Traveler, writer, reviewer, all-round observer. I like anything cool & fast, but occasionally sit at a cafe watching the world go by.
Activated in 1918 during WWI, the 1st Army is the oldest field army in U.S. history. During WWII, the 1st Army, along with 18 year-old PFC Paul Renