The Bridge Worth its Weight in Gold

I had heard about the battle for Remagen Bridge from several World War II veterans during interviews, but it was entirely different being there in person.

Our tour group left the Belgium Ardennes area and continued east through the Eifel Mountains. We followed the advance of the US 1st Army through to the Remagen Bridge that once spanned the River Rhine.

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Note: Our guide pronounced it ‘RAY-ma-gen’, rather than the way my veterans who served there pronounced it with accent on the second syllable. No matter.

Having listened to my veterans and watched the 1969 movie, The Bridge at Remagen, I knew a little about what had gone on there between the Allies and Germans.

In March 1945, the American forces had just ended a victorious, but ferocious fight in the Ardennes region that had raged since mid-December.

In December 1944 the Nazis had assertively pushed into the territory of the Ardennes Forest of Belgium. The intense conflict which occurred during one of the worst winters on record became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Like most Allied soldiers, Max Whiteleather (below) fought at the Bulge while living in fox holes filled with snow. When clouds finally cleared around Christmas, help arrived in the form of the Army Air Corps which dropped much-needed supplies.

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As the Allies proceeded to advance into the heart of Germany, they were ordered to advance on Remagen. The bridge was crucial to gain a toehold into enemy territory. It had to be taken intact.

German armed forces tried unsuccessfully to defend the town and the nearby bridge across the Rhine.

Aware that the Rhine River posed the last major geographic obstacle to Allied troops, Hitler had ordered that the bridge over the river be destroyed rather than lost to the Allies.

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Thankfully, members of the 9th US Armored Division disengaged explosives set to destroy the bridge and the plans were foiled. Allied troops reached the bridge and captured it intact on March 7, 1945, enabling 8,000 Allied troops to cross it.

George Buhler (below), a veteran whose story is recorded in my first book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans, fought at Remagen. He recalled how the fighting was fierce. “The Germans shot 18-inch shells at us from railroad cars,” he said.

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Max Whiteleather had fought at D-Day on the beach of Normandy in June 1944. When his unit — 820th Engineer Aviation Battalion, Co A – was sent to Remagen, they were ordered to build an additional bridge– pontoon — across the Rhine following the Allies’ conquest.

As dozens of Allied vehicles lined up, waiting to cross, Max Whiteleather’s outfit set to work. The additional crossing helped the Allies gain the advantage needed to overcome the German Army.

Unfortunately, although the Army Corps of Engineers worked to reinforce the original bridge, which had been damaged during the conflict, on March 17 the bridge collapsed, killing 28 American soldiers.

Today, not much is left of the bridge, except its original basalt foundations and a museum about the bridge. Basalt is black stone native to Germany.

The quote in the title is by General Dwight D. Eisenhower upon learning that the Remagen Bridge had been taken intact.

For a relatively small bridge — you can see the distance in the photo — it’s amazing to think how much fighting occurred there. But as we learned on our tour of European World War II battlefields, bridges were a common place of conflict.

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Max’s story is included in my second book, They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans. It contains 34 stories of men/women of every branch- Army, Navy, Army Air Corps, Marines, Merchant Marines, Coast Guard.

I’m excited to say it will be available in August 2017! Stay tuned here for more information!

Thank a veteran today for his/her service!

 

 

 

 

 

Historic Ceremony Witnessed at Pegasus Bridge –Part 1

Tomorrow is our nation’s birthday. I’m so proud to be part of America and it’s glorious history and fantastic citizens. We’re not perfect but I’d still rather live here than anywhere else. Celebrate by thanking a vet for his/her service!

This photo was taken of a young girl awaiting arrival of Honor Flight of Northeast IN to the airport so she could thank the 85 WWII vets for their service!

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The rest of this post is about an event from our recent WWII trip to Europe.

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Pegasus Bridge.

The name meant nothing to me before our fantastic 2 week trip to Europe in early June. Now it is the highlight of our trip and I want to learn everything about it!

