WR: “Towards the last days of the war we raced…to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. We were the first to enter into a living hell.”

What is your birth year?

I was born in 1923. 

How old does that make you today?

95 and a half.

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

[US Army].

Where were you born?

I was born in my home. Highland Park, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago- 25 miles north of Chicago, a suburb of Highland Park, Ravinia. It was that little area there where I was born. 

How did WWI affect your family? Did any family members serve?

I know that my wife’s father did. If my older brother was here- he’s three years older than I- he remembers all [those] kind[s] of thing.  

Did the Great Depression have any impact on your family?

It affected everybody. The interesting thing about the Great Depression was that certain people invested heavy, and my parents did not, my grandparents did not, and consequently, we were very well off relative to everybody else. We had no serious problems during the Depression, other than what everybody had, but we never had a problem with food or anything like that. We were very fortunate. It was rather interesting. 

What was the technology available during your upbringing? Did your family have a telephone or an automobile?

Oh, yes. My dad had the first Packard that was ever delivered into Chicago before he was married.  

President Roosevelt was in office for the majority of your childhood. Do you remember hearing about him?

Not too much. When you get into the flow of the Army, you don’t sit down and listen to the fireside chats. You don’t get that. 

Do you recall hearing about Pearl Harbor?

When we heard it over the radio, I was in a big dorm [at the University of Illinois] my freshman year, although I’d already pledged to a fraternity. Everybody just stormed out of the place; it was rather emotional, because for some reason, I don’t know how it started- we started a chain gang. [We] round around the city singing, “I don’t give a damn for the whole state of Japan.” It kept growing, and growing, and even on the other side of the campus, the same thing happened. Eventually, we had over 1,000 people, I think mostly civilians and students. The President [of the University] eventually came out and talked to the crowd. He was very nice. It was rather an emotional thing, because immediately the next day, we all took off in our cars, and on Monday I had driven to Saint Louis to try and sign up for the Air Corps. They told us that they were overstaffed; they had more people then they knew what to do with. They took our names, but said, “You guys go back to school.” Of course, I was already being trained at school- I was in the ROTC- and it was a cavalry unit we had there. What was it like to be trained on horses? It’s a little bit of a discipline type thing; we’d saddle our horses, and it’s just a matter of being able to be self-sufficient, and obey orders, and so forth. There was some schooling; I remember that every time we brought our horse in, we had to clean his hoofs. {Laughs} A lot of things have changed. Yes, they have. 

Tell me more about when you were called up to service.

When they called me up to service, I was sent out to Fort Riley, Kansas, which was a cavalry school. I moved from horses to motorcycles, and then I had a cute little accident when I was there. I got thrown- I missed a turn because of the dust. I was only a private at that time, Private First Class or something because the lieutenant and the sergeant both thought I was okay, I guess. Out of all the group they let me go to the rear, and we played with our motorcycles. When we got to the gravel road, I didn’t see the turn, and in Kansas, they have these stone walls- they pick the stones out of the fields and throw them to make like a fence- I hit that thing with my motorcycle, and my motorcycle and I went flying. I woke up, and here were these three [girls]- I thought they were nurses! They were sorority girls who were going to a dance. They asked me how I was, and I said, “Oh, I’m fine.” They left, but they did turn me into to get help. 

What was your reaction when you found out you were being sent overseas?

I was expecting it. 

What was your family’s reaction to your being sent overseas? Were they worried for you?

They were supportive. Emotionally, internally maybe, but as far as I know, they had no problem in that regard. I was able, when I finished OCS, down in Louisville, Kentucky, to pick up my parents and my brothers, and we took a tour around to the West Coast, which was kind of fun. In those times, we had food stamps and the rationing. 

On his involvement in the Battle of the Bulge:

First, we went to England and went to a charming little town called Chippenham. They broke us down into sections- we [previously] had no division. We went there in a big escort of ships, but we went to this little town of Chippenham. It was just awesome to me- it was like Moby Dick, and Treasure Island, and all those things- it kept that early culture. I was awed by that. That’s where we were, and then it was amazing timing because we hit the French coast, the division did, on December 16th, and that’s when von Rundstedt broke into the Bulge- the same day. That’s when we raced up there. We were put right into battle.

