(Clyde Mitchell, a member of the US army that occupied Steyr, Austria after World War II, wrote this article. Clyde, age 79, and his wife, Margaret, live in Waynedale, and in Lake Placid, Florida. He has a deep interest in revisiting Steyr. editing by Janet Bolton)
One month before the Armistice, April 8, 1945, I found myself on the front, just east of the Elbe River 50 miles from Berlin. My former unit, 358th searchlight battalion, had been protecting New York harbor when we were deactivated and sent to the ETO, European Theater of Operations, as infantry replacements.
I was assigned to the 331st regiment, 83rd division, and to the front lines. Little did we know that the Potsdam Conference was keeping us from occupying Berlin, which had been promised to the Russians.
One day a jeep pulled up to my foxhole, and an officer asked if anyone wanted to volunteer for the M.P. (Military Police). Most of the men selected were big, tall, fellows, but somehow they also picked me, probably because I located a dress uniform (OD’s) in the bottom of my duffle bag and even wore a tie to the selection site. I was thrilled to get out of that stinking foxhole and back for a shower and clean quarters!
Within a few weeks the Armistice was declared in Europe, and then came the atomic bomb in Japan and the war was over. Regimental headquarters were now in the town of Griesbach, Germany, where we were on duty during the summer. In the fall of 1945 we moved to Steyr, Austria, a frontier town between the American and Soviet zones.
We arrived in Steyr, a beautiful and picturesque small city, and found it without much damage from the war. I remember the very narrow streets and the rolling hillsides surrounding the town. A beautiful river ran through town, and we had to cross narrow bridges to get to the east side of town. I remember the streets were cobblestone without sidewalks. The entire city had the centuries-old feeling of charm and stability.
The 331st Military Police Platoon was billeted in an 8-room building, a hotel, across from the railroad station. Many of our soldiers would go to the station to catch a train going to the ski resorts.
Many soldiers in our platoon were going back to the states for discharge, so soon I found myself in charge of the Military Police Platoon of about 20 men. I became Provost Marshall of Steyr and was responsible for keeping the peace of our own soldiers as well as working with the civilian law enforcement.
As I recall, the civilian police were without arms, so it was our duty to back them up when needed. Most of our duties involved dealing with our own unlawful soldiers who would get intoxicated and cause problems. These unruly soldiers were jailed in the basement of the Rathaus (City Hall).
Many of our problems stemmed from two things. It was illegal for anyone to sell military items. Also, only US soldiers could use script money, the real currency exchange dollars issued to the soldiers at that time. Some of our most troubling encounters were taking G.I. gear, such as blankets, clothes, and personal effects from people who had purchased these items on the black market. The Russians, who were just across the river from us, came into Steyr every weekend to buy things with script money, which, of course, was illegal. Nevertheless, they spent US script money and bought items from those who would sell to them. I later found out this was counterfeit script money. They had stolen our printing plates and were making real currency exchange dollars. So, it was not uncommon for them to pay as much as $300.00 for a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. The Russian soldiers were then forbidden to enter Steyr. We had to arrest the Russians soldiers who did not comply with this order. They were placed under house arrest at Steyrer Hof, a hotel near the Rathaus.
We did not have much trouble with Steyr civilians as they did not have currency to spend. We found that for us a pack of cigarettes was much more valuable in bartering than our own exchange money.
To this day I have lasting memories of the Steyr population who were very favorable and hospitable. It has left me with great admiration and respect for these good people. My contacts (the women, children and the few old men) were always pleasant and respectful. The children would come and stand outside the mess hall for leftover food scraps. I would always try to have an orange or apple to give them. They also loved candy, but we seldom had any for them.
I wish I had been there in the summertime when the flower boxes would be in bloom and the lush green fields, leafy trees, and hedges were fully bloomed and trimmed. I was able to enjoy these things in Griesbach during my stay there the previous summer.