I plan to watch the American movie, The Longest Day, which tells about several facets of D-Day. I’ve also checked out several books from my library on the topic.

Here is a little background about Pegasus Bridge and how it figured at D-Day:

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This little bridge in Normandy France was part of the D-Day invasion in the early hours of June 6, 1944. It was undertaken by the British and called Operation Tonga.

British glider crews were instructed to land at their target—beside the Caen Canal close to the Juno/ Sword beaches that would be invaded in less than six hours.

Could the British glider crews land safely (gliders were notorious for ‘crash-landings’!), do a surprise attack on the Germans guarding the bridge and secure it so Allied troops could use it to push into France?

Miraculously, they did all of that! Not to minimize those who lost their lives and were injured in the least, I’ll mention that we checked out the respectful memorials that are placed where the gliders would have landed in honor of those men who sacrificed their lives for this endeavor.

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The bridge was nicknamed ‘Pegasus’ for the patch with a winged horse that the British troops wore who secured the bridge.

When our motor coach pulled up to the current Pegasus Bridge (the original has been replaced but is still on site for viewing), the signal was on for us to halt. The cantilever bridge was in the process of preparing to rise. A boat was needing to go through.

Since our bus could not move, our guide had us disembark the bus to visit the museum on the other side of the canal before the bridge was completely inaccessible.

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We enjoyed seeing a beautiful, modern museum, a Bailey Bridge (above, a US design that could be easily assembled by troops for hauling men and equipment).

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The replica of the gliders used for the Operation Tonga was much bigger than I expected.

When we started to walk back to the bus, we were hindered by a great crowd of people. It was a Bank Holiday and hundreds of people had assembled for some outdoor event to honor the Pegasus Bridge.

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I regretted that we could not stay to watch, especially when we saw dozens of black London taxi cabs pulling up to the curb of the museum. It turned out there were 90 cabs—they made an impressive long line that stretched for what looked like miles.

‘Must be some big officials in them’, I thought.

There were special people inside each cab!

Someone told us that an organization called the London Taxi Benevolent Association for the War Disabled had organized the event to pick up 90 British World War II veterans in London, bring them across the English Channel on a ferry and transport them to Pegasus Bridge for the ceremony.

Whoa!

Veterans are the reason I got interested in World War II in the first place.

As respectfully as I could manage in my excitement, I leaned inside 1 cab and told the driver I was an American and would it be ok if I told the veteran in the back seat thanks for his service?

The driver said sure and then I proceeded to tell them thank you. I did this for five cabs, then a guilty conscience told me I had to get back to the bus!

What happened next was the cherry on top of the cake!

Since this post is already pretty long, I’ll save that story for the next post! Stay tuned!

 

Bucket List: Take WWII Tour of Europe– Done!

My husband and I just returned from a 2-week World War II tour of Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany! The photo of my husband and me is on the patio of the ‘Eagle’s Nest’, Hitler’s retreat center, above the village of Berchtesgaden, Germany.

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We went with a group of 29 Americans and 3 Australians and one Chinese woman as part of World War II Tours of Europe. This photo is at the Mardasson Memorial at Bastogne, Belgium.

Talk about a whirlwind trip! Our guide, Dennis Ross, was experienced and so organized which made the trip enjoyable. We covered 2,000 km and five countries via a luxurious motor coach with a great driver named Gundolph.

It was exhausting, but so informational and fascinating. My husband has been interested in World War II for decades. I’ve only become interested since I started interviewing veterans in 2012. Put us together and we can usually spout some piece of knowledge about events in Europe and even the Pacific.

BUT…

This trip showed us how much we didn’t know. We soaked it all in, despite minds/bodies that were recovering from a six-hour time difference and 12-hour days on the road.

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This photo was taken on June 6, 2017, at La Fiere Bridge in Normandy (France) region as a tribute from French people to the efforts of American troops 70+ years ago. These and other memorials showed us how much the European Allied countries continue to demonstrate their appreciation for our efforts on their behalf during their occupation by Nazis.

