the left, Pfc. Jack Barton, I&R 274th
In addition to all the hazards and difficulties
inherent in the life of a combat infantryman, there are the
never-ending daily deprivations which range from simply inconvenient
to seriously health threatening. Somewhere along that continuum of
constant deprivation is ranked the malodorous fact that front line
GI's have next to no opportunity to bathe with any hygienic
Sure, a "sponge bath" can be obtained by utilizing
an inverted steel helmet , some water, and a little imagination. But
in France in the winter and early spring of 1945, the weather was so
cold it did nothing to encourage bathing of any type except a very
limited "spit bath".
Occasionally, in a liberated town or village, an
infantry soldier might get lucky and find a civilian who was willing
to swap a hot bath for some K rations or cigarettes. Just to bathe,
however briefly, in a wash tub filled with hot water was a luxury
that most GI's would kill for. But during combat, these total
immersion ablutions were rare and as scarce as beefsteak and fresh
milk in a fox hole.
In my own experience, from the time the 274th
disembarked in Marseilles on 10 Dec '44 until the end of our combat
duties in the Saarland on 20 Mar, 1945, I can recall only two
"totally - unclothed" hot water baths that I was privileged to
obtain. Two baths in 100 days! While I am certain this is no record,
world-wise or regimental, it is certainly the longest personal
record in which I was forced to neglect the fundamentals of
reasonable bodily hygiene.
But more than that....not only was I limited to
two baths in 100 days, the two baths I did have were about 60 days
apart! And during those 60 days, not only did I not bathe, I wore
most of my clothes constantly and did not once see the skin which
covered my youthful body! The weather during this period was so cold
that one did not dare expose bare skin to these devastating elements
except at the dictate of the most fundamental needs.
I obtained my first bath in Niederbronn in early
January '45. The I & R had returned to our billet in the "Chur
House" and upon arrival there, we learned that just down the street
from the billet, there was a bathhouse where a GI could get a "15
minute special" for a bar or two of soap or a couple of packs of
cigarettes. I took advantage of this golden opportunity and had "15
minutes of heaven" soaking in a huge tub of warm - not hot - water.
At the end of my allotted time, I was rousted from a languorous
stupor by loud knocks on the door and shouts of "Time fini! Time
fini!" Reluctantly, I emerged from the bath; dried and dressed in
the same clothes I had been wearing since our arrival in France. I
paid the bath matron - an ill-tempered old harridan - with the
remainder of the bar of soap with which I had washed and a pack of
My second opportunity to bathe came in early March
'45 and therein lies a tale.
I was on duty at OP-1 in Kreutzberg when Cpl.
LeRoy Mayer arrived accompanied by another I & R platoon member.
LeRoy said I was relieved and the other man would assume my post. I
wondered what was going on because this sort of unscheduled relief
was certainly not SOP. LeRoy simply told me to follow him.
Together we left the OP and climbed the short
trail up and away from the dugout. When we had hiked a way, I asked,
"Hey, LeRoy! What's goin' on?" Lee looked at me and said, "How would
you like a nice bath and some clean clothes?" I couldn't believe
what I was hearing! Lee explained that the 70th quartermasters had
set up a shower point and a clothing exchange at a place called
Merlebach which was located a short distance southwest of Forbach.
Lee said he had a jeep and he knew how to get to Merlebach and we
were going to go there and have a bath and get a complete set of
clean clothes. I asked if this little "side trip" was official and
Lee simply said, "Don't worry about it. I've got everything squared
away and we're not in any trouble." I knew when to keep my mouth
shut and it was evident that Cpl. Mayer had pulled a few unofficial
strings in order to arrange this most welcomed event. How he got
permission....let alone a jeep....for this little sortie, I have
never known. I asked no further questions and gladly "went along for
When we walked to the crest of the ridge, sure
enough there was Lee's jeep waiting for us. We climbed aboard....Lee
driving, me in the "shotgun" seat...and we took off for Merlebach.
Lee seemed to know the way even though the route we took seemed to
be complicated for it wormed through the hills and passed through
some small villages with which I was totally unfamiliar. As I have
stated so many times in these narratives, it pays to have friends in
high places". A corporal's rate is not very high but when it is
bestowed on an industrious, clever young man like LeRoy C. Mayer,
those two stripes become the enlisted man's equivalent of two silver
stars! LeRoy, the Miracle Worker, had arranged to have me
chauffeured to a hot bath and clean clothes.
After about a 30 minute drive, Lee announced that
we were on the main road to Merlebach. As we approached the
city....for Merlebach is large, not as large as Forbach, but
certainly large enough to be called a city....we noticed a
substantial throng of people forming a living barricade right across
the highway. We were puzzled by what we saw, and concerned, for
there did not seem to be any apparent reason for this gathering.
