My Grandfather’s Unit Was Overrun by Hitler Youth, Then Attacked by a Stuka
Piecing together fragments of the past, 72 years later
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Jack Beckhusen, my grandfather, died 17 years ago at the age of 84.
He hadn’t been in great shape, and a lifetime of drinking and smoking took away his voice. But I remember as a boy, shortly before he died, sitting with my brother in his house along the Trinity River in southeast Texas as he wrote down his war stories, slowly and barely legibly, on a legal pad.
Fifty-five years before his death, Beckhusen was a master sergeant — and the command sergeant major — with the 557th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion attached to the 84th Infantry Division “Railsplitters.”
The 557th arrived in France in August 1944, and the unit’s job was to protect and assist the infantry with M45 Quadmount and 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. Shooting down German aircraft was the gunners’ number one priority, but their weapons also helped provide covering fire for the infantry when they advanced.
One of his stories, in particular, stayed with me. Shortly before the end of the war, a German plane dived on his unit, fired and killed several U.S. soldiers. The plane was hit during the attack and crashed. Beckhusen only had enough strength to tell this story in short, scribbled sentences — and that was all I learned.
Unable to speak, he still appeared distressed while writing. He also wanted me and my brother to read it. It was the last story he wrote.
Recently, I discovered these soldiers’ names and the specifics of what happened because of an obscure, history of the unit written in 1959 by Clyde Boden, a second lieutenant and platoon commander in the 557th’s B Battery.
I’ve also learned more about my grandfather’s war history, which at times must have been terrifying.
April 1945 was the 557th’s hardest month — and one of the heaviest in terms of combat for the unit, according to Boden’s history. The unit confirmed it shot down at least 10 planes that month, but claimed double the number as possible kills. The battalion expended more than 6,000 40-millimeter shells and 113,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition.
The only period that was heavier for the unit in terms of shooting was February. That month, the 557th lined its guns up on the opposite bank of the Rhine River and fired more than 250,000 .50-caliber rounds at German positions as the 84th Infantry’s soldiers crossed into Germany.
Until April, German artillery — not aircraft — was the biggest threat to the unit. During months of supporting the Railsplitters, nearly three dozen soldiers in the 557th were wounded by artillery, and three were killed. Mines — both German and American — were another recurring hazard.
Then the time came for the battalion to follow the 84th into Germany. “On … [March] 29th word was received that the 84th and the 102d Infantry and the 5th Armored Division, operating as a Task Force, were to drive through the enemy units in the Wesel Bridgehead and effect a breakthrough — the objective, Berlin.”
The 557th crossed the Rhine at a different location than the 84th did in February. The battalion blasted away for a second time — setting an oil dump on fire and shooting at German soldiers, “one of whom was dismembered when hit by a 40 MM shell,” the history notes. The unit even fired at “logs floating in the river.”
Across the Rhine, the battalion passed Wesel, which was on fire after a Royal Air Force bombardment, and the troops passed hundreds of grounded gliders which landed paratroopers in support of Operation Varsity — the largest one-day airborne operation in history.
As the 557th made its way into Germany, Luftwaffe raids picked up, and the soldiers began seeing — and shooting at — fast-moving German Me-262s, the world’s first operational jet fighter. On other occasions, the soldiers fired their .50-calibers to “silence” snipers at long range.
On April 13, the anti-aircraft gunners halted a German attack. “Enemy tanks, half tracks, and an estimated two platoons of infantry … B Battery personnel held the Germans until relieved by tanks and infantry of the 333rd Combat Team,” Boden wrote.
The battalion knocked out an anti-tank gun during an ambush the following day. By April 16, the unit had arrived in the town of Jübar, around 100 miles to the west of Berlin. At the same time, the Soviet Army was punching through the Seelow Heights, the last obstacle to the German capital from the east.
Then at 5:45 a.m., as most of the battalion slept, the shooting began. “All personnel were awakened as quickly as possible and were confronted by an enemy force which consisted of an estimated 750 SS and Hitler Jugend troops and 100 vehicles, including 15 tanks, half tracks, and small vehicles … The tanks contained no markings although one was identified as an American M-4 (Sherman); eagles were painted on the sides of some of the smaller vehicles.”
The 557th was overrun. Three soldiers were killed and 47 others were captured. The rest, including Beckhusen, fled. Fortunately, the Germans released the prisoners, drove off and were wiped out by the armored U.S. 11th Cavalry Group over the following days.
By April 18, the unit had recovered and headed toward the Elbe River near Buester. That’s when the air attack which distressed my grandfather so many years later occurred. “A Ju 87 [Stuka] circling and diving on a strafing and bombing mission at low altitude … was engaged.”
“Sgt. Allen R. Krieger, Cpl. Albert Solomito, Pfc. Stanley J. Jardine, and Pvt. Thomas S. Ratkelis manned their posts while being strafed by the aircraft, continued to fire on it scoring hits which caused it to crash, and were killed by bullets from the attacking aircraft. All were awarded the Silver Star Medal (Posthumously) for gallantry in action.”
Solomito is buried in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Jardine rests in Nova Scotia, Canada. And Ratkelis rests in the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten.
Jardine and Ratkelis were only 21 years old. Their deaths comprised the heaviest loss of life for the 557th during the war.
There is one more fragment to this story. In a letter Beckhusen wrote to his sister, which I discovered years after his death, he recalled witnessing the rounds hit the soldiers’ vehicle in front of him, ricochet off the ground and travel over his head.
He then wrote that he was scared.