The strange coincidences that have marked our 111th journey from the start continue to occur.

Ed and I took a spur-of-the-moment day trip over the mountains a couple of weeks ago. While poking around an antiques/gift shop in a little town in West Virginia, two old books caught my eye. There were only four books in the entire shop. I walked over for a closer look, and this is what I saw:two wwii books

They were published in the 1960s. Of course, we bought both.

Although the 111th isn’t mentioned by name in these books, the ordnance battalions they were assigned to are noted. It was truly an orphan unit, belonging at various times in 1944 and 1945 to the 48th, the 177th, the 320th, the 185th, the 187th, and the 54th and 55th.

One chapter in the second volume is very interesting: “On the Far Shore in Normandy.” We learned that several ordnance units landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and more continued to come ashore in the following days and weeks, including, of course, the 111th on D+5 (which left Southampton for Omaha Beach on the night of June 10) and D+6.

On page 244, we read a paragraph that sent a chill down our spine:

“Shortly after midnight on 11 June, the headquarters of the 177th Ordnance Battalion…was ashore at Dog Green Beach [eastern side of Omaha]. When the commanding officer was able to get in touch with the command posts of V Corps and First Army Ordnance, he learned that he had lost an entire medium automotive maintenance company, the 342nd, and twenty-seven men of Detachment B of the 526th Heavy Maintenance Company (Tank) when LST 1006 was sunk in the English Channel by a German torpedo in the early hours of June 9.”

As most of you have told me, our fathers did not talk much about the war. My own father, when I asked about the dangers he faced, told me he had a desk job behind the lines and was never really worried. Of course, we have since learned that they had quite a few close calls during their time in Europe. But the unit never lost a man until the week after V-E Day, in May 1945, when two young enlisted men drowned in a boat accident on the Weser River in Germany.

This holiday season, let’s think about that for a minute and thank our lucky stars that our fathers made it safely through that horrible war. In fact, most of the men were finally back home in the States by 70 years ago this month. How thankful and happy they must have been.

Note: I just did a little research and learned that from December 1941 through December 1946, the Army Ordnance Department had 214 battle casualties (including 101 deaths) among its officers, and 3,030 battle casualties (including 1,121 deaths) among its enlisted men. (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/ref/Casualties/Casualties-1.html#month) This was out of a total of 24,000 officers and 325,000 enlisted men in the Ordnance Department in that period. (http://www.goordnance.army.mil/history/ORDhistory.html)

 

 

 

Veterans Day 2015

Posted: November 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

It is easy, in everyday life, to forget about our fathers and uncles and grandfathers who fought in WWII. That’s why we need days of remembrance like today to remind of their gift to us.

Many of the men of the 111th spent five long years preparing for, serving in, and cleaning up after that awful war. And yet few of them ever talked about it afterwards, as most of us know. They knew what they as a nation had accomplished and they were proud. But then they continued on, so that we, their children, could enjoy our everyday lives.

We have talked recently with two of our four survivors, Art Brooks and John Raisler. Art just turned 98, and John is 95. Both are living in Florida and doing well. John told me something I hadn’t heard before. He described how even with a war going on, every job the 111th did required a work order. He recalled one time when he had to climb into a foxhole to get a signature on one. At the end of the war, the 111th received a special commendation from the Army: the unit had completed more work orders than any other ordnance company during the war. They were a hard-working bunch. “The men always stuck together, it was a good outfit,” John recalls. “I’ll always remember them.”

And yesterday we were thrilled to hear from the granddaughter of a 111th soldier whose family we had been unable to find in our searches of the past two years. Tess Stanhaus wrote to this blog to tell us how glad she was to find the story of her grandfather, Lavergne Stanhaus of New Baden, Illinois. He was the mess sergeant for the 111th throughout the war. John Raisler remembers him well—“a nice guy, very friendly, would always stop to talk to you.” Tess sent this photo along; she thinks it might have been a wedding photo.