The gathering itself was a peculiar mixture of
civilians and soldiers. Nothing seemed amiss, indeed, as we got
closer, we could see that the crowd seemed to be in a happy mood,
focusing their attention on some central point in the crowd and
waving and shouting in that direction.
Lee had to slow the jeep, for the crowd now
prevented us from moving any further along the road to Merlebach.
The city itself could be seen just beyond the large group, but their
mass forced us to stop. Lee pulled over to the side of the road and
turned off the motor.
From the jeep, the throng seemed to be moving
toward us but their attention was still riveted to a central
attraction. Soon the mixture of civilians and soldiers were all
about our jeep but not expressing any interest in us. Their focus
was back toward the center of the rolling mass.
There was a discernible movement of this mass
toward us and it was evident that this object of the crowd's
attention would soon be near us. And then, just a short distance
from the right-front of our vehicle, this "center of attention"
appeared and Lee and I were dumfounded. It was Marlene Dietrich! The
Movie Star! The actress reputed to have the most beautiful legs in
the world. She, of the sultry, smoky voice and the amazing pale gray
eyes! Marlene Dietrich, whose unique vocalizations marked her with a
style like no other in Hollywood.....her first song hit, "Falling in
Love Again" and her most recent....at that time, in 1945...."Lili
Marlene" , a war song almost written for her to sing.
As Lee and I watched in amazement, Miss Dietrich
deliberately moved toward us until she stood right beside our
vehicle on my side of the jeep! She was dressed in a uniform of
tailored OD's which were cut to exhibit sensationally one of the
great female torsos. Her shirt was open at the throat where a
beautifully tied light blue scarf showed discreetly. On her head,
she wore a GI wool knit cap perched daintily on the back of her head
and gorgeous reddish-blond hair curls coifed carefully around the
margin of her cap framed her magnificent face. On her feet, she wore
a pair of custom made boots, reminiscent of paratrooper "jump boots"
but crafted in such a way as to give her feet an appearance of
dainty femininity. She was a vision! She was so beautiful and so
perfectly packaged, I found it very difficult to look directly at
Standing there beside our jeep, she smiled at us
and said, "You boys are from the front, right?" We agreed. Then, she
went on, "I could tell by the way you're dressed and your guns (I
was cradling my M-1) that you have been in the fighting." Lee said,
I couldn't say anything!
As she was talking to us, the crowd moved in
closer all around our jeep. Standing just to Miss Dietrich's left
was a civilian woman with two children. The woman was holding the
smaller of the two kids. The other child, a little girl of about 3,
was standing by her mother's side. It was cold and the children were
dressed in warm jackets and snug little tight-fitting pants. But not
tight-fitting enough for the little 3 year old's pants were drooping
down somewhat in the back. Miss Dietrich noticed this and spoke to
the little girl in German. (Lee provided me with translations of the
conversation which then transpired, all after the fact.) Miss
Dietrich: Mädchen! Diene Hosen sind hierunter fallen!" "Little girl,
your pants are falling down!"
Upon hearing the German, Lee broke our silence and
said (in German), "You speak German!" Miss Dietrich, "Of course, I
was born in Germany. And you, were you born there also?" Lee
answered by explaining that he was a first generation American of
German descent and that he had learned to speak German before he
learned English. In fact, he had not spoken English until he had
attended public school.
At that point, Lee and Miss Dietrich engaged in a
torrent of conversation, all in German of course. The talk became so
lively that Miss Dietrich leaned into our jeep while speaking to Lee
so that she was positioned just above me on my side of the vehicle.
She was so close I could smell her perfume and it must have modified
my shyness for now I found myself watching her face (in profile) as
she spoke so animatedly to Lee in her native language.
All too soon good things must come to an end. Miss
Dietrich withdrew from above me and stepped back and stood erect
beside the jeep. She looked directly at us, smiled and said, "I'm so
glad you boys could come. I hope you have good hot baths and some
clean, warm clothes. And please come to my show later on." Then she
looked directly at me and with a smile, said, "Good-bye and good
luck!" to Lee she said, simply, "Wiedersehen".
She waved and moved off to our right and the crowd
moved with her. At my last sight of her before she was again
engulfed by humanity, I could see her walking and talking to the
woman with the two children.
I could not wait! I said to Lee, "What did she
say? What were you talking about?" Lee explained that Miss Dietrich
had asked where we were both from and why we had come to Merlebach.
He had answered her by providing the names of our respective "home"
States and explained about the shower point and the clothing
exchange. Lee said he had asked her where she was from in Germany
and why she had come to Merlebach. She had said that Berlin was her
home in Germany and that she was on a USO tour and was here in
Merlebach to do her show. She said there would be two
performances....one later in the afternoon and the second one in the
evening. She extended a special invitation for Lee and me to come to
her performance. Lee said she had expressed this invitation in very
formal and polite German. We could not wait to see her perform! But
first, a hot bath and clean clothes.
