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For World War II veteran from Wolfsville, memories of war's horror remain fresh

November 10, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

WOLFSVILLE, Md. -- Mark Lewis vowed he would never surrender when he saw dozens of American soldiers lying dead in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge.

Lewis said he witnessed that grim sight when his unit, the 17th Airborne Division, was rushing to the front to help stall the German advance.

As the men approached their positions, Lewis said, they passed the frozen bodies of nearly 100 American soldiers who had been shot after they surrendered to the German army.

The incident became infamously known as the Malmedy Massacre. After the war, several German soldiers were tried and sentenced to death by an American tribunal for their participation in the killings.

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Lewis said he thought the American commanders intentionally tried to make the 17th angry by ordering the soldiers to walk past their dead comrades.

"My stomach started to hurt," Lewis said. "I knew right then I would never be captured."

Lewis, 84, said he was helping build what is now Camp David before he joined the Army in 1943. He said he wanted to join the Marine Corps, but a recruiter told him there was a waiting list.

Lewis then turned his attention to the Army.

"I told them I wanted to see action, so they put me in the airborne," Lewis said.

Shortly thereafter, Lewis was assigned to a unit of combat engineers in the 17th. Before he went overseas, Lewis was trained to be a demolition expert.

Lewis said part of his mission during the Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, in the mountain region of Belgium, France and Luxembourg, was to blow up trees so they would fall over roads and slow German vehicles.

"You could only slow them," he said. "You couldn't stop them."

His primary mission, however, was to remove German land mines.

Lewis said some of those mines were booby trapped with a secondary charge that exploded as they were pulled from the ground. The Germans also laid plastic mines that wouldn't register on metal detectors.

"We had to probe with a knife," he said. "We were scared. It was the worst winter in 20 years."

Lewis said the temperature often dipped below zero and many of the troops suffered from cold-weather injuries. Several of the men contracted trench foot from wearing wet socks and had to be pulled from the front line.

Lewis said he kept his feet in good shape by drying one of his two pairs of socks with a candle, a ritual he repeated daily.

Lewis said the 17th entered the Bulge in December 1944 and withdrew to France in February 1945 after the German army was in full retreat.

It was in March, Lewis said, that he and the rest of the 17th learned they would return to battle as a part of Operation Varsity - an invasion across the Rhine River into Germany. The assault - spearheaded by the 17th and the British 6th Airborne Division - kicked off March 24, 1945.

Airborne divisions during World War II were comprised of paratroopers, who jumped from planes, and glidermen, who landed behind enemy lines in wooden gliders that held about 15 troops. Lewis was among the latter.

Because the military didn't have enough planes to pull the gliders, Lewis said, some of the planes pulled two at once.

As Lewis' glider was cut loose, the plane that was pulling him was shot down by enemy flak so heavy that it "looked like you could walk on it," he said.

Lewis said the landing was rough and, as he and the other glidermen rushed out of their aircraft, they heard German bullets whiz past their heads.

The Americans quickly engaged in a firefight with Germans in a nearby house. He said the shooting lasted only a few minutes before the Germans surrendered.

Lewis said the 17th pressed forward and saw dead American paratroopers who had landed in electrical wires.

"You could smell their flesh burning," he said. "It was holy hell."

The 17th was ordered to dig foxholes every time they stopped, Lewis said.

One of his most vivid memories of Operation Varsity occurred when his platoon set up a defensive position with a .30-caliber machine gun overlooking a road. As the enemy approached that night, the machine gunners opened up and killed about 25 Germans.

"You could see where they had crawled to get away from being killed," he said. "They were massacred."

Lewis said the Allied army broke the German resistance about three days after Operation Varsity started. It was then, he said, that the Germans began surrendering by the thousands - except for Hitler's elite Waffen SS.

"You had to kill them," Lewis said. "They fought like savages."

Lewis said he doubted whether Operation Varsity was necessary because Germany surrendered in May 1945.

"(Operation Varsity) helped break the front open," he said.

After the battle, the 17th returned to France to receive orders to participate in the invasion of Japan. But in August 1945, the war ended when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Lewis said he was discharged and returned home. He landed several construction jobs, and helped build cottages and fallout shelters at Camp David.

In the late 1950s, Lewis said he met President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also had been the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II.

"He was a likable person," Lewis said. "He was real friendly. He talked to us a little bit and said we did a nice job."

Lewis said one of the projects that he worked on at Camp David involved building a helicopter landing pad. As soon as the workers had finished, they were ushered out so a helicopter that was hovering above them could land.

That helicopter was carrying Nikita Khrushchev.




Coming Tuesday:



o It was 55 years ago that Fred Rohrer bricked up a bottle of 12-year-old scotch in a fireplace at the American Legion Post on Northern Avenue in Hagerstown. It is to be awarded to the last surviving member of the post's Last Man's Club, an organization of World War II veterans founded in 1953.

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