World War II

Crazy Brave

Bronze Star Ceremony, Austria, 1948

Bronze Star Ceremony, Austria, 1948

Like many young men of his generation, Greg’s father, J. L. Shreve, answered the call to duty in World War II, joining the Army in 1943. He served in the First Army’s 102nd Infantry Division, “the Ozarks.” He was assigned to the 406th Infantry Regiment, Weapons Company M as a squad leader and later a platoon sergeant. Formed in September 1942, the 102nd Infantry Division landed at the French port of Cherbourg in late September 1944, a few months after the Allied invasion of Western Europe on D-Day. In October 1944 the “Ozark” division advanced through the Netherlands towards the German border. The unit crossed into Westphalia in November. The Ozark Division got its baptism of fire in the vicinity of the Roer River toward the end of 1944 as part of the Ninth Army. The Ozarks crossed the Roer February 23, 1945 and successfully established a bridgehead from which it was able to attack north toward the Rhine. In its dash to the Rhine, the 102nd overran 86 towns and cities. One of the most important of these captures was Krefeld, a key railroad and communications center. Caves in the city had been used by the Nazis for a huge rocket factory. Crossing the Rhine at Remagen late in March, the 102nd followed a fleeing enemy, and in April the division was mopping up in an area from Bielefeld and Hanover to the Elbe River. The division stopped there only because it had orders to await the Russians north of Magdeburg. On April 14, 1945, as it advanced through Thuringia toward Saxony, the 102nd Infantry Division uncovered the site of a hideous massacre of concentration camp prisoners outside the town of Gardelegen.  The remnants of two German armies surrendered to the 102d May 4, 1945.

J. L. rarely spoke about his experiences during the war. We were fortunate enough in 2001 to capture his reminiscences on videotape when he was interviewed for an oral history project by his granddaughter, Jessica. It was clear from the interview he was, even after 55 years, still affected emotionally by what he had seen and experienced. This interview was one the few occasions we had ever seen J. L. visibly affected by emotion, to the point of tears.

After the war ended, J. L. continued to serve his country. He was a military policemen in Linz and Innsbruck, Austria from 1948-1951. In 1952 he was posted to Inchon, Korea. Upon his return from Korea, J. L. was posted to several army bases, including Fort Dix in New Jersey. J. L. left the Army for a short period of less than a year after Korea, the only gap in his military service between 1943 and 1965. During that time he managed a Lawson’s store in Akron, Ohio. Apparently shop-keeping and civilian life was not for him, and he returned to service in the Army at his previous rank.

In 1956 he was posted to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and then Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas. In 1957 he took a three-year tour of duty in Germany, serving in Wiesbaden at the Army Airfield, in Worms am Rhein (Taukkunen Barracks), and Wertheim (Peden Barracks).  Returning to the United States in 1960, J. L. was posted again to Fort Bliss, Texas to assume responsibility for securing the missile testing range located there. In 1961 J. L. and family returned to Germany for a second overseas tour of duty, stationed to Pioneer Kaserne and Fliegerhorst Airfield Kaserne in Hanau. In 1964 he returned to the United States to serve as chief enlisted security officer for the Oakdale Nike Base outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

He finally retired from military service in 1965, at the rank of Master Sergeant after 22 ½ years of service. Due to J. L.’s high level of training (he had attended many specialized military schools, including the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Maryland), he had been offered rank as a Warrant Officer if he would delay his retirement. As he once confided to Greg, however, J. L. was fed up with the Army and decided to finally try civilian life.

During his long career in the U.S. military, which included combat in both WWII and the Korean War, he received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, and the Combat Infantry Badge. His Purple Heart was awarded because he was wounded during combat and the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Clusters was awarded for multiple acts of bravery. What kind of warrior was he? At a reunion of the 102nd Infantry Division in 1995, one of the men who served in his squad called him “crazy brave.” It was clear that these men, even after 50 years, still admired and respected him for his leadership and fearlessness in battle.

Greg’s father was in many ways defined by his military experience. Born in the hills of Appalachia in West Virginia, he joined the Army at the age of 18 both as a patriotic duty and, no doubt, to find a way to make his way in the world. Many young men of Appalachia took the same military road out of the hills as he did. After his retirement at the age of 42, he searched for another identity, becoming for a time an executive for Pinkerton Detectives, a real estate broker, and finally, “Captain Shreve,” a Chief of Police for a women’s college in Columbia, South Carolina. But these other identities were, in many ways, only a consequence of his life’s defining experience.