Lavergne Stanhaus and his bride Pearl

Lavergne Stanhaus and his bride, Pearl

From February 1944 until June 7, 1944, the men of the 111th lived and worked at Albro Castle, in St.Dogmaels, Wales. The name is rather ironic — it wasn’t a castle at all, but a workhouse, or poorhouse, that took in the area’s destitute from 1840 until 1935. In the months preceding the D-Day invasion, the U.S. Army had to work hard to find quarters for more than a million service members in the United Kingdom, and obviously a place like Albro Castle fit the bill.

My father, 111th sergeant Bill Johnson, occasionally talked about living at Albro and meeting my Welsh mother at a local dance in a nearby village. And although I don’t recall him mentioning it, he returned there in 1983, nearly 40 years later, to take a look. I know this because I recently came across a stash of his old photos. Had it not been for our work to learn more about the 111th, I would have not known why he took these three pictures or where this place was:

Albro Castle, 1983, front view

Albro Castle, 1983, front view

Structures in rear

Structures in rear

Albro Castle courtyard, 1983

Albro Castle courtyard, 1983

On June 6, 2013, my husband, Ed, and I decided to find Albro, a story we related in our very first posting on this blog. The discovery we made that day — all because of the preservation efforts of its owners, Peter and Tracy Newland — sparked our entire project. We owe them a lot. Last June, we did a posting on this blog about how we spent two lovely evenings with them commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day and role that Albro Castle played in WWII. (When my dad revisited Albro in 1983, he most probably met Peter Newland’s mother.)

So I am pleased to tell you that if you would like the experience of living in the same place that your father or grandfather did just before the Normandy invasion, you can do that. Check it out here: http://www.albrocastle.co.uk/

Tracy and Peter have worked hard to turn part of Albro’s main building into two charming and comfy two holiday apartments: one has room for 12 to 14 people, while the other is meant for a couple or small family. We can assure you that today Albro Castle is much more attractive and comfortable than it was when the 111th men lived there. The stunning Pembrokeshire Coast Path is close by; this part of West Wales is a gorgeous and fascinating place to visit, especially in the spring and summer.

Seventy years ago today, the Germans surrendered and WWII was over. The men of the 111th had been anticipating the announcement for at least a week. When word finally came, the men celebrated in a big — and rather dangerous — way.

Sgt. Frank Sossi, the company clerk, wrote in his monthly report for May 1945, “It was extremely annoying to have to move 194 miles south southwest from Salzwedel to Freidrichorst [an area of Neubeckum, northwest of Dortmund] on the 6th of May, because we couldn’t keep our ears glued to the radio for a whole day.” Their quarters were a cement works. “By 7 May it was quite apparent that the war was over. After being on the continent for 9 months, and during that time only 31 men and 1 officer out of the whole company receiving official rest passes, the company was really ready to let go in an all-out celebration. The men couldn’t wait any longer for the official announcement of cessation of hostilities [the next day] so they broke out the 50 gallons of whiskey that had been acquired for the occasion and started celebrating on 7 May, the night before official VE Day. It will be an occasion the men of this organization shall never forget.”

Well, it seems there was a story behind that “whiskey” Sgt. Sossi referred to. Here is Lt. Fred Kent’s account: “Finally, word reached us on May 7th that Germany had surrendered. To commemorate the occasion, Captain Brooks asked me to comb the countryside to obtain alcoholic beverages with which the men could properly celebrate….I finally located a distillery where I procured what appeared to be around a ten-gallon barrel of pure grain alcohol. After returning to the company with this precious cargo, I repaired to where the kitchen was set up in the cement factory and instructed the cooks to mix the alcohol with an equal amount of water and to add to it some caramelized sugar to give the mixture some color and flavor.

“Word of the availability of this libation spread quickly, and in no time the men were lined up with their canteen cups to partake of this deadly brew. In reminiscing on this event, I’m certain that God must have been watching over us, for that must have been the most dangerous day of our company’s wartime experience. The men were absolutely inebriated, but in their exuberance to celebrate—by firing their rifles in the air—they were incapable of raising their weapons to a trajectory higher than the horizontal, with the consequence of bullets flying all over the place.

“Poor Stan Errington was O.D. [officer of the day], and no sooner had he succeeded in quieting one group of men when suddenly there would be an eruption of small arms fire and flares in another area. It wasn’t until the small hours of the night that he was finally able to establish tranquillity, but by that time I think he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Thus ended VE Day.”

