Sunday, April 25, 2010
Our grandpa, Wilburn Glenn Wise, passed away on Friday after a three year battle with lung cancer. He had already beat throat cancer over a decade ago, but could not beat this one.
I used to say that grandpa was a cross between Superman and John Wayne. He could outwork anyone half his age. He could build or fix anything in a home. And even when he was sick, he could bring a smile to any one's face.
All of his grand kids have lots of stories about him.
I will always remember watching Big Two Wrestling at grandma and grandpa's house when we were little. Glenn, Chad, and I would sit on on a pallet of quilts and blankets on the floor to eat homemade popcorn with real butter and watch Handsome Harley Race, Danny Little Bear, and Andre the Giant grapple on the tube.
One of my faves is from the days when he and Marti took us boys pheasant hunting in western Kansas. We went out to dinner one night and grandpa ordered raw oysters. None of us liked them, but grandpa always said we had to try it before we said we didn't like it. So, we all tasted them, went yuck, and he and Marti finished them off. He proceeded to find a small pearl in one of the oysters! I will never forget that night.
When grandpa first got throat cancer, it really bugged me that I had not spent much time with him since I was younger. I vowed to spend more time with him, and get to know more about him.
His cancer went into remission, and I made it a mission to get together with him more often. (It helped that I was single, and had not started a family yet.) I went out to watch Chiefs games with grandpa, went out for BBQ's on the deck and hummingbird watching, and went to Boudreaux's for dinner. We got a computer for him and got him setup on the Internet and email so he could keep track of everyone. And we just hung out together and talked.
I was in college during this time and was taking a creative writing class. So, I decided to write a paper about grandpa's World War II experiences. We got together for several interviews and I combined it together into a story of his experience.
I read it through again tonight for the first time in many years, and wanted to share it with everyone:
No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being,
to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause.
President Theodore Roosevelt
Wilburn G. 37751929
They were called replacement soldiers. Instead of being assigned to a unit after basic training, they were sent to replace men who were wounded or killed. W. Glenn Wise filled in for a guy in the 809th who was in an English hospital. Other replacements were not so lucky; they had to lace up and walk in boots of the dead.
Glenn was sixteen-years-old and working at a Kansas City filling station when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Everyone just stopped working and listened to the radio. The next day his family tuned in President Roosevelt’s speech to the nation. Thinking back to that day, Glenn said, “They had done our country dirty and were going to have to pay for it. I wanted to go grab a Jap by the throat and shake him dead.”
Glenn’s first battle of World War Two was with his mother. She did not want her baby to go to war. He wanted to go and was ready to lie about his age if necessary. After much talk, argument, and discussion, mom won. It was decided he would wait until he was eighteen. After his birthday in October of ’43, he went to the Navy recruiting station.
He had never been to the ocean before, hell, hardly been outside of Missouri. He wanted to see the world. The Navy was the place for him; besides, they were the ones who got hit by the Japanese. Joining the Navy would give Glenn a chance to go kill those bastards. But he failed the color-blindness test. Navy ships communicated with signal flags and colored flashing lights. So he signed up instead with the United States Merchant Marines.
Sheepshead Bay in Long Island was Glenn’s home for six weeks starting in April of 1944. (Basic training passed quickly in these hurried times of war.) One of his first duties at this Coast Guard Station was to guard the transatlantic cable house that received news of the war effort in Europe. After their abbreviated training, the new Merchant Marines were put on a train to Oakland, California, and put on a cargo ship bound for their first port-of-call: Guadalcanal.
Bulldozers, earthmovers, and heavy equipment were among the cargo being carried to build airstrips and roads on Pacific Theatre islands. Navy gun crews manned the anti-aircraft battery on the ship. After picking up more cargo in Australia, Glenn remembered, “the ship had to take evasive maneuvers to shake a Japanese submarine.” Anchors dropped a quarter mile out from the beach of Southern New Guinea. The young sailors unloaded the equipment on barges that could cross the shallow waters to shore. An airstrip was being built there to support the fighting in Northern New Guinea and throughout the Pacific. Occasional snipers in the area tried to pick off men, but that end of the island was mostly secure. Anchored offshore for almost two weeks, they took small boats into shore, or more often, just swam the sort distance. They stood on the beach and surveyed the scene. Cargo ships and Navy vessels crowded the waters, bombers and fighters streaked overhead, and men and machines were being unloaded all around.
