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Visiting 99ers in the Northwest

Author, “Once Upon a Time in War”

On March 25, 2010, Beverly and I left Sacramento bound for Salem, Ore., some 10 hours away. The next day we had lunch with Joe Thimm K/395, and his wife Mary Ellen, and John and Helen Hansen with their son Bruce, a high school mathematics teacher. John Hansen K/393 had only recently learned about the 99th Division association. On Dec. 16, 2009, the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the local paper ran an interview with Joe in which he claimed to be the last 99th veteran still alive in Marion County. John Hansen contacted the paper to say there was a second veteran, namely himself, who also fought the Germans in the frozen snows of the Ardennes.

John Hansen was born April 9, 1925, in Menomonie, Wis. His father sold tires and then ran a feed store. John finished high school in June 1943 and immediately enlisted in the army, figuring he would soon be drafted anyway. After basic training at Ft. Benning, Ga., he participated in the ASTP program at Arkansas State College (“a good experience”) then on to Camp Maxey and Love Company/393.

The initial experience on the Belgium front proved to be a shock. “They dumped us off a truck, and we had to dig a foxhole in the cold, wet, snowy ground. The nights were frightening, as the sound of snow falling off trees in the dark woods seemed to suggest a German patrol might be headed our way. It made you want to turn around and leave.” But he stayed.

Like other infantrymen, John only had combat boots, not overshoes, so he developed trench foot, which led to his removal from the front. The recovery in the hospital involved gradually thawing the feet by keeping them in buckets filled with cold water, a very painful process. Upon hearing about the German counter offensive, he realized “how fortunate I was not to be there.”

John returned to his company on Elsenborn Ridge a few days before Christmas and saw many from the 3rd platoon missing – he hoped they had been captured and not killed. He remembered the patrols off the Ridge into the forest (“I hated those trees”) that seemed to be a useless enterprise. He recalled leaving the ridge when the division counterattacked and shooting a German at close range with his BAR> Elsewhere during the course of the war he used his BAR but never knew if his bullets had taken a life because distance reduced the enemy to targets.

Finally in the spring of 1946, John had enough points to end his occupation in Europe. He came home on a Victory ship the stormy Atlantic tossed around like a child’s boat. After disembarking in New Jersey and eating a delicious steak dinner at Camp Kilmer, he boarded a train for Chicago, and then the Northwestern Railroad to Menomonie. “I was so relieved to see my folks. I thought I might never see them again.” He also realized that he should have written home more often so as to relieve his parents’ anxiety. After earning a degree at Stout State Institute, marrying Helen Kranzusch in 1950, he became an industrial arts teacher first in La Crosse, Wis., then Stockton, Calif., and finally in Salem, Ore., where he taught from 1955 to 1983.

John joined the VFW in Salem but never discussed the war with other veterans or his family. “I never liked to think about the war because when I did I couldn’t sleep at night. He could recall buddies being killed and in particular a pretty, young German girl with her face shot off. War is hell. I am just grateful my two sons (Bruce and Paul) never had to experience war.”

*****

Joe Thimm was born in Detroit Oct. 2, 1924. The Thimm family, ironically from Remagen, Germany, emigrated to the United States in the 1850s. Joe’s dad served in World War I, worked in the auto plants, and was involved with the United Auto workers Union. Reared a Catholic, Joe attended the Jesuit-run University of Detroit. When the war broke out, he enlisted (March 1943) intending to go into the Air corps, but instead became an ASTPer at John Tarleton Junior Agricultural College.

When that program ended in March 1944, Joe departed for Camp Maxey and the second platoon of K/395, eventually becoming a BAR man. “We knew after the Normandy invasion we would be going into combat,” which happened in early November. Although several waves of Germans attempted to capture the village of Höfen, the battalion decimated the attackers with small arms and artillery. When word reached them the Germans had broken through to the south, “for awhile we worried they might surround us, but we really remained pretty ignorant of what was happening then and throughout the war.” When the attacks stopped in Höfen sector, “we had a sense by Christmas the Germans had shot their wad.”

Arriving at the Ludendorff Bridge, Joe remembered troops, trucks, and tanks all moving toward the damaged structure. “It was organized chaos and scary.” There was a long run across the bridge over the dark water of the Rhine. On the other side a phalanx of anti-aircraft guns blasted away at German airplanes (including jets) trying to take out the bridge. The company moved up into the hills toward the Wied River where Joe finally learned that Captain Horace Phillips had become the company commander. “We captured three Germans and Pancho offered to take them back. He was only gone a few minutes and then returned without the prisoners. I knew he had killed them.”

“I was an average soldier. I never took the initiative. When we were pinned down during an attack, usually one guy would stand up and take the lead. My foxhole buddy Bob Warner was one of those guys. He would say, ‘Let’s go,’ and the rest of us would follow.”

