2nd Lt. Bertrum A. Wheeler
– H Company, 2nd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment –
Bertrum Aubrey Wheeler was born in Chicamuxen, Maryland on the 11th of June, 1916 to Merle and Joseph Wheeler. At the age of 28, Bertrum was drafted on the 9th of October 1941, just two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
He received his training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where he became part of the Mortars / Heavy Weapons Company for H Company, 2nd Battalion in the 60th Infantry Regiment. He did well in training and became a Platoon Leader. He was later commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the field, while serving in France.
Battle experience began when Bertrum participated in the North-African battle campaigns and fought in Algeria / French Morocco, Tunisia, and then on to Sicily. By then an experienced soldier, he found himself going to England, preparing to go to France to fight in Normandy.
Into France and Belgium
The 60th Infantry Regiment came ashore in Normandy on Utah Beach just 4 days after D-Day, on June 10th, 1944 and advanced through the difficult hedgerow country and made their way into Northern France, soon arriving at the Belgian border. Here, the 9th Infantry Division had the task to cross the Meuse river at three different locations.
Crossing the Meuse River
On the 4th of September 1944, 2nd Battalion of the 60th Infantry Regiment moved toward the Meuse River to the north of the town of Givet. The 60th Infantry was on the right flank of the Divisional area. 2nd Battalion was on the outside of the Regimental sector. It moved in a column of companies down the main highway leading southeast from the town of Givet. E Company led, followed by F, G and HQ Companies.
While E Company got into a position close to the river, the other two companies and the Battalion Command Post remained on the high wooded ground approximately 800 to 1000 yards to the northwest. Around 2100 hours the companies were in position and commanders were called to the battalion Command Post. They were told to make reconnaissance of the river bank, but darkness fell before this could be done. At about 2200 hours the order was received to cross the river at 2400 hours, midnight. The element of surprise had to be used. Originally, Field Artillery was planned to support the attack, but this was cancelled. E Company would make a southern crossing in front of its position, just south of a blown bridge. F Company would lead the rest of the battalion across farther to the north. The battalion’s objective was the town of Mesnil St. Blaise.
Around midnight on the 5th of September, E Company was able to start putting its boats into the water before any of the other companies could, as they were in a position closer to the river. The first boat was ready to be launched when an enemy machine gun opened up from across the river, and filled this boat with many holes. A Platoon and a half that was to go in the first wave across took shelter behind some of the nearby buildings and fired back at the enemy. The machine gun position was spotted in a pile of rubble across the river and there was little that could be done against it. The exchange of fire continued for nearly 2 hours until 0200 hours.
While this was going on, the other companies, with F Company in the lead and Battalion HQ at the tail, crossed at the northern point without any opposition. The Battalion Executive Officer went to the position of E Company with orders to lead it across the river at the northern point, using boats that were available at that place.Here is where Bertrum’s unit got into action.
The men of E Company and one Mortar Section of H Company crossed the river and the men started up the steep slope on the far side. At this point the bank rose almost like a cliff, and covered with woods and sharp pointed briers. It was just beginning to get light when “The Americans are coming!” could be heard shouted in German. About the same time, the Executive Officer and Commanding Officer reached a clearing at the top of the slope. They were met by machine gun fire coming from the east across the slope. Since they were looking for a trail to bring other members of the company up the cliff they retreated to the river bank and tried again at a point about 200 yards farther south. At this point they were the target of a hand grenade volley which stunned the Commanding Officer and forced the Executive Officer to return to the bank. This time he started to lead the men towards the north with the intention of meeting 3rd Battalion which was known to be somewhere in that direction. It was obvious that the enemy had cut in behind the main body of the 2nd Battalion, for in the second attempt the Reconnaissance had followed a battalion wire line into the hand grenade volley.
It was just beginning to get light on the 6th of September and another enemy machine gun opened up from the south. The men found themselves split by this fire into roughly three groups. The actions of the Mortar Section and H Company were between the enemy and a large rock. When they tried to escape to the north they were hit by heavy machine gun fire. About 10 or 12 men were behind this rock and cut from the rest of the Company by larger boulders. They finally managed to escape by swimming around the rock down the river to safety. All except for 5 men that were wounded, and a Sergeant that stayed with them. Those to the north of the two rocks could withdraw along the bank of the river but they too were subject to enemy attacks as on top of the cliff the Germans could be heard moving along and trying to cut the group from the north. The enemy called for the group farthest south to surrender, and they finally were captured. Bertrum was among them. These men were part of the Mortar Section of H Company, the weapons platoon and one (the 1st) rifle platoon. It was impossible for the other American units to fire on the enemy in order to help their fellow men to escape as the Germans had the American prisoners marching ahead of them as they advanced from the base of fire established by the machine gun.
Bertrum now was a Prisoner of War, a P.O.W. He was held at Oflag 64. Oflag 64 was a World War II German prisoner-of-war camp for officers located at Szubin a few miles south of Bydgoszcz, in Pomorze, Poland, which at that time was occupied by Nazi Germany. It was probably the only German POW camp set up exclusively for U.S. Army ground component officers.
In October 1944, he managed to write a special POW (In German, “Kriegsgefangenen”) postcard to his family.
Bertrum escaped once when on a march of over 300 miles from one prisoner of war camp to another, but was recaptured. This march ended on the 10th of March 1945, when American officers arrived at the new camp after an eight-week, 400 miles (640 km) forced march from Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland to Oflag XIII-B. Bertrum’s name can be found on the POW roster for this camp.
Oflag XIII-B was a German Army World War II prisoner-of-war camp, also for officers (Offizierslager), originally in the Langwasser district of Nuremberg. In 1943 it was moved to a site 1.9 miles south of the town of Hammelburg in Lower Franconia, Bavaria, Germany.
On 10 March 1945 American officers arrived after an eight-week 400 mi (640 km) forced march from Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland. On 25 March there was a total of 1,291 American officers and 127 enlisted men at the camp.
In late March 1945 General George S. Patton ordered the 4th Armored Division to liberate the POWs in Oflag XIII-B, then 50 miles behind the front lines. The American compound was evacuated on 28 March 1945.
After Bertrum Wheeler’s POW camp was liberated, he was discharged home in September 1945.
For his actions throughout the war he received the Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, six Bronze Stars, Distinguished Unit Citation, Combat Infantry Badge, American Defense Ribbon, EAME Ribbon and the battlefield appointment to 2nd Lt.
Bertrum was proud to have served under many great military men such as Lt. Colonel (then Captain) Matt Urban, Lt. Colonel Michael B. Kaufman, Major G. Wolfe, Major General Manton S. Eddy and General Omar Bradley.
After the war he was a Letter Carrier, husband and father and grandfather and enjoyed people and life.
Bertrum passed away December 25, 1990 and is dearly missed by his family.
We will never forget the actions of 2nd Lt. Bertrum Wheeler.
Thank you to the wonderful family of Bertrum for sharing so much information.