Lt. Witt described that night: “[It] proved to be one of our gayest, and I grant you the drunkest, of our whole time in the Army. It was unbelievable…..”

Sgt. Roland Unangst wrote later: “That night we used a confiscated wind-up record player and a bunch of German records (‘Roll Out the Barrel’). It was a good tune. Lord, we were happy it was over.”

Addendum: Right after I published the above, one of the surviving members of the 111th, John Raisler wrote in and gave his account of that day in 1945:

GOOD MORNING, LOT OF MEMORIES THAT DAY, IT WAS A WILD ONE AND THAT’S FOR SURE….KNOWING THAT THE OFFICIAL DAY WAS NEAR, JOE (Sedlacek), DELA (Leo DeLaGarza) AND I CRUISED THE OLD BATTLEFIELDS AND CAME BACK WITH OUR TRUCK FULL OF FLARES AND FLARE GUNS…… NOW THE TIME OF DAY, I’M NOT TOO SURE, BUT A JEEP WITH A COLONEL RIDING UP FRONT, DROVE UP, FOLLOWED BY A GI TRUCK. ON THE TAILGATE SAT A 5 GALLEON KEG OF WHISKEY. THE TROOPS GATHERED QUICKLY, AND LISTENED TO THE OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE END OF THE WAR. THEN BEING BIG-HEARTED HE GAVE US THE KEG, AND A ‘WELL-DONE BOYS’…WHEN HE LEFT FOR THE NEXT OUTFIT.HE WAS SENT OFF IN A BARRAGE OF COLORED FLARES. THE PARTY HAD BEGUN. NOW WE WOULD HAVE TO WAIT AND SEE WHEN WE WOULD HEAD HOME…IT WASN’T TOO LONG AND MOST OF US WERE BACK HOME IN A FEW MONTHS…..THE WHOLE WAR WAS AN GRAND EXPERIENCE, BUT I ASSURE YOU, ONCE IS ENOUGH…..RECOLLECTIONS VARY, BUT BASICALLY SOSSI’S ACCOUNT WAS CLOSE TO BEING WHAT WE ALL FELT ………AN OLD VET…JOHN R.

Not much has been happening lately, but we do have a couple of things to share. Before we do, though, please join us in sending happy birthday wishes to one of the four living members of the 111th, John Raisler! He will be 95 tomorrow. We spoke with him last night, and he is doing very well. His family will be coming to help him celebrate this weekend. (See our last posting for more about John.)

Earlier this month, we received an email from Wolfgang Heyn, who lives in Moenchengladbach, Germany. He said that the building where some of the 111th men, including my father, lived while in that city in the early spring of 1945–in fact, exactly 70 years ago this month–still stands, at the end of Webschulstrasse, next to the police barracks that the unit took over and worked in. It is still an apartment building.img210 Our home at Munchen Gladbach, Germany, Spring 1945

Monchengladbach apartment building where some of the 111th men lived in spring 1945, still an apartment building today

Moenchengladbach apartment building where some of the 111th men lived in spring 1945, still an apartment building today

We sure wish we had known about it when we visited the city in 2013; we spent a few hours asking around as we looked for that building, unsuccessfully. We since learned that the men were based in the former police barracks in town, not on the outskirts of town as we first suspected.

We have been in touch with Sergio Gomez, son of the 111th’s Master Sergeant Frank Gomez, of San Antonio. We were sad to learn last fall of the death of Sergio’s mother (Frank’s widow), Carmen Gomez, at the age of 96. My parents were friends with Frank and Carmen after the war. While going through his mother’s things, Sergio found a tightly rolled up photo of the 111th taken at Fort Dix, NJ, in the summer of 1943—the same panoramic photo that Tom Sedlacek, son of Joe Sedlacek, sent us a copy of last year. If you double click on the photo below, it will open in a new window, and you can zoom in on it.111th 10MB  partially autographed

Sergio had the 3-foot-long photo professionally mounted and scanned and sent us a copy. His copy is interesting because there are several autographs on it—including that of our birthday boy, John Raisler! Thanks so much, Sergio—this will help us identify a few more of the men in the old photos. If any of you see your father in this photo, please let us know.

