Chances are you have at some time in your past, “re-enacted” a historical event – possibly in school or church. Perhaps you were a shepherd in a Christmas pageant or playacted the part of George Washington in a skit. “Re-enacting” a historical event or character is just that, performing a role or acting.
Living Historians are a bit different. Certainly, their passion for history shines through. They study history beyond textbooks to develop a vivid impression of a person – common citizen or well-known hero – who is dwelling in our not so distant past.
According to The Alamo’s website, Living historians tend to be associated with museums and historical sites that specialize in interpreting the past through a format that allows visitors to visualize the past through the use of their senses. Living historians can also be dedicated private individuals who volunteer their talents and services to historical sites and as such are a valuable resource.
The term “living history” refers to a method of interpreting the past through the use of a person or persons dressed in period clothing. The technique is usually enhanced by having the person or persons use period tools and engage in period activities.
So, what can you expect at Camp Hearne’s annual “Remembering D-Day Living History” event? You can expect to visit with living historians, view traditional exhibits, inspect military vehicles & gear and hear lots of storytelling. Saturday, June 8, will be a wonderful way to experience military history and learn more about a Central Texas town’s home front contributions to the war effort. You can even walk the ground that was shared by German and American soldiers…just on opposite sides of the fence.
Camp Hearne is proud of our Living Historian and Re-enactor partners. Hope you will join us for our June 8th Open House while Remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
During WWII, few people were aware that America was home to hundreds of thousands of German prisoners-of-war. Because of the Geneva Conventions of 1929, most prisoners were required to be held in a similar climate as their capture location. On a parallel line from North Africa, the American southern states held many of Rommel’s surrendered Afrika Korps. More were held in Texas than any other state.
Hearne, Texas was home to 4800 mostly German prisoners and 500+ US Army personnel. Our Camp Hearne exhibit sits on the original POW Campsite and reveals a very common story of what life was like for the American guards and their foreign prisoners in America. Photographs, artwork, artifacts and various military objects housed in a 1943 US Army barracks replica help the visitor to experience WWII history today. Come walk the same ground as German soldiers marched and America GIs patrolled, here in Central Texas.
This June 8, former military police escort guard, Matthew Ware, will be onsite to tell his story. He escorted prisoners from North Africa to Hearne, Texas and spent some time in military service at the Camp before being shipped overseas. Other living historians will be discussing their WWII impressions donning WWII uniforms, gear and weapons. The Lone Star Military Vehicle Preservation Association will have a small “motor pool” of vintage trucks and jeeps to complement our stories.
This is truly a good time to visit Camp Hearne to experience WWII history in a vibrant, hands-on way.
Join us June 8 for our annual Remembering D-Day Living History Event.
Admission is FREE! Gates open 10am to 4pm. Camp Hearne is located northwest of Hearne on FM485. Visit camphearne.com for more information or contact Cathy Lazarus at 979-314-7012.
Photo: Rosemary Hoyt [not related to Hoyt’s Drug Store] standing by Hearne City Limit sign in 1943. Hearne’s “skyline” is in the distance over her right shoulder.
This article was a Literary Journalism assignment completed by Mrs. Hoyt’s grand-daughter while attending the University of Indiana. The interviews of Rosemary Hoyt and Dr. Michael Waters, TAMU, were conducted in March of 2004. Permission was granted by author to publish.
So Far From Home
“Lili Marleen,” a song about a girl who waits patiently for her soldier to return home, was picked up as an unofficial anthem by both Allied and German soldiers after the German Forces Radio began broadcasting it to the Afrika Korps in 1941.
Vor der Kaserne vor dem grossen Tor
Stand eine Laterne, und stebt noch davor,
So wolln wir uns da wiedersehn
Bei der Laterne wolln wir stehn,
Wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
It was June 1943 and Rosemary and John Hoyt [not related to Hoyt’s Drug Store] were living in Hearne, Texas. Immediately after the wedding, Rosemary had moved to San Antonio where John was stationed, but then he got orders to report to a prisoner of war camp in Hearne, Texas.
“In the army, you know, when you got orders, you were to report at so and so place by a certain date and that’s where you would be,” Rosemary says. So she and John went to Hearne – “a real little country cow town.”
At that time, the railroads were still running strong and Hearne was hopping with Army men and their wives, but at 21, after spending a year in San Antonio, Rosemary wasn’t much interested in the town.
“They had big cattle farms,” she says, “a little eating place, a bank and a post office, and that’s about it. There was not much else there.”
The old man who owned the house where Rosemary and John were living, owned cattle and sometimes he’d take her with him to the cattle auctions. But most of the time, when John went out to the base each day, she had nothing to do.
It wasn’t long before Rosemary got bored of sitting in their one-room apartment. She began wandering around town during the day, and soon, she got tired of that too. Texas was hot, humid and mostly empty. Whereas San Antonio had been big and bustling – completely different from German village in Columbus, Ohio, where she’d grown up – Hearne was small and out of the way. That’s probably why the prisoner of war camp was put in Hearne, she decided.
One day, when John went off to the base, Rosemary made up her mind to “hire a taxi cab to take me on out there.” She figured the Army must need people to work at the base. Maybe they would need a typist.
When the taxi arrived, Rosemary marched down the gravel road, passed the guard at the gate and on into the camp. To her right were barracks for the American officers stationed at Camp Hearne. She and John could have gotten their living quarters there too, but none were available when they arrived. Instead, they had to find their own place to live in town and all they could get was a single bedroom in someone else’s house.
“We want your full name,” the Army officer said.
“Rosemary Schumacher Hoyt,” she answered.
“Are you German?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Do you understand the language? Can you speak and understand German?” they asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Would you object to working in the hospital? It’s inside the compound where all the prisoners are kept. The prisoners all work in the hospital too,” they told her.
The hospital! That’s where John works, she thought.
“No,” Rosemary answered, “I wouldn’t mind at all.”
The officers led her into the prisoner’s compound and then took a right down the gravel road. Camp Hearne wasn’t a pretty place, by far, but then again it wasn’t made to be pretty – it was just for use until the war was over. The compound was divided into three sections for the prisoners to live in (each with a mess hall, lavatory, company office and six barracks) and a section for the hospital.
To get to the hospital, she had to walk passed the prisoners’ barracks, 20-foot wide by 100-foot long buildings the Army called “war mobilization structures.” They were made of wood and most just had black tar paper covering the outer walls, but the hospital buildings were a bit nicer and were covered with wooden siding painted white.
When Rosemary reached the hospital, she was escorted to Major Redwine, her husband John’s boss. Well, he was everyone’s boss because he was the chief doctor in charge of the hospital, but Rosemary could tell he was a nice man and she liked him right away. Major Redwine was older and he had served in the Army for years. He was also a Texan, which might explain why he seemed right at home in the surroundings.
“You’ll do just fine,” Redwine told her and showed Rosemary to her new, little office. Well, she hadn’t even had time to see the place when who comes walking down the hallway but John! At first he walked right by, without even noticing, then he heard Rosemary talking and did an about face back into the Major’s office.
“What are you doing here?” John asked her.
Before she could answer, Major Redwine came out and said, “Lt. Hoyt, please do not bother my new secretary.”
Every morning after that when John went into the base for work, Rosemary went with him. Rosemary didn’t know how much the Army would pay her as a typist, but she figured whatever she got would be more than she’d had before.
