'As you get older, you realize we were basically cannon fodder'

12/07/2011 12:00 AM

12/07/2011 2:18 PM

Billye Skarles had hardly traveled away from Sacramento. But not long after he graduated from McClatchy High School in 1944, he was drafted into the infantry. He expected to be assigned to the Pacific.

After the bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945, he was sent to Germany instead with the 83rd Division, 331st Infantry.

"As you get older, you realize we were basically cannon fodder," he said. "You put as many people as you can out there and hopefully win the battle. If not, you're dead.

"They needed bodies. They shipped us over."

His division chased the retreating German army through central Europe, one town after the other.

As Skarles and his best friend emerged at dusk one early April day from a creek bed near a farm, a machine gun opened up from the barn. Suddenly, a wall of flames loomed in front of them.

"My friend got hit by gunfire," said Skarles, now 85. "I ran and pulled him back, but he was dead when he hit the ground. I got him back, but he was gone. You really don't have time to think about it. It wasn't fun."

The 83rd Division, whose members won more than 6,000 Bronze Stars and 710 Silver Stars during the war, would finally march into Berlin. But Skarles, who won the Bronze Star for the attempted rescue of his friend, wasn't with them.

He was hit in his left hip by shrapnel on April 15 and shipped home.

"You see all these movies about how everybody just drops when they're hit," he said. "I got up and got on the other side of the road to have protection. Next thing I knew, I was in the hospital."

When the war ended, he was in Sacramento.

"I was down on K Street, and the place was absolutely crazy," he said. "It was jammed. No cars, just mobs of people going around kissing girls. Everybody was happy."

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