Oral History of William Studwell

The beginning of World War II in 1939 marked the start of one of the bloodiest conflagrations in world history — a conflict that would leave Europe a smoldering pile of blood-stained ruins at its conclusion in 1945. Invaded by totalitarian dictators with insatiable imperial aspirations, Western Europe quickly fell to the blitzkrieg warfare of Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers. With the collapse of France in 1940, Adolf Hitler controlled all of Western Europe except Britain, a realization that startled the neutral United States from its score-long isolationist slumber. Following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States entered the fray, aiming to defeat Hitler and liberate Europe before focusing its energies on Japan. After the D-Day invasion of France in 1944, the Allied Powers (Britain, France, the Soviet Union and now the fresh, impassioned United States), began chipping away German control of Western Europe. Soon faced with the possible demise of their campaign, the German Nazis launched one final attack on the Allied front — the infamous “Battle of the Bulge”— that, with its failure, solidified Germany’s defeat. Just prior to this last-ditch effort by Hitler, my grandfather, William “Bill”Studwell arrived on a beach-head in France, joining the American forces in Europe and leaving his footprints on the continent’s ravaged battlefields.

Bill Studwell was born May 27, 1924 in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was the first of five kids and was raised primarily in Stanford, Connecticut, where he graduated from high school in 1942. Although living in a family with an average income, the grip of depression and poverty was still felt throughout his youth. It was this economic uncertainty that led Bill to enter the Army Reserve upon graduation, seeing the military as an opportunity to obtain at least some years of college education. However, due to an increasing demand for troops in the war in Europe, Bill was only able to receive one year of schooling at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut before going active-duty and being shipped off to basic training.

Bill’s decision to join the Army was not an easy one, as he had been flirting with the idea of becoming a pacifist for some time, influenced by his girlfriend who was the daughter of a Methodist minister. However, after receiving the approval of her father, who himself believed that “although peace is important, sometimes you have to fight the wolves that are attacking your flock of sheep,”Bill entered the Army Reserve and was sent to basic training in Tyler, Texas in the summer of 1942. That winter, he trained in Aberdeen, South Dakota where he hoped to receive specialized training that would grant him entry as a second lieutenant into the Engineer Corps. Unfortunately, while he was in South Dakota, the Army discontinued the program due to a lack of interest and growing need for infantrymen on the European battlefields. He was thus subsequently sent to Little Rock, Arkansas where he received basic training and then learned the art of anti-tank gunning in Mobile, Alabama.

Bill’s military involvement consisted mainly of his work on the battlefields of France between 1944 and 1946. He served as an anti-tank gunner within the 66th division and had risen to the rank of corporal in 1946 before being discharged from the service. He received a European Theater Medal for his work and as an infantryman was elevated to the status of Combat Infantryman (the highest position one can attain in the infantry). Aside from his anti-tank gunning and combat skills, Bill was valued as a French interpreter, having taken a few years of French in high school. Serving mainly in the town of Le-Temple near St. Nazaire and Lorient, holding down the Germans on France’s west coast, Bill was fortunate enough to avoid some of the more brutal campaigns in the war. However, the looming presence of the far away yet simultaneous Battle of the Bulge haunted him throughout his early service as he feared that the Germans might break through the Allied lines and rejoin their forces in France, killing those soldiers like himself trapped in the recently-liberated country and effectively winning the war.

On Christmas night, 1944 Bill Studwell and his battalion crossed the English Channel into Cherbourg, France. Upon arriving, it was clear by the amount of activity going on that something serious had happened. Using his two years of high school French to communicate with the natives, Bill was able to determine that a German submarine had sunk a troop transport the night before, killing over 1,000 men from his division. People were still searching for the bodies. Originally ordered to the Battle of the Bulge, Bill and his fellow soldiers departed for Belgium only to later find out that they had instead been transferred to St. Nazaire and Lorient on the west coast of France to relieve the 94th and 102nd divisions, who had been holding down the Germans in submarine pens and would replace them at the Bulge. (The Army had thought it wise to send the more organized, more experienced 94th and 102nd divisions to the Bulge rather than the already crippled 66th division). In January 1945 he arrived at his station - a farmhouse in Le-Temple, - welcomed by the anti-tank guns of German forces a mere 500 yards away. He vividly remembers anxiously “shaking in his boots”as he heard the shells boom above him, fearing that the next shell might hit its target. After a while, the barrage of shells grew silent, his battalion fortuitously unharmed. They then went about setting up an anti-tank gun in the barn and made plans for their stay in the farmhouse, which would ultimately last thirty-three days.