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Photo: Museum at Compiegne Forest (France) where armistice was signed 1918, ending WWI with Germany’s defeat.

We visited the usual tourist sites like museums and had guided tours of Paris, Dachau, Nuremberg, Luxembourg, all of which was just up our alley (I was usually near the front to be sure to hear every word!)

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We stood in an actual foxhole in a woods in Bastogne where troops would have sought shelter from freezing weather and enemy troops.

We stood in the war room of Bastogne where in December 1944 General Anthony McAuliffe declared “Nuts!” to the Nazis’ demands that he surrender the 101st Airborne and its attached troops. Gen. McAuliffe and his troops held off the siege until reinforcements arrived from Allied troops.

Many of these and other examples of courage and determination during that mighty war that raged from 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland until 1945 when Axis forces surrendered were new to me. It was a pleasure to learn more about them in person!

 

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One of my favorite events was thanking British World War II veterans for their service. This photo was shot during an event honoring these vets on June 5 at Pegasus Bridge. I’ll save details for a later post.

It was great to get home and realize yet again what a great country we have – not perfect but pretty close in terms of helping oppressed countries in so many ways for decades.

I’ll be sharing more information about the trip here in future posts with photos (I shot 800+ and my husband took 350+).

I plan to give PowerPoint presentations on what we saw and learned, implementing quotes from veterans I’ve interviewed where appropriate. Many stories about these sites can be found in my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans.

If you know of a group that would be interested in having me speak on this topic, please contact me via this site’s Contact form.

And if you’ve not already done so, please subscribe to this blog to continue to receive my posts that cover WWII and other stories about American military vets.

Remember to thank a veteran today for his/her service. They deserve our appreciation!

Vets Describe D-Day

D-Day. June 6, 1944.

Possibly only a handful of dates in our nation’s military history are more well- known other than Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941).

D-Day was a top secret event that had been planned for months. Every branch was involved in storming the beaches of Normandy France to overcome Hitler’s forces.

Here are a few comments from veterans of various branches whom I’ve interviewed about their involvement with D-Day:

Despite months of training, nothing went according to plan.

As Leo Scheer’s boat neared the shore of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, it hit two mines, igniting it. “We were told to strip our gear and abandon ship,” he said.

The weight of life vests, layers of clothing and combat boots dragged many soldiers into the frigid waters. “Drowned bodies floated in those waters for weeks,” said Scheer. “Many washed up against the sea wall with not a scratch on them.”

Those who made it to shore were ordered to the west end. Scheer was almost killed twice from gunfire. Finally he arrived, only to find the squadron doctor missing.

Wearing the Red Cross arm band and helmet, Leo worked on injured soldiers, removing medical supplies from bodies of dead soldiers to treat the wounded. “Bandages were packaged in waterproof tins which also contained morphine shots,” he said. “It was all we had.”

The first course of action was to stop the bleeding. “We tried to prevent shock and used morphine when necessary,” he added. Artillery fire continued non-stop for days. Soldiers were treated on the sand. “We eventually got a spot in front of a house and put the casualties there,” said Scheer.

A barrage of artillery file forced Scheer to administer medical attention while lying on the ground. “Even getting on your knees was risky,” he said.

“You slept fully clothed with your helmet on,” said Scheer. “Shells came in close. I buried myself under the sand and in the morning crawled out, glad to be alive.”

Note: The photo depicts the web belt Scheer used at D-Day, now a donated item on display at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

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After flying from the US to an Allied air base outside the town of Muching Green in England in spring 1944, Donald Wolfe had only two weeks of training before he flew his first combat mission, called a ‘sortie’. “During the next several weeks, I flew missions over France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany,” he said.

His 44th mission occurred on D-Day as he flew over Normandy lending support to the Allies.