As far as she knew, Rosemary was the only woman working in the hospital – all the rest were men. Well, she knew a few women worked in the business office outside of the compound, but she was the only one inside and the only way to get inside was to pass by the guards at the checkpoint. “You see, the compound was a barbed-wire affair, with great big, high wire walls and guards in towers with guns,” Rosemary said. The guards needed to know who you were and where you were going. If you worked in the compound, the guards got to know you, but that just meant they knew exactly where you were supposed to be when.
Everyday, the guards went through Rosemary’s pocketbook, once going in and once again on the way out. It didn’t seem to matter that Rosemary wasn’t an officer – the guards checked John too – but with about 4,700 prisoners to keep inside the compound, they were understandably cautious.
The guards told her once if they told her a thousand times not to carry anything in her pockets and to put just personal stuff in her purse. Still, the day came when Rosemary tried to take in a couple of magazines. Just magazines, she thought, but the guards told her she wasn’t to do that. She wasn’t allowed to bring anything in or take anything out. No papers, no magazines, no books – no nothing. She didn’t really understand why, but they took her magazines anyway and wouldn’t give them back until she went out the gate that night.
Rosemary and John were still working at Camp Hearne at Christmas time, when the prisoners put up a Christmas tree. It was all decorated, and Rosemary thought it was such a sad thing that on Christmas, the young German men were so far from home. To her, the prisoners seemed very unhappy.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been so sad if she didn’t know them, but well, she couldn’t help but get to know them. She could talk to them, couldn’t she? The Army didn’t really want anyone working in the compound that couldn’t understand German. Most of the prisoners didn’t speak or understand English – at all – and made no attempt to learn. If you couldn’t speak German with them, you were just out of luck because they weren’t going to learn English.
This meant that John had to speak German too. He’d really picked it up quickly when he joined the Army and by the time they were stationed at Camp Hearne, he was almost as fluent as Rosemary. The Army had a class and, of course, he could get help from Rosemary.
Unsre beide Schatten sahn wie einer aus.
Dass wir so lieb uns hatten, das sah man gleich daraus
Un alle Leute solln es sehn,
Wenn wir bei der Laterne stehn,
Wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen.
Wolfgang Heineke was a prisoner and he worked in the hospital, in fact, sometimes he worked for Rosemary. His job was just to be there to do whatever the hospital staff needed him to do. If there was a hall to be swept, or if Rosemary wanted to send a message from Major Redwine over to another building, then Wolfgang was there to do it.
After a while, Rosemary got to know him. Wolfgang was young, maybe only 18 or 19 years old and, of course, he was from Germany, with a wife and new baby waiting for him back home. Wolfgang would often tell Rosemary how he unhappy he was – he wanted very much to go home and see his family again.
So it was that Rosemary got used to the German prisoners, one by one, day by day. She figured they were just people like anyone else. It’s not that she forgot the young men were prisoners – it’s just that they were so young. Most of the prisoners she met were under 25 years of age. A big group of them had all been picked up together in North Africa.
No, she knew they were prisoners. There was no telling what they did when they were in the German Army. Still, she believed the young men were probably put in that position by the German Army and, well, because bad things just happen in wars. As far as she could tell, most of them were decent men and when prisoners like Wolfgang came in to Rosemary’s office, she knew it was important to be able communicate.
There was one day, Rosemary wanted her window up, but try as she might, she couldn’t get it open. It was stuck. The hospital didn’t have air-conditioning, nor did the other buildings in the camp. Really, Rosemary felt lucky to have a window to open at all.
She decided the stuck window was a good job for Wolfgang. She called and he came right over.
“Macht das Fenster auf,” she told him.
He said “Nein nein, Fenster auf gemacht.”
In other words, she had said it wrong, but she didn’t care. Instead, she just motioned for him to put the window up – and that’s what exactly he did.
Schon rief der Posten: Sie blasen Zapfenstreich
Es kann drei Tage kosten! Kam’rad, ich komm ja gleich.
Da sagten wir auf Wiedersehn.
Wie gerne wollt ich mit dir gehn,
Mit dir Lili Marleen, mit dir Lili Marleen
Camp Hearne was built right before Rosemary and John arrived in Hearne. The camp’s first prisoners were captured in Tunisia in May 1943 from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. During World War II, Texas had more than 50,000 prisoners in 70 different camps. Of these, Camp Hearne was the third-largest POW-only camp in Texas.
The good thing about the camp was that it had just about everything the prisoners might need. It had rows of wooden barracks, a post office, and a hospital – all inside the barrier. The bad thing, for the prisoners anyway, was that they had to stay there until the war ended.
Inside the hospital was a “great big cafeteria,” with “long tables and chairs right after one another,” Rosemary says, “and everyone could sit wherever they wanted to sit.” All the prisoners working in the hospital ate there, the officers ate there, and John and Rosemary ate there too.
“Course you know they had the German boys cooking and it was real good,” Rosemary says. “It was all German food. Those German boys could cook.”
Rosemary thought this was just great, not because it was German cooking – her favorite – but because it meant she didn’t have to cook. She and John could take their meals there and lots of times, they ate breakfast, dinner and supper at the hospital. Sometimes she felt like they practically lived at Camp Hearne.
The hospital was also good for more than just its mess hall. It provided basic medical care for everyone in the camp. If a prisoner got sick, he was put in a hospital bed with someone to look after him. Every once in a while, one would come in with a severe illness or injury and the Army would have to send him to a bigger hospital somewhere.
John role was as a medical administrative officer for the hospital. Rosemary didn’t exactly know what that meant – she just knew that he took care of hospital office business. She also knew that Major Redwine was the doctor in charge and they had one or two other staff doctors. The hospital even had a little emergency room.
Rosemary knew that last part first-hand because one day, she got sick and had to go to the emergency room. The young man who ran it was a medical orderly named Fritz (Haus?). Fritz was a little older than Wolfgang and he had medical experience. Maybe he had been a medic in his troop, thought Rosemary, before he was captured.
He mixed up some medicine and gave it to Rosemary, and Rosemary didn’t even think about what she was taking. She just gulped it down and thanked him. Turns out the medicine worked fine, but she later realized he could have knocked her out with it if he’d wanted to. She was sure glad he didn’t.
Deine Schritte kennt sie, deinen zieren Gang
Alle Abend brennt sie, mich vergass sie lanp
Und sollte mir ein Leids geschehn,
Wer wird bei der Laterne stehn,
Mit dir Lili Marleen, mit dir Lili Marleen?
Hearne was probably not even considered a big camp, but then again, Rosemary thought, it was hard to tell how many prisoners they had there. From her perspective, everything at camp ran smoothly.
“But, I’m sure there was a lot I didn’t know,” she says. “I know there was. Well, that’s why they had these Army officers there that ran everything. I’m sure they had problems with the prisoners, but I never knew.”
She got the feeling that most of the prisoners accepted the fact they would be at Camp Hearne until the war ended. They had no choice – they just had to live there and make do.
What she maybe didn’t know was that Camp Hearne’s prisoners were divided into pro-Nazi and anti-Nazi supporters. Although the Army tried to isolate the groups in separate sections, one prisoner was murdered when his fellow prisoners decided he might be a spy. It was hard even for the Army to keep an eye on them all day, every day.
Prisoners did sometimes escape from Camp Hearne, but most didn’t make it too far. One man got out and headed down the road towards Franklin, the next town over, “wearing civilian clothes over his camp uniform and heartily singing German army marching songs,” wrote Texas A&M Professor Arnold Krammer about the prisoner. “He was gently returned to camp and for some reason could not understand how the local farmer who caught him had seen through his clever disguise.”
