The number of surviving Wisconsin World War II veterans is estimated at just 16,000. With their demise go their proud and spellbinding stories.
The old man had some stories to tell, stories that so few could tell.
He was, back in World War II, known well to a certain general named George S. Patton. He did not work directly for the sometimes-controversial, always-brilliant commander of the U.S. Third Army, but drove a jeep for a captain who often met with Patton. Tudy S. Jennaro was only a private in the 43rd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, but by the war’s end, Patton would come to recognize him by sight and call him by name.
It started during one of his captain’s early meetings with Patton. The black-haired Jennaro, with a pronounced nose and an athletic build that filled out his fatigues, was lounging in his jeep, which he’d nicknamed Chippie. He was catching a quick nap when he felt a tap on his shoulder, and opened his eyes to see Patton standing in full uniformed regalia. The general wanted to know what building housed that day’s meeting, and Jennaro tried jumping to attention. “No, no. Stay down, son,” Patton said. “You need your sleep.” Afterward, when their paths would cross, Patton often would pat Jennaro on the head and ask, “How you doing, son?”
Yes, there were stories, and even now, at age 96, Jennaro’s mind was still as sharp as a saber. So Karyn Roelke, a spokesperson for the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight out of Milwaukee, would call the man’s daughter to see if he’d spin some yarns for Milwaukee Magazine. Daughter Julianne Garton relayed the message to Tudy, who said he’d love to do so. All that was left was to schedule a time.
Except the time would never come. Because the next morning, Tudy Jennaro did not wake up.
“One day, the history is here,” Roelke says. “The next day, it’s not.”
Some 16 million Americans fought in World War II, and more than 400,000 of them died during it. Less than 1 million are still alive, including an estimated 16,000 Wisconsinites, according to the Veterans Administration and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. On Feb. 24, Jennaro became one of the 492 WWII vets who die in an average day, and who knows what memories go with each man and woman. Projections say the last WWII vet will die in 2036.
Jennaro did tell more than a few war tales to Julianne and her sister, Terri Weis, including the one about his jeep. The Chippie moniker stemmed from his dog back in Milwaukee, and the vehicle lasted the entire war, surviving potholes and bullet holes while ferrying its cargo across Europe. After Germany’s surrender, Jennaro was tasked with returning Chippie to the motor pool, their final ride together. A block or two from the final destination, the jeep quit.
“Would not go. It expired. It did its job, and it was done,” Julianne says. “He loved that story.”
Seventy years ago, World War II gave way to peace again. A good number of those 16 million Americans came home and started their lives anew, their stories intact, preserved, ready to be shared.
Ralph Windler disembarked the landing craft and trudged past the week-old wreckage of Omaha Beach, between the strands of white tape that marked where the land mines had been cleared. Beyond the beach, he spied a dead German soldier a few dozen feet to his left, the blackened body a stark testament to how long it had been there, undisturbed since D-Day. “It was very sobering,” he says, yet just one more part of the scenery, a complement to the beach’s burned-out tanks. “We didn’t spend a lot of time gazing about.”
Windler had not been in Normandy on June 6, 1944, when Allied sea and air forces crossed the English Channel to invade the northern coast of France. The closest he got to that action was a replacement depot in southern England, when the constant roar of engines coaxed him from his tent to see wave after wave of planes overhead, many of them towing troop transport gliders. “The invasion’s on,” he thought. He did not regret watching it from afar.
A week later, Windler walked on ground his fellow Americans had cleared. His destination was G Company of the 115th regiment in the U.S. Army’s 29th Infantry Division, which was advancing inland through hedgerow country toward the French village Saint Lo. He’d be a replacement for the division’s thousand-plus casualties since the landing. He was a private who’d never before known combat. He’d stay that way for one more day.
“Windler,” his sergeant and squad leader said midway through his second day, “we’re going on a patrol. Would you like to come along?” He was stunned by such politeness from a superior, and promptly agreed. But the squad leader’s next order was not at all cordial: “You take point.”