After emptying the ships hold they headed to San Francisco, only to be greeted by a longshoremen strike. Glenn hitchhiked to Baltimore hoping for another assignment. With his sharply pleated suit, and a duffle bag slung over his shoulder, he had no trouble hailing rides. On the way, he decided to go see his mom in Kansas City. She proudly snapped photos of her handsome young man in his white sailors suit. (Seeing the photo sixty years later Glenn’s granddaughter remarked, “what a stud.”) No ships were going out in Baltimore either, so Glenn returned to Kansas City, enlisted in the United States Army, and was sent to Camp Robinson, Arkansas, for basic training.
“The Drill Sergeants were real tough bastards,” Glenn recalled as he described his introduction to an Army tradition: the five in forty-five drill. One morning the recruits were taken on a 20-mile march with full packs. At 11:15 AM they were ordered to double-time it back to camp, and you guessed it, they were five miles out. Lunch was served promptly at noon. “If you were late, you went hungry!” It was also at basic that Glenn learned his new name, Wilburn G. 37751929: first name, middle initial, serial number. “And you damned well better remember it unless you liked doing extra push-ups.”
During basic Glenn signed up for paratrooper school. After passing the rigorous physical and mental tests, he was accepted and was to be sent to Fort Bening, Georgia, for jump school. But the Army had other plans. After only ten of the usual seventeen weeks of basic he was instead designated an infantryman and was sent by train to New York.
He and the other new soldiers boarded a ship and began to sail away from America. Glenn took one last look back and waved goodbye to the Statue of Liberty. The ship docked in Liverpool, England, and the men boarded yet another train bound for Southampton. From there they crossed the English Channel just as the thousands of troops on D-Day had just a few months before. The liberated French shore welcomed them. They moved across France to Maastricht, Holland, which was a staging area for troops being sent to the German front. Glenn was reassigned once again by the Army.
Wilburn G. was placed in the 809th Tank Destroyer Battalion as an assistant tank driver. He had never been in a tank before. Glenn thought back to basic training back in Camp Robinson where he learned how easy it was to kill a tank. “They taught us how to use a grenade to knock the tracks off to immobilize it and then throw a grenade inside to finish off the occupants.” He was “overjoyed!” If it was that easy, he did not want to be in one. But into the tank he went.
One of the 809ths specific missions was to punch holes in the front and to take on the German Panzers. Glenn described the first tank he started out in, an M-18:
“It was light and fast, but only had a 75mm gun. As we moved farther into Germany, we switched to the M-36. The 90mm gun was a better match for the German Tiger tanks and their 88mm guns.”
The battalion’s specialty was the pincer maneuver. One column of tanks would go left and one would go right to encircle German troops. Sometimes the Germans would keep fighting when surrounded, but they usually surrendered. Many of these guys were coming from the Eastern front to get away from the Russians. They would rather surrender to the Allies than fight the Russians, who were known to be fierce fighters. They took in hundreds of prisoners in these operations.
Thinking back, Glenn said, “Most of those German soldiers were kids out there doing their jobs, just like us.” Then there were the Stormtroopers. Glenn recalled, “We heard that those guys were all criminals and murderers pulled out of prisons to serve as Hitler’s elite forces. Those SS guys were some real mean son-of-a-bitches.” One time they took in a group of 30 prisoners; one of them was an SS officer. The other 29 guys would have nothing to do with him. They were afraid of him. The regular German troops did not want to be associated with the SS.
Winter, 1945, brought back vivid memories for Glenn. “It was cold as hell in those tanks.” They moved across Germany through terrible weather and heavy snow. Two Cadillac motors propelled the tanks. Soldiers would sit on the back by the exhaust to stay warm. When in battle, they drove the tanks by looking through periscopes. But the visibility was pretty poor, especially at night, so most of the time they drove by sticking their heads out the top hatch. “Even with the Caddie motors inside the tank putting off heat, we froze our asses off.”
