Bern Ballard was born near Inez, in Victoria County, Texas in 1920, one of six sons born to the family of a tenant farmer. Five of the six sons would survive to maturity and the five all served in WWII, with one being killed in action.
His father had a serious chronic illness that was misdiagnosed and as a result, beginning when Bern was three years old, they moved frequently during his childhood years in unsuccessful attempts to find a favorable location for the fathers health. By 1927 they had farmed at Bethel (outside Ballinger) for two years, at Concho for a year and at Paint Rock for a year, before moving to Hext, in Menard County, where Bern started to school. The family started a business in the town of Hext, but after the first year the business failed. Following that, his father found a job with the county and they moved into the city of Menard. After that, the Ballard family lived in Melvin (McCulloch County, 16 miles from Brady) for another four years before making their last move, to Austin, Texas.
It was 1933 when they arrived in Austin, and Bern says, Ive been here ever since except for my service in WWII. My father had been a barber earlier in life and he went to work as a barber again here. I attended John T. Allen Junior High School and went through 7th Grade, at which time I made a decision to pursue training in the Industrial Arts. That trade schooling was taught at Austin High School and I was in that program until 1939. In 1940 I got a job with the Katy Railroad, but then in October of that year myself and four other guys went out to Camp Mabry and enlisted in the Army National Guard. The Table of Allowances they were operating under at the time did not allow us to go on Active Duty right away, so initially we were signed up to Inactive Service. But, that changed quickly. On November 25, 1940 the 36th Infantry Division was activated with all units to be assembled at Camp Bowie near Brownwood.
Bern Ballard was assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, 111th Quartermaster Regiment. They constituted the truck transportation assets of the 36th Division. Bern was immediately assigned as a truck driver and he has this to say about it, I think I may be the only man in the Army that never got Basic Training. They just put me behind the wheel of a truck and I started driving. We were equipped with 1938 Model, 1-Ton Chevrolet trucks. Starting just before Christmas, we worked night and day transporting units from their Guard Armories from all over Texas and assembling the Division at Camp Bowie. I remember making trips hauling to Brownwood from McAllen and from Dallas, and know there were other places too that I cant recall just now. After about three months we had everybody at Camp Bowie.
In March 1941, a detachment of 13 trucks and 13 drivers was sent to Camp Wolters, near Mineral Wells, to provide transportation services as part of the Corps Area Cadre Command there. Bern Ballard was one of those drivers and they spent the week transporting troops around that training base. On weekends they were detailed to transport the men that were going on pass into town. The drivers were issued MP brassards to give the appearance of authority because they were also held responsible for making sure all the men back to camp. Sometimes it wasnt easy because the men were not always in a mood to cooperate when it was time to make the return trip. Bern was on that detail for three months.
In June 1941 he was back with the division at Camp Bowie, and during the next few months he participated in several small division maneuvers. Then came a large-scale maneuver in Louisiana that involved the entire division. While on that maneuver in late 1941, Bern was injured in a truck accident. After treatment, he was sent home on medical leave. After a few days at home he received a regular furlough and he was able to enjoy 15 days off before reporting back to his unit in Louisiana. The division returned to Camp Bowie in time to allow many of the men, including Bern Ballard, to spend Christmas at home.
After that, Bern was picked for a detail of 35 drivers that was sent to North Carolina. He has this to say, We were a pool of drivers and our job was to transport officers that were there on umpire duty. These were 36th Division officers that were also gaining knowledge of the area for anticipated future maneuvers there by the 36th Division. We 35 drivers came with no supervision and this was a pretty wild bunch that took maximum advantage of that loose arrangement. I had a different car to drive every day and drove for different officers almost every time. The prominent Austin Judge, Tom Blackwell, at that time was a Second Lieutenant in that officer detail, but I never drove for him, apparently he had other duties and was not going out as an umpire.
About this time, the 36th was reorganized from a square division to a triangular division (effective on Feb 1, 1942) and when it did the Quartermaster Regiment of 1,100 men was inactivated and a new 36th Quartermaster Company of 200 men was activated to replace it. I was in the new QM Company and my job was still driving trucks.
The division moved from Camp Bowie to Camp Blanding, Florida in February 1942. In July and August they participated in the Carolina Maneuvers, and moved on from there to Camp Edwards at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Bern says, We were in tents at Camp Edwards (then home of the Armys Amphibious Training Command), but then later moved to a satellite camp out on Washburn Island where the division conducted amphibious training. It was winter and I remember it being 20 below zero, but the troops were all still out there training, climbing down cargo nets, loading into landing craft and making practice beach landings. Then after several weeks it was back to Camp Edwards and when we returned, barracks had been built so we had better quarters for the remainder of our nine months there.
In April 1943, the 36th Infantry Division was shipped to North Africa. Loading onto trains at Camp Edwards and moving by rail directly to New York Harbor they embarked on troop ships for Oran, Algeria. Shortly after their arrival, Rommels Afrika Korps was defeated (May 1943), and Bern relates, Having arrived shortly before the fighting had ended, too late for the division to be committed to combat, we were moved up the coast from Oran. After about four months in North Africa we were shipped from Algiers to take part in the invasion of Italy. We were left loaded on board ships for two or three weeks before the invasion took place. The division was part of the assault that went in at Salerno, but it was the next day before my ship load was landed there on Paestrum Beach and that was on D-Day + 1 (Sept 10, 1943). We moved northward and were up to Casino, I remember digging foxholes there.