Windler had been in a combat zone less than 48 hours, and he’d now be the vanguard of a foray toward unknown enemy positions. He barely knew his squadmates’ names, nor did he care to know, aware of how many were sure to fall. “It’s bad enough that the guy next to me gets killed if he’s a stranger,” Windler says. And he figures the other side of that coin is why he got immediate point duty. He was the new guy, not a man the sergeant had trained, fought and lived with for days and months, so he got the bigger slice of danger.
An infantryman’s life in hedgerow country was a constant slog through boxed-in shooting galleries, field after farm field surrounded by tall walls of earth and foliage. The hedgerows dated to ancient Roman times and withstood demolition efforts of modern bulldozers. One football field-sized expanse might be empty, the next saturated with soldiers. But you’d never know it before poking your head over a wall or around one of its scarce doorway-like cutouts.
The patrol progressed into the afternoon, Windler usually half a field ahead of his unit, and his sergeant directed him through one of those hedgerow cutouts. A wire stretched across the opening, bellybutton-high on Windler’s 6-foot-tall frame, a farmer’s simple way of preventing cows from passing between fields. He stepped his right foot over the doorway’s small base, ducked under the wire and peered around the wall. His greenhorn eyes were not prepared for the view. “I’ll be 90 years old in September,” Windler says, “and I can still say it’s the greatest shock I’ve ever had in my life.”
Twenty yards in front of him, five Germans sat on the edges of a 6-foot-square foxhole, dangling their feet into it. He looked over his shoulder and saw four more foxholes behind him, each occupied by a single soldier. He swung back toward the five Germans ahead.
Windler had grown up hunting small game in Wisconsin with a 12-gauge shotgun. For a fast reaction, he soon got into the habit of leaving the safety off, hand over the trigger guard and barrel at the ready. That habit may have saved his life. Before any German could react, he fired his M1 Garand rifle into the squad, not stopping until he heard a ping, the telltale sign his eight-bullet clip was spent and ejected. As he ducked back under the wire, he heard the Germans behind him firing. But he made it back to the hedgerow’s safe side, unharmed and quite unhinged, shaking with fright.
His squad was still halfway across the field, and now he made a split-second choice. Rather than be an easy target while reloading his gun or sprinting back to his squad, Windler reached inside his brown Eisenhower jacket. His hand found one of the three pineapple hand grenades he’d stored there, and he started running along the hedgerow that separated him from those four individual foxholes. He pulled the pin and tossed the first grenade, kept running, threw a second grenade, then a third. Each explosion occupied the Germans while his squad charged forward. They joined his grenade barrage, then retreated to their previous field. “I was running as fast as I ever did,” Windler says.
All too suddenly, he was a combat veteran, and wondering how long he’d stay one. “I don’t think I was in combat more than a week when I became convinced they were going to bury me in France,” he says. He couldn’t see how he’d survive. “And to this day, I don’t understand how I did.”
Once, a sniper’s bullet grazed his upper lip, drawing but a razor’s cut of blood in the luckiest of shaves, no medic needed. But other wounds were more serious, including one suffered on Aug. 1, 1944, which finally knocked him out of hedgerow country.
His squad – he was leading it by now – was advancing northwest of Vire, France, until they found a hedgerow field with a German tank. He tried taking it out with anti-tank grenades, retreating behind a hedgerow for cover and aiming the slow-moving missiles over the barrier. He fired a round, and perhaps a second, but doesn’t remember the exact count. The tank fired a high-explosive shell into the hedgerow in front of him, or so he was later told. When he woke up, he was in a hospital in England, badly concussed and mostly deaf.
He stayed there six weeks as his hearing slowly returned, but never to its previous levels. One day, his doctor told him they were going to send him back. He assumed they meant back to home and safety. The doctor meant back to his division and the front. “My morale was below my shoestrings,” Windler says. “What the hell did the Army want from me? What more could I do?”
He rejoined the 29th, and endured two more hospital trips before the war was out, one that took him off the front lines for good. His infantry unit was screening for tanks during an advance toward Munchen-Gladbach, Germany, and a muzzle blast from a trailing tank cannon knocked him senseless. He was sent to a Paris hospital, and though the Army still wouldn’t send him home, he was reassigned to guarding air bases behind the lines. “Very peaceful,” he says.