What a Year!

Posted: December 30, 2014 in Men of the 111th Ordnance Company

What a year 2014 has been! It’s safe to say Ed and I will never have another one like it. At this time last year, just a month or so into our search, we had found five survivors and children of 19 of the men of the 111th. Since then, we have found families of another 30 or so of the men. It has been an adventure like no other. Now we finally know what our dads did in the war.

We are thankful that so many people responded to our queries and shared their fathers’ stories and photos with us. A few even found us, through the wonder of Google searches and this blog.

In fact, our very first “find” was one of the surviving soldiers: John Raisler, now 94 years old. He contacted us via this blog in early November 2013. (“I’m John Raisler, a member of the 111th Ordnance Company, if you’d like to chat EMAIL me.”) Over the past year, John and I have exchanged more than 100 emails. Among other things, John has been my “go-to” guy for war photo IDs—the man’s memory is incredible!

John Raisler

John Raisler

John Raisler in WWII

John Raisler in WWII

We finally got to meet John last month. We sat down together with our book and began going through the photos and stories, and pretty soon we were listening to new stories and enjoying some good laughs; unfortunately, I didn’t have a tape recorder going.

John and Andrea share a laugh

John and Andrea share a laugh

Here’s one I recall, about the day in 1943 when Lt. Perry Witt saved John’s bacon: While they were at Ft. Dix, the men were subjected to an inspection by Army higher-ups. John was lined up with the other men when an officer stopped in front of him and asked him to name the first U.S. Secretary of War. Well, for once John’s memory failed him, and as he was panicking he happened to notice that Lt. Witt was standing behind the officer making an odd signal that only John could see—a fist knocking against the palm of his other hand. Always quick on his toes, John answered “Knox,” and the officer moved on to his next victim.

John gets along pretty well for a man his age. He has a quicker wit than just about anyone we know. He lives by himself in the house he and his wife built in 1954, with the help of regular visits from his son, Jim, who lives nearby. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren aren’t too far away. When his wife of 60 years passed away a few years ago, John learned how to use a computer, to keep himself occupied. His biggest health problem has been a bad back. As he told me in one of his first emails, “If it wasn’t for a cracked vertebrae, I’d probably be out kayaking today.” We’re still not sure if that was meant to be a joke. Thanks for everything, John!

With the end of this year also comes the end of our active search for 111th family members and unit history details—Ed and I think we have now found everything we are going to find. As such, we expect that this blog will go into “sleep” mode for a while. But it will remain online, hoping that others with a connection to the 111th will find us. If that happens, we will let you know. Happy New Year!

Just a quick note to let you know that the revised and expanded version of our book about the 111th, “Only the Best,” is now available on Amazon (click on the book icon to the left to go to the page).

Note that the Amazon page will not say it is revised, nor will it give a new publication date, but be assured that the book on there is the latest version, now with 182 pages. If you earlier bought a copy of the first edition, be assured that it is still good, just not quite as complete. We wanted to do this revised version to include the new family members found since the first edition came out last April. We have kept the price the same; today Amazon is selling it for $5.32; regular price is $6.00.

There are now 40 more pages. Here’s what’s new:

—More photos and stories received from new family members

—Additions to the text as a result of finding the memoirs of Lt. Fred Kent

—The company’s Monthly History Reports for Europe

—A new appendix showing all the men with their nicknames, rank, serial number, MOS (their job classification), the dates they joined and left the unit, and the number of “going-home” points they had as of July 5, 1945. All of this was gleaned from the company’s Morning Reports, which we read at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in September.

—Corrections of errors in dates, spellings, etc.

We expect that this will be the book’s final edition. Our research is done, and Ed has concluded his attempts to find survivors and family members (he found more than 50!), so any new folks will have to find us via this blog—which of course we hope they do! By the way, the blog has had more than 17,000 page visits from all over the world since we began it a year ago.

We wish you all a wonderful holiday season and a happy and healthy 2015!