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Vets say WWII marked chapter in U.S. history that won’t be repeated

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Running to foxholes for shelter from heavy artillery, operating radios to coordinate the firing of cannons and walking for miles in sub-zero temperatures are experiences World War II veterans remember well.

Veterans of the war who shared those combat experiences with the Times, all over 85 years old, said their years overseas in the 1940s marked a chapter in U.S. history that will never be repeated by soldiers today. They say advances in technology have greatly changed the way wars are fought.

Theodore C. Snyder

Radio communications systems used during the war pale in comparison to today’s GPS technology, said Lowville native Theodore C. Snyder, who enlisted in the Army as a 23-year-old during the fall of 1943.

“Maintaining communications was one of our weakest links, and the Germans had the same problem,” the 96-year-old said. “Our radios were battery operated, and one shell that landed on a telephone wire would eliminate the correspondence. And the radio antenna was eight feet high, so they always pinpointed it as a target.”

Compared with modern-day wars in the Middle East, he said, “This war was different because we saw their gray uniforms and they saw our drab green, so we shot at the right targets most of the time.”

Mr. Snyder saw many American and German soldiers die during his three years of service in the 109th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division. As a forward observer, he was responsible for relaying directions by radio to a gun crew who manned a 105 mm howitzer cannon, telling it where to aim at German soldiers.

The 23-year-old went swiftly into combat action after debarking a ship in Scotland during the fall of 1944. His division took part in a 19-day battle in the Hurtgen Forest, east of the Belgium-Germany border, that claimed 6,470 American lives and more than 6,000 Germans. Soldiers wore leather boots and were given one blanket each during the cold November battle, in which Mr. Snyder was responsible for zeroing in on German soldiers with binoculars in the dense forest. Because of the high number of casualties, his division advanced only about 100 yards before retreating.

“Artillery shells would explode above us (in the trees) and the shrapnel would create plenty of casualties,” he said. “In one instance, I saw soldiers walk into a minefield and one’s head was completely blown off. We were accustomed to death at that time. To see Germans dead meant nothing. But to see dead GIs, as we called them, always got to you. We slept in foxholes with rifles between our legs and bayonets pointed each direction, and it gave us a sense of safety.”

Mr. Snyder used a pair of binoculars with distance marks etched into the lenses to determine where gun crews should aim at German forces. A SCR-300 backpack radio was operated by another soldier to transmit those directions. When a target’s precise location was determined, he’d sometimes issue orders for all four of the company’s cannons to be fired, instead of one: “I’d yell, ‘Four fire effect!’ because the target warranted that much firepower.”

Carl R. Stevens

Today’s American soldiers are deployed overseas anywhere from 90 days to 15 months before they go on leave, but soldiers in World War II often served multiple years without visiting family, said Carl R. Stevens, a Harrisville native who served as an Army medic from 1942 to 1945.

“In the three years that I served, I never got a leave,” the 92-year-old said. “They gave us a 10-day vacation in Florence, but that was it.”

Mr. Stevens was 22 years old when he arrived by ship on the western African shore in the spring of 1943. For the first 2 years of the war, he served as a medic in the Army’s 73rd Station Hospital that was based in Constantine, Algeria, and Rome, Italy. He later joined the 10th Mountain Division when it arrived in Italy, because its infantry needed medics to serve on the front lines.

Combat in Italy’s Po Valley region introduced Mr. Stevens to the brutality of the war. He served for six months during the end of the division’s Po Valley campaign, which ended in November 1945. That campaign cost the division 506 casualties.

“We were pushing forward pretty fast in the Po Valley, and I had some close calls,” Mr. Stevens said. “I got shot at so close one night that I got upset and left the line. But they sent me right back into combat the next morning because medics were needed. We had to dig a lot of foxholes, and when we were pushing, we never knew how long we were going to stay in that spot.”

In the fall of 1944, Mr. Stevens was on a boat with about a dozen men crossing Lake Garda in northern Italy. German artillery fire hit the bottom of their boat, dumping the men into the water and compelling them to swim for their lives. He was hospitalized with pneumonia after the experience.

“When the boat sank, it was a dark night and we didn’t know where we were,” Mr. Stevens said. “To tell you the truth, I never remember how I swam out of there alive.”

Rishel ‘Ricky’ White

On-the-ground combat experiences like those during World War II likely will never be experienced by Americans again, said Rishel “Ricky” White, a 92-year-old Adams resident who served in the Army from 1941 to 1946.

“We had ground troops back then, and you had to walk in combat,” he said. “We took quite a beating out there, and I know that you remember the men who died better than those who come back with you.”

On Dec. 16, 1944 — the first day of the Battle of the Bulge — Mr. White was one of about 12 men huddled inside a two-story stone building at a small Belgian town in the Ardennes Mountains. He said the sunrise attack orchestrated by the Germans at 5:30 a.m. blindsided the soldiers, who served in the Army’s 106th Reconnaissance Division.

