Ocean City, N.J. -- 42nd Infantry Division veteran Bud Gahs, who served in the 222nd Infantry Regiment during World War II, joined fellow veterans of wars past and present in New Jersey from April 24-26, as part of the annual Eastern region reunion held by the Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation.
These reunions provide veterans like Gahs great opportunities to rekindle the bonds of camaraderie that were forged in service under the Rainbow patch.
Veterans sat around large tables and shared memories both humorous and bittersweet, of "liberated" cases of champagne in France, to remembering those who never made it home from the war. But the story that garnered the most attention during this reunion was the one shared by Gahs about a member of his anti-tank squad, Pfc. James Hickey.
From the day Hickey was drafted into service in the 42nd, he was convinced he would never be sent overseas. His optimism stemmed in part because of his age. He was 34 years of age at the time, and with a large family. Most of the men in his unit were younger draftees, some fresh out of high school. As Gahs recalled it, Hickey would walk around their training camp, telling everyone he was destined to go back home because "they won't need me."
Even as the 222nd Regiment sailed to Europe, Hickey was optimistic he would be sent back home "once things got sorted out." As Gahs's unit was moved forward to the front lines, reality sunk in for Hickey that he was not going to be cut loose, but he never lost his optimism.
"Hickey refused to accept his future was on the front lines with us, and he was telling everyone that he would be sent to a safe rear echelon job to fix mess kits," Gahs said. Unfortunately for Hickey, there were no mess-kit repair jobs in his future. Instead, danger was in the cards for him and the rest of his anti-tank squad as they fought through Europe.
On January 25th, 1945, in the Alsace Region of France, in a town called Schweighausen, the squad found itself in a tough spot. Gahs clearly remembers his luck on this winter morning, as he escaped likely death or capture when he went on an early morning mission for supplies. Gahs finished his late night guard shift, and then left the single story house that his squad had occupied for the night, and drove to the rear to get resupplied.
"Shortly after I left, a company of German soldiers surrounded the house, and my squad mates inside attempted to flee. Some successfully escaped, while others were either wounded or killed. But in the case of Pfc. Hickey, he was captured and taken prisoner by two German soldiers," Gahs said.
Hickey referred to the two soldiers who held him at gunpoint as the "good German" and the "bad German."
"The good German wanted to keep Hickey as a prisoner and return him to the rear for interrogation. The bad German soldier wanted to shoot Hickey on the spot," said Gahs. Fortunately for Hickey, luck intervened, and as the two Germans debated Hickey's future, a mortar round impacted near them and killed the "bad German."
This left Pfc Hickey and the "good German" essentially alone, disorientated in the woods, and unclear on which way led to German or American lines. Neither soldier was fluent in the other's native tongue, but through creative hand signals and gestures, the two soldiers formed a plan. "If Americans discovered them first, the German would act like the prisoner, and if the Germans discovered them first, Hickey would play the role of the prisoner," said Gahs. This would ensure that both of them would have the best chances of surviving their predicament, given the tumultuous battle developing around them.
Hickey and the "good German" wandered for a while through the woods, until a group of American tanks discovered them. But for reasons unknown, the tankers began firing their machine guns at both Hickey and the German. Hickey dove to the ground for cover. The "good German" also attempted to seek cover, but was shot dead by the American tankers, unaware of his willingness to surrender. Hickey lay still and pretended to also be dead, and the American machine gunners ceased firing. As the tanks passed Hickey's position, he got up, chased down one of the tanks, and jumped onto it.
Within minutes, the tankers came upon a new group of Germans waving the white flag of surrender. As the tankers debated over what to do with this group of twenty-odd Germans, they took notice of Pfc Hickey, and tasked him with handling the prisoners. With this new mission, Hickey began marching his impressive catch of prisoners to the rear to be processed.
Bud Gahs finished his story with a wide smile on his face. Leaning back in his chair, Gahs laughed as he imagined the reception Hickey likely received, proudly marching into headquarters with his prisoners. "Hickey must have made a hell of an impression, appearing to have singlehandedly taken two dozen Germans prisoner," Gahs chuckled.
The irony and humor of Gahs' story was not lost on those veterans listening in. Pfc. Hickey started the day a prisoner himself, and through twists and turns of luck and chance, ended the day as the man who singlehandedly captured dozens of Germans. Not a bad story for a guy who just wanted to repair mess-kits.