I was with the 11th Armored Divison. I was at the 41rst Cavalry Reconnaissance Division, so in the Battle of the Buldge, we were the ones who made contact with the enemy. The first. Of course, we don’t have guns in the cavalry, it’s all light-weight and fast movement, so we generally had to pull aside, and then the big stuff [came] up. The big tanks came up. We ran into the two top Panzer divisions. It was rather a strange situation when I had to go; word came down right away that they were going to attack, and they wanted my unit to go and be on the right flank. I didn’t know that the Germans were coming around, but we were under command of another unit, and they told us that they didn’t like the position that I was in. They moved my unit up below this hill. We climbed that hill with our phone wire- I was going to be forward observer, give orders how to shoot and where to shoot- I got up there, and my captain was with me. At that time, I was just a lieutenant. At that time, we were standing at the most awesome crater you’ve ever seen. The thing was over a mile and a half wide, and down at the center of that crater, was a cute little town with a church steeple. That’s how big that place was. In our area, where we were, it was all frozen over real hard. There was no place for me to hide, or for any of us to hide. Across the way, about a mile across the crater, the woods. It was a pyre, our slope down- it went up over the other side. It was flat, and foresty. Well, I knew the time of the attack, so I ordered my people. I called down, and I said, “Make the first round smoke so I can adjust your guns.” It never happened. The whole forest was alive with German guns that just came right over our heads. Why they didn’t wipe us out- there were only two of us up there. I went back over the hill to look and see what had happened, and our outfit had scattered. I lost three people. 

Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.

Oh, god, I got hundreds of them. Even after the war, I have some of the greatest memories in the world. 

When we were on the battlefield, every night, this little plane would come over. ‘Bed-Check Charlie’ is what we called it. It was a German plane, and at night they came- I don’t know if they had night vision at that time or not, but they wanted to see where the American forces were. It was just a small plane, but you could always hear it around 9 o’clock. Nobody even bothered to shoot at it! {Laughs}

There was so much complexity in the fighting, and the moving around. To be honest with you, I don’t really think I was in the worst part of it, except for a couple of times. I know I wasn’t. The 101st Airborne was the one that was stuck in the center of that mess, and hopefully we were instrumental in getting them out of there. That’s one of the things we were doing- we were also trying to save the highway, the supply line for the whole area and the other areas.

One of the fears that I had, the only fear that I ever had- I was so damn busy that I didn’t know of any fear!- [was that] I had never seen a dead person. I’d never even been to a funeral, so I didn’t know what to expect of my reaction. The first reaction I got- we saw a US tank that was knocked out, and I climbed up to that tank to get the machine guns off of it, to add to my unit, and everybody who was in there- they were all dead. You just move right along. That’s the other thing that really brings a person into something; when I got back here, I could not sit at a table where there was any bickering. It’s about life and death. There’s nothing else. It is emotional, from that standpoint. 

Right after the war, I was in Austria. I was military governor of that area. They changed me from the 41st to military government right as the war was ending. I remember that I used to have lunch with the OSS- it’s the CIA now. They told me about the strange call they had from one of the American units. A very small one wanted to go see the salt mines. That’s when the CIA discovered the tremendous amount of pennies that were stolen all around Europe. 

What were the best memories of service?

When I look back on all the interactions I had, each one was amazing, every one of them. We were on R&R, going down to the French coast, to Cannes- we were spending time down there, I had a week, and that was amazing. There were a lot of different things that were going on that were amazing. 

Of course, after the war, I saw some of the most fascinating and wonderful things. I mean, we took this town, and in that town, was a beautiful, beautiful mansion. It was just like a castle. We moved into it, a few of us, two or three officers. I’m telling you, if they hadn’t stolen a lot of the things from the countries around and so forth- it was beautiful. They had art galleries and all kinds of stuff. There were things like that that you ran into. 