Throughout his stay in the farmhouse, Bill and his fellow soldiers remained steadfastly ready to attack the heavily fortified Germans if called upon. They frequently heard news from the Bulge, which, more often than not, reignited their fears of a German victory. However, not every memory of Bill’s stay in the farmhouse is tainted with fear. He remembers one night during the “crazy war”when the German and American troops agreed to a truce, and the Germans came to his encampment, where, for quite a while, the two sides talked like friends and exchanged such personal items as Bing Crosby records before returning to their respective bases and posts. He also remembers one night when he slipped while on patrol, accidentally firing a bullet into the wall of the barn. In 1959, while on his way to India, he stopped by the barn and found the same bullet-hole from fifteen years earlier, a subtle reminder of the war.

Bill also learned to improve his French during his stay in Le-Temple. As an interpreter (or the only person in his battalion that knew any French), Bill was sent each night to a butcher in town, Marie la Butcher (“Marie the Butcher”), who had taken over her husband’s business after he had been sent to the front-lines. Even though her three children had all died after being struck by a German shell earlier in the war, she managed to maintain a positive attitude, charming Bill with her sweetness and affability. Learning how the order pork, veal and other meats in French, Bill and his company ate “pretty high”during their stay in the farmhouse. Also revisiting the town of Le-Temple 1959, he visited Marie and reminisced with her about their past experiences.

After Hitler committed suicide following Germany’s defeat at the Battle of the Bulge, the 66th division extracted a surrender from the German forces at St. Nazaire. Its mission accomplished, the 66th division traveled to the port of Marseille, where Bill and his fellow soldiers could be honorably discharged and sent home. However, because he did not have enough points to discharge, Bill remained in Europe as an MP (military police) during the “occupation”phase immediately following the surrender of Germany. One of his main duties as an MP, and also increasingly as an interpreter, was to inspect French brothels — centers of legal prostitution — to ensure that they were properly licensed, had decent health plans and that the soldiers who had visited them had behaved responsibly. Shortly after becoming an MP, Bill was selected to take a ten-week course in French culture and civilization at Dijon University, which he found delightful and informative. Upon returning, he was sent to Austria to serve as the secretary for a labor supervision company that was to put 200 German prisoners-of-war to work; however, the prisoners never arrived, and Bill therefore had very little to do. In April 1946, at the age of twenty-one, Bill Studwell was finally discharged from the Army and sent back to the United States.

Upon returning home, Bill completed his education at Trinity, switching his major from chemical engineering to English language. Afterwards, he attended Yale Divinity School and became a Methodist minister, presiding over a congregation in Stanford, Connecticut for ten years. After inquiring about the possibility of administering his own church overseas, Bill was offered a job as pastor of the Union Congregation of New Delhi in India, a job that appealed to him because, like Yale Divinity School, it brought together dozens of different Christian denominations under one roof. While preaching mainly to American and British volunteer workers in India during his six years of service, Bill was influential in promoting the Green Revolution, which stimulated agricultural output in the technologically backward Indian subcontinent. Upon returning home, he ministered churches in both Kingston and Pleasantville, New York. While residing in Pleasantville, Bill’s wife, Peg Margaret Worley, died suddenly of disease, leaving her six children with only their father. However, shortly afterward, while organizing a church trip to India, Bill met his second wife, Barbara Peacock, with whom he currently lives in Winter Park, Florida.

Researched by David Casalaspi
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum
Cosby High School

Studwell, William. Telephone interview. 01 Apr 2008.

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