The division was then pulled back and moved up the coast by ship. We were landed (on May 25, 1944) as reinforcements at Anzio, and then spearheaded the breakout and continued north in the drive for Rome. The division was up north of Rome when it was again pulled back and, after a brief rest period at Paestrum, once more loaded onto boats. This time the 36th Division left Italy for good, and became a part of the invasion going into Southern France, making an assault landing on August 15th.
Bern Ballard was with the 36th Quartermaster Company as the division continued operations up through France and by December was fighting in the Alsace-Lorraine. But, then cuts were made in his unit and Bern was among the transportation personnel that were pulled out and sent to a Chateau near Paris for three weeks of Infantry training and then reclassification as an Infantryman. However, Bern had never even received Basic Training up to this point, and his record did not change here, as he explains, It was bitterly cold with snow, ice and rain every day that made outdoor training impossible. As a result, the only thing I learned was how to field strip a rifle, and then they sent me off to the Replacement Depot.
We (replacements) were put on a train in Paris that took us to Belgium. From the train we were loaded onto trucks that moved toward the front, passing through the Siegfried Line into Germany and on into the Huertgen Forest, the trip taking several days.
Bern arrived at his new unit, assigned and joined, to Company C, 309th Infantry Regiment, 78th Infantry Division in early January 1945 when they were in combat in the Huertgen Forest. The 78th Division had only recently arrived in theatre and had been committed to action for less than a month but their losses had already been heavy and they were in need of replacements when Bern arrived. Bern says, Hurtgen Forest was absolutely brutal, we were losing men every day and you could never know when. Most casualties resulted from tree bursts from German mortars. The forest was thick and anywhere a person moved, he was beneath the trees. Enemy shells would detonate in the treetops scattering lethal fragments over a far greater area and causing more casualties than they would if detonating on the surface by ground contact in open terrain. I was wounded by a mortar shell tree burst on January 14, 1945, after having been in Company C for only five or six days. Medics at the aid station determined the shell fragment in my right hand had not broken any bones so they did nothing further than to bandage me up, and after about two hours, sent me on my way back to my unit with a troublesome piece of steel remaining in my hand.
President Roosevelt died (April 12, 1945), and it must have taken only a short time for word of his death to reach us in Europe. Although I cant say the exact date, I do remember that we were finally on the march and on the way out of Huertgen Forest when that news came down. The company was not halted for the announcement to be made, it was just sent up from the rear of the column. As we were marching along each man in turn would call it out to the man in front of him and then shout, pass the word forward. Each of us would hear coming up from behind, pass the word forward, pass the word forward, until it reached us and we in turn repeated that awful message that the president was dead, and pass the word forward. That continued up the line of march in sequence until the voices gradually faded from hearing. It was one of those moments in life that a man doesnt forget.
Company C was somewhere in Germany on the day the war ended (V-E Day was May 8, 1945). They were operating off the map and Bern did not attach significance to their location on that particular day. Afterward, the troops mostly laid around waiting for the point system to send them home.
Bern had been in the Army since the year before the war and had been overseas for over two years, so he had close to 200 points. Also, because all the original men of the 78th Infantry Division had only been in Europe for six months, Bern had the most points of anyone in the division. He should have been the first to be going home. However, Bern Ballard was a Platoon Sergeant and he was the Battalion Bayonet Drill Instructor. The policy at the time was that anyone with a battalion level job couldnt go home no matter how many points he had. A sympathetic Company Commander did him a favor by reducing Bern one grade, and then gave the stripe to his assistant, thus making him the senior battalion bayonet instructor. The way was then clear for Bern to be put on orders to go home, and so it proceeded.
The first stop on his journey back to the United States was assembly with other returnees in some French barracks on the Maginot Line. Bern was held there for several weeks and then was sent to Marseille. From Marseille he was put on a plane to North Africa, and from there to Bermuda and then Miami, Florida. He then had a four-day train trip from Miami to San Antonio. Barely two months after V-E Day, Bern Ballard was discharged from the Army at Fort Sam Houston, July 18, 1945 and returned home to Austin.
Bern Ballard studied accounting in Business College and soon had employment as a bookkeeper. While working that job he took further course work in accounting (and was paid $35 monthly by the VA). After seven years work in accounting, Bern opened a Service Station and went into business for himself. Three years later he took up selling Insurance and did that for two years. In 1955 he got a job with the Post Office. He retired from the Post Office in the 1970s, but in the meantime had obtained a Real Estate license and had bought some land in Burnet County. Upon leaving the postal service, he first began selling real estate in Burnet County and then purchased, subdivided and sold land and he did very well at it. In 1982 his old injuries caught up to him and limited what he was able to do. He opened an antique store on South Congress Avenue, and operated it until 1993. That was also successful, but he retired from business at that time.
He had also been doing volunteer service work and he continued to be active after retiring from his business career. He worked as a fund-raiser and then was the Treasurer for the Texas Military Forces Museum in the museums early years under Brigadier General Jack Scribner. He has been a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart for nearly 30 years and served as Adjutant of Chapter 3636 (a chapter of mostly 36th Infantry Division WWII Purple Heart recipients), which disbanded recently due to dwindling numbers, following which he transferred his membership to Chapter 1919.
In addition to his home in the local area, Bern had built a house on the coast at Rockport, while still owning his Burnet County ranch. In retirement he had been spending time in each place, but most recently he has decided to voluntarily limit his travel and can normally be found here in Austin. That works to our advantage since Chapter 1919 gets to see him more often that way, and this month PATRIOT BULLETIN proudly salutes Patriot Bern Ballard. Bern Ballard died on September 24, 2013 at the age of 93.