Robert F. Patton

Hometown: Chapel Hill, NC
Branch of Service: Army, 65th Infantry Division
Location of Service: Europe

MY FAVORITE WAR STORY – CROSSING THE DANUBE RIVER

Nobody gets killed, nobody gets hurt, and there are no gory details involved.

Being a part of General Patton’s Third Army, we were assigned in April, 1945, to cross the Danube River under combat conditions near Lengfeld and south of Regensburg, Germany. This was expected to be difficult since it was anticipated that the German Army would use the River as their next line of defense.

Also being the Battalion Headquarters Operations Sgt., I was awake all night the previous night before the attack. It was necessary to issue orders to all the units with regard to their assignments, coordinate the supporting units as to their expectations, and answer many related questions. In addition just the excitement and anticipation of being involved with crossing such a historic river was sufficient to prevent any possible sleep.

About 4 AM, in the dark, we began to move into our assigned areas for the attack. We had been assured that we had sufficient artillery support that consisted of up to 14 Battalions of Artillery of different caliber. Under such circumstances this was very comforting.

Upon the break of dawn the much-anticipated battle began. Being on the top of a hill leading down to the river, I had a commanding view of the riverfront. That was my first surprise and disappointment. The beautiful river that I anticipated seeing was definitely not blue. My favorite music had always been “The Danube Waltz.” Playing in the Symphonic Orchestra at Davidson College I had always visualized this beautiful blue river that was supposed to be The Danube. Here was an ordinary looking river that was a dirty brown color.  On the other side gun fire erupted that prevented any of our pontoon boats from crossing. Due to the resistance of the Germans who were well entrenched on the other side, none of our Rifle Companies could successfully cross the river.

For the next few hours, I must say that I witnessed one of the most beautiful fireworks displays of my lifetime. The artillery units were definitely ready to support us. They used every type of weapon in their possession. Most brilliant were the time on target shells that burst just above their designated targets.

Sometime after midday, our Heavy Weapons Company of water cooled machine guns managed to cross the river under the protection of an artillery barrage. Immediately, the Battalion Commander called for all of the headquarters command group to cross the River. That was the end of my firework observations. Some 8 of us rowed with all our strength a pontoon boat across the Danube River. The machine gunners gave us protection to reach the first house, via of a ditch in the village of Lengfeld.

All of this has been a prelude to provide the proper background and prerequisite to my story.

Upon entering one of the houses that had not been damaged, our first destination was to find the wine. We had learned near the Rhine River the Germans kept delicious wine stored in their dinning rooms, kitchens, and cellars. Meantime the  Battalion Commander laid all the maps on the dinning room table while the rest of us tested the wine. As usual we were anxious to find the best and did not hesitate to discard any wine that did not pass the taste test.

To my surprise, the Battalion Commander turned to me and said, “Sgt. there is a piano over there, while I try to figure out what to do next, play some of your Patton Stomp.” I knew immediately that he wanted me to play some Boogie Woogie. Back in Camp Shelby, MS, some evenings he
passed through the Recreation Hall where I would be playing for others to sing and he would always ask for some Patton Stomp.

My first reaction and response, Sir, you must be kidding, the piano could be booby trapped.” His response was, “check it out,” Without further delay I gingerly raised the top on the upright piano, then  slowly mashed a few keys. No booby traps. The piano was in perfect tune. The Radio Sgt. decided to participate, so he brought a nice glass full of the best wine and placed it within easy reach on the side.

Outside there was a real war going on. Rifle fire, machine gun fire, and both our and the German artillery were challenging each other. It was definitely not a quiet place to be playing the piano.

After a few more sips of wine it was easier to get in the mood. I started playing some of my favorite Boogie Woogie music. Some of my  favorites from the fraternity parties at Davidson College. Several were made popular by Will Bradley and his band. Such as “Beat Me
Daddy Eight to the Bar” and “Boogie Woogie Washer Woman.” Then there were a few versions of my own. It was about that time I noticed the Radio Sgt. standing next to me. He had been keeping my wine glass full during the entire session. Unknown to me he had opened up the  microphone and was broadcasting the music up and down the front lines of the Division. All of our Companies and Regimental Headquarters were on the same radio frequency. Regimental Headquarters relayed it elsewhere. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Just how far it  went was never known.

After about 15 to 20 minutes of playing the Battalion Commander began to make assignments. The break time was definitely over. The next morning we departed for Regensburg as our next assignment. I had been so busy with my responsibilities I had very little sleep during the night and I never had another opportunity to touch the piano.

This experience has been and continues to be most rewarding since the occasion has continued to come back. Much to my surprise, without a suggestion or anything related, someone from my Division or other attached unit has asked if anyone knew someone in the 65th Infantry Division who played Boogie Woogie on the piano. Then they would continue and mention hearing someone playing the piano during the crossing of the Danube River in combat.