For the past several years I’ve made it a point to interview WWII veterans. Their stories are always interesting and historic. I encourage you to tell a veteran — any war– thank you for their service.
During World War II, Gale (‘Smoky’) Baller fought on the front line in Germany. “Machine gunners had high risk positions,” he said. “The Germans shot mortar shells at us because they knew we could do the most damage to them.”
Baller –he grew up with the nickname ‘Smoky’ because he tap danced with a sister as children — graduated from Bluffton High School in 1944. After being drafted into the United States Army in August, he passed a physical examination at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. He completed basic training at Fort Blanding in Florida which pleased Baller. “I had never traveled outside of Indiana and liked Florida,” he said.
Baller disembarked with thousands of other American soldiers from New York City on the second largest British ship in the world – the Aquitania. They landed at Le Havre, France.
Baller didn’t get seasick during the nine-day voyage, but he didn’t attempt the menu. “I didn’t think I’d like British food so I packed a box of Hershey bars,” he said.
At Le Havre Baller was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division, 39th Regiment, D company. “In our unit you operated a machine gun or mortar shells,” he said. Baller carried cans of ammunition for machine guns. The cans weighed 45 pounds and were carried over a soldier’s shoulders behind the gunners. “One gunner carried the receiver for the machine gun and the other carried the tripod,” he said.
In Winnersburg Germany Baller and other American soldiers requisitioned the home of a German couple to spy on the German army. The German home owners understood English and seemed relieved when Baller and the other soldiers explained they would not hurt anyone. While Baller did guard duty from the home’s second story window, the German woman offered the Americans a treat. “She made us a strawberry pie,” he said. When the soldiers prepared to leave, Baller thanked the couple for their hospitality with chocolate bars.
The Battle of Remagen Bridge in March 1945 was vicious. “Both sides wanted that bridge which was the last remaining one over the Rhine,” he said. “The Germans tried to blow it up, but we made a pontoon for our guys to go across in jeeps and on foot.”
By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Buck Sergeant Baller began preparing, as did thousands of other soldiers, to fight in Japan. While waiting, Baller was assigned to work in a motor pool shop at a resort requisitioned by the Allies in Germany.
A handful of horses provided Baller the opportunity to ride daily after his work shift was completed. Unfortunately, his horse stepped in a ditch one day during a ride. Baller broke several bones in his right hand. The horse escaped uninjured.
Baller spent six months in a hospital in Munich. When the doctor said Baller’s hand would have to be re-broken, he was shipped back to Galesburg, Illinois. The war had ended in August 1945. Baller was honorably discharged in November 1946.
For his military service Baller received a Distinguished Unit Award from France. He also received the following medals: Bronze Star, Good Conduct, European Campaign, World War II Victory, Army Occupation, US Unit citation, Honorable Service, Expert Shooting and Combat Infantry.
After the war, Baller married. He and his wife, Alice, became parents to two sons, Jerry and Mark. Following Alice’s death, Baller remarried Norma in 1990.
During his lengthy work career, which ended June 2013, Baller worked for the Steury Bottling Company, Reimschisel’s Motors and Hiday Motors.
Baller’s thoughts of his military service are simple. “I went in as a soldier who was often scared to death, but I grew out of it,” he said.