“I was the BAR man. I didn’t want the gun but it was assigned to me. I was aware that carrying that automatic weapon was dangerous, for you were a target. I also knew I would never make sergeant. The army needed BAR men more than they needed sergeants.”

“I did kill people. I used my BAR and saw them drop, but I never had a lot of hostility toward the Germans. I thought they were soldiers just like me. I have to live with that. In Gleidorf we poured ammo out through a window into a gutter across the street were German soldiers had taken cover. I knew I killed them. As we were moving down a street in Gleidorf, for some reason I decided to cross over to the other side. Just then a tank shell hit and tore off the side of my left ankle while a shell fragment opened a six-inch gash in Harry Thelkeld Jr.’s back, and he died.”

Joe was transported to Paris where he wound up in a large hangar with other wounded GIs. He had taken a beautiful 32-caliber Czech pistol from a German officer. A medic stopped by his cot and spotted the pistol and told him he ought to give him the pistol, as he would never be able to take it with him to England. He ended up trading with him for a watch. Not a fair trade.

“In Paris, I missed the guys at the front. I wondered what was happening to my buddies. Are they in combat? I worried about them. I realized I had a million dollar wound but I was depressed. My friends were still there. They were my support system.”

“In 1951 I returned to Höfen and saw for the first time the tombstones of the villagers, men, women, and children who died there. I gave the parish priest some money to say a Mass on behalf of those innocent individuals.”

After coming home, he returned to the University of Detroit on the GI Bill. “The war took away those youthful years between 18-22, years when I could have had a normal social life and dated young women.” After graduation, Joe finished a master’s degree at Catholic University, met his wife Mary Ellen, became a social worker, had three children and remained in touch with his wartime buddies: Robert Warner, Warren Thomas and Robert Walter.

*****

Robert Justice E/395 (April 30, 1926 – Aug. 3, 2009)

Also attending the lunch was Murva Justice, who drove to Salem from her home in Woodburn, Ore., to tell me about her late husband. Bob was born in Belle Fourche, S.D., a small town north of the Black Hills. He joined the army the day of his high school graduation and did basic training at Camp Blanding, Fla., an infantry replacement training center. Bob shipped out to Scotland in early January 1945, and after a Channel crossing, was trucked to Elsenborn Ridge and the Bulge front. He survived the war earning a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars. After a few weeks of occupation in Vielflicken, Bob was transferred to the 4th Infantry Division in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Luckily that proved unnecessary. He came home and earned a BA in education at Black Hills Teachers College (1954) and later a master’s degree at Monmouth College; he married Murva in 1958. After teaching in Montana for several years, Bob moved to Seaside, Ore., where he taught American history until retirement in 1986. Thereafter they traveled in a motor home and fifth-wheeler to every state in the Union, including Alaska.

Bob never talked about the war but had nightmares all the time. He attended his first reunion in Pittsburgh (2002) where I interviewed him. Talking to other vets, Murva said, seemed to have helped him confront emotional issues produced by his combat experiences. I saw Bob again at the St. Louis reunion where he asked me to sign his copy of the book. Regrettably I was not able to talk to him. Murva said he came home, went into seclusion and read the book five times, saying the account was “the real story.” Shortly thereafter he died at home. Parts of the book were read at his funeral.

Robert was a modest fellow, and like so many other veterans never mentioned to his students, fellow teachers, and friends that he had served honorably during WWII. His three daughters (Sue, Sheila and Sheri) have read the book (Murva won’t read it) and are glad they learned for the first time what their father endured.

*****

After Salem, we drove to Portland, Ore., the hometown of Forbes Williams G/395. Forbes was born in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 15, 1923, but grew up in southwest Washington. His father, Louis Williams Jr., a civil engineer and contractor, served with the engineers in World War I. After high school Forbes enrolled at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and joined the Enlisted Reserves Corps as a way to stay in school. Like others who joined the ERC, the army broke its promise, and he was sent to basic training at Camp Joseph T. Robinson near Little Rock, Ark., and then to the University of Oklahoma in the ASTP. Since the Williams family had a long military tradition, “I was determined to be the best soldier possible.”

Just before going overseas, Forbes received a 10-day pass, but spent two days each way on the train. He first visited a girl friend at Whitman College for two days, so he only had a brief reunion with his parents. He never realized then or later how much his parents worried about his safety. He admitted he should have written home more often.

Forbes did not fully comprehend the gravity and danger of being a combat infantryman until they first took fire on the front. He suddenly realized “these guys are trying to kill me.” Infantry training had enhanced physical skills and conditioned the soldier to follow orders, but “they don’t explain that you might be wounded, maimed or killed. Several times I held guys in my arms who ere expiring, and there isn’t a damn thing I could do for them.”