In 2010, “crazy brave” J. L. Shreve finally met a foe he couldn’t vanquish. The last time we spoke with him, just a few days before he died, he told us that he was ready to go, to rest. Because he couldn’t talk very well as the result of a stroke, he mimed “going to sleep.” We knew what he meant. He told us what day it would be. A few days later, on the day he had chosen, he passed away. He had decided when and how to leave this life. And that accorded exactly with what we always knew about him. He always lived his life on his own terms. He left it on his own terms. Sergeant Shreve, Captain Shreve, in charge and in control.

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Donald T. Nelson, Hero

Donald T. Nelson, Home on Leave

Donald T. Nelson, Home on Leave

Both our dads were decorated war heroes. In this post, we are going to talk about Joan’s father, Donald T. Nelson. Donald entered military service in 1941 and qualified for Officers Candidate School in the field artillery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On June 23, 1942 he was appointed Second Lieutenant and assigned to the 158th Field Artillery, 45th Division at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. He was promoted to First Lieutenant on May 20, 1943.  On July 10, 1943 he landed with the first wave of troops near San Croce Camerina in Sicily, serving as a forward observer officer. He fought in the “Bloody Ridge” battle near San Stefano, Sicily and was awarded the Silver Star for his leadership and courage under difficult battle conditions.

On September 11, 1943 he participated in the landing near Salerno, Italy. He was wounded during a German tank assault on September 12th and later was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he received in his right eye, forearm, chest, and thigh. After recovering in a hospital in North Africa, he served as a Field Artillery School instructor at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Donald was promoted to Captain on January 20, 1946 and retired from service in March of that year.

Joan’s dad was blind in his right eye for the rest of his life. Like many men who had fought, he rarely spoke about his experiences. Joan didn’t know he had served as a forward observer until she was a teenager. She was watching an episode of the television show Combat! in which an American Army forward observer fighting in France had gone ahead of the others to check out the German enemy’s position. Her dad was sitting nearby in his favorite chair reading the daily newspaper. During the commercial break Joan turned to him and said something about the courage forward observers must have had to go ahead alone and how dangerous it was. That was when he told her he had himself been a forward observer during the war.

In March 1993 Joan’s dad returned to Sicily with his former Army comrades. He visited Scoglitti, the small fishing village on the south coast of Sicily, where the 45th Infantry Division made its amphibious invasion on July 10 fifty years earlier. He revisited “Bloody Ridge” near San Stefano, the site of the toughest fight of the Sicilian campaign.  “Bloody Ridge” was a series of five steep ridges about 3,000 feet high firmly occupied by German troops; they were successfully taken by the Americans after four days of intense combat. Joan’s dad also visited the grave of one of his best buddies in the 45th, First Lieutenant Capers R. Wactor, who died in Sicily and is buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy.  One of the hardest things Joan’s dad had to do during the war, he said, was contact Caper’s new bride and tell her that her husband had died on July 17, 1943.

Going back to Sicily was a cathartic experience for Joan’s dad. He opened up to his family for the first time, and Joan finally learned details of what he had gone through. He shared with her the newspaper articles he had saved from the war years:

“Beachhead Battles Nothing New for Gary’s Lieut. Nelson. Fought in Sicily and Italy: Wins Silver Star for Heroics”
“Lieut. Donald Nelson Wins Silver Star for Gallantry in Action”
“Gary Lieutenant Wounded in Italy”
“Gary’s Lieut. Nelson Gets Purple Heart”

Joan’s dad was one of thousands of Americans who showed courage and heroism during terrifying times. We have often wondered how we would have reacted under similar circumstances. We all think we are brave, that we wouldn’t flinch from danger. We would all like to think that there is a hero in us, waiting to emerge when duty and danger call. In this era of superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, or Captain America, we think that only the extraordinary can be heroes. But Donald Nelson shows us that real heroes are real men who rise up from their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things when they have to. Then they go home, have children, live quiet lives and answer the questions their inquisitive daughters ask them.