As the crowd released us to be on our way, Lee
pulled the jeep back onto the main road. The route to the shower
point/clothing exchange was well marked. The Army quarter-masters
had put up plenty of signs indicating the direction to the SP/CE and
in a matter of minutes we located the facility. The "Exchange" was
set up in a couple of buildings which were a part of an operating
coal mine. The facility was comprised of the showers and dressing
room accommodations regularly used by the miners as they began or
ended a shift in the mines. The dirty work of mining coal almost
mandated the availability of bathing rooms so the miners could
return home bathed and in clean clothes at the end of each day's
An MP directed Lee to park our jeep in a secure
motor pool area and we were told to leave our weapons, helmets, and
webbed gear in the jeep. We were assured that every-thing in the
jeep would be safe in the guarded parking area.
We entered the building as directed, and once
inside, we could feel the warm humidity produced by the continuously
utilized showers. It felt great to come inside a nice warm building
featuring plenty of steam heat.
Just before the shower room was a large (un)dressing
room equipped only with plain wooden benches and numerous "clothing
hooks". Each hook was attached to a long, light-weight chain which
hung from a pulley mounted on the ceiling. The free end (unhooked)
of the chain was fastened to the wall just above the benches with a
number marked on the wall by each chain. You removed your dirty
clothes and attached them to the hook, then, pulling on the free end
of the chain, the pulley above raised your clothing to a point suspended
well above the room. You then re-attached the free end of the chain
to the wall by your assigned number. Your boots and socks were left
on the benches below.
In the bathing room, the shower heads were raised
quite high above the tiled shower room floor. The showers were
operated by pull chains. A tug on the pull chain and you were
drenched by a cascade of good hot water. We doused ourselves
thoroughly and then soaped and lathered our wet bodies until we were
certain that the filth and grime of two months of combat were
removed. Stepping back under the shower, another yank on the pull
chain rinsed us clean under a sturdy stream. We hated leaving the
wonderful baths but there was a continuous line of waiting GI's who
needed a refreshing turn in the showers.
As we left the shower room, we were given towels
by an attendant and told to retrieve our dirty clothes from the
hooks above. We were to wear only our combat boots and carry all of
our soiled garments into the "exchange" where we found large bins in
which we dropped our filthy uniforms. Proceeding along the line, we
came to a series of stations, each dispensing certain items of
clothing. We were allowed to retrieve all the clean clothing we
needed. All we had to do was yell out our size at each station and a
new (clean) garment was tossed out to us. The only used item I
retained was my pile jacket which was unique and not available for
replacement at the exchange.
After the exchange line, we arrived at a fairly
large dressing room which, as in the case of the "hook" room, was
equipped solely with plain wooden benches. The room was filled with
GI's dressing themselves in their newly acquired clean uniforms. Lee
and I found an open bench and sat down and began tugging on the
items which comprised our new ward-robes. I had almost forgotten the
wonderful smell of clean clothes and how nice those clothes felt on
As soon as we were dressed, we asked one of the
quartermaster attendants where the USO show would be performed. He
gave us directions and quickly we found our way to a large building
which housed a spacious meeting room or assembly hall. The room
could accommodate several hundred persons and when we arrived the
place was already packed with eager GI's most of whom were from the
70th Division. Lee and I could not find seats, so we were forced to
stand at the rear of the room. This was no major problem for the
stage was well elevated so as to afford a clear view from any place
in the hall.
Marlene Dietrich, noted actress, eats GI
chow at a command post of an engineers battalion (270th) near
Saarbrucken, Germany, with Cpl. Art Beyer of Indianapolis (center)
and Cpl. George E. Stevens of Walla Walla and Spokane. Cpl. Stevens,
for several years circulation manager for The Spokeman-Review in the
Walla Walla region, sent this picture from the front after Miss
Dietrich and other entertainers put on a show for Yank troops. [This
picture was scanned from the original photo that appeared in a March
1945 edition of the Stars and Stripes. The clipping was obtained
from the collection of Mr. Orville Ellis. Mr. Ellis originally
received it from John Bailey (B/270, deceased) in 1980.
The crowd became raucous in anticipation, and
finally just in time, the house lights dimmed and the small "pit
band" began the overture. An off-stage voice announced the
long-awaited introduction...."Star of stage, screen and radio fresh
from a long string of box-office smashes....the loveliest, the
sultriest, the sexiest....the most beautiful woman in the
world.....Let's give a great, enthusiastic Trailblazer welcome to
Miss Marlene Dietrich!"