On April 27, 1945, George Company began its abortive, lethal crossing of the Danube River with 12-man plywood boats. Before Forbes could move toward his boat, Oscar McLaughlin inexplicably offered to carry Forbes’ 30-caliber machine gun. Forbes handed it to him, but as McLaughlin approached the river, a sniper killed him. Then and later Forbes could not rid himself of the shuddering realization that had he carried that gun, he would have been the victim. “Why did McLaughlin get killed and I didn’t? He was entitled to live just as much as I was. You live with these thoughts for a long time.”

On Feb. 15, 1946, his 23rd birthday, Forbes was reunited with his parents at the Governor Hotel in Olympia, Wash. Upon seeing his son again, Louis began to weep, “the only time I ever saw my father cry.”

Forbes returned to Whitman College, met his wife Sylvia Whitford, had six children, went into education and eventually became Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Portland State University.

“I came from a middle class family (four generations of Republicans) and enjoyed a protected upbringing. I was privileged. In the army I associated with kids from all over the U.S. with whom I had nothing in common. I learned to respect them, and I grew up in a hurry. I am proud of my service but would not replicate a single instant because it involved killing.”

*****

After enjoying a tour of Portland with Forbes, we drove two hours east to Goldendale, Wash., a small country town a few miles north of the Columbia River. Harold Hill G/395 was born Jan. 26, 1922, and grew up on a wheat farm in Goldendale. After graduating from high school in 1938, he attended Washington State College in Pullman. Mandated by federal law to complete two years of ROTC at a land grant college, Harold continued on with the program his junior and senior years, finishing as an officer. He joined the army because he liked the training; “I thought I would give the army a shot.” Harold was sent to Camp Wolters, Texas, as an infantry training officer. He asked Mary, his college sweetheart, to join him. Since her father only bought her a one-way ticket, he must have considered Harold acceptable. “I didn’t have enough money to send her back, so I married her.”

The army transferred Harold to Camp Maxey in July 1944, where he became executive officer of George Company/395. He found the West Pointers, who held the regimental and battalion spots, treated the ROTC officers and 90-day wonders with considerable disdain. He also became acutely aware of the conflict between the ASTPers and the veterans, who resented the young guys because they “were smart and knew it. The veterans were out to show them that smarts weren’t what made you a soldier.” Harold maintains this antagonism dissolved on the battlefields.

Mary accompanied Harold, and they rented a room in Paris, Texas, the town near the base. Being married not only provided companionship, but also allowed him to leave the base at night and get away from the army. The newlyweds formed friendships with other army couples, so the situation was acceptable. But then orders came to break camp, and Harold put Mary on a train for the return trip to live with her parents, a sad situation repeated by thousands of married couples.

Just before the March attack across the Cologne Plain, Carl Byers moved up to battalion, and 1st Lt. Harold Hill became company commander, a position he did not seek or want. Actually the men of G Company were glad to see Byers go, and Harold became a much beloved leader. “I didn’t think I could handle the job. You had doubts about the orders that came down to you. Everything you did was going to be weighed as a success or failure, and a bunch of people’s lives were at stake.”

As George Company reached the Rhine opposite Dusseldorf, a platoon settled into the courtyard of an estate. Harold ordered the kitchen to be brought up, and he left for battalion headquarters. Suddenly out of nowhere a mortar shell landed in the courtyard, killing five men and wounding 10. When Harold returned he came upon a bloody scene where the survivors wept openly over the loss of their buddies. Harold blamed himself, reasoning that if he had been there, he would never allowed so many men to congregate in such an enclosed space. Deeply upset and burdened by self-recrimination, Harold retreated to the cellar of the house “like a wounded rat.” Had orders not come that the 99th was to hop on trucks and head south toward a captured railroad bridge at Remagen, he might have even resigned his commission.

The end of war produced a feeling of relief not celebration, for Harold was “not proud of killing men.” H flew to New Jersey in a DC 6 and after 36 hours arrived at Fort Lewis, Wash. Mary had been alerted and was driving alone in winter across the state to meet him. Harold dreamed of a wonderful Hollywood film reunion as they rushed toward each other with open arms. Tired from such a long trip home, he went across the base to a hotel, rented a room, and fell asleep on the bed. When Mary arrived at the hotel lobby, at first the clerk would not allow a single woman to go upstairs to a room occupied by a returning soldier. Finally he agreed to accompany her to the room. The next thing Harold remembered was a big purse hitting him in the chest. She was mad that he had not been downstairs to greet her. “So the great reunion was shot to hell.”

Harold and Mary returned to their wheat farm in Goldendale. He underwent a difficult adjustment period. “I had enough of giving orders, and I didn’t want to be involved in community boards and make decisions. But I was angry and arrogant, refusing to take orders from anyone.” When he visited the local American Legion post, all he heard were complaints about incompetent officers, so Harold did not return for many years. Thinking his men also did not look favorably on his leadership, he refused to attend any of the 99th Division reunions. But then one year he happened to be in Portland, and he and Mary dropped in on a mini-reunion. To his surprise and gratitude he was openly welcomed and celebrated.

