This story is generously contributed by (former Lt.) Paul H. McWain, Foward Observer for the 71st.
In 1945, as WW # 2 was drawing to a close in Europe, I was with the 5th Ar'md Div. 71st Artillery Battalion as an artillery forward observer. Most often I was assigned to C Co.,81st Tank Battalion, to bring in artillery support when initial contact was made with German ground forces. To accomplish this I used either a tank or a piper cub for aerial observation.
We were moved into a position at Tangermund, on the Elbe River, from which we were to cross the river and attack Berlin the next morning. However, during the evening, the 3rd Armd Div. crossed the Elbe at Remagen and we were instructed to hold our position and continue aerial patrol of our sector via the piper cub. During one of our patrols Lt. Nichols, the pilot, noticed a large column of tanks and other vehicles heading toward the river crossing at Tangermund. Closer observation indicated that they were waving white flags and apparently were intending to surrender to our forces. We radioed to the troops on the ground of the approaching column and were instructed to continue close observation of their activities.
Lt. Nichols mentioned that he didn’t have any war souvenirs and he would sure like to have one of those German Lugars. We quickly decided we would never have a better opportunity than this to get one. We couldn’t land on the German side of the river so we followed the road toward the approaching column. About a mile from the river we found a field where Nichols thought he could safely set the plane down. Once on the ground we stopped the column, hopeful they all knew they were surrendering, and an officer approached and we told him we wanted only their small arms, pistols, etc. He gave the necessary commands and we soon had a pile from which we could be quite selective. We told the officer that we had talked to our people at the river crossing and they were now aware of what the German intentions were and would be waiting for them.
Nichols and I then started our selection process of you take one, I take one, etc, etc. After we had selected all that we felt we could and safely get off the ground we went to the far end of the field, revved up the engine, leaned forward in our seats, said a short prayer, gunned the motor and took off . Three-quarters of the way down the field Nick says “we’ll never make it". So back to the end of the field, throw out a few pistols and try again. Second try, same experience. Go back, throw out a few more guns, try again. On our fourth attempt we were finally able to lift off.
. Upon returning to our home base we counted 32 pistols, 3 dress bayonets and 3 sets of field glasses. My take was 6 Lugars, 4 P38's, 3 Mausers, 3 Walther P25’s, 1 dress bayonet and a set of field glasses.
Through these many years I've often wondered what the farmer, while tilling his field, thought when he first encountered this pile of guns on his property. We probably left twice as many on the ground as we were able to liberate.
Another interesting part of this story is "how can I keep them". The Army policy regarding war souvenirs was that you could only bring home one pistol and no live ammunition. I had sold all but 9 pistols and was determined not to have to turn over any to the quartermaster inspectors. Knowing that my luggage would be inspected upon arrival in the U.S., I spread the pistols around in my bed roll, my foot locker, a barracks bag, and my hand luggage hopeful that some of it would not be checked. Upon arrival only the foot locker and the barracks bag were taken to the supply area for inspection.
Knowing that the inspectors would keep for themselves any excess pistols they found, a friend helped me move my locker and bag close to the door. Waiting till the three inspectors were busy looking into other luggage, we casually picked up my locker and bag and walked out the door with 6 pistols and ammunition.
Paul H. Mc Wain