Of the sixteen million Americans who served their country during World War II, fewer than three hundred thousand are still alive. Martin Olsen survived to tell his story. It blends the history of a generation that was born during the Great Depression, fought and won a world war, and went on to rebuild a society that launched new industries and sent men to the moon.
Martin Olsen considered himself a lucky man—an amateur soldier who fought in the European theater and became part of the Great Generation. We Were Amateur Soldiers is the portrait of a man who, through his faith, self-confidence, and force of will, emerged from the horrors of war to grow his father’s small business into a market leader.
They told us the European winter of 1944–45 was one of the coldest and wettest in decades. Snow fell constantly. The ground was rock hard. Frozen solid. Despite our layers of clothing, the bone-chilling cold was impossible to avoid. Loaded with 50 pounds of equipment, we tripped and slid across the ice-covered terrain.
Admittedly, this wasn’t the best time to visit France, but I wasn’t a tourist—not in the traditional sense of the word. I’d been drafted, trained, and shipped overseas to help stop Hitler’s war machine. The Allied forces were fighting a German juggernaut that had overwhelmed one country after another and threatened our own national security. The European theater of operations would be my home away from home for over a year, along with millions of other amateur soldiers thrust into combat after only 17 weeks of basic training.
Much later, when I had time to process my military experiences and how my life had unfolded after returning home, I would consider myself fortunate in many ways. For example, I was lucky to have been sent to fight in Europe near the end of the war and not to the Pacific theater, where the enemy was more fanatical and the battles more often deadly.
Life dealt me an abundance of winning hands, from growing up in a family with strong values and a belief in hard work as the road to success, to a series of coincidences (if you believe in coincidences) that literally saved my life. One of those strange coincidences was the fact that I learned to play the drums as a young boy, playing in school bands, orchestras, and dance bands. You might ask, “How can playing drums save a person’s life?” Well, you’ll have to read the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey was fond of saying.
Luck also plays a part in guiding us through doorways we might not have found without good fortune pointing the way. And I believe I was one of the luckiest men alive. Time after time, a lucky break impacted my life for the better.
All of this would become clear to me later. Much later. But in that frigid winter of 1944–45, I was a 20-year-old amateur soldier facing combat for the first time in my life. France was a long way from Syracuse University, where the government’s draft notice found me in February of 1943. I was a long way from my family in Baldwin, New York, on Long Island. Crouched in a foxhole, shivering from the sub-zero temperatures and fearing what might happen, I waited for the Germans to attack.
The 222nd Infantry Regiment had spent an icy Christmas in Strasbourg, France, eating a cold turkey dinner and thinking about the folks we’d left back home. We moved north after Christmas to take defensive positions and await an expected German counteroffensive. Six infantry divisions under Major General Alexander Patch’s 7th Army were charged with defending a 126-mile front. They were stretched to the breaking point, with extended gaps along the battle line. Our 42nd Rainbow Division, 222nd Regiment, was designated Task Force Linden, and rushed north to help plug the holes and defend a 30-mile front.
We dug lines of foxholes, a grueling and backbreaking exercise due to the frozen ground outside Strasbourg, a hilly, heavily treed terrain. I learned later that the Germans had amassed three armies with 18 infantry and seven panzer divisions, totaling nearly 300,000 men, 2,600 artillery pieces and rocket launchers, more than 1,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, and a handful of aircraft. Hitler had ordered his generals to turn back the Allied forces with a two-pronged attack: first, with Unternehmen Wacht-am-Rhein (Operation Watch on the Rhine), what came to be known as the “Battle of the Bulge” in Belgium. The second phase of Hitler’s grand plan to push the Allied armies back was aimed at the southern flank in the Alsace-Lorraine region, where Task Force Linden had been sent. This second counteroffensive was called Unternehmen Nordwind (Operation North Wind).
While other soldiers were buddied up, two men to a foxhole, I was alone with only my carbine and my trusty radio as company. Truth be told, the radio wasn’t that trustworthy. Somewhere to my left and to my right were other soldiers of Task Force Linden, preparing to face Hitler’s last great effort to break General Eisenhower’s army and repel our steady march toward their German homeland.
Artillery shells exploded. We held on to our helmets, clutched our weapons, and hunkered down waiting our first taste of combat. We’d been told of the importance of this battle and were ordered to “Hold at all costs.” I’m sure men were praying as the shells flattened trees, and they waited for the charge of the white-clad German soldiers.
I know I was praying. And I know I was scared.