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At Omaha Beach Andy Anderson carried penicillin, bandages, iodine and sulpha packets in his supply packet. As a medic on the battlefield he wore an arm band with a Red Cross, signifying his status. Although he didn’t carry a weapon, Anderson felt safe. “I depended on our American infantry to protect me,” he said.

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Alfred Edwards of Fort Wayne, IN, was operating a rhino barge on June 6, 1944. Such vessels carried tanks and troops as part of the first wave of troops to approach the shore of Omaha Beach in France. “We had no protection from enemy fire as we guided it in,” he said.

When boats and troops reached the shore and put ramps down, the site was grim. “Dead GIs lay everywhere on the beach,” said Edwards. “We dodged shooting from German soldiers while searching for mines embedded in the sand that could blow us up as we neared the shore.”

Despite incredible odds, Allied forces continued to arrive at the beach for weeks, slowly pushing German forces back into France. Code name of the secret invasion: Operation Overlord, though it was more commonly known as D-Day.

**

These are excerpts of stories in my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans (available for purchase on this site) and in my soon-to-be-released book, They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans.

It will be released in Summer 2017. Stay tuned for more details on how to obtain a copy!

Honor a veteran today by thanking him/ her for their service to our country.

We’re Headed to Europe for WWII Tour

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Hopefully our trip to Europe will be easier than for these troops on the USS Wakefield!

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My husband and I have decided to complete a huge item on our combined Bucket List of Things to do Together– Take a tour of Europe, based on World War II events.

Yes, there are actual groups who go to Europe just to learn more about what happened during WWII. We’re going with World War II Tours of Europe (worldwar2toursofeurope.com). Our itinerary includes visiting four countries—Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. We’ll visit Dachau, Paris, Munich, Eagles’ Nest (Hitler’s retreat), Normandy and others.

With my research and writing about World War II in recent as the result of 160+ interviews with World War II vets, combined with my husband’s lifelong interest in the subject (he knows 10 times more than I do!), we should find it all pretty interesting.

We’re months away and yet it is now all we talk about!

I plan to take thousands of photos and put many of them into a PowerPoint presentation for talks after the tour in June (not all of them of course!).

If you’d like me to talk with your group about our 12-day tour, please contact me. I’m already booking for Veteran’s Day so plan early.

It should be a great presentation with shots of re-enactors on Omaha Beach on D-Day, Paris, a concentration camp, and more!

I’ll post more about the trip in upcoming weeks AND as a bonus, I’ll include snippets of stories from my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans, that pertain to places we’ll visit.

This is from Gene Dettmer who fought with the US Army at Utah Beach on D-Day:

 

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“I saw men who had been blown up,” said Fort Wayne native Eugene Dettmer. “If I had been on the first wave that landed on Utah Beach, I would have been killed.”

Dettmer was part of the landing of Allied soldiers on the three-mile stretch of French land that comprised the westernmost flank of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The invasion’s code name was Operation Overlord. The battle was more commonly known as D-Day.

Dettmer was attached to the Third Army with the 468th AAA Battery C. He was assigned to drive jeeps for officers and half-track 468s, armored anti-aircraft vehicles used heavily by U.S. troops during the war. “Dad had taught me basic auto mechanics so that gave me skills in that area,” he said.

In March 1944 Dettmer and thousands of other young American soldiers had disembarked ships from the US to Scotland, then France. Only told they should prepare for battle, little could they imagine they would be involved in one of the deadliest battles in the history of the world.

Dettmer was one of 20,000 soldiers who landed on Utah Beach on June 18, 1944. An estimated 1,700 motorized vehicles, including half-tracks, were used to fight that day. P51 and P47 aircraft seized beach exits, captured key transportation and communication points and blocked German counterattacks. C47 planes carried wounded soldiers to safety.

American troops were not the only soldiers at Normandy. “British forces shot their cannons and their pilots helped with the airborne assault,” said Dettmer.