Windler came home to Milwaukee a week before Thanksgiving 1945 with three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for heroic achievement. He married in 1950, had five sons and worked successful careers in pharmaceutical sales and finance. Three French towns have made him an honorary citizen for his service during the war. The French government has made him a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest distinction.
He still wonders how, and why, he lived to receive it. He’s written his memoirs, but says that far more detailed telling will only be seen by his great-great-grandchildren. “Nobody current gets those things.”
War Within the War
Jessie Wray’s train arrived late one night at the station in New Albany, Miss. He was a uniformed Army soldier finally home on furlough, but that uniform afforded no special privilege. With the Jim Crow-induced blacks-only curfew fast approaching, he stopped at a cafe for a quick dinner. They’d cook him a hamburger, he was told, but he couldn’t stay there to eat it. “So I had to buy the hamburger and leave,” Wray says. “As a soldier in uniform, I never got out of the tracks of slavery.”
He was one of 1.2 million African-Americans who’d wear a U.S. military uniform in World War II, but in many ways, they were second-class uniforms. The segregation Wray knew growing up followed him into the service.
“Most of the places that whites could go were off-limits to blacks,” Wray says. So, too, were most of the duties. The vast majority of African-Americans were not assigned combat roles, but ones of support. They drove trucks and cooked food and lugged crates, all in the midst of a constant battle for respect. “The world’s greatest democracy,” historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers, “fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.”
But the Army did, at least, offer Wray $21 a month, a way to help his parents, and perhaps a path from his “sharecropper slavery” fate. “I was trying to find a way out of the darkness,” Wray says, “trying to see which road would lead me out.” His enlistment, served stateside, lasted a little more than a year. After his discharge in the summer of 1944, he left his Mississippi roots for a Milwaukee life.
Wray served his Army time as a private, assigned to an ordnance company, which transported ammunition, organized depots and dumps, and guarded and cared for their explosive cargo. It required a special brand of preventive vigilance, down to the types of shoes you could walk around in.
Some soldiers wore shoes or boots with tacks or hobnails in the soles that might spark when they walked. “You had to pull them off when they came in,” Wray says. “And some of the guys would come in at night and be drunk.” He’d tell them they had to remove the shoes, and occasionally, they’d refuse.
“You had to draw down on them,” he says, and force the shoes off at the end of his M1 Garand rifle. Sometimes, the drunks were black enlisted men. Sometimes, they were white officers. But they would never pass Jessie Wray without first taking off their shoes.
Into Fields of Flame and Metal
Lt. Doug Holt could look out the windows of his B-17 Flying Fortress cockpit and admire the heavenly view of the European countryside. Until those windows framed the airborne hell called flak.
German anti-aircraft guns would launch shells over the airplanes’ targets to their cruising altitude. They’d explode in a flash of crimson fire, which produced a black cloud of shrapnel that sliced through engines and fuselage and crew. Bomber pilots often had no choice but to fly straight into the fields of flame and metal to complete their missions.
“Some guys prayed,” says Holt, who added superstition to the mix. “I turned my ring three times around. And I remember squeezing that control column until I thought I was gonna break it.”
Holt was squeezing the controls of the Patsy Ann on Sept. 11, 1944, co-piloting a bombing run of the Merseburg fuel refineries, one of the best-defended sites in Germany. It was the crew’s 20th mission together, a journey Holt had begun as an 18-year-old enlistee in the spring of ’43. If they reached 35 missions, their tour would be complete. But the flak shell that had burst in front of their plane put that goal in doubt.
Fragments penetrated the cockpit’s Plexiglas windows and the plane’s nose, sending shrapnel throughout its interior. Something hit Holt’s goggles, right between his eyes, slamming his head into his seat and stunning him for a moment, yet not robbing him of consciousness. To his left, lead pilot Lt. Willis Black yelled for Holt to take the controls. Black clutched his right leg, just below the knee, where a piece of flak had hit him. Holt saw red fluid covering the cockpit floor and, through the window, smoke and fire pouring from the left wing’s outermost engine, No. 1.
Over the intercom, panicked calls came in from other crew members, reporting fires in the radio room and the nose of the plane, electrical and hydraulic malfunctions, and a slew of other issues.