The battalion moved at night to set up for the next day’s assaults. Lieutenant Gerald Young, who later received a battlefield promotion to Captain, took the lead in the unit’s armored car. He had the maps and the orders; the rest of the tanks followed his taillights. They were blackout lights; dim slits that could not be seen from the air. One night they were moving through a town and using periscopes to keep from getting their heads shot off by snipers. Glenn was in the first tank right behind Lieutenant Young. He recalled, “The lights in front of me suddenly disappeared. Young’s armored car had taken a right at a “T” in the road and my tank plowed into a brick building.” He backed out with crumbled bricks falling off the tank and moved on down the road.
Another night maneuver through another German hamlet brought enemy fire against the tanks. Glenn said, “The bullets sounded like hammers hitting the outside of the tank.” He was starting to see why those Drill Sergeants were so tough back in Fort Robinson; they were preparing them for war. He could hear the bullets make a whiz sound as they hit and ricocheted off. He finally decided the tanks were not so bad after all. Bullets did not bounce off of infantry soldiers.
The 809th was part of Patton’s 36th Tank Division. They helped clear the path for General Simpson’s 9th Army thrust across Germany. They traveled through Dusseldorf and then across the Rhine River on pontoon boats, losing one man to drowning. Before the Rhine, they moved only ten to fifteen miles a day; now they were covering fifty or more. They came next to the Elbe River, which was the last major obstacle to be crossed before they could enter Berlin.
They waited there for several days as US bomber sorties out of England emptied their payload on a small city across the river. Glenn remembered:
“We laid belly-down on the levee and watched the city being flattened before our eyes. The Germans were looking back at us through field glasses and lobbing mortars over to try to and hit us. One shell landed beside me and the shrapnel hit a guy lying on my opposite side. There were pinpricks all over his uniform with little streams of blood coming out. My buddy died right there.”
To this day Glenn still doesn’t know how he was not killed too. He was laying right there next to him. The 809th never crossed that river. The Russians took Berlin and Germany surrendered.
But for the 809th, the celebration was short-lived. Within days, they received orders to go west across Europe and back to the states to be redeployed to the Pacific. They were transported in World War One “forty-and-eight” boxcars, originally designed to hold forty men and eight horses; in this war they just carried men. Before leaving Germany, they were sent as observers to the Buchenwald concentration camp that had been liberated just a few days before.
Glenn Wise had heard nothing of these camps until the day he walked up to the front gates. He recalled, “The camp had a high, double-fenced barrier around the outside with barbed wire at the top.” The men of the 809th were told German Shepherds ran loose between the two rows of fences to keep the prisoners from escaping. They went inside. “Naked bodies were stacked like cordwood,” Glenn remembered, “the poor bastards that lived looked like walking skeletons, just skin and bones.” They did not look like real people. It was hard to look at them, but even harder not to look.
They were taken to a basement with a large furnace containing partially burned bones and ashes. There was an opening in one wall with what looked like a coal-chute coming down from outside. The walls of the basement were lined with meat hooks. After the basement, they were also shown a doctor’s office with trays of hypodermic needles and gurneys scattered about.
The survivors in the camps told the first liberators stories of what had happened inside. Several of these liberators were still around, relating to the observation parties what they were told. Prisoners were taken outside and told to strip down for showers, so they could change into clean cloths and go home. Instead, they were slid naked down the chute into the basement. The German guards knocked them over the head and burned them in the furnace. Other prisoners were hung on the meat hooks until the furnace could be emptied and reloaded. Still others were taken to the so-called doctor’s office and given viruses so the Nazis could experiment with different cures. Glenn was told “over four thousand Jews and Poles died in that room.” He could not even guess how many were killed in the basement. Some of the liberators were so shocked and disgusted by what they saw in the camp that they shot the German guards upon entering. They even rounded up German civilians living near the camp and took them inside to see what had been done in their backyard.
Looking back to the things he saw at Buchenwald still visibly affects Glenn to this day. When he talked about the liberators shooting the guards, he said, “I wish I would have been there to liberate the camps. I think I would have done the same.”