The GI audience roared its approval as Marlene
"slinked" onto the stage. She had doffed her tailored OD's in favor
of a red sequined, full-length, strapless evening gown which was
slit from ankle to hip on one side in such a way as to frequently
reveal ravishing glimpses of the world famous Dietrich limbs!
Bedlam prevailed! She bowed and waved and threw us
kisses and murmured, "Thank you, thank you" over and over again in
that smoky, suggestive, throaty voice. She was a vision!
Finally, the band prevailed and led off with
"Falling in Love Again" and Miss Dietrich crooned this, her first
big vocal hit, in a highly enticing, inviting way....convincing
every man in the hall that she was singing just to him! A whole
medley of songs followed consisting of Marlene's personal signature
songs from her pictures, but also included were several of the
(then) current, sentimental love songs of the era...."I'll Walk
Alone" and "I'll Be Seeing You"....and the great wartime marching
song, "Lili Marlene".
The vocal feast ended abruptly when a
"baggy-pants" type comedian burst onto the stage from the wings and
started a risqué patter with Miss Dietrich. Together, the two of
them, threw out enough suggestive double entendres to really excite
and arouse the al-ready substantial libidinal energies of the young
audience. Cheering, laughter, and applause followed each "zinger"
until it seemed the building itself was shaking! Tension relief was
afforded when the comedian introduced several other acts. A pair of
young singers who performed both solos and duets and a small troupe
of nubile young ladies who danced and danced and danced!
In a quick exit, all the performers left the stage
into the wings as the band continued to play. The performers
returned several times to bow graciously while the band reviewed the
music of the show. The crowd was ecstatic....on their feet and
shouting, "More! More!". The off-stage voice broke in to announce
the reprise of Miss Dietrich!
She entered from the left, alone and carrying a
plain chair and, of all things, an ordinary carpenter's saw. She
moved gracefully to center stage and set the chair down. She then
announced that she was going to share with us her life-long love of
fine music by playing her favorite instrument....the saw!
The crowd became very quiet and skeptically
expectant. Miss Dietrich stood near the chair in her shimmering red
sequined gown. Her right side - the side with the "split" in her
skirt - was turned toward the audience. With practiced ease she
lifted her left foot (high-heeled) and placed it on the chair. This
move raised her skirt in such a way that the dress draped about her
raised left leg while exposing her beautiful right leg in its
entirety. Long silken hose covered her exposed limb high up on her
She began to play. Just how she accomplished this
I'm not sure. By bending the saw, in varying degrees, with her right
hand in control, she was able to produce tonal sounds of a twangy,
metallic sort along the saw blade bent against her left leg. It was
amazing! The audience was awe-struck! Here was this divine Hollywood
beauty queen and star playing the "Missouri Waltz" and "I'm Forever
Blowing Bubbles" on a carpenter's saw!
The applause and cheering was ear-splitting as she
finished her strange repertoire. Then she announced that she would
close the show by singing, once more, her first great hit, "Falling
in Love Again". Staying in a position with her left leg still raised
on the chair, she demurely laid the saw aside, gazed directly out at
us in the audience and signaled the pianist to play her intro. He
played and she sang....milking every sexy innuendo possible out of
But listening to her sing the now famous lyrics
was not what commanded the rapt attention of her GI audience. No, it
was something else....something she was doing as she sang. Without
interrupting her steady gaze out at the audience, the fingertips of
both of her hands were slowly, raising that portion of her skirt
which had remained draped over her left leg! With each note....each
word of the song....the skirt was raised higher and higher in a
tantalizingly orchestrated exposure of a portion of the world's most
famous flesh....Marlene Dietrich's legs!
The audience was holding its breath! Gone was the
cheering and whistling and applause! The listeners sat in complete
silence....except for the sound of her voice and the song....their
collective eyes riveted on the tableau that was unfolding on that
Slowly higher....slowly higher the sequined
drapery rose to expose more and more of that luscious limb! As the
skirt lifted toward its unknown climax, the provocative song reached
its final line...."Falling in love again"....higher, slowly
higher...."never wanted to" ....higher, higher...."what am I to
do?"....almost, almost there! (Where?)...."Can't help it!" and, with
that last vocal phrase, the song ended just as the red hem fell
away, and there, above the top limit of her beautiful hose, high up
on the inside of Marlene Dietrich's marvel-ous left thigh, was the
70th Division patch!
As the last of her vocal refrains faded away, Miss
Dietrich continued to gaze intently out at her audience. The GI's
erupted in a thunderous ovation. Marlene lowered her left leg from
the chair....the split skirt again closed about those treasured gams.
She turned to face us and bowed gracefully from her waist. The
Trailblazers had blazed new ground...and they roared their approval!
Lee and I glanced at one another in mutual
delight. Imagine: a hot bath, clean clothes and Marlene Dietrich all
in one afternoon in early March, 1945.