Sometimes Rosemary got a glimpse of trouble among the Army officers as well. Her job was to type letters for Major Redwine and to take care of his books – to do whatever he wanted done. One set of letters she typed was for a big investigation involving a Major who had shot himself in the head. A man named Lt. Post headed up the inquiry and she got to read about it as she typed up the paperwork. At first the Army thought the Major had been shot by a prisoner, but Lt. Post’s investigation showed that the officer had shot himself. The Army sent the wounded officer away to a mental institution.
The camp, or at least the hospital, was fine, even pleasant most of the time, but there was an undercurrent of troubles surrounding the war. Rosemary felt that something was always going on at Camp Hearne. She thought that the Army watched the prisoners closely, but that sometimes it wasn’t close enough.
Mail was a big item for the prisoners because it brought them news from home, despite the fact that both the Americans and the Germans censored the letters and packages. “One side blacked out words, and the other side cut them out,” former Camp Hearne POW Heino R. Ericksen said, “all that was usually left were greetings and personal information.”
Things went well enough with the mail system that in 1944, a few months after John and Rosemary left, Camp Hearne became a mail distribution point for all the German POWs in the United States. Prisoners were put to work in the mailroom and a small group of pro-Nazi prisoners began using the system to terrorize other prisoners and their families back in Germany. Eventually, the Army discovered the scheme and shut down the mailroom in July 1945.
In 1943 and ‘44, prisoners working at the camp were probably stationed in a shop repairing blankets and raincoats. Some got a hold of enough raincoats to build a make-shift raft and tried to sail down a nearby river to Germany. They didn’t get far before they were spotted and brought back to camp. Seems that most of the prisoners didn’t really understand where they were in relation to Germany.
Other prisoners were given road and field work to do. In the morning, local farmers took prisoners out of the camp in trucks to harvest cotton, onions and peanuts – stuff like that – then back into camp at the end of the day. However, the vast majority of prisoners at Camp Hearne, around 80 percent, were non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who through the Geneva Convention, were not required to work.
These prisoners could spend the day playing soccer, practicing gymnastics or painting. In fact, life at Camp Hearne was better than what many of the prisoners had left behind in Germany. NCOs were paid about three dollars a week, unless they wanted to earn a bit more by taking a job in the camp like Fritz and Wolfgang. Enlisted men earned around 80 cents a day for their labors. Prisoners were paid in canteen coupons – enough to buy cigarettes at the end of each day.
When Rosemary and John left Camp Hearne in 1944, the prisoners gave Rosemary a large oil painting of a German landscape with a little house in it. Unfortunately, over the decades, she’s lost it somewhere along the way.
For most of the German prisoners, the fight was no longer against the Allies, but against boredom. Activities, classes and elaborate projects were developed to kept them entertained, and in later years, Camp Hearne had a prisoner’s theatre complete with an orchestra pit. Several prisoners passed their time building gigantic, detailed water fountains that looked like German castles or made little ponds to keep goldfish and turtles. It’s easy to see why townsfolk sometimes referred to the camp as the “Fritz Ritz.”
One prisoner of war, Wilhelm Sauterbrei, returned years later and was interviewed by a Houston reporter. The reporter mentioned that as an NCO, he must have had it pretty easy. Wilhelm replied, “I’ll tell you, pal. If there is ever another war, get on the side that America isn’t, then get captured by the Americans – you’ll have it made!”
Aus dem stillen Raume, aus der Erde Grund
Hebt mich wie im Traume dein verliebter Mund.
Wenn sich die spaeten Nebel drehn,
Werd’ ich bei der Laterne stehn
Wie einst Lili Marleen, wie einst Lili Marleen
Most of the camp has been torn down now. Only a few noticeable structures remain in an otherwise tree and bush-choked field. After the war, people from Hearne moved several buildings from the site – one into town for a dentist office, and a couple more down the road for school buildings. Nothing much else remains.
When Camp Hearne closed in 1947, the prisoners were eventually released back to Germany, some with a lay-over in England, but Rosemary and John were far away by then. In 1944, John received orders to report to Indian Gap, Pennsylvania, and from there he went overseas. Rosemary returned to her father’s house in Ohio until John returned from the war. She kept in contact with Wolfgang for a year or two after the war was over and was glad to know he got back home safely to his wife and child.
Mark your calendars for Saturday, Nov. 5, 10am to 4pm. Admission is FREE! Parking is $5. Visit camphearne.com for more information or contact Cathy Lazarus or Melissa Freeman at 979-314-7012.
[Hearne, Texas] – Veterans Day, November 11, 2016, less than a month away from December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, a month and seventy-five years, that is. This year marks the 75th Anniversary of American’s entry into World War II. We at Camp Hearne not only want to honor all veterans during this year’s Camp Hearne Living History Day event, but we also remember one of the most cataclysmic events in human history—the one that created Camp Hearne.
For many of us, World War II is a not so distance history lesson. We grew up watching black and white movies where the heroes were American GIs fighting in far off places for all the right reasons. For us Baby-Boomers, it was our parents who served and sacrificed during this most extraordinary time in our Nation’s past.
It has now been 75 years since the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, propelled the United States into a global conflict that had already been raging for more than two years. What happen then in this country was astonishing. The military industrial complex was put into full gear, men enlisted in droves, women earned their place in the workforce and military service, and families rationed and built a home front citizenry that supported all facets of our war effort. America emerged the protector of Democracy and the new Leader in world affairs.
It achieved a unity of purpose and action that US had not seen before or has seen since.
Although Camp Hearne existed for a very short time, it is still a story worth telling as an integral part of this unified struggle. This Historic Site is a heritage tourism destination that conveys the story of a small rural town’s wartime contribution–hosting a WWII POW internment camp that housed over 4800 German prisoners-of-war from 1942-1946. Each fall, we invite folks to participate in a living history day that brings this period to life with re-enactors from both the Allied and Axis Armies displaying their respective uniforms, gear, and weapons. You will be able to visit our WWII POW Camp Exhibit, walk the trails to prisoner-built remains, interact with WWII living historians as they “show and tell” their collections, watch weapons demonstrations and view WWII era military vintage vehicles.
If you have been to Camp Hearne and think you have seen it all, come back and traverse our new trails and see additions to the Camp Hearne exhibit.
Camp Hearne is bringing WWII history alive Saturday, June 11, with “ground troops” bivouacked on the original site of Hearne’s POW Camp. Re-enactors from both the Allied and Axis Armies will display their authentic uniforms, gear, and weapons from different military specialties such as the paratroopers, medical, infantry, artillery, and signal corps. You will be able to visit our WWII POW Camp Exhibit, walk the trails to prisoner-built remains, interact with WWII living historians as they “show and tell” their collections, watch weapons demonstrations and view WWII era military vintage vehicles.
A special appearance by General Patton and the Third Army re-enactors is sure to be an interesting encounter. Since Rommel thought Patton would be leading the attack in France, General Patton’s decoy or ghost army across from Calais played an important role in distracting the Germans from the real target at Normandy.
At Hearne’s adjacent Municipal Airport, vintage aircraft and paratroopers will engage visitors with demonstrations and tours of their planes while on the tarmac. If your pocketbook and stomach will allow, buy a ride in one of these vintage planes and fly over Brazos Valley. An experience you will never forget.
