Diary opens window on WWII experiences
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
Brett Johnston’s grandfather never talked much about the war.
Johnston remembers him talking about World War II “a couple of times. It was very rare,” he said.
The tiny diary, written on a German pocket calendar, detailed Franklin Suttle Ellis’ experiences during the last months of the war in Europe.
Johnston recently read the diary to members of the Newnan Rotary Club.
In his first entry, on March 30, 1945, Ellis says, “I surely wish I had kept a diary beginning the 14th of March.”
Ellis had arrived in Europe and joined B company of the 3rd Infantry Division in January 1945, and some of the fiercest fighting, including at the Rhine River crossing, the Siegfried Line, and Nuremberg, happened before he started his diary.
The diary entries are quite matter of fact.
“The whole point of this really… is not about him,” Johnston said. It’s how the common solder wrote about his day-to-day experiences. “The good days and the bad days… it’s uncensored,” Johnston said.
In the first entry, Ellis said he and his company had been “walking and fighting for 24 hours.”
Then, our driver must have been sleepy, for he ran off the road and turned over two-and-a-half times.” Ellis lost all of his equipment in the crash.
Then he mentioned their commanding officer “gave us a talk about looting in Germany — ‘It’s OK to loot but don’t tear things up,’” Ellis says in the diary. “Meaning we can take what we need, but don’t make it obvious.”
On April 5, he received some clean clothes and some delousing powder. A German “helped me mix pancake mix and so we ate well.”
He later says that “our squad is lousy and I don’t mean with lice,” and complains about the execution of a recent maneuver.
“The battle was planned by some mutt-head officer,” he says. The unit was supposed to be flanked by the 45th division but instead “fired on them because we were not notified that they would be there.”
He then finds out about the death of President Roosevelt, on April 12. “I am shocked and hurt,” Ellis writes.
On April 14, the unit is waiting. On April 15, Ellis goes to church. “We still don’t know when we will move out,” he writes. He’s also promoted to assistant squad leader.
On April 23, he writes he “spent the night in a nice warm kitchen.” On April 27, he receives a letter his wife had mailed in late February.
They walked all day and night on April 30, and arrived in a suburb of Munich on May 1. The company met no resistance, and learned of the death of Hitler the day before.
They then moved into a small village 19 miles from Munich. It was a miserable day — cold with lots of snow.
Ellis says he expects to soon be pulled into the Army reserve. The company moved into Reichennhall and “took many prisoners including many generals.”
His company then moves into Hitler’s headquarters, the Berchtesgaden, “which was an open city.”
Johnston then stopped his reading of the diary to talk about the taking of Berchtesgaden. In the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” E Company of the 101st Airborne is shown as taking Berchtesgaden.
“What you’re about to hear is that B company actually came in and took Berchtesgaden,” Johnston said.
“Early in the morning they came in and made them move out, so that E Company could come in and take credit for taking the city,” Johnston said. “They did that because E Company had been through more than anybody in the war, and they were trying to reward them for what they had done,” Johnston said. “It just shows you some of the things that were done to portray things the way they wanted them to be portrayed.”
Ellis writes that the 3rd Battalion “moved out to the edge of town to guard some property of Hermann Goering,” commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe.
“He had some good whiskey — American, too,” Ellis writes.
On May 5, Ellis wrote that he was staying in a nice hotel in Berchtesgaden. “I’m really enjoying staying here,” he writes.
But that rest was short-lived. On May 6, the unit “left at 4 a.m. and moved into another town. The 101st relieved us, damnit,” he writes.
The next day, they were in a garrison in Salzburg. He’s told the 7th Infantry is “through with combat.”
Two days later there is a parade, “but I was sick so I did not go.” And, on May 10, they begin a training program.
Ellis’ last entry is on May 23.
“I have not kept this diary since May 10. I have been in Salzburg and have done nothing worth recording,” he writes. “I pulled plenty of guard duty and then loafed (goldbricked).”
He concludes saying that “this diary contains only a few sentences but they stand for a hell of a heap.”
“The worst of my experiences are not even mentioned — the Rhine and the Siegfried line are the places where my comrades died. Those are the places that broke the back of the German Army,” he writes.
He writes that he dedicates the diary “to the doughboy who didn’t go home. He did not always live the life of a Christian, except to pray when the going was tough and he thought his time was up. I am guilty of that, too.”
After giving him the diary, Johnston’s grandmother read through it with him “because she could read his writing well.” Johnston’s brother, Cade, typed up the entries.
Cade Johnston has been very interested in the diary and has tracked the movements of his grandfather’s unit and even gone to the unit’s reunions in St. Louis.
Johnston said that, when first reading the diary, he was surprised to see “how involved he was on the front line of combat for the time he was there.”
There’s also the twinge of wishing he could talk to his grandfather about those experiences, and learn more.
“He did tell me a few things, but he rarely talked about it,” Johnston said.
He can recall two or three times his grandfather mentioned the war.
“I can certainly understand, going through something that horrible, when you’re seeing lives taken, when you’re a part of that every day, I can see returning and just wanting to live life and put it out of your mind, to a certain degree,” he said.
And that’s what his grandfather did.
“He lived life every day,” Johnston said.
“He hunted, he fished, and he worked.”