Holt yelled back: “Shut up! Put the fires out.” Fuel was cut to the No. 1 engine, extinguishing its flames, and the prop was feathered. They were down to three engines, with only one at peak efficiency.
By now, Black had recovered from his initial shock and reclaimed control of the plane; the flak had not drawn blood. The red fluid was from a broken hydraulic brake line – good news for the leg, bad news for landing the plane, should they get that far. Hydraulic problems also rendered the gun turrets immovable, short of hand-cranking them. And the radio was kaput.
Forced to drop from the formation, Patsy Ann became a straggler, the easiest of targets for enemy fighters. During the bombing raid, a simultaneous dogfight involving hundreds of U.S. and German fighters ensued. As the crew kept a lookout, two fighters swooped down from the fray and toward their plane. “Me 109s,” somebody yelled on the intercom, and the crew froze as the Germans closed in. As a last-gasp effort, Holt ordered his men to start hand-cranking the turrets.
And then suddenly, “those Messerschmitt fighters morphed into two P-51s,” Holt recalls, still amazed at the turn of fortune. “I swear, they looked just like 109s, but that might have been our imaginations.” Patsy Ann had an American escort, all the way back to friendly lines.
They made it back to England, their faulty brakes making for a rough landing punctuated by their one good engine exploding. The crew scrambled out, and as Holt stood, a piece of metal fell to the ground. Looking down, he saw a piece of flak the size of a .45-caliber bullet, the piece that had met his goggles. Just an inch higher and the metal would have pierced his skull.
He had survived one more mission, one that claimed 32 other B-17s from the 8th Air Force. On the days he flew, the 8th lost 330 B-17s, including 26 on the day Holt finished No. 35 – Nov. 21, 1944. “Never thought I would see this day,” he’d write in his diary, published in 2007 as part of his book Lucky Dog. “Tour completed. Thank God.”
He still has that piece of flak.
The Secret Flight
Sometimes in the daylight, sometimes in the dark of night, Lt. Paul Bruno would trundle his C-47 down a North Carolina runway, a 350-foot nylon tow line trailing behind the plane, a Waco CG-4A glider attached at line’s end.
The gliders, metal and wooden frames covered with canvas, were 48-foot-long disposable transports, engineless contraptions dubbed “flying coffins” by the invasion forces they carried. Bruno’s assignment was to help train those glidermen at Laurinburg-Maxton Army Air Base. It was a routine job, six straight hours of taking off, circling and climbing, cutting the glider loose, dropping the tow rope, then landing, refreshing and repeating.
He was one of a handful of men unsuspectingly plucked for the role from his own 300-pilot training group in Texas. The unplucked pilots later went to England in advance of the D-Day invasion.
“After the war,” Bruno says, “I called some up, and practically everyone had died.” He’d had no prior idea of their fate.
So he worked his assignment, dutifully helping the glider pilots, sticking to the routine. Except for when he made his wife part of it.
He’d wanted to get Frances up for a flight, but such things were frowned upon, a potential court-martial offense. So he waited till a midnight-to-six shift, and took her to his plane in the darkness.
The crew lifted the svelte Frances into the C-47’s high entrance, “and they showed me a pail, thinking I’d be sick,” Frances recalls. She wouldn’t be. The flight began. After the glider pilot cut loose to continue his training, Paul Bruno took his C-47 down to drop its tow rope and land. “All at once, they told me to pull the thing,” Frances says. She’d drawn tow-rope release duty, and performed it flawlessly.
They were never found out by Bruno’s superiors, nor even by their own kids until the story was told a couple of months before their 70th wedding anniversary. The party was held a long way from North Carolina, back at the site of their wedding, the Pfister Hotel.
Bruno never learned why he was picked for North Carolina. But he’s convinced it’s the only reason he lived to become the 94-year-old scion of three children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. “I’m forever thankful,” he says, “for the guy that put me on that list.”
The Marine came aboard the USS Lubbock with his intestines hanging from his abdomen. It was one of the more gruesome wounds Al Exner had faced, but by February 1945, near the end of the war, he’d seen a lifetime’s worth. Before his duty as a Navy surgical tech took him to this invasion of Iwo Jima, it put him in an English hospital, where he’d once gone three days without sleep, so fast were the wounded coming from D-Day at Normandy.