Harold was one of those officers who cared more about his men than the rank or the possibility of advancement. He is still going strong and heavily involved in serving on water boards and count commissions; perhaps his army experiences did give him the self-confidence that he really was a leader.

*****

From Goldendale, we headed north and west to Seattle and met Robert Pierce B/395 and his two daughters, Susan and Marilyn, at the Abrasus bookstore.

Robert was born on May 4, 1925, in Seattle, Wash. After graduating from high school, the army asked for his services. He was included in the large contingent of ASTPers sent to LSU with the possibility of earning a college degree. When the army cancelled the program, Robert innocently thought going into the infantry would prove to be “a hell of a chance for adventure.” At Camp Maxey he remembers quite clearly the standoff with a member of the cadre, who said “dismissed” to his training group, whereupon someone in the group, replied “Hubba hubba.” This so infuriated the drill sergeant that he ordered the group back out after dinner to stand in ranks. Again, “dismissed” followed by “hubba hubba.” Robert remembers this standoff lasted until around 11 p.m. when “dismissed” was finally followed by silence.

On Dec. 28, 1944, he and two other GIs were in the process of trying to dig a foxhole in the frozen ground of Elsenborn Ridge when a German 105mm shell crashed near them, sending a shell fragment into his back. He had to be carried out and transported to a hospital in Liege, then on to England where the doctors operated on him. He missed his buddies but was “glad to leave the war.” After moving to various rehabilitation hospitals, he eventually rejoined his company at war’s end in Vielflicken and discovered only a few guys of the original platoon remained.

After the war he completed a degree at the University of Washington and went to work for Boeing in 1950, and over the years worked his way up into management, retiring in 1987. “As far as lasting effects of the war, I was always a happy-go-lucky guy and the army did not change my outlook and disposition.”

*****

In Seattle we also met Robert Terry G/395, who was born April 25, 1924, in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. As a freshman at Utah State University, Robert joined the ERC in order to remain in college. But the army decided otherwise, and he was sent to basic infantry training at kerns Army Air Corps base outside of Salt Lake City. Then to ASTP program at University of Arkansas where he earned two years of college credit. He wanted to enter the Air Cadet Program but it was canceled, so off to Camp Maxey where he joined G/395 as a bazooka man.

Robert remembers arriving at Kalaterherberg in November 1944, and told to dig defensive positions. In the course of the work, he and others began a snowball fight. When CC Capt. Byers saw them, he angrily said, “You men are not taking the war seriously. This is war you are in now. You’re all busted to privates.” Needless to say, Robert and the others did not view Byers favorably.

When G Company moved toward some pillboxes on Dec. 13, he witnessed four dead German soldiers. “I had never seen dead men before. It was quite a shock.” He was impressed by the effective manner in which the pillbox was captured – “it worked like we had trained at Maxey.”

Robert commented, “You don’t have a lot of occasions to use a bazooka, so it wasn’t the most useful weapon we had.” But he kept his rocket tube fully assembled, and when a German Panzer lumbered into Hahnen in the Rhine bridgehead, he was prepared and knocked out the tank.

In the Ruhr Pocket, Robert and a buddy came upon some abandoned command cars where he found and appropriated a pair of binoculars and a Luger pistol. They also discovered a motorcycle with a sidecar. They hopped on, cranked the motor, and tore off down a steep road on a joyride. Unfortunately, they lost control and the cycle crashed into a tree without hurting either one of them. Since the Germans surrendered in huge numbers, “you had the feeling you were going to survive.”

Then came the attempted disastrous, daylight crossing of the Danube River on April 27, 1945. When the German kids on the opposite bank opened up with rifles, machine guns and mortars, Robert and the others hunkered down among the reeds and tall grass on the river’s flood plain for the rest of the afternoon and evening. When the order came that night to abandoned an attempt to cross in small boats, everyone was grateful. The company marched two miles downriver and discovered a pontoon bridge that might have been used for a safe passage. Robert was angry that “we could have crossed without being shot up.” The company moved upriver to Neustadt (the original objective) where they captured the young German kids who were kicked and beaten out of frustration over losses.

The war’s end proved anti-climatic and also the prospect of an invasion of Japan loomed over the horizon. But Robert and others were saved from this awful prospect when the war against Japan ended abruptly. After a period of relaxing, easy occupation duty, Robert came home to Boston. He returned to Utah State University, married, went to work for the Internal Revenue Service, and eventually became assistant commander in Washington, D.C.

The experience in the army provided a maturing process whereby a small-town boy got quite an education traveling in the United States and Europe. “we had a job to do and we did it.”

Last modified Oct. 21, 2010

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