 

The Gary Post-Tribune, May 1, 1944

The Gary Post-Tribune, May 1, 1944

In the Shadow of World War II

Greg Shreve, Army Brat, Wiesbaden, Germany in 1957

Greg Shreve, Army Brat, Wiesbaden, Germany in 1957

Our generation, the much maligned “baby boomers,” (more on that in another post!) grew up in the immediate shadow of World War II. Our parents, the “Greatest Generation,” had lived through that war just a handful of years before we were born. We heard about the war from friends and family at an early age, and most of the kids we knew at school had parents who had participated in the war in some way. The war, though over, was still a constant presence.

As kids that age do, we talked and told tales. One of Joan’s friends confided that his dad had been captured by the Germans and spent years in a Stalag as a POW. Once a year on the anniversary of his capture (or release, we don’t know), his dad would get drunk and, sobbing, relive what he had gone through. There was a woman who would walk down Joan’s street, always alone, covered from head to toe  in a heavy long coat, hat, and gloves, even in the middle of the hot summer. The kids on the street would whisper that she had been a concentration camp victim. Some of what we heard from other kids was probably just made up from things they had heard. Joan knew a boy who bragged about his dad having a necklace strung with the teeth of Japanese soldiers that he had killed during the war. True or not, it was the kind of horrific thing some kids talked about.

Joan remembers hearing people in our parents’ generation recall what life was like during those dark years. During the war there were shortages of things like meats, milk, butter, and eggs. Women complained that they couldn’t get silk stockings. That was a hardship in the days when women were expected to wear dresses and skirts most of the time (and pantyhose hadn’t been invented yet!) Joan also remembers hearing about a popular cake called the “War Cake” that didn’t use milk, butter, or eggs, but she doesn’t remember ever eating the cake herself. Probably by the early 1950’s the time for rationing and “War Cake” was long past.

Neither Joan nor Greg heard their fathers say much about the war, although it was clear that they thought about it. We don’t know whether this was typical of most veterans, or whether it was just a reflection of our fathers and their particular set of experiences. They were young men when they went away to fight. What they must have seen and experienced affected them deeply. Only later in life did some details emerge to be written down and preserved. Greg was close to 45, and his father 75 or so, before any real detail of his military years emerged in the context of an oral history he recorded for our daughter Jessica. Joan’s father only began to talk about his experiences much later in life, after a trip back to Sicily where he had fought and been wounded. The shadow of the war was apparently a deep and dark one for these two men.

Much of Greg’s life has been defined by the military and World War II; he is a true result of the war. His father, an American military policeman in Austria in 1948, was providing security for a refugee camp in Linz. There he met Greg’s mother, a “displaced person,” who had come to the camp in the early 1940’s, an ethnic German (Donauschwaben) who had fled her home in Romania. The MP and the war bride married in 1948, and in the natural way of things, Greg arrived two years later. Greg’s father spent 26 years in the military all told, and Greg spent much of his childhood and teen years on Army bases in Germany between 1956 and 1964. He recalls vivid first-hand evidence of World War II. A particularly clear memory he has is of playing with other children in the ruins of bombed out houses near the military housing in Worms am Rhein in 1958. We didn’t think much at the age of eight of what the rubble and the ruins represented. They too were a remnant specter of the war.

World War II cast a long shadow on the popular media. Movies, television shows, and documentaries about World War II were popular in the 1950s and early 1960s when we were growing up.  The mid-afternoon movies on television constantly replayed many of the films made during the war (although we can’t remember any of their names!).  There were plenty of movies in the theaters, too: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Battle of the Bulge, Von Ryan’s Express, The Longest Day. Comedies like McHale’s Navy and The Wackiest Ship in the Army were so popular in the theaters that they were made into television series. Another comedy, Hogan’s Heroes, became a huge hit. Although he would never say anything, Joan remembers her father leaving the room whenever Hogan’s Heroes came on. He found it disturbing that a German POW camp could be turned into a sitcom.  Television, of course, had dramatic series as well, like Combat! and Twelve O’Clock High.

Here in 2014, almost 70 years after one of the great wars of our time, World War II seems to be receding in our cultural consciousness. While the media revives the war every few years (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers), overall we seem to be moving out of its great shadow. Those who fought in it (and those who waited and worked for the cause at home) are now passing from our midst. Their eyewitness accounts and authentic memories are passing too. Those of us who followed, Sixty-Somethings like ourselves, carry second-hand memories of the war, gathered from the rare stories our fathers and mothers told, from the narratives of the schoolyard, and from the media that replayed the war for more than 20 years after it was over.  Soon, even those memories will fade, and the shadows of that Great War will shrink and lessen until they are gone.