I lived like a king. First, being military governor in [one] of the guarded spots of Bavaria, where they have castles and movie stars- in fact, I took the movie stars on an outing. I found a place in Bavaria- it’s a cirque in the middle of the Alps- as you come up to the Alps, it’s like a huge circle, and the only thing that was in it was this little house, and a lake. I’ll tell you about the second time I came up there, because it was probably the most emotional time for me. I passed this window, and I just stopped. Here, in that window, was a Christmas tree with live candles, three little kids sitting on the ground, with the parents. You could just see the awe in their eyes. It makes me emotional, even thinking about it after never having seen anything like it during the war. Obviously, we were invited in and I said, “No way am I going to break that up. No way.” So we left. On the way up there, originally I was looking for a place for our troops to go and have R&R. On the way up to that cirque, I saw this beautiful home off to the right, kind of in the woods. We went in and looked at it, and it was huge. I wouldn’t call it a castle, but it was a beautiful home, and I knocked on the door, and there was only one gal there, at least that I saw. I learned that it was owned by [a] duke. We spent the night there. I also learned that the driveway went right between two homes- the main home [and] the guest house. Then, the road continued on. I said, “Where does that go?” “Oh, it goes up to the hunting lodge.” That’s where I took the movie stars and some guys from the CIA. 

What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?

After all the war, and after going through Dachau and Mauthausen- it’s the worst. We actually were the first ones [to Mauthausen]. That was the most horrible. It took me thirty years before I could even talk about it, until I heard about the “There is no Holocaust”. 

Your unit found, and liberated, Mauthausen Concentration Camp. When you saw it, did you know what you’d found? Were you informed on what might be there?

No. You just walked in. The people who were still there, who hadn’t escaped [or] walked out- they were dead, but they were walking. Some of them dropped dead right in front of me. They’d start to come up to me, and just drop. It’s interesting, the way [the Germans] did this thing- generally speaking, they had a truckload of people, or a carload- they’d come down the ramp. There’d be at least two or more officers down there, SS or camp personnel, and they’d take a good look at you, if you could work. Mostly women and children were put in the showers. Most of the people that could work would go the other way. It depended on the number of workers they needed. They weren’t always Jewish. They had a few Russians and a few Americans there that had been executed. The tortures- [the] was a guy who did the torturing at Mauthausen, he had to be a mad person. He just loved it. 

Mauthausen01
“On May 5, 1945…a platoon of 23 men from the 11th Armored Division…arrived at the main camp near the town of Mauthausen.” Circa May 5, 1945. Photo retrieved from “Mauthausen Liberation”.

An excerpt from WR’s book regarding his role in the liberation of Mauthausen Concentration Camp:

Towards the last days of the war we raced along the southside of the Danube river into Austria and at Linz we crossed over it to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The Germans had fled the camp when we arrived. The first thing we saw was a vast pile of bones at least 15 feet high and going back a long way. We were the first to enter into a living hell. Some of the comments of others helps me picture was I saw: 

DAILY NEWS Foreign Service: “Mauthausen, Austria. In a grim valedictory to the world’s most vicious war, between 20,000 and 30,000 more victims of Nazi bestiality were freed yesterday when a patrol of the 11th Armored Division found a series of concentration camps- just east of Linz. It was another Buchenwald, in some respects worse than its famous counterpart, replete with gas chambers and two crematories where tens of thousands of helpless victims had perished. Other thousands had fled the neighboring camp at Grusen where prisoners, frenzied by intolerable hunger and become bestial by the years of maltreatment, had engaged in an orgy of cannibalism on April 25 and 26. Prisoners from these camp poured down the roads toward Linz, ragged, sick, and starving and headed for nowhere. An American Captain, under sentence of death, and a Russian major’s testimony confirms that both American and British soldiers had been gassed to death.”

General Eisenhower: “The visual evidence and verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering-“

Entering the camp I saw there were people, skeletons, wondering about and many of those were skeletons that were alive but dead. Some would drop dead in front of you, their bodies were so weakened. The place was a living hell of torture. 