Although surrounded by violence and destruction, Allied casualties numbered fewer there (300) than those on nearby Omaha Beach (5,000). “Our timing was off by a day due to weather,” said Dettmer. “That may have confused the Germans, but they still put up a good fight.”

**

Please consider purchasing a copy of my book for $15.00. It contains 28 stories of men/women who served at home and abroad from 1941-1945 in American military forces. It’s easy to understand and full of quotes during interviews I did with vets in their homes. You can purchase it at this site or at Amazon for $20.00 (we dropped the price here to thank you for visiting this site!).

Remember to thank a vet today for his/her military service!

Au revoir!

Soldier Fought with Patton’s Third in Battle of the Bulge

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For seven days in December 1944 Allied forces fought with German forces at Bastogne, as part of the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans wanted to control the crossroads and the battle was hard fought. By December 27, Patton’s Third Army arrived and the besieged American forces were relieved.

Beresford Clarke of Fort Wayne, Indiana, spent his 21st birthday fighting the battle. “It was a tough fight,” he said. When Patton’s 3rd Army was relieved by another division, it returned to the town of Wadgassen on the Saar River.

Eight inches of snow didn’t lessen the fighting. For a week Allies hid in buildings, shooting at the enemy stationed behind fortified structures called pillboxes.

Each morning someone from Clarke’s unit drove a jeep back to the rear where Head Quarters was stationed. There the driver picked up food, ammunition, and orders of the day. Enemy snipers hid out in elevated locales, such as church steeples, so it was a risky venture. Clarke was often the jeep driver. “If I drove fast, I had a better chance of escaping!” he said.

Sleeping in foxholes under several inches of snow was the norm. Clarke saw many casualties. “It was difficult seeing people go down,” he said.

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Clarke was born in 1923 in Evansville, IN. He graduated from Reitz High School in 1941 and completed two years as a mechanical engineering student at Purdue University when he enlisted in the US Army in 1943. “Every male who was my age would be drafted if not enlisted,” he said. “I could not swim so I didn’t want to go into the Navy.”

Clarke completed basic training at Fort Eustis, VA. “We trained on 120-mm antiaircraft guns, which were large cannons,” he said. “We also worked with rifles.”

After basic training, Clarke was sent to Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) in Burlington, Vermont, for two months. It was a short-lived program based on the premise that the war might outlast the available number of college trained men needed to provide technical information. High school graduates who had tested at a certain level of intelligence were set aside for this program. By early 1944, the program was disbanded and the men re-assigned.

Clarke was assigned to the 26th Division, 328th Infantry anti-tank unit of Patton’s 3rd Army. After training in Columbus, SC, Clarke boarded a ship in New York City for Europe.

By now, it was early July 1944. The infamous invasion on Utah Beach at Normandy had occurred a few weeks earlier so Clarke and other troops went over the side of their LCI at Normandy with no opposition, though there was some trepidation. “The beach supposedly had routes cleared for mines which the Germans had put there,” said Clarke. “We hoped they got them all.”

Clarke’s unit camped in the fields of Normandy where cattle roamed and joined the fight in the liberation of the nearby town of St Lo. The city had already suffered an extensive attack by American troops during the Battle of Normandy. The city was bombed again by Germans in July. Gaining St. Lo would give Allied forces access to the opening of the Falaise Gap, a foothold to expel German forces from northern France.

Once St. Lo was secure, Allied troops proceeded along the Saar River in northeastern France. Clarke was driving a jeep with his platoon commander and a sergeant sat in the back seat using a 50-cal machine gun. Other soldiers walked along the road when Clarke saw one soldier take a direct hit. “His body was splattered across the road,” he said. “I vomited and my platoon leader did, too, but we kept going.”

 

The 3rd Army’s objective was to stop the German tanks. “There was a lot of fire from German tanks,” he said. “When their 88s came at us, they went by you or through you.”