Back on the home front, a special period dress contest challenges visitors to don their grandparents or parents’ vintage garb and become part of our most recent past. And, be sure to visit the special exhibit in the Camp’s Visitors Center that illustrates the importance of our Country’s “Back the Attack” war bond campaigns.
Admission is FREE! Gates open 10am to 4pm. Camp Hearne is located northwest of Hearne on FM 485. Visit camphearne.com for more information or contact Cathy Lazarus or Melissa Freeman at 979-314-7012.
In World War II, most African-American soldiers were not allowed to go into combat. Many were sent into the Quartermaster Corps where several units gained distinction for lightening-like delivery of weapons, ordinance and food. But, for some like Calvert’s Lorenzo Portis, the Quartermaster Corps translated into combat as they fought the Japanese to deliver their loads.
Portis’ job was to deliver bombs through sniper-invested jungles to an Army Air Corps ammunition dump in the Philippines. From the cargo ship port of entry to the dump, Portis often had to fight his way through 30 to 40 miles of territory that the Japanese had not relinquished. In recent years, he hadn’t thought a great deal about his tour of duty until Katrina and Rita flattened parts of the Gulf Coast. The devastation reminded him of what he had seen in WWII.
Lorenzo Portis was born and grew up in Hickory Flat on the south end of Calvert, the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters. Though he started school in one of the little church supported primaries in the county, he soon transferred to what is now W.D. Spigner to become a member of the school’s “first” first grade class in 1928.
Living with his grandparents during each school year, Portis stayed with his Calvert class until he left school just short of graduation. He got married and moved to Houston to work because he didn’t want to farm any more. Then the war caught up with him and he was drafted. He brought his wife back home to Calvert and went to San Antonio to enlist.
From San Antonio, he was sent to Ft. McClennan, Alabama, for four months of infantry training that the Army probably didn’t intend for him to use. Several months later, it came in handy.
From Alabama, Portis was sent to Ft. Ord, California, on the Monterey Bay Peninsula, a place many have called the most beautiful military base in the United States. For Portis, it was the jumping off place. He was soon aboard the U.S. Gen. William Wagner headed for the Philippines.
The voyage took 26 days and he was seasick for about three, but after those first days, he adjusted. On board, he met a friend of his from Red Hill just south of Calvert, and they made the trip together.
Within 15 minutes of going ashore at a point just south of Manila, he and a buddy were introduced to the realities of war. “We were sitting on a log and one bullet killed the man beside me and the one behind him – one shot killed them both,” said Portis.
Portis’ assignment with the 3666 QM Trucking Company was to drive a truck carrying two bombs to the ammo dump, turn around, and repeat the trip. The road was frequently booby-trapped and Portis had to wait for the all clear before each run. One time early in his tour of duty, he was held up near the port in a foxhole for three weeks. Heavy bombing in the area prevented him from delivering his load, but life in the foxhole wasn’t much safer. “If you dozed off, the Japanese would come in and cut our heads off,” said Portis. On more than one occasion, Portis saw headless follow GI’s in neighboring foxholes. He spent a lot of time behind a big rock protecting him from heavy enemy fire.
On his 30 to 40 mile runs, Portis frequently had to lob hand grenades into the jungle to discourage enemy attacks. The problem was the timing was off. Before the grenades exploded, the Japanese could throw the grenade back into the truck convey. A few trucks were lost that way. The Army had to shorten the time from pulling the pen to explosion to make grenades US rather than Japanese weapons again.
Though Portis was safer in camp, he wasn’t much safer or free of combat duties. To return frequent enemy fire, he and a partner manned a bazooka. His job was to take the coordinates radioed in from observers in planes above the area and line up the sight.
Portis remembers with fondness a little 12-year-old Philippine boy who came into camp dragging a gun. The Japanese had wiped out his family and probably his whole village and the Americans took him in. One day he started “raisin’ up sand” and pointing at the camp’s water tower. The Americans saw a man up on the water tower but thought he was repairing something. Soon after, the boy took his gun and shot the man off the tower. The GI’s later realized that the man was Japanese and he had been attempting to poison the water and kill everyone in camp. He liked that 12-year-old boy.
“We learned their language,” said Portis, at least the basics. He remembers the gestures for “come in” and “go away” were just the opposite of ours.
Portis sent all but $44 of his small paycheck home each month because he didn’t have as much use for it as his family did. It was too dangerous to leave the camp and go into town.
Despite its horrors, Portis says his time in the service was good. His wife received $121 a month, enough to live on in Calvert during WWII.
After the war was over, Portis drove a bus hauling merchandise over the island because he did not have enough points to go home. When he had enough, he took a ship home to Camp Stormer in California (the trip was only 14 days on the way back) and from California, he traveled by train to San Antonio to be discharged in 1946.
Speaking of his service to his country, Portis said, “I was fighting for my country so it was all right. I’m just glad I lived through it.” After returning home, he attended Veterans’ School in Waco to study mechanics and then shoe repair. He never liked putting engines back together but he liked the shoe business. “I learned how to make shoes. I liked it.”
First Published in the Hearne Democrat, Oct 19, 2005 Melissa Freemen, Reporter
World War II veteran Joe Ondrej has done some living in his 86 years. By land, sea and air, he is traveled thousands of miles from his original home on a farm near Cameron. And, in his long journey, he’s out-lived all of his people. “When you lose all your people, what do you do? Ondrej asks. You turn to your friends, your memories and the Creator.
And, Ondrej has a wealth of memories to draw on, memories of events he can still see vividly in his mind’s eye. He was mentally playing them back last Thursday when Ondrej gave an account of his service in World War II and his years as a mechanic and auto parts supply man in Hearne, the town he spend most of his 86 years in.
Speaking from the Bremond Nursing Home, Ondrej began at the beginning. “I was born on June 29, 1921, in Cameron Texas, Milam County,” he said. After graduating from Milam High School in 1939, he volunteered to go into the military well ahead of the war and the draft. But, he didn’t want to go into just any branch. He wanted to fly.
To fly in the Army Air Corps, one had to have at least one year of college, Ondrej explained. And, he was willing to go to college if that’s what it took. Instead, he went before a panel of five servicemen ranging in rank from lieutenant to general and answered their questions. “When thy got through with me, they all agreed I was qualified to fly.” He was 18 years old.
After being inducted into the military at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Ondrej was sent to Randolph Air Force Base and assigned to the 47th School Squadron for training on the BT 7 and the BT 13 trainer planes.
“I wanted to see the world and get a little action,” said Ondrej. “I’ve always been an aggressive-type person. I’ve always looked for things to do and always had faith and positive thinking.”
At Randolph Field just out of San Antonio, “I went in as a private and made all seven enlisted ranks in ten months” Ondrej was a master sergeant at age 19. During those 10 months, he worked as an airplane mechanic, a crew chief, line chief and technical inspector in charge of routine inspection and maintenance of aircraft and fire and safety for the entire base.
One of his more interesting duties as Technical Inspector was safety observer on pilot instrument flights—part of a pilot’s training. He had to watch from a seat in the cockpit while a pilot flew hooded, relying entirely on instruments.
Ondrej took care of maintenance at Randolph until the war began in December 1941. The following month, the squadron was split up and sent to different locations with Joe and his brother Ed, who had been stationed with him since ’39, being sent to Coffeyville, KS, to help open an advanced training base. There, bomber crews-in-the-making flew AT 6’s and AT 17’s (AT standing for advanced training).