Colonel William Quinn: ‘”Sights, sounds, and stenches so horrible beyond belief, cruelties so enormous as to be incomprehensible to the normal mind.”

Our State Dept. received a request to have the area at the crematorium consecrated. This was handed to me to get done. The place was a mess with a huge open pit grave. It was a challenge and a pleasure to do. When finished it only needed some spring planting.

On his involvement with Dachau Concentration Camp after its liberation: 

What happened was that after I left military government, when we turned it over to the Germans, I went back up to Dachau, and they still had 20,000 people there- SS, and others. I was made PW industries officer, to keep them busy.

I repatriated 708 Yugoslavians from one of the camps- when I was at Dachau, they assigned me that. We got to this little town- we finally got into Yugoslavia, and Tito was still there. He was tough to get through, but after my convoy was allowed through there, they threw such a horrible big party. Just wonderful. I’m sitting there on the outside, watching everything, and this little girl comes up to me and asks me to dance. She’s about 12. 

After Dachau:

After I left Dachau- they were going to release some of the prisoners because they were bringing in a new group- my buddy had a connection with headquarters. He said that they were looking for someone to help run a recreation center up in Czechoslovakia. That was a dream, that was a dream; [the area of] Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Germans years ago. So it was all German inhabitants, and they’re sitting in Czech territory. Those poor people were being really abused, being pushed around. When I needed help, they gave me two hotels; they wanted me to set up a bar-type situation in both hotels. All I had to do was drive down the streets and ask somebody if they wanted to work for us. We had an agreement with the Czechs about armbands; we gave them an armband, and then they could come to work. 

Do you remember hearing that Hitler had committed suicide, and was dead?

{Laughs} No. To be honest with you, I knew he would have to commit suicide, or somebody else would, or he would be thrown in trial. That didn’t bother me. He’d had his torturing era. I’ve got tons of pictures of him. When he would come to a town, because of the Gestapo- they had people in almost every block- rats. Even though you didn’t like him, you came out when he came to town. You joined the rallies. He had informants in the villages. Yeah. 

Why, or when, did your service end?

I don’t know the exact date- I didn’t pay any attention to that- [but] it was probably six or nine months after the war ended, still in ’45. I guess I came back by boat; that part, I don’t even remember. {Laughs} How many years were you in Europe, total? Probably two, at the most. 

What was your job or career after the war?

Well, I started out in sales with US Gypsum Company building materials. I was office manager, then I went into sales. From sales I went to purchasing agent in the downtown Chicago area. This was all in Indiana, and then I went to Chicago. That was an interesting job. I had one of those jobs now that’s all run by a computer; I had six paper mills, making paper for 22 board plans, making wallboard, and rock lath, which they used for plastering over. I had to keep them supplied with a proper balance of stuff. If they gave me the wrong inventory, it would cost us a fortune. After that, I left, and was sent to the West Coast, to the paper mills, as a purchasing agent. 

I had this guy that had a yacht, who I was buying from. He was supplying us with the sawdust for our roofing plan; we had a roofing and a paper mill. He kept after me to run his business, and this went on for three or four years. Finally, I threw him a figure, and I took over. That, to me, is where I really blossomed. I wrote contracts, I brought out our largest competitors- he was gone! He got on his yacht and took off! I just had a ball. 

How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

There’s a learning experience in everything. There’s compassion and so forth, a complete mixture of things, so you can’t say that you haven’t learned an awful lot, even in war. What’s precious, and what is not. Besides that, you’re giving orders. As a kid, you’re giving orders which you don’t usually give unless you’re head of a big corporation. It’s a growing experience, it really is. It was a good experience. 

Do you think the world has any misinterpretations WWII?

That’s an awfully good question. I don’t think- the World War II experience, and what it meant overall to this country, and what it did to this country- it united this country in such a tremendous manner. I don’t think there’s an awful lot of kids that know about it. wally-1.jpgAuthor’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

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