The battle was made more difficult by the fact that the Allies often didn’t know their way. “The Germans reversed road signs so we could not depend on the signs to tell us where to go,” said Clarke. “Our military didn’t have good maps of Germany when the war started so we used some from National Geographic.”

At Metz, a city in northeastern France soldiers bunked down for the night, but were awakened and told to prepare to leave. Some troops boarded trucks while others prepared to walk to the small Belgian town of Bastogne. “We walked for two days in snow,” said Clarke.

During the spring of 1945, Allies prevailed along the Saar River, taking over towns along the way. “We told the Burgermeister (mayor) in each that they must hand over all weapons and all uniformed soldiers must surrender,” said Clarke.

In one village the Allies smelled something strange. Upon being questioned, one Burgermeister admitted to working with a Jewish concentration camp in the area. “We saw stacks of bodies,” said Clarke. “I couldn’t believe anyone could do what Hitler did and that other people could follow him.” The 3rd Army liberated the camp and left other Americans in charge.

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That was not the end of surprises. As the 3rd Army bedded in a nearby hay loft, soldiers felt lumps under the straw. When they pulled out parts of a Messerschmitt Bf 109, a German fighter aircraft, they discovered the barn was part of an underground aircraft assembly plant. Again, members of the Third Army remained behind to control the discovery while others proceeded through the area.

Clarke was at Hitler’s birth place in Linz, Austria, on May 8, 1945, when he heard the war was over (May 8/ VE Day). That was when Clarke’s real work began.

Having worked in a camera store before the war, he had applied to join the Signal Corps at the beginning of the war, but was not accepted.

After VE Day, the Army confiscated hundreds of rolls of film soldiers had shot during the war. Clarke’s interest in photography was honed when he received orders to join the 165th Signal Corps in May 1945.

Since the Civil War when it was first organized, the US Army Signal Corps had developed, tested and managed communications support for the command and control of combined arms forces.

While stationed in Czechoslovakia, Clarke and another soldier set up a dark room with chemicals and an enlarger. “Our job was to develop photos from 500 rolls of film,” said Clarke. The signal corps had been made up of men, mostly middle-aged, with experience in photography, even some from Hollywood. Clarke also shot photos of troops awaiting discharge.

When Clarke received his discharge a few months later, he was shipped from Marseilles, France, to the East Coast of the US, then Camp Atterbury in Indiana where he was discharged at the rank of T5 corporal. He returned home with several items from the war, including a German flag, German daggers, rifles, shotgun, pistol, knives.

Clarke graduated from Purdue in 1948 as a mechanical engineer. He worked in Fort Wayne. In 1953 he married and he and wife Lucy became parents to three children.

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Clarke and family members have returned to Europe to trace his path as a soldier during World War II. Clarke participated in the Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana in 2013.

“It was an amazing experience to be a soldier during World War II,” said Clarke. “It was scary and challenging to watch those poor people being released from prison camps. I made it through the war without injuries. I feel very fortunate.”

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This article first appeared in News-Sentinel.

Beresford Clarke died 10/23/15. I feel privileged to have had the chance to meet and interview him. Stories like this are available in my book, WWII Legacies: Stories of Northeast IN Veterans which can be purchased on this site’s home page and Amazon.

Please thank a veteran today!

WWII Seaman Al LeFevra Served Aboard USS Gemsbok in South Pacific

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“From everyday small feats to undeniably heroic efforts, the accomplishments and achievements of America’s Navy are vast and significant. Since its birth on October 13, 1775, the Navy has been involved with more than ten major wars and countless battles in the effort to bring security, democracy and prosperity to the American people and to the international community.” from US Navy Ball website.

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I didn’t know sailors could wear facial hair until my interview with Al LeFevra. When he showed me a photo of himself dancing in a hula skirt and wearing a beard, I could hardly believe my eyes! Here is Al’s story as published in the News-Sentinel on Oct 12, 2015. All of these photo materials are printed with permission from the newspaper and the veteran.