At Coffeyville, Ondrej served as technical inspector and set up the inspection office for the base. His team included four inspectors, a secretary and an engineering officer. But, as productive as all that was, Joe’s passion for action was not satisfied.
“I walked into the office one day and told the engineering officer and the squadron commander that I wanted to be sent overseas. My brother Ed who held the same rank and did the same job asked me, ‘Are you losing your mind?'”
Joe replied, “Anybody can do this job.” He explained that he had set up the office and it could run by itself. So, the Army sent him to Greensborough, North Carolina, a port of embarkation.
There, he received training in all the handheld weapons the Army Air Corps used–the M-1 carbine, the 45-caliber army pistol and the 45 caliber Thompson machine gun. His experience with the Thompson machine gun was memorable. “There was no way you push the trigger and hold that gun steady.” If you were aiming at a wall, the bullets would climb up the wall.
Training completed, Ondrej boarded a big ship, part of a 100-vessel convoy, and took off across the Atlantic in the dead of winter. It was miserable. The rain, the snow and ice, the wind and the freezing temperatures made it unpleasant for the troops and the 2,500-man crew. But, said Ondrej, it was well protected from German U-boats by two lines of destroyers that surrounded the entire convoy. The destroyers dropped depth charges when they detected a submarine in the area.
However, they were not prepared for another danger–a case of meningitis. Ondrej saw a burial at sea, but not from military action.
After 17 days of zigzagging across the Atlantic, the convoy landed in Glasgow, Scotland, just months ahead of the Normandy Invasion.
Ondrej, now part of the 398-bomb group, was assigned to a base 30 miles east of London and 45 miles away from the English Channel. Its proximity to the Channel made sense because the purpose of the 398 Bomb group, part of the Third Army, was to soften up German defenses ahead of the invasion of Europe.
For a few months, the crews trained on their Flying Fortresses–the B17E–and in May of 1944, the bomb group started flying over the French coastline and countryside to take out German artillery positions ahead of D-Day–June 6, 1944.
Ondrej served as a flight engineer checking all the gauges, monitors, and other instruments to make sure the plane was running properly, and served as a part-time bombardier. He got the second job when the bombardier, copilot and a gunner of his B-17 crew were killed by machine gun fire from enemy fighters that swooped into their formation.
Being a bombardier was easy, he said. “All I had to do was push buttons.” But, walking over the bomb bay was not. The B17E carried six 500-lb. bombs, three on each side of a narrow catwalk. “You didn’t want to fall off that catwalk,” said Ondrej.
His forays over Europe included five non-stop missions. “We never turned the plane off,” he said. The plane would complete a mission, fly back to base to load six more bombs, and take off immediately. It was harrowing. And, if the crew could not hit their primary target, they had to unload on the secondary target. “We couldn’t take any bombs back to base.”
“We bombed everything flat,” said Ondrej, but when the marines finally landed on Omaha beach after a seven-day delay due to high tides and bad weather, most of them died despite the heavy pre-D-Day bombing. “We suffered heavy casualties in the Normandy Invasion–3,500 to 4,500.”
Flight Engineer Ondrej realized something on those flights over France that made a big difference in combat effectiveness. “In a clip in a 50 caliber machine gun–100 rounds in a clip–every 5th round is a tracer. It’s supposed to show you where the bullets are hitting. I told intelligence that the tracer bullet was giving a false reading because it had less powder and it was falling behind the target. Tracers were eliminated and the knockdown power nearly doubled.” Ondrej had made a significant contribution to the war effort.
Shooting was something Ondrej knew about before he entered the Air Corps. As a country boy, he’d done a lot of hunting. Military shooting practice looked a lot like clay target shooting to him. “I had a better record than a lot of the gunners. I thought I was shooting quail.”
After taking the beach at Normandy, the allied forces under Patton, Clark and British General Montgomery moved into France, Holland, Belgium and then Germany, leading up to the German counter attack at the Battle of the Bulge.
At first, said Ondrej, the American bomber formations encountered little resistance, but the further the 398 penetrated, the stiffer the resistance from German fighter planes. Luftwaffe fighter pilots would fly a few thousand feet above the US bomber formations and attempt to take them out with their guns. The U.S. countered, said Ondrej, with the P51 Mustang–the Cadillac of the sky–taking on the German fighters in high altitude dogfights.
One of his most frightening experiences, said Ondrej, was a low altitude-bombing run (16,000 ft. rather than the usual 25,000 ft. altitude) over Cologne, Germany. Low altitude runs were extremely risky, he said, because they put the plane in the range of German anti-aircraft artillery. He considers himself lucky to have gotten back from that one, dodging shells for miles. “The Germans had mounted guns on railroad cars,” he said, “giving them more maneuverability and longer geographical range.”
In the midst of all this intense Flying Fortress action, the Army Air Corps found out what Ondrej had done state-side and took him out of the air to head up their 478 Battle Damage Repair Squadron Depot.
Before transfer, his last bombing run over Hamburg frightened not only the American bomber group and the Germans, but also Patton’s troops who had advanced 100 miles farther than they were supposed to. Ground control broke silence–something they were not supposed to do–and radioed the 398 with the message, “Hey Fellers, I’m on your side!” Said Ondrej, “I had a friend–Alvie Franks–who was down there. Ike [General Eisenhower] called Patton back to England and chewed him out.” Intelligence had not kept up with Old Blood and Guts’ advance.
Patton, always a man with an apt reply, told Ike something like, “If you will give me the gasoline and the ammo, I will run those Krauts all the way back to Berlin, Germany.” Ondrej said those might not have been the exact words, indicating they may have been more colorful.
Though Ondrej was back on the base, inspecting B17Es for damage and deciding whether to repair them or use them for spare parts, he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
“The German Messerschmitt BF109 looked a lot like the P51,” he said. One day, a German pilot in an unmarked 109 made it all the way into an American base, landed, taxied down the runway and shot up a lot of parked planes, then took off. “He made it back across the channel but some fellow in a P51 (the real thing) knocked him out.”
“We had a huge hanger,” said Ondrej, speaking of his shop and he was working in or around it when he received his single wound of the war.
“I was working on top of an inner wing panel when a German fighter bomber strafed the base.” A piece of flying metal got stuck in his back.
“They got me to the hospital in London and dug the metal out of me. I stayed in the hospital for two days, then they released me to the field hospital on the base.” They wanted to get him back to work, so he was essentially an outpatient, getting medical care while working to return planes back to service.
He paused long enough one day to watch an American fighter pilot “buzz” the base, something the pilot did after every successful mission. He flew extremely low–almost hitting the ground–and flew back up by way of salute. This time, he over did it.
“Hey Lefty,” Ondrej said to a co-worker–“look a that spark fly!” The pilot made a circle around the field and a hasty landing. He was a young fellow, said Ondrej–probably in his mid-twenties. “I asked him, ‘What’s the trouble, lieutenant?’”
The flyboy replied, “When I made this run, I felt vibration in the cockpit.” Ondrej said, “Well, get on down out of there and I’ll show you.” He continued, “I got him down, walked him in front of the plane, and told him to look at the prop blades.” He had damaged the ends.
“Sergeant, you reckon I’m going to get in trouble?” he asked. Ondrej reckoned he might. It says something for the maneuverability of the P51 and the mentality of American fighter pilots.
Soon, the war in Europe was over and Ondrej was called home. He came back with five metals, including the European victory metal and a purple heart.
His squadron had the option to fly or sail home and they opted to sail. “A lot of the guys said they were tired of flying.”