“You’re trying to help somebody, and a lot of times, it was unsuccessful,” Exner says. “A guy would bleed out, and he was gone. Not a good experience, but we all matured so fast.” He was 18 when he saw his first war wound.
So it’s not the Marine’s blood that still fixates Exner, nor how the 2 1/2-pound shell fragment remained in the large man’s body, but what else was inside of him. “They called it the black sands of Iwo Jima, but that’s kind of a misnomer. It’s actually volcanic ash,” Exner says. It doesn’t pack down, and when it’s wet, it’s like quicksand. “This guy was full of the stuff.”
He’d seen its insidious effects before. A Navy coxswain had both hands blown off from a mortar, and he came aboard the Lubbock covered in the ash, which had burrowed into his black, curly hair. This made him desperate to scratch at it, but he had no hands to do so, and so was at the mercy of corpsmen who tried to alleviate the torment.
Now, the ash complicated every effort to save the Marine. Whenever Exner and the ship’s doctor tried cleaning and mending the wound, the man would start to crash. The grim cycle repeated for 24 hours, and no amount of blood or plasma or saline could break it. He and nearly 7,000 of his Marine brethren died in the 36-day battle. Exner assisted with his burial at sea, sending his body over the rail in a blue canvas shroud, a shell from the ship’s 5-inch guns sewn in as a weight. “Very few times,” the 89-year-old Exner says, “do I get through that story without shedding a tear. How that guy suffered. And he’s just one of many.”
Not all of his Iwo Jima memories aboard the Lubbock are so bleak. He watched both of Iwo Jima’s famed flag raisings on Feb. 23. The Lubbock, a Haskell Class amphibious personnel attack transport, was positioned just offshore from Mt. Suribachi, upon whose hard-won peak the flags were planted.
The Lubbock survived Iwo Jima, where its biggest threat may have been shore-based mortar fire, to face a far more daunting threat at the invasion of Okinawa. “It was kamikazes all the time,” Exner says, suicidal pilots whose sole duty was to take a ship down with them.
One morning, the Lubbock was second from the rear in a line of four ships positioned bow to stern, when a kamikaze plane attacked out of the sun. Every gun in range opened up, but the kamikaze cleared the trailing ship and bore down on the Lubbock. “He exploded right off our fantail,” Exner says, “or I wouldn’t be talking today.”
He made it to his discharge date unscathed, and mustered out of the Navy as a petty officer second class on April 21, 1946. It was Easter Sunday, and he went home to Milwaukee, to the woman whose letters had chased him throughout the Pacific. He married Norma Mae in 1947, and they’re still together.
The war was behind him and life took over. Exner and his wife raised four kids, but something still nagged at him. “I didn’t know why,” Exner says, “but I wanted to go back to Iwo Jima.” The Japanese allow visitors one day a year, and in 2006, Exner returned. Both American and Japanese personnel attended the ceremony, including the grandson of Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander who turned the island into a bastion of the Pacific.
“I shook his hand,” Exner says, “and said in English, ‘Your grandfather was a very brave man.’ He knew he’d never get off that island.”
Exner left Iwo Jima a second time, this time with a handful of its black sand.
Comfort of the Cross
Red Cross workers stayed busy in the Ft. Sheridan, Ill., hospital. Flo Lindsay would write letters for men with broken arms, escort them to bowling alleys for recreation, and so often, just be a friend who’d listen.
“A lot of them were very lonely,” the 96-year-old says today. “A lot of them were facing problems at home. And some of those injuries were so terrible.” She cared for men without ears and noses, legs and arms, and men with shattered psyches, their war experience too heavy a mental burden. “I was a little overwhelmed,” she says. “I just coped, I guess, like we all did. You just went to work every day and tried to help as best you could.”
Often, they worked alongside German prisoners of war. Ft. Sheridan confined up to 1,300 of them, and many were assigned to the hospital. “They’d do cleanup and help the boys, so we got to know the prisoners pretty well,” Lindsay says. “They were very quiet and well-behaved, as they knew they had to be.” And when they returned to their barracks, they did so in formation, a German officer drumming them down an American street.