 

They were provided by Al LeFevra from his collection of war mementos.

HEADLINE: Dad’s advice, hula skirt, asbestos helped make Navy life bearable

Believing his son Al would soon be drafted during WWII, Rene LeFevra, a WWI veteran, shared information about his own time in the Army with his son. “He told me how he lived in fox holes, had little to eat and bathed rarely,” said Al. “He thought it would be an advantage for me to be in the Navy because I’d have good food and a clean place to sleep. That was all he needed to say!”

Al LeFevra was born in Woodburn in 1922. After graduating from Central High School in Fort Wayne in May 1942, he enlisted in the Navy in Indianapolis in November.

After completing basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago, he was sent to Treasure Island Naval Base in CA. LeFevra signed up for sea duty and was assigned to the USS Gemsbok (means ‘African antelope’).

The Gemsbok, which held a crew of approximately 100, was a supply ship converted to a tanker. “The conversion was to fool the Japanese,” he said. “During combat, they dropped bombs on tankers to destroy fuel. Many of our tankers carrying oil were getting sunk. Regular fuel ships measured approximately 900 feet in length and held about 100,000 barrels of fuel. Supply ships were half that length and carried half the fuel.”

On January 12, 1944, LeFevra’s ship received orders to head for Hawaii and then the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific. There they would join the US fighting fleet under the Vice Admiral William Halsey.

Although a destroyer escort surrounded the Gemsbok for protection, LeFevra was not afraid of the enemy. He had more to deal with. “The water between the US and Hawaii was rough so many of us were seasick,” he said. Crackers helped LeFevra’s stomach.

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At Pearl Harbor LeFevra saw sunken ships from Japan’s December 7, 1941, invasion. He also grew a beard, which was allowed in the Navy, and paraded in a hula skirt he purchased when not on watch. Al still has this skirt today and uses it during talks at schools about the war. He said kids love it! Please excuse the photo’s quality which has deteriorated over the years.

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Notice how this bill is stamped ‘Hawaii’ on the right. It was issued by the US government after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

At the Marshall Islands the crew had permission to go ashore. It was LeFevra’s first experience on a beach. “Other sailors from battleships, airplane carriers, destroyers and escorts had landed and cleared the area of Japanese soldiers,” he said.

Two months later the crew of the Gemsbok received orders to go to the island of Eniwetok. It was also deserted and served as the crew’s home base. “During our six months at Eniwetok, we furnished oil for fighting ships from Mariana, Majuro and Kwajalein islands,” said LeFevra.

A passing British ship appreciated when the crew of the Gemsbok shared fuel and food. One sailor pointed out his ship’s ‘head’ (toilet). “It overhung the water off the fantail (stern/back) of the ship,” said LeFevra. “It looked like an outhouse. I suppose that way they didn’t require a flushing system.”

The chief of the Gemsbok’s engine room was transferred and LeFevra tested for the position of water tender first class petty officer. He passed the exam and being the next highest sailor on board to a chief, LeFevra became acting chief of the fire and engine room.

He no longer had to stand watch and could eat in the chow room separate from the rest of the crew, but he had to be available in case of emergency. “I had to see all of the men under me did their job and report to the executive officer daily,” he said.

Fresh water was in short supply until LeFevra devised a solution. The Navy had a unit that processed salt water into drinkable water, though the water tasted salty. LeFevra took loose asbestos, mixed it with water and pressed it around a jug. After the solution dried, it formed an insulation. “We poured cold water from our ship into it and it stayed fairly cool with no salty aftertaste. When others found out about my water, they drank all of it. I made no more fresh water!”

In their spare time the sailors played sports. LeFevra was good at boxing, having learned it in high school. “When other sailors challenged me, we didn’t try to knock the other out, but had fun,” he said. “No one came out of it too bruised.”

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Al LeFevra served on the USS Gemsbok during WWII.

