Personal Memories of World War II
Verne Lewellen, 16th Armored Division
Sixty-nine years ago, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, causing the United States to enter the war against the Axis Powers – Germany, Japan and Italy. At that time, I was a senior in high school in the small town of Minatare, in western Nebraska. Dad worked in the local sugar factory (he was a veteran of WWI), Mom was a pianist and taught many of the local children. My brother, Bryce, age 24, was an electrician – married, with three children – he joined the Navy and served two years. My other brother, Jack, who was 20, also joined the Navy and stayed with them through WWII, as well as Korea.
I was 17 when I joined the U.S. Army and served three years – half of that time in Europe. In Fort Knox, Kentucky, I had ten weeks of basic training, two weeks of battle training, and 10 weeks of vehicle maintenance. I was then assigned to Camp Chafee, Arkansas, where the 16th Armored Division was formed. I was in the 13th Ordinance Battalion, in the parts department, and trained to drive all military vehicles – from motorcycles to tanks. I drove high-ranking generals, delivered repaired vehicles back to their outfits, delivered messages via motorcycle, and drove “lowboys” to pick up disabled tanks that needed to be repaired.
Our unit left the United States from Camp Shanks, New York, with the journey to Le Havre, France lasting two weeks. We regrouped in the area around Rouen and Forges Les Eaux, in preparation for moving through France, the edge of Belgium, and Germany (Saarbrücken, Mainz, Würzburg, Nuremberg, etc). There was terrible destruction in all of these cities, especially Nuremberg. As we approached the border of Czechoslovakia, along with several infantry divisions, the 16th Armored Division was given the honor of being the first U.S. unit to enter the west Bohemian city of Pilsen. Although resistance had eased up considerably, the situation still remained dangerous. We were met by people in native costumes, offering us gifts, beer, flowers, etc., with no concern for their safety. What a great feeling to realize that the war was about over!
For some unknown reason, our battalion was moved out of Pilsen to an area that overlooked the city, and we could see and hear the music – hear groups of people celebrating far into the night. After a few days, our group was moved away from Pilsen, to other towns and villages for a short time, and then back into Germany, to the area around Nuremberg. There we prepared to leave for the Pacific – to invade Japan. Fortunately, the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the end of the war. So we were sent home instead.
Upon returning to the states, I took a job in the Post Office, which was a good-paying job, but not very challenging. As I was still interested in athletics, I enrolled at Chadron State College to play football and baseball, with the goal of becoming a teacher/coach and playing semi-pro baseball. After graduating from college, I taught and coached. I also served as a school Principal and Superintendent of Schools.
In 1990, I happened to read an ad in the Nebraska Legion Magazine saying the City of Pilsen, Czechoslovakia was seeking any American veterans who served there in 1945 to return for a “Liberation Festival.” I only thought, “That would be nice,” and laid the magazine aside. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I should go. What a great experience! I could write a book about the experiences of the 1990 trip alone, and now I’m on my fifth trip to a country and people whom I love almost as much as my own.
The Czech Republic is a beautiful country, with wonderful people – always willing to help in any way they can. The first year, I was a guest in the flat of the Aleš Fraňek family, who fed and housed me and introduced me to the language, the customs, the city and its officials. I was to meet the President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, the Minister of Finance, Václav Klaus, Pilsen Mayor Loukota and, of course, Ambassador Shirley Temple-Black. What a great time! All of the people in the small towns and villages I visited were outstanding.
Many of the veterans from the early nineties have passed on, including my best friend from high school, Bill Stephenson, who only went to Pilsen one time. George Thompson, another friend from training, still attends the celebrations. I visit the small cities and villages each time I come and have stayed in the homes of many families. Our home in western Nebraska will always be open to our Czech friends. Wilber, Nebraska is the official “Czech Capital of the U.S.A.” and has a celebration each year, as many Czechs have settled in Nebraska.
From book 500 hours to victory