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Hans Melker


Interview by Richard M. Clement, Jr.
 

This interview was taken from the Die Neue Feldpost newsletter & was done so with permission of the publisher.  We would like to thank him for his generosity as well as thank all those who have contributed to this article.  It is with their efforts, we are able to share this valuable research with the rest of you.

Everyone has their favorite veteran, and the [former] soldier in this interview is one of my favorites.  I have a couple other gentlemen to talk to, but this one is my favorite.  Mr. Melker and I talked on July 25th, 1993, and I taped most of the conversation.  Writing this down was not as easy as I thought it would be, since he would go off on tangents during the conversation.  After a few unsuccessful attempts at rearranging our conversation, I finally decided to write it down pretty much as he dictated to me.  Editors note: with permission of the author, we have omitted sections which pertain to the history and movements of the 68th Division, since these are a matter of record.

What was your name and what was your unit?
My name is Hans Melker and I was a member of the 1st Company, Infanterie Regiment 169.  We are part of the 68th Division.  Our emblem was a bear!

Were you a member of the Hitler Youth?
Yes, but not by choice.  Until about 1938 I guess, I was a member of a hiking club.  With this group I hiked and repaired religious shrines in the woods.  Then, our group became part of the Hitler Youth.  My parents were very upset, you see they were very religious and kind people and the Hitler Youth had a reputation for fighting and being military.  But it was hard for boys to resist.  It was very large and did exciting things.  After all, what boy does not like to play army?  We learned to shoot and use military radios and use maps.  They would have competitions between the various groups and military exercises.  Then I went into the Reichs Arbeits Dienst.  With them, we built dams to stop landslides.  Then I went into the Heer, or German Army.  It was mandatory service, everyone had to go.  I went in October, 1942.

Describe your basic training.
It was not a whole lot different than the routines we had in HJ camps or in the RAD.  We were already used to the military life.  My parents were happier when I was taken in the Army than I was when I was in the HJ.  They worried about me in the HJ, but the Army had been around forever and had a reputation for high moral standards.  My parents were good people, they wrote to me almost every day and were always sending me things which they could have used themselves.  My mother must have spent many hours knitting me scarves, gloves, hats.  I am ashamed to admit that I almost never wore a thing that she sent me.  I usually got along with what the Army gave me and traded my mother's gifts away.  Of course I never told her.  And I didn't write them back very often.  I would get their letters, sometimes big bundles of them, and they would be sad, saying that they worried about me so much (when he went to the front) and why did I not write?  It wasn't because I did not have the time, I was just a stupid kid.  My parents were such good people...

Did something happen to your parents?
They were in a bombing raid.  They were in a shelter when a bomb hit it and it collapsed.  My mother was in a hospital for almost a month but she finally passed away.  But our house was still standing at the end of the war, it was in a suburb of Berlin called Babelsburg.  My Kompanieführer (company leader) told me my parents had been killed.  Suddenly I felt very alone.  And I never appreciated them when they were alive...

I'm sorry, these memories must be painful.
I think about my parents and the war all the time.  I don't think that Americans realized how much we really suffered.  Americans will say "Those Nazis got everything they deserved."  Yes, Germany did some cruel things but my parent's only crime was that they did not turn against their government.  You read a lot about Americans who see people being murdered before their very eyes and then not doing a thing.  I wonder if the same people who feel that Germany was being punished would agree with it if the police came and shot not only the murderers but also the people who saw it happen?  Oh no, they would come up with reasons like "they were afraid", or "it was none of their business", or that the person who was killed probably had it coming to them because they were involved in drugs or had the wrong sort of friends.  This is [hypocrisy].  And to distract people from the crime of bombing civilians, they have turned those bomber crews into heroes.  Who is now going to question the rightness of the bombing?  Because those bombers were heroes!  They could not be wrong!  Ah! But you want to hear about my Dienstzeit.  What do you want to Know?

So you spent most of your time on the Eastern Front?
Except for training and leave, I spent all of my time at the Ostfront.  1943 and part of 1944.  We were fighting the Soviet Union.  We usually called them "Ivan" or the "enemy" or "Bolsheviks".  You read that German soldiers were sent to the Ostfront as a punishment.  This is not true because most German soldiers went to the Ostfront at one time or another, and many of them never went anywhere else.  For years, that was the only big campaign we had going.  You can never forget Russia.  It is very large and very rustic.  But Ivan was a terrible enemy.  They would kill our wounded and sometimes not take any prisoners.  There are many good Russian people, I know that.  We had a Russian who drove our ZugWagen or unit wagon.  He also helped the cooks.  One time the cook was very upset, because our Russian had found this wounded Russian soldier not far from the kitchen and was amusing himself by splashing boiling water over him!  The cook wanted to shoot our Russian.  When we got mad at this guy, we would threaten to give him a big medal and send him back to his own side; this usually made him break down!  But I guess he behaved himself after that because he was with us for a long time.