In July 1944 the crew received orders to head for Saipan and Tinian. “As we anchored off Saipan, we saw fighting on Tinian four miles away as Japanese soldiers hid in caves.” The Marines bulldozed rocks and tons of dirt to fill in caves. When no one wanted a Japanese rifle that had been found, LeFevra claimed it. “I was told not to load it with our ammunition because our ammunition was too powerful for that gun,” he said.

A new officer came on board who had seen much action in fighting. When planes flew over the Gemsbok, he hit the deck. “I learned this officer had seen stress conditions,” said LeFevra. Two weeks later the officer was transferred to a hospital in Hawaii.

In January 1945 the crew received word that Admiral Chester Nimitz was the new commander of the fleet. In the following days, B29 bombers flew toward Tinian, which was now secured and provided air support for B29s. “We didn’t know until much later that the atomic bomb used to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima called Little Boy was unloaded there in July 1945,” said LeFevra.

Soon the Philippines were liberated and the Gemsbok sailed to Leyte Gulf and was there with many other ships in September 1945 when the war finally ended.

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“Ships shot flares into the air like a Fourth of July celebration,” said LeFevra. When the celebration was over, the Gemsbok headed to Guam but ran into a hurricane that lasted three days and four nights. No one was allowed on deck. “Surprisingly, I didn’t get seasick, probably due to the excitement,” said LeFevra. Eating utensils had disappeared so the sailors ate sandwiches for four days.

At Kure Bay the crew went ashore to see the destruction to the city from the Allies’ recent bombing. “Everything was destroyed, so it was surprising how friendly the people were,” said LeFevra.

After the treaty of surrender was signed by the Japanese emperor and the Allies, the Gemsbok sailed for Hawaii. LeFevra had earned enough points to be discharged, but when his skipper asked him to stay aboard until the ship sailed to Alabama where it would be decommissioned, he agreed.

They sailed through the Panama Canal, then through the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile. On April 30, 1946, the sailors of the USS Gemsbok were called to order on deck under the US flag and the ship’s pennant. Each US Navy ship flies a pennant at the top of the US flag.

As they stood at attention and saluted, the US flag was lowered. The pennant was twisted, so LeFevra climbed a rope 12 feet to retrieve it.

The Captain presented it to him. “I was the only original sailor remaining from the ship’s commissioning,” said LeFevra. “He said I was one of the most honest men who had ever worked for him and gave me a letter of commendation.” LeFevra still has the pennant today.

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LeFevra takes his military mementos to schools for talks to students about his part in WWII.

When LeFevra was discharged, he held the rank of First Class Water Tender earning $100/month. He took home his Japanese rifle, camera, and ship’s log (diary) among other items.

After arriving in Fort Wayne, LeFevra was thrilled to see his brother Don, who had enlisted in the Navy with parental permission at age 16, to serve aboard a submarine tender, USS Prairie.

Al LeFevra worked at General Electric as a sand blaster. Adept at math, he attended Purdue University in Fort Wayne for drafting and later worked as a Senior Designer at BAE in Fort Wayne. He retired in 1987.

In 1947 LeFevra married Betty Elizabeth Willey from Marion. She and a son are deceased.

In 2013 LeFevra accompanied the Honor Flight for Northeast Indiana to Washington DC. “I feel everything went good for me while I was in the Navy,” he said.  “People from our church wrote to us and people sent cookies. We put them on the table and shared them. That meant a lot to us. We didn’t have much time to be homesick. Dad was right.”

The End

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More than two dozen stories like these are available in my book, World War II Legacies: Stories of Northeast Indiana Veterans. It features stories based on personal interviews from men/women in nearly every branch about their military service.

This would make a unique gift for a history, military lover or a person who loves America! It is written in easy-to-understand language so non-military people can understand, include students in middle/ high school. It would be a great addition to a school library.

The book can be purchased at this Amazon link.

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Remember to thank a veteran today for his/ her service!