Crash of the Mariner
It is the most memorable pinochle game of Ken Lindl’s life.
He was in the galley of his Martin PBM Mariner, a Pacific patrol airplane designed to double as a bomber and a small boat, complete with living quarters. They were based just north of Manila in the Philippines and patrolled the South China Sea.
The summer of 1945 was relatively quiet for them. So quiet, in fact, that Lindl doesn’t recall ever seeing an enemy fighter nor facing fire from enemy troops or ships. He’d joined the Navy in 1944, before he’d graduated high school, intent on going to submarine school. They made him an aviation ordnanceman, and he manned his Mariner’s bow gun, positioned just ahead of and below the pilots, giving him sweeping views of every stretch of island and ocean they crossed.
Two crews were assigned to each plane, and both crews were on this June 30 flight,
putting more than 20 men on board. So during takeoff, Lindl was free for a four-man pinochle game. As the plane gained altitude, he noticed that the engine’s pitch didn’t sound normal. They didn’t know it at the time, but seawater was in their fuel tanks. “I looked out the porthole and could see the prop was feathering,” he says. He yelled for everyone to hit the deck, and they did, right before the plane crashed in a rice paddy. “We just saw a ball of flame come at us, and we exploded.”
He was near an exit hatch and the first one out, moments before the co-pilot tumbled out on top of him. They scrambled away from the burning wreckage as ammunition from the Mariner’s five sets of .50-caliber guns cooked off. Other men scattered from the wreck. Four crew members never got out.
Those who survived were too far from their seaplane tender, the USS Currituck, for immediate assistance, and they’d crashed a few miles from shore. Lindl, with but a small cut on his head, watched as medical supplies dropped from the sky, some from another Mariner in his squadron, some from a passing P-51 pilot, who’d attached it to a scarf. They gave what care they could to the injured, but one man was so badly burned and bloated that the only place Lindl could stick a morphine shot was his foot.
Local natives trickled toward the crash. Lindl traded them his .38 revolver for some coconut oil, which they rubbed over the man’s charred flesh, and a wire bedspring to carry him. The natives led them on a 45-minute trek to a coastal village, through rice paddies and across a river so deep that water reached their armpits, forcing them to carry their comrade high over their heads. But even with more medical help at the village, the severely burned man would not survive, one of seven lives the crash claimed.
Back on the Currituck, flown there by a Mariner that met them at the village, the survivors recuperated. Lindl’s head cut needed only four stitches, but he spent lots of time in sick bay, often playing cards with his wounded crewmates. Among them was his pilot, whose hands were badly burned. Rather than play his own hand, “I’d deal and play his cards for him,” Lindl says, and he’d wonder at being spared a worse fate.
Stalag Luft III
The flak got them first, ruining the starboard engine on Lt. Tom “T.B.” Wilson’s B-25. The German Me 109 completed the job, wrecking the port engine. They would not get back to their Algerian home base.
Wilson’s pilot gave the order to bail out into the North African desert. It was April 5, 1943, just months after his Christmas Eve arrival there. On his way out of the plane, Wilson met their bombardier, Harold Wood, for the very first time. Woody had joined their crew at the last minute, and they introduced themselves over a handshake as they prepared to jump. The whole crew survived the leap into enemy-held territory largely unscathed, only to be captured, first by Italian soldiers, who later handed them over to the Germans. “We thought they were gonna shoot us,” Wilson says. “We weren’t acquainted with the rules of war.”
They were flown to Germany, and one interrogator, a colonel in his late 40s, spoke to Wilson with perfect English. He started reciting Wilson’s life story, from his Milwaukee youth to his engineering studies at Cornell. “How could you know that?” Wilson asked. The German complimented his hometown newspaper. When Wilson graduated from his Army advanced flight training program, the Milwaukee Journal had run a story on him. Wilson still has a copy of the article. Apparently, the Germans had found one, too.
Wilson and the officers from his crew were sent to Stalag Luft III, which was built to specifically house air corps officers. He and Woody became roommates, unaware the POW camp would produce The Great Escape of 76 British airmen, all but three of whom were killed or recaptured. Wilson learned of the tunneling, and marveled at the engineering wonder of it all, given the prisoners’ limited resources.