Did you get any decorations?  What was your rank?
Yes, I got decorations.  I got the Iron Cross, I wore the ribbon in my buttonhole.  The Infanteriesturmabzeichen, this was a medal you got if you made so many successful attacks on the enemy.  A verwundetenabzeichen for being wounded.  You wore these on your left pocket.  We called them Blech.  This means sheet metal trinkets!  Some of the officers had lots of Blech.  I shouldn't mislead you, we were actually very proud of our medals.  I know old American GIs who have their medals in a frame in their living rooms.  Can you see me with my medals in a frame?  And then in walks my newspaper boy.  "Where did you get those, Mr. Melker?"  And I say: Hey kid, I was the bravest Nazi soldier that ever lived!  Ha ha ha ha.  I was a Gefreiter.  This was one rank above private.  I'll never forget, after I got my lung-wound, they sent me back to Germany.  They gave me my wound medal in the hospital, made a big deal about it in front of a whole tour of Hitler Youth.  They said what an honor it was to be wounded for the Fatherland, and wounds were honorable, things like that.  Later on, one of these boys came up and asked me where I was wounded.  I told him my privates were blown off.  You should have seen the look on his face!  Ha ha ha.

What did you do to win the Iron Cross?
I was carrying a message to one of the Zugführers when I saw Russians in a destroyed house.  I ran back and told my leader and he sent me back with some men and a machine gunner to take care of it.  It was nothing very brave.  My job was to carry messages to the other commanders, I had a belt pouch to carry the messages in.  I would hide this pouch in my jacket because if Ivan saw it, he would know I was either an officer or a messenger and make a target of me.

Describe your uniform and equipment.
OK.  We had these real long shirts that we called "louse houses".  We would cut pieces off the bottoms to clean our guns.  Green wool pants, and a jacket to match, it had two small pockets up here (on the chest), and two big ones down here (on the hips).  During training we had to keep these pockets flat, so we couldn't put very much in them.  But in Russia, we stuffed them with all kinds of things.  We didn't carry our packs so you had to carry things where you could.  We had a helmet that we painted our name inside in big white letters.  This was so we could read them in bad light.  It is not a good thing to be trying on everyone else's helmet when the shells start falling on your group!  We had both shoes and boots.  I sold my shoes to the unit shoemaker.  He had a regular business selling soldier's shoes to the civilians.  He would buy your shoes and give you a little slip of paper saying that your shoes were being fixed.  In the German Army, you were responsible for every little thing they gave you.  If you didn't have everything you were supposed to have, you got in trouble.  If you wore out your socks, you had better fix them or pack them away, because you couldn't throw them away.

Did you wear socks of Fußlappen?
Fußlappen!  (Laughs) Oh yes, I forgot about those.  You wrapped them on your feet like this.  First you stand on them so your foot and heel point towards the corners.  (motions on the floor).  Then you fold the toe up, then wrap up this side, then the other side (wraps up an invisible Fußlappen).  I wore out my socks and never had the patience to fix them.  I gave the little sewing kit that my mother sent me to my best friend.  I always traded off the nice homemade socks that my mother sent me.  I traded them off for tobacco, food, magazines, things like that.  I still feel bad about that.  My mother used to sew my name into the things that she would send me.  The other soldiers would say, I wished my mother would do that for me.  One pair of socks she sent me wound up on a soldier from another company.  He got his chest and head blown off.  On his feet were my mother's socks with my name on them.  The commander came to our sergeant to ask them if I was missing.  Of course I wasn't.  I usually got along with just the Fußlappen except in the winter.  They were harder to wear out, all you had to do was turn them so your heel was in a different spot every time.  We also called cooked cabbage Fußlappen because it was flat and smelled so bad!

Describe your field rations.
Our food was cooked in a trailer we called a Gulaschkanone (goulash cannon!) and carried up in backpacks or we lined up at the trailer and they ladled it into our pots.  We got bread, soup, cabbage and meat, goulash.

