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WWII veteran won medal, but lost friends fighting in Europe

Wilson Rhodes: 'I've lost a lot of friends. I'm lucky. I'm very lucky.'

May 07, 2010|By DAN DEARTH
  • Wilson Rhodes of Clear Spring shows a portrait of himself when he served in World War II.
Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

Editor's note: Germany invaded Poland without warning on Sept. 1, 1939, a move that was the beginning of World War II. Six years later, on May 8, 1945, the Allies declared victory in Europe.

Following is the story of a local man who was serving with the armed forces in Europe on that day.

The recollections of six other veterans will be published in Sunday's paper.

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Staff Sgt. Wilson Rhodes continued fighting for nearly a month after the Allies declared victory in Europe on May 8, 1945.

Rhodes said his unit, the 778th Tank Battalion, was hammering its way through Czechoslovakia and didn't find out until June that the Germans had surrendered.

"I lived in a medium tank from the coast of France to Czechoslovakia," Rhodes said. "That was my transportation. I was ... glad it was over."

Rhodes, 92, said the tankers' celebration was brief. A few days later, they were given orders to go to the Pacific, where they were to prepare for the invasion of mainland Japan.

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Military experts at the time estimated that an invasion of the Japanese islands would have caused hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides.

Rhodes said he was glad when the Americans dropped two atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945 to hasten Japan's surrender.

"When they dropped the atom bomb, that saved our lives," he said.

Rhodes lives within a mile of his boyhood home near Clear Spring, where he raises cattle for auction.

His home is filled with war souvenirs, including German pistols and rifles that he collected as the 778th stormed across Europe. Three of the rifles are spoils of war that he seized from Germans after they surrendered to him behind a barn on a cold and rainy day in 1945.

Rhodes said he was looking for solid ground to park his Sherman tank and had just turned the corner of the barn when he encountered the enemy soldiers. He thought fast, telling the soldiers in German that everything would be all right.

"I'll never forget it," he said. "If I didn't know those few German words ... I'd be dead."

A short time later, he turned the prisoners over to American infantrymen.

"I told them not to kill the prisoners," Rhodes said. "I wonder if those three boys are still alive."

A hearing problem had kept Rhodes out of the service until he was drafted on Oct. 28, 1942. He became a drill sergeant and later shipped out to Europe in September 1944 -- three months after the Allied invasion at Normandy.

Rhodes said he remembers the inferior treatment the enlisted men received aboard the troop ship. Officers dined on ham and turkey, while the enlisted men were given baked beans for breakfast and stew for dinner.

The 778th arrived in Cherbourg, France, on Sept. 15, 1944. The tankers didn't see combat until November, when they were ordered to advance on Maizieres-Les-Metz, a French village that was defended by the Waffen SS.

"The SS would not give up," he said. "You mostly had to kill them."

Rhodes received the Distinguished Service Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor, for heroism during the battle.

"In order to guide his own tank along the narrow streets of the village and to direct the fire of his 75mm gun he fearlessly exposed himself in the turret to enemy fire," according to the narrative that accompanied the award. "When a 75mm shell stuck in the chamber of the gun, Sergeant Rhodes calmly dismounted from the tank and although under intense enemy fire dislodged the projectile with a rammer staff. He then remounted the tank and resumed his mission, and while firing his gun suffered a broken arm from the recoil. Refusing to leave the tank, he bravely continued in action, killing and capturing many of the enemy, until after five hours he finally lost consciousness from the pain of his injury."

Rhodes said three of the five tanks in his column were destroyed.

"That's when I was a crazy man," he said. "I lost my mind that day."

Rhodes was taken to a field hospital, where he was treated, then taken to Paris. He later was flown to a hospital in Bristol, England.

"There were boys missing arms and legs," Rhodes said of the other patients in the hospital. "They weren't interested in me."

Rhodes said his arm began to heal on its own before the doctors finally worked their way to him.

"They left it alone when they noticed it had healed," he said.

Rhodes said his spirits soared when he left the hospital and returned to the front because he wanted to be reunited with his friends.

"A few of them got killed," he said.

The 778th crossed the Rhine River on March 25, 1945. Only one tank at a time crossed the pontoon bridge in order to avoid the risk of having multiple tanks destroyed by German fire.

As the tankers pressed on, they discovered the bodies of dead Jews and Russians whom the Nazis used for slave labor.

"They were stacked up like cordwood," he said.

Rhodes said his unit was moving so fast that the men rarely bathed or washed their clothes. On occasion, the Americans would take clean underwear from the fieldpacks of dead Germans. The 778th enjoyed an additional prize if the fieldpacks contained rations, which consisted of sardines and sauerkraut.

"I liked those sardines," he said.

Rhodes said the 778th was in Glockelberg, Czechoslovakia, when they were told that the Germans had surrendered.

Rhodes was discharged in December 1945, and ran a tavern for 10 years in Clear Spring before he bought a farm.

"I didn't know the difference between flour and wheat," he said. "But I saw the value of a farmer."

Rhodes said the horrors of war persuaded him to never get married or have children.

"It took me a while to get adjusted," he said. "I've lost a lot of friends. I'm lucky. I'm very lucky. It's a stout life I've lived."

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