But he did not witness the March 1944 breakout that was later immortalized in film. As the influx of prisoners grew, the Germans built another compound at Stalag Luft III. All American troops were transferred to this southern unit, leaving the tunneled northern compound to the British. On went Wilson’s string of cold showers, meals of bread, soup and pooled Red Cross rations, and the occasional care package from home. One such shipment held softball equipment from the YMCA, and leagues were formed, culminating in a “World Series.” Wilson pitched his team to the title, but can’t recall the score, “and there weren’t any cups to award.”
In the subzero temperatures of January 1945, the prison was evacuated ahead of advancing Russian forces. Prisoners were marched and railroaded nearly 400 miles southwest to Stalag VII-A, a former concentration camp in Bavaria. Food was even scarcer than usual. Wilson developed pneumonia, and might not have survived but for a fellow prisoner who’d once attended med school. He convinced the Germans to part with a few sulfa tablets.
The antibacterial medicine worked, and he lived to see Gen. Patton’s 14th Armored Division arrive at the camp’s gates in April 1945.
On May 29, his troop ship floated past the Statue of Liberty. A few days later, with $100 of the $8,500 he was due in back pay, he was on a troop train to Ft. Sheridan, Ill. He got 60 days of rehabilitation leave, and climbed aboard the Chicago-Milwaukee Electroliner. A cab ride later, he was on his front porch and hugging his mother. “A pretty small lady,” Wilson says, “but she squeezed hard anyway.”
Saving a Generation
The three Arrowhead High School freshmen, two girls and a boy, have gathered around the old man and his wheelchair on a Sunday morning. They are in the small lobby of Ellen’s Home, a senior living facility in Germantown. One girl, Bailey Wakefield, works a digital video camera, and Reagan Zimmerman monitors its feed on a laptop computer. The boy, Jake Julius, sits in an easy chair next to the wheelchair, notes on his lap, and starts asking the old man questions.
His name is Jack Risler, and he was a World War II Marine sergeant with a distinct assignment. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence arm that later grew into the CIA. “Why don’t you start,” Julius says, “by telling us your story?” At age 95, Risler speaks with a deliberate and sometimes halting pace. His voice is gravelly, and he often repeats himself, then asks for questions to be repeated. Sometimes, Risler’s son Neil, seated a few feet to his left, prompts the Marine. And slowly, his stories come out.
He talks about going to Congressional Country Club, the elite golf course outside of Washington, D.C., for OSS training, and then on to England. He tells of joining up with the unit headed by Maj. Peter Ortiz, who led behind-enemy-lines missions in secrecy, then became famous as a film actor after the war. He shares details on the Union II mission in August 1944, which called for a seven-man team to parachute into eastern France with some 800 large canisters of weapons and supplies, then assist resistance fighters. He remembers their capture, and stay in POW camps, and eventual release. “That’s where I learned to smoke,” says Risler. “It was something to do.” He came home with a Silver Star, the country’s third-highest combat decoration.
The students record it all on video, just as they’ve done some three dozen other times, most often with World War II veterans, but also with Holocaust survivors. Their camera has crossed paths with Al Exner, the Navy surgical tech, and the recently deceased Tudy Jennaro. They’ve dubbed themselves S.A.V.E. Team, the acronym standing for survivor and veteran experiences. They are 14 and 15 years old, a shade younger than the age at which most of their interview subjects were off saving the world.
Their efforts began as a seventh-grade community service project at Hartland’s Swallow School, prompted by a newspaper article about World War II vets. “We thought their stories are very important, and we should preserve them,” Julius says. They also knew it was a race against time. “We’re losing them very quickly,” Wakefield says.
S.A.V.E. Team now counts some 15 members, and there’s a push to make it an official school club. Their recordings are preserved both digitally and on DVDs, and made available to families, schools, public libraries and museums, including the National World War II Museum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The interview with Jack Risler concludes, and the students pack up their equipment to leave. A thankful Neil Risler walks them to the front door. “I wish we’d have done this a few years ago,” he says. “His memory was much sharper then.”
Howie Magner is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. His last feature profiled the story of Lionel and Vicky Aldridge. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hear more discussion about the story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect.”