They sailed out of Glasgow on the Queen Elizabeth, the largest ship in the world at that time. A total of 14,500 people were aboard–4,500 were WACS–Women’s Army Corps.
It was nothing like the first trip–making it home in about five days, which was almost too soon because the QEI was a luxury liner with swimming pools, ballrooms, “all kinds of stuff. The ship was big enough that if you didn’t have a guide, you could get lost.”
When the troops passed the Statue of Liberty, “I waved at her,” and “we docked at peer 92 in New York harbor. It was June 29th–my birthday. We celebrated.”
From New York City, Ondrej took the train back to Cameron “to see my people.” His brothers Ed and Alfred had made it home too and he saw his mother and brothers for the first time in four years. He remembered what his mother said to them as if it were yesterday. “‘I want no excuses. I want you three boys to be here Sunday, and I’m going to cook ya’ll a dinner.’ None of us were about to miss it.”
After two weeks at home, Ondrej reported back to base. The Air Force sent him to Drew Field in Tampa, Florida, to rest, then to Chatham Field to take another technical inspector’s position, this time inspecting the B29. But, in the meantime, the Japanese surrendered after A-bombs demolished Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Ninety thousand were killed in Nagasaki, 100,000 in Hiroshima. I had flown with the pilot that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima when he was a lieutenant at Randolph Field–Lt. Wade. He later became General Wade.”
With the war over, Ondrej went to Ellington Field in Houston to separate from the Air Force. He was released on Oct. 18, 1945. “I had been in for six years and two weeks.”
“What did it do for Master Sgt. Joe Ondrej, number 6299899? It was a college education,” he said. “I learned to work, respect my people, and I learned the value of a dollar.”
He’s also done a lot of thinking about World War II and what it meant. “It was the war that turned the world around, the war that defeated dictatorship and stopped it in its tracks,” a war that allowed Democracy to grow.
Ondrej took all he had learned, moved back home, and then moved to Hearne with his cousin in February 1946, to purchase a little grocery store/filling station. From there, he went on to become a mechanic–working in every dealership in Hearne, then later worked as service manager for Chrysler. In 1957, he opened his own auto repair shop, then, some years later, opened the parts store in Hearne, which later became CarQuest. In 2007, he was still helping people from his room in the Bremond Nursing Home.
First published in the Hearne Democrat, Melissa Freeman, Reporter
Bill Brunette was a young fellow working in Palestine, Texas, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By the end of the next month, he was in the Army and his life had changed forever.
One of the first things Brunette had to do was take a test. He knew if he passed it, he would be in the Army Air Corps, so, he said, “I tried to pass it!” He read and responded to each question carefully, and when the test was scored, he was on his way to the Air Corps, what would later become the modern day Air Force.
Brunette went to Ellington Field near Houston to receive his basic training. He thought for a while he would be sent to India but was relieved when he went to bomb training in San Angelo instead.
In San Angelo, Brunette learned the bomb basics, a tricky business. He spent six months in North Carolina supporting two airborne divisions. He also spent time training and “practicing” in Kentucky and Fort Blythe, California. At Blythe, he became part of the 34th Bomb Group, the “Grand-daddy of the 8th Army Air Corp,” a group with the motto, “Valor to Victory.”
In April 1944, two months before the Normandy Invasion, Brunette and the 34th Bomb Group left Fort Miles Standish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a 14-day voyage to Liverpool, England on the U.S.S. Singapore. From there, it was a short trip to Mendlesham, England, to fuse and load bombs in planes bombing Nazi positions on the European mainland.
As a member of the 34th Bomb Group, Sgt. Brunette headed a squad of ordnance men who fused bombs and loaded them into the bomb bays of big, lumbering B-24 Liberators, a plane that Brunette did not particularly like. They were sitting ducks – a too slow moving target. Arming them was a job that required skill (you did not want to mess up a fuse on a 500-pound bomb), patience and strength. “We had to go to school to learn how to fuse bombs,” said Brunette. Before the 34th devised a mechanical hoist, bombs had to be loaded by hand, a job that took three to four men working together to left bombs into a plane’s bomb bay directly overhead.
“We worked at night,” said Brunette. “The planes flew out in the morning.” Plane crews were engaged in the risky business of daylight precision bombing; ground crews were engaged in the business of fusing and loading bombs in the dark, with just a small light under the plane. The base was blacked out every night.
“We had five minutes from the time incoming planes were picked up on radar,” five minutes to get ready to re-arm five B-24’s, or later in the war, arm five of the more maneuverable B-17’s, the Flying Fortresses. The squad would have to take a truck to the other end of the field and load it with bombs and 41 lb. ordnance boxes to meet the planes as they came in. Enough bombs to fill a three-acre field were moved in every day.
The job was difficult but reasonable at first. But then came June 6th and the Normandy invasion and bomb loading became an almost 24-7 ordeal with bombing missions running throughout the day and night. As soon as the bombers came in, they had to be reloaded and made ready for another mission. That meant loading twelve 500-pound bombs on each plane – a total of 6,000 pounds, and loading all the ammunition for the gunners. Loading 100 planes, the number that typically took off for a mission, required 20 crews servicing five planes each.
Attaching the fuses to the tail and sometimes (depending on the bomb), the nose in the dark was challenging. In the early days of the war, fuses had been attached hours before the bombs were loaded, but in an attack on Lille, Germany, in December 1942, about a third of the bombs did not explode. The arming mechanisms had frozen up after being exposed to damp conditions on the airfields overnight. By the time Brunette arrived, fusing bombs immediately before loading them had become standard procedure.
Fusing bombs was also tricky because different bombs had to be fused in different ways, explained Brunette. General-purpose bombs required one kind of fuse, fragmentation (anti-personnel) bombs and incendiary bombs had to be fused in another. All had to be done with care. Brunette remembers relieving crewmen who got impatient or sloppy.
The war got hot for Brunette when the Germans started following the 34th back to base to retaliate. Brunette remembers June 8, 1944, when “we lost four planes and 36 men in one night. We lost them right over the field.” The planes were coming in to land with the Luftwaffe was right on their tail. The result was total chaos. “Hit the ground” was the order of the night. German strafing runs over the field were also becoming routine as the allied invasion progressed.
In the months that followed, Brunette and crew started loading 1,000-pound bombs, six per plane, to clear out a mile and a half strip for British General Montgomery to advance through. Before Brunette left England, he was loading 2,000-pound bombs.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest battle of the war, “everything froze over – we had to get all the snow off the runways before the planes could take off and land.” Off duty, Brunette and crew were huddling in little huts with coal fires to warm them (hardy warm them). On duty, crewmembers worked in sheepskin flight suits to protect them from the extreme cold.
Brunette also remembers the V1 and V2 German rockets flying over to attack London. Sometimes they would miss the city and fall on the air base. Considering the strafing, the bombing and the V1 and V2 rockets, Brunette said, “I’m glad I didn’t get blown up while I was over there.”
The 34th Bomb Group flew its last combat mission in the war on April 20, 1945, but Brunette did not get to return home until the summer of 1945. “All the sick and injured were sent home first.” He came back on the Queen Mary, the greatest luxury liner of its day, but during its service as a troop ship, it was hard to find the “luxury” aspects.
Since then, Bill Brunette has returned to Mendlesham. He was touched that the people there still remember the 34th Bomb Group. A roster of the 237 men who lost their lives is attached to the wall of the church, and, said Brunette, “Once a week, they still pray for the 34th.”