Did anyone in your unit have lice?
Yes, because come of the Russian buildings we slept in were full of them.  Our medical people were always powdering these places, but the lice were there anyway.  Most of the time it was better to get wet and sleep outside.  You do not need to be dirty to get lice.  Just because we got lice did not mean we were dirty.  We were as clean as possible.  We went to a unit that examined our lice.  I remember the soldier who took our clothes.  He said, "you filthy swine!  You get lice because you are disgusting slobs!  You must change your underwear every day and you will not get lice."  Someone threw his dirty uniform in this guys face.

Did you use captured equipment?
No, not that I can remember.  The Russians were capturing more of our stuff than we were capturing of theirs.  Oh, sometimes we would take a star off some Russians hat, but we didn't really go in for this in a big way.

Were you issued iron rations?
Yes, you could only eat them if your officer told you to.  It was Zwieback and Fleischkonserven (canned meat).  Sometimes we would find these little piles of equipment of men who had been wounded and sent back.  Some of the men would take the iron rations out of the Brotbeutel if there were any there and eat them.  I could never do this.

Did you have a Brotbeutel (breadbag)?
Oh yes, every soldier had one.  It was made of canvas and hung down from your belt.  It also had a cloth strap which we used for everything except the thing it was made for [hanging the bag from your shoulder].  We were supposed to carry food in this bag but we carried all sorts of things in it.  Like I said, we didn't carry our packs so we had to carry things where we could.

Did you throw away your Gasmask?
No, they checked you for them and you could get into trouble if you didn't have one.  There was a special Unteroffizier who checked you for them.  I did not want to get into trouble.

Did you have a watch?
Yes, a gift from my teacher but I lost it in the hospital after I was wounded.  Those thieves in the hospital probably stole it.  You would go into the hospital with all kinds of things, the medics at the front wouldn't take your stuff.  The next one might be them.  When you were ready to leave, the hospital would give you just a few things back.  When you would ask them, "where is my such-and-such," they would say "What? You didn't have that when you came in here.  You must have lost it when you were wounded."  I also remember that I had some photographs of dead Russians, don't know where I got them, I didn't have a camera.  Don't know why I had them, we could see dead people all the time.  But when I got my stuff back, the orderly wanted those pictures very bad.  I don't know why, isn't that a little funny.  I gave them to him.

What enemy weapons did you fear most?
We feared the Russian Artillery and rockets.  But my biggest fear was a Mongolian soldier with a bayonet!  I had this childish fear.  I could picture this sinister looking Mongol who was going to pierce me no matter what.  The thought terrified me.

How did you wear your Erkennungsmarke (Dogtag)?
Ha ha, I remember those things!  They gave it to you with a string to hang around your neck.  But it was metal and it would get cold if I was bending over and it dangled away from my chest.  Then when I straighten up, ...OOH! AH! CCCCOLD!  So, most of the time I kept it in my paybook which I carried in my pocket.

Were you trained in night combat?
Yes, I remember them taking us out at night, then yelling and throwing grenades around us to confuse us.  It really was confusing with the flashing and noise.  That's what night combat is - very confusing.  So is day combat, in fact!

Describe a field latrine.
What a question!  If you had time, you took a shovel and dug a little hole.  If you didn't have time, you just found a spot and did it.  The Russians would drop little papers on us.  These were made of real thin paper and we would use these as toilet paper.  In camps they would have a regular thing built from poles.  During the winter when we stayed in houses, there was a sign put up: USE THE LATRINE.  I guess some of the men did not want to go out in the cold, so they did it inside the house.  The houses did not have toilets.  If they caught you doing it in a house, you were in big trouble.

Memories regarding bicycles:
I know that the German Army used lots of them, but I don't remember seeing many in Russia.  The roads were so bad, I don't see how anyone could have ridden them.

What kind of cap did you have?
We had a little cap made like a canoe.  You had to wear it tilted on your head just so.  In 1943 they began to give out these caps with bills on them but you had to wear out your first one, which I never did.  We also had these hats sort of like a police hat with a black plastic bill.  They were smart looking!  But we never wore them in the field.  They had a white stripe around the top.  This was the color of the infantry.  The same color was on our shoulder straps.  You could tell what of soldier a man was by the color of his shoulder straps.  White for infantry, red for artillery, black for construction troops.  You could also tell by looking at the man himself.  If he was big with lots of muscles and stone deaf, he was from the artillery.  If he had clever hands and shifty eyes, he was from the medical service.  If he strutted like a bully, he was an MP.  If he had lots of bumps on his head and smelled like petrol, he was a tanker.  If one of his ears was pressed flat to his head, he was a communications soldier.  The tough ones were the paymasters: they don't look like soldiers at all!  Ha ha ha ha ha.  OK, I'm hungry now, lets eat!!

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