“They hit the buildings we had our ammo in and they caught fire,” he said. “Artillery and mortar-rocket fire came about 10 yards from our building — that’s how close we were to being hit. Later a German 88 shell came through both walls of the building, but it must have been a dud that didn’t go off.”

Mr. White said the men were compelled to run for their lives. “I said, ‘Boys, we’re going to have to dig in and finish this.’ I led the whole bunch out, and we go out there and you could hear the bullets whizzing by you.”

The contingent of men crawled forward about 15 yards to enter a silo building, Mr. White said, where they were picked up by a half-track vehicle. But the front of the vehicle was hit by a shell after advancing a half mile, knocking it over and killing the driver. They’d entered another town full of Germans, he said, where they were captured as prisoners of war.

Allied prisoners were rounded up into boxcars to board a German train, about 60 men per car. Advancing into Germany, the train traveled about two weeks in sub-zero temperatures while it was bombed and strafed by American fighter planes. Mr. White said the train broke down after traveling about 15 miles, forcing troops to walk every day for two weeks before arriving at Stalag IV-B, one of the largest POW camps in Germany, north of Dresden.

“On the road, we would walk all day up until 10 at night, and end up in a farm to try to keep warm in the hay at a barn,” he said. At the POW camp, “we just slept on a hard board with a blanket full of holes, and there was no heating or insulation. You kept your clothes on for added warmth. And we’d have 15 POWs on a loaf of bread made out of 20 percent sawdust — you don’t get much out of that.”

The Russians took over the POW camp from the Germans on April 28, 1945, enabling Mr. White to rejoin American forces.

John B. Crowley

Watertown resident John B. Crowley, 91, said the manner in which wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought cannot be likened to the Second World War.

“It’s similar to cowboys and Indians, because there are unorganized groups of Taliban soldiers who know the area and five to six (American) soldiers who will go on patrol,” he said.

“World War II was a continuation of World War I. It was fought in the same way, but the tanks took on the cavalry role and the infantry was more mobile. Trenches were obsolete.”

The 19-year-old Brooklyn native boarded a ship overseas to England during the fall of 1944. As a member of the Army’s 12th Armored Division, Mr. Crowley was stationed in the garrison town of Tidworth when the invasion of Normandy started on June 6, 1944. His division boarded tanks and traveled to Cherbourg in northwestern France, south of Normandy where German troops were mobilizing.

“When we landed, we went into action with the Germans and pushed them back,” Mr. Crowley said, adding that hundreds of Germans were captured during that mission.

The division next advanced east to cross the Rhine River at the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. But the bridge was destroyed by the time it arrived, Mr. Crowley said, and troops had to wait for engineers to build a pontoon bridge for tanks to cross. He said the division was under the command of Gen. George S. Patton during the mission.

“Meanwhile the Germans were on the other side shooting at the engineers, so we set back and sent in a barrage of fire,” he said. “When you fired at German tanks, you didn’t see the men die. But sometimes you’d see them come out on fire.”

When the armistice was announced in May 1945, Mr. Crowley had spent about six months living in a tank with four other men.

“The news was glorious,” he said. “And it came as a shock to us, because we had just retreated from enemy territory in Austria. It later became clear” the Germans had surrendered.

Ramon D. ‘Ray’ Hansen

A sense of national patriotism united men who served during World War II, said Carthage resident Ramon D. “Ray” Hansen. The 87-year-old said young men who joined the war effort strongly believed in the same cause — a dynamic that isn’t the same with modern-day wars.

“It was a distant war, because we helped build the air bases where planes took off to bomb Japan,” said Mr. Hansen, who served in the Navy as a member of a construction battalion called the Seabees that was stationed in Guam.

“Every morning, these B-29s would rise into the sky. Dozens would take off, but by the evening you wouldn’t see as many come back; they sometimes returned with only two or three engines running. You knew what happened in the interim. In World War II, everyone personally knew somebody who had been killed, and this was like invading your family.”

The Nebraska native enlisted in the war when he was 17, after he and his friends learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

James J. DeFranco

Also serving in the Pacific region during the war was Watertown native James J. DeFranco, an Air Force medic who served in the 77th Entry Division. The 101-year-old said he doesn’t think America will ever participate in another war with a similar number of casualties.

“We need to get away from the wars, because war is no good,” he said. “I hope we never see another war like it.”

Mr. DeFranco saw the aftermath of the war by providing medical treatment for Marines who fought the Japanese. After being drafted in 1942 and finishing medical training, Mr. DeFranco helped manage a first aid station on Okinawa Island in 1943. He lived there for 19 months.

“When I got there, the Marines had already gone in and weeded out the Japanese,” he said. “I ran the sick hall every morning, and we would have about 20 GIs there. If someone needed a prescription to go to the hospital, my sergeant had confidence in me to write it.”







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