How does a farm boy from Kosse, Texas, find himself knee-deep in snow in the Italian Alps, taking out German outposts dotting winding mountain roads? He becomes part of the 88th Infantry Division with the assignment to clear the Germans out of Italy. That is exactly what happened to Mr. Adrian Cordova, but that is also why Cordova had four memorable days in Rome. “I had bad times and I had good times,” said Cordova.
The 88th Infantry Division, or, as Nazi radio commentator Berlin Sally dubbed it, the “Blue Devils,” was re-commissioned in July 1942, and assigned to Ft. Gruber near Muskogee, Oklahoma. When Cordova was drafted in January 1943, he was initially part of the 86th Division but after basic training at Camp Howze near Greenville, Texas, he was reassigned to the 88th, 350th Regiment, Company B and thus part of a division whose commanders were determined to make the best of their time in the US military.
In an address to his troops, Commanding General Sloan said, “We’re going not only to Rome and Berlin, but all the way around to Tokyo. We will fight our way around the world and prove the 88th is the best division in the entire Army. This coming year of 1944 will see new history made – we are lucky to be in the making.” Though Sloan’s prediction did not come true entirely, the 88th did distinguish itself as one of the best in the military and Hearne’s own Adrian Cordova helped make the Division’s “history.”
After maneuvers in western Louisiana and East Texas from late June to early August, the 88th was assigned to Ft. Sam Houston as a reward for its “stand out” performance. In the fall, the 88th was sent to the east coast to deploy to North Africa and then to Italy. In 21 miserable days at sea, the troops had to stay mostly below deck on short rations and many were seasick most of the way across. Cordova developed his sea legs immediately and was not sick at all. For him, the trip was not so bad.
In October, Cordova was in Oran, North Africa, engaged in something a flatland farmer had probably never dreamed of –mountain training. The US military was planning to take Rome by striking through the mountains, a plan that no other invading army had ever been able to accomplish in Rome’s long history.
The 88th reformed in Naples, Italy, in February 1944 and staged in the Piedmont d’Alife area. Then they waited for the action to start. The wait was not quite as bad for Cordova because he could speak Spanish and his Spanish enabled him to speak to the locals – Italian and Spanish speakers can usually understand each other fairly well. But mostly, the 88th was impatiently waiting – waiting for the push for Rome. Elements of the 88th would be briefly deployed to relieve other divisions, but they saw very little action until May.
In May, the push through the mountains and into Rome began. The Americans faced strong opposition on May 11 as they broke through the German Gustav line. They fought so fiercely, the Germans said those devils with the blue cloverleaf insignia were “blood-thirsty” cutthroats.
The 350th was ordered over a mountain near Rome in June 1944, and “we went over it.” They were ordered to “dig in” but they could not. It was all rock. So Cordova and his buddy constructed a little rock enclosure a few feet high all the way around. It did not work. The next morning, Cordova was hit with an 88 round that left a chunk of metal the size of a fist in his leg. Cordova kept on advancing for about eight more hours, some of the time through a mine field, until he ran into a Red Cross Station. They told him it was time for him to go the rear.
Cordova spent a month in the hospital and then another month recuperating before he was sent back to the front. “I was thinking I was going to go home but I didn’t. They returned me to my company and two or three weeks later, I became the squad leader.” Some of the Division’s heaviest fighting was yet to come.
In August, the 350th was sent to assist in Livorno operations northwest of Rome and south of Pisa. It crossed the Arno River and continued advancing until it was relieved on September 6.
After a little time off, Sgt. Cordova and the 350th was back into action from the third week in September and throughout October. The regiment advanced rapidly along the Santerno River Valley toward Imola. They used their mountain training on Monte Acuto and seized Monte Pratolungo and Monte del Puntale where they met strong German resistance. The Battle for Monte Battaglia, fought from September 27 through October 13, was extremely bloody, as was the Battle of Monte delle Tombe.
The 350th took Monte Grande on October 20 but the offensive was halted on October 26 after over a month of hard mountain fighting. The Division dug in to defend the territory it had fought so hard to claim. In January, the Division was relieved for rehabilitation and Cordova rehabbed in Rome. And the good times rolled.
The division started attacking again in April 1945. They took Monte Mario on April 18. They reached the Po River valley later in the month and Verona and then Vicenza. “We had them on the run,” said Cordova. When the German forces in Italy surrendered on May, the Blue Devils were advancing through the Dolomite Alps, heading for Innsbruck, Austria.
Cordova remembers a time on the long trip to Austria when Company B “liberated” a German warehouse full of bicycles. In his entire life, Cordova had never ridden a bicycle. “We all got one and I rode it.” He grabbed on to a truck and was having a great time, but “then we hit an enemy outpost. We all dropped our bikes and ran.”
Throughout those long days before the German surrender, Cordova and his squad would hitch rides on the tanks, then drop off to clear out Nazi “nests” along the sides of the steep mountain roads. When the mountain fighting was over, they fully expected to finish the war in Japan.
“We were supposed to spend 20 days at home and then go back,” said Cordova. To get back home, they returned to Casablanca, boarded a ship to Brazil and then sailed up the coast to the United States. He was safely back in Texas when the atomic bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered.
Cordova spent a little time in Fort Worth and San Antonio before being discharged. “I was glad to come home alive,” he said. He moved to Calvert in 1947, married a Robertson County lady and came to Hearne to work on cars. When he had the opportunity to buy the cleaners his wife worked in, he seized the moment and the rest is Cordova Cleaners history.
Whenever you hear a story like Mr. Cordova’s, you’ve got to wonder what kind of “medal” it took to advance through a mine field with a fist-size piece of metal in the leg. Those young men coming out of the Depression were tough – they weren’t complainers. Those Bloodthirsty Blue Devils were certainly more than the Germans had bargained for.
First Published in the Hearne Democrat, February 2, 2005 Melissa Freemen, Reporter
For many American young men, Christmas Eve, 1942, was not marked by gifts under the tree, hot chocolate on the stove, and carols sung during a candlelight church service. It meant disembarking from a crowded troop ship with a furtive eye scanning the skies for the German Luftwaffe (the Nazi air force). That is where Bremond’s Walter Lyon was—instead of home with family and friends. Lyon was the 18th man to enter the Army from Falls County and one of at least two later residents of Robertson County to serve in the 67th Regiment of Patton’s 2nd Armored Div., “Hell on Wheels.”
After being inducted into the Army on March 18, 1942, Lyon went to San Antonio and then on to Ft. Benning, GA, to join General Patton. He met Calvert’s Red Sessum there and the two Texans had a good time.
Patton sent Lyon, Sessum and the rest of the Division all over Louisiana, Tennessee and the Carolinas to train on different terrains. One day, Lyon was working in a tank when Patton and Lt. General Crittenberger, who was about to take command of the 2nd Armored, came by and asked Lyon how they might carry more ordinance in tanks like the one he was working on. Lyon, who did not know who he was talking to at first, casually mentioned that they might tear out some of the flooring to stash more firepower. He was shocked when he realized the two men on horseback were Crittenberger and Patton. But Patton said, “Carry on, soldier,” and later, Lyon’s solution was the one the Army adopted.
