Veteran, 82, tells soldier's journey of World War II

August 19, 2002|by CAILIN MCGOUGH

Looking down at a black-and-white photo of a toddler, Roger Koontz remembers how the shooting stopped when soldiers saw the child.

"This little girl appeared out of nowhere. Both the Americans and Germans ceased fire until she was out of the way," he said. "The land was no man's land."

Koontz, now 82, spent 500 days on the front lines in Africa and Italy during World War II, armed with two 50-caliber machine guns, a camera and film his mother sent him from home.


Now, the photos of the front lines are compiled with stories in "Take the High Ground: An American Soldier's Journey Through WWII," chronicling Koontz's experience during the Great Depression and the war.

Published by Commercial Press in Stephens City, Va., the book is the result of work Koontz began in the 1980s with the encouragement of family, said his wife, Mary Lou, 72, of Williamsport.

"If he didn't take care of doing things with the pictures, they would be lost. No one else would know the stories," she said.

The project was originally intended to be a record for their two daughters and grandchildren but as it developed, it just seemed too important not to put it down with the pictures, Mary Lou Koontz said.

Roger Koontz, born in Glen Burnie, Md., was a 20-year-old working in Baltimore when he received his draft notice. Training with the First Armored Division at Fort Knox, he said they had very little equipment and no idea what war would be like.

"On some occasions we would hang a sheet on the side of a truck and write 'tank' on it. Like little kids, we were running around with sticks playing war," he said.

Only months later, the division joined English and French troops in Africa, the first time America pulled its Army together with others, Koontz said. Although joining forces was not an overwhelming success, it showed what had to be done in the invasion of Europe later on, Koontz said.

"We actually spearheaded the invasion of Africa and the invasion of Italy. When it fell and Africa fell, it exposed the southern French invasion," he said.

'Keep running'

As a sergeant in a command half-track vehicle, Koontz fielded orders for the First Armored Combat Company B. Away from the front line, he saw the effect the war had on civilians.

"If you were at Naples at night and the bombs started to fall, people started to cry and scream and run and keep running," he said. "You couldn't stop or people would run you over and kill you. You had to keep running."

As the war ended in Europe, the division was on its way to capture Benito Mussolini after pushing back the Germans from Monte Cassino. The Italian leader was killed by his people before they arrived, Koontz said.

"They say they hung him up by his ankles," he said. "We took pictures of it."

After the war, many veterans found an outlet through the G.I. Bill, which he said helped them more than anything else.

"We never had the nation try to educate so many of its citizens," he said.

More to be said

Through the G.I. Bill, Koontz earned a degree in education from Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and a master's degree in administration from the University of Virginia.

In 1951, he married Mary Lou, whom he met at Shepherd, and returned to her hometown of Winchester, Va., to teach. During his 30 years as a teacher and principal in Frederick County, Va., Koontz said he always liked to write.

Still, Koontz said it was not easy to write for a long time; for several years he dreamed of a friend who died in the war.

"I could feel or dream his blood at night. It was running down and off my elbows," he said.

There is still a lot that should be said, Koontz said.

Veterans should put down where they were and what they did and what mistakes they think were made so they will not be repeated, he said.

"One of the mistakes we were constantly making was not taking the high ground," he said. "If I learned one thing in the war it was you should always take the high ground."

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