explained that he had asked, and learned, from Gaetano that German beer was a much-sought-after commodity in Italy. Ferguson had calculated that if they were able to load the Henschels with beer purchased in Grabensheim and sell it in Italy, they would make enough to perhaps pay for the windows in Italian Lire, and make something extra on the side. The Allied Military Marks supplied by Major Barretson would be used to pay for the beer.

Colling calculated how many 20-liter barrels of beer that 20,000 Marks would buy, and concluded that even with having to pay for the empty barrels, they would have 250 barrels of beer to sell in Italy. Gaetano had given Ferguson the name of a contact in Milan whom Gaetano had said would give 750 Italian Lire per barrel. With the Lira at four to the Allied Mark, the profit would be more than 100 Marks, or over $10.00, per barrel. Ferguson’s share would be a third, with Colling and the other men splitting the other two-thirds.

Unlike the great majority of men in the occupation forces, Colling had not engaged to any great degree in black marketeering and currency exchange manipulation. He had used his cigarette ration card to buy cigarettes at the PX price of fifty cents a carton, knowing that the same carton would bring up to 200 Allied Marks on the black market in Munich. Rumor had it that a carton of American cigarettes could be sold to the Russians in Berlin for up to 400 Allied Marks.

The Marks could then be exchanged by American soldiers back into dollars, so that a fifty-cent investment would return $20.00. Similar profits could be made with other commodities purchased in the PX, such as candy and other goods. Some members of the occupation forces dealt not only in cigarettes, but also in coffee, sugar and gasoline purloined from Army stores.

Colling had traded his cigarette ration with both Germans and his fellow soldiers, but had not done so with thoughts of large profits. The coffee and sugar he had taken to Frau Bergheim had been obtained by swapping cigarettes with Sergeant Cooley’s cooks, and he had a Leica camera, Zeiss binoculars, and a small radio that had been paid for with packs of Lucky Strikes. All of which meant that Colling was surprised not at the amount of money that Ferguson’s plan would produce, but that he was willing to think in such a way at all. He had not previously given it much thought, but when confronted with this side of Ferguson that he had not seen before, he recognized how much restraint the sergeant had been exercising in not using the large quantity of cigarettes in his possession for his own financial benefit.

He would be sharing about $1600 with the five other men that the master sergeant had selected to make the trip to Italy. Staff Sergeant Gambelli from C Company was to be in charge. His ability to speak Italian would be useful once they reached Milan. Sergeants Harms and Caseman were picked because of their combat experience. Snuffy Smith and a PFC named Cole would drive. Ferguson warned all of them that Italy was a potentially dangerous place. Communist partisans still controlled the northern mountains, and it was only because of the guerrillas’ connections with the Italian railway labor unions that rail travel moved relatively unscathed. Motor vehicle traffic in the Italian Alpine was non-existent. Anyone moving by truck or automobile was certain to be stopped by the partisans, usually robbed and sometimes killed. Even when on the train, Gambelli’s men should expect the occasional pot shot and be prepared to shoot back. Harms would have a BAR to provide extra firepower. Everyone else would carry .45’s and a carbine or an M1.

Colling made arrangements with the best of the local breweries for the beer, and Smith and Cole brought their Henschels at night to be loaded by the brewery workers. Once the loading was complete, Colling locked the trucks’ rear doors and affixed one of the wire seals he had been given by Ferguson to each one. Travel papers had been furnished by Barretson, complete with Colonel Harrington’s own signature. Colling stowed an extra typewriter behind the seat of the truck he would ride in, together with a supply of blank forms, stationery and official rubber stamps, as well as the extra wire seals. All of them wore overcoats, field webbing and helmets, and had their weapons close at hand.

They drove the Henschels to Feldberg, just north of the Austrian border, where two flatbed railway cars awaited them. Before the trucks were driven onto the cars, American MP’s and German customs officers inspected the sealed doors and checked the papers that Staff Sergeant Gambelli presented. The inquiry was superficial and took no more than five minutes. A half-hour later, they were sitting in the cabs of the big trucks, watching the Austrian countryside go by.

Even though they were wrapped in their overcoats, the Alpine cold was penetrating, and at the first stop, Gambelli decided that they would take turns riding the flatbeds with the Henschels. Four men would remain in the single passenger day-coach attached to their train, while one man would stay with each truck. At each stop, they would switch.

Colling drew the second round of riding with the trucks, and he had become stiff with cold when he saw with relief that they were drawing into a station close to the Italian border. He was looking forward to a steaming cup of anything hot as he climbed down the short ladder from the flatbed car and dropped to the ground. They had stopped some distance from the station, which was barely visible through a haze that hung whitely around them. As he walked towards the passenger car, he noticed a military truck of unfamiliar design parked across the tracks. It was painted a different shade of olive drab, unlike those of the German army. As he was trying to make out its unit markings, he realized that it was British, and wondered why it was so far from the railway depot and any obvious road.

Sergeant Harms, who had been riding in the truck behind his, caught up with Colling as he joined Gambelli and the other men, who had left the passenger car and were gazing around at the mist-covered forest surrounding them. They too had noticed the British vehicle and were discussing it among themselves, their breath making clouds as they spoke.

When a figure exited the truck and walked towards them, they stopped talking and watched the man who was approaching them. As he drew closer, the insignia on his shoulders was visible, and they recognized that he was a British officer. He was not wearing an overcoat, but his jacket was pulled close around his neck, and a black and white checked muffler covered his throat. He wore one of the standard British canvas holsters with a side arm attached to a lanyard. His nose and ears were red with the cold.
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