When Patton was satisfied that his division was prepared, the 2nd Armored left from Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and landed in North Africa on Christmas Eve. Lyon has one vivid memory of Casablanca. One night, the Luftwaffe was shelling American positions in Casablanca, and his commander, George Patton, climbed up on a roof and shot at the German planes with his famous pearl-handled pistols. Actually, said Patton, they were ivory handled, indicating that pearl handled pistols would not be manly. As for Lyon’s memory—check it out. It is in the movie.
The 2nd Armored, 67th Regiment, didn’t see that much action in North Africa. They did have a harrowing train ride into the Atlas Mountains. The train engineer kept drinking “Vino,” handed to him by little kids who passed out the wine every time the train stopped. The kids would bang on the cars to get attention. It must have sounded like an attack from the inside.
They did not see much action because soon after the 2nd Armored Division arrival, German General Irvin Rommel left North Africa and the big show was over. Lyon spent most of his time in French Morocco in the Cork Forest, a cork plantation owned by a U. S. corporation, instead of engaging the Afrika Korps. But by the time he left North Africa, Lyon had earned his stripes and become a staff sergeant. His squad was assigned to a tank retrieval unit, manning retrieval vehicles.
The T-1 and T-2 tank retrieval vehicles were smaller, less heavily armed converted M-3 tanks that came along behind and kept the front line tanks running while trading fire with the enemy. Lyon was trained to be a tank mechanic who could change out a tank engine, whip on a new set of tracks—whatever it took to keep a tank moving forward.
In May 1943, Lyon and his retrieval unit were loaded onto an LST (a tank/troop transport) and taken out to sea to sit. They floated in the bay of Tunis for two months. Then on July 8, they saw a convoy sailing by, destination unknown, and joined it. Lyon looked off to his right and his chest swelled with pride to see the Battleship Texas sailing beside him. He never forgot it.
The unknown destination was Sicily. The 2nd Armored was part of a joint American/British operation to take Italy from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, allied to Hitler. When they landed on the beach at Gela on July 10, they encountered stiff resistance from the Italians and then the Germans as the 2nd Armored pushed toward Palermo. Lyon remembers being hammered by German 88’s, big guns used to protect the beach and probably the best artillery weapon the Germans had.
On the way to Palermo, Lyon suffered some mechanical problems and Patton road up and yelled at him, “What’s the trouble?”
“We’ll have it fixed in a few minutes, General,” Lyon said. Patton responded, “We’ve got the — on the run!” Remembering the event, Lyon said of Patton, “He was a fine old fellow.”
After Sicily was won in Patton’s lighting advance around the island, Lyon and his regiment camped in an olive grove until they were told they were going home in November. Sure enough, they sailed to within 600 miles of New York City when their ship turned around and headed for England. After a landing in Scotland, the 2nd Armored went into training in Tidworth, England, for the Normandy Invasion. On D-Day plus 3, Lyon and his retrieval tank were loaded on to an LST only to be moved to an LTC, a British landing craft. Shortly after, the first LST hit a mine and sank. “I lost a lot of friends,” said Lyon, who had escaped death by an inch.
By D-Day plus four, Lyon was in the hedgerows, fields divided into small squares by tall, thick hedges, an area that saw some of the trickiest fighting of the war. “We put different colored oil cloths on the back of the turrets to identify us. The Army Air Corps had a man on the ground directing fire for the pilots above.”
The Air Corps was taking out Germans in the hedgerows beyond. That is where Lyon met his new lieutenant, Lt. Norman Williams. He was about 20 years old and straight out of Officer Training School. “He was the best I ever had.”
Williams told Lyon, “I’m new at this. Just keep on like you are going and I’ll catch on.” Lyon added, “He was one of us.”
Under Williams’ command, Lyon went through six battles, including the Bulge. The Division raced through France in July and August, drove through Belgium and Holland, and crossed the German border at Schimmert, on September 18, 1944, to take up defensive positions near Geilenkirchen. On October 3, the Division went on the offensive again, attacking the Siegfried Line around Marienbert. They broke through, crossing the Wurm River. That is when that “fine old fellow” called them back. He needed the Division he had dubbed “Hell on Wheels” to turn the tide at the Bulge in the Ardennes forest. In the freezing cold and blinding snow, Lyon went back to Belgium and one of the greatest horrors of WWII.
Lyon and a fellow soldier would take turns standing in the turret–where they would almost freeze–and driving the T-1 tank retriever. One time when he was up in the turret, Lyon saw the man in the turret ahead of him, Lt. Stephens, be literally cut in two by a German artillery round. He also remembers crossing an ice field and shooting low to dislodge SS troopers. “We would scatter fire with our 50 caliber guns; then the dough boys would come and shoot into each fox hole. They wouldn’t look into them.”
Lyon was advancing one day when a GI flagged him down and asked him to rescue a soldier whose foot had been blown off. “We can’t go in,” the soldier said. “It’s mined.” Lyon agreed and maneuvered his vehicle into the woods. As he was edging into a spot right beside the injured man, a mine went off under the retriever’s tracks. It did not damage the GI or the T-1.
“He was freezing in the snow,” continued Lyon. “I don’t know how I did it, but I grabbed him up by his suspenders and hauled him up. I gave him a shot of morphine and we took off.”
“On the way out, I saw another guy in a tree and I tried to pick him up but he wouldn’t leave.” He got the injured soldier to a medic and returned for the tree’d soldier. “I finally talked him out of the tree and got him into the turret; he was terrified.” Lyon was recommended for a medal he never got. But the memory seems a little likes a medal–it’s firmly etched in Lyon’s mind.
Lyon remembers a less heroic time when he could hear a German horse-drawn artillery unit approaching. He hit his rifle’s clip button by mistake, and the bullet he fired ricocheted all over the place and nicked some of his buddies. “I thought the Germans would get us for sure, but they didn’t.”
Lyon also remembers a lot of nice people–a little Dutch girl named Jeanie Licke who gave him some little wooden shoes and wanted him to write her after the war. The Sweenies in Belgium had a new car they had hidden from the Germans in a haystack, but they could not drive it until Lyon shared some gasoline with them. Often, Lyon has wished he could go back to those countries and look up the friends he made.
Lyon also remembers a group of nuns who were sitting on a curb in Belgium. As the Americans approached, they handed them a bottle of champagne the nuns were saving for the first Americans they saw. “It was really good champagne,” said Lyon. “Some Germans were good people too, but not the SS. They had no conscience.”
On the autobahn, the 2nd Armored was headed for Berlin when Lyon fell behind, burned up a motor trying to catch up, installed another one, then still didn’t get to go into Berlin because he slipped off a gun mount and fell into some protruding metal. His wound would require surgery. He had more than enough points to go home so he decided to take his injury to the US for care. He did not seem to mind missing the grand entry into Berlin too much.
Lyon caught a B17 flying from Marseilles to Dakar, then caught a C47 to South America. From South America, he made it back to the US, his home near Kosse, and finally to surgery. He received his discharge in July 1945.
Lyon earned a lot of medals from March 1942 to July 1945, but the Army could not find his records, so, recently, his family decided to do the research for the military and make sure their dad received the medals he had earned. After Lyon received the first set, the military realized their mistake and sent a second set, so Lyon has two of each of the following: American Occupation of Germany, American Defense Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Award of Belgium Fourigere, a Good Conduct Medal (“I don’t know how I got that one–We pulled some stunts”), a silver star and two bronze stars. And he has the memories of the men he admired–General Patton, the man who “never took the same real estate twice,” General Crittenberger, and Lt. Norman Williams who still gets in touch with him — a friend for life.
First Published in the Hearne Democrat, May 12, 2004