By CARL SCHLEGEL
Special to The Hays Daily News
As a veteran of World War II, Veterans Day is a special day to me. I served more than three years in the 7th Infantry Regiment. Most of that time was overseas fighting the enemy all the way from North Africa to Berchtesgaden, Germany.
I am not one for pomp and pageantry; I always plan to spend the day at home with my soul mate, Darlene. Oh, she might splurge and take me out for a hamburger and baked potato, but nothing fancy. Weather permitting, I might spend some time in the backyard tying up loose ends for the winter ahead.
I think I can speak for all veterans -- after 66 years, we do not forget. Even in war, there are times something humorous happens and we laugh. We always enjoyed Bill Mauldin's cartoon, which featured two infantrymen, Willie and Joe. My favorite showed the two in their pup tent in pouring rain. A bedraggled, skinny dog was standing at the entrance wanting in, whereupon Willie said to Joe, "Oh, let him in. I want to see something I can feel sorry for." Then there was the time we were moving from one section of the front to another while riding on a tank when suddenly we heard a great deal of hens squawking, goats bleating and women screaming. It seemed the driver's vision was bad and he had driven into an Arab tent. One of the guys said it was too bad we couldn't build a fire and have roast chicken.
Those events probably don't seem so funny now, but they were important to us because they created a diversion from the grim business of war. When I recall the humorous events, I still chuckle and laugh.
But for the most part, I focus on reminiscing about my service during the war. Most importantly, I think about the guys I served with. We formed the company with 220 of us in 1942 at Fort Ord, Calif. When the war ended in May 1945, we were told there were only 19 of us left. That comes to mind frequently and especially on this day.
Strange as it might seem, I still recall so much of my life during those years as if it occurred yesterday. When I give profound thought to my two best friends, Clyde Milton and Burd Smock, getting killed on the Anzio Beachhead and in France, I still cry.
I suppose war experiences could be described as "bad" and "worst."
On this special day, two of the many "worst" experiences immediately come to mind. During the four months we spent on the Anzio Beachhead, the Germans tried desperately to drive us back into the sea, but we were able to contain them. After the worst battle, an eight-hour truce was called so the American, British and German medics and chaplains could recover the wounded and dead.
One of our company aid men told me it was amazing how all the doctors worked together to treat the wounded without any regard for which uniform they were wearing. Of course, the rest of us enjoyed leaving cover without being shot at.
Another "worst" experience I cannot forget occurred when we trapped elements of three German divisions in an administrative move. We were on the high ground surrounding them, making it possible for us to fire everything we had at will, resulting in their total destruction. After it was over we moved on as fast as we could. Even those of us who had seen war at its worst for two years were sickened by the death and destruction.
But I also recall the better times. The army did attempt for brief periods to make us feel like humans again. I always will remember how grateful we were when we were withdrawn from combat and able to shave, shower and have hot meals. The division had a leave policy in which one guy out of each company got a two-day pass to a "rest camp" where, in addition to the luxuries mentioned above, we got another treat. One room was furnished with gallons of jam and huge stacks of real bread. An Italian lady would spread the jam on the bread for us -- we ate jelly bread until we couldn't hold anymore.
Would that I could shut out all of my war experiences, but that never will happen. Although I don't kick Darlene out of bed anymore, I still do have nightmares. Of the 19 who survived the war, there only are four of us still living. We keep in touch and will do so as long as there are two of us still living.
I still remember clearly when the war ended in May 1945 and the order "cease fire" came. My first thought was, "My God, this means that my chances of living another hour, another day, and even another year, go from near zero to almost 100 percent."
There was no shouting or celebrating; we all spent the day writing letters home. The next day at a company assembly, the names of all of our friends whom we had left behind were read off and we observed a brief silence for each one. When I left Africa and Europe, I felt I was deserting them, but we all knew this was a war we had to fight and win and they had understood that, too.
A 7th Infantry soldier had written a poem about the dead ending it with, "They surely went to heaven, for they've done their hitch in hell."
I took some consolation from that.
This is surely an unorthodox way to observe Veterans Day, but it's the only way I know of to honor those who will never come home.
Carl Schlegel lives in Hays with his wife, Darlene. They both grew up in Otis. He worked 40 years for the Bureau of Mines managing a helium plant; Darlene worked as a nurse at Cimarron Memorial hospital. They moved to Hays after retirement to live with "Unser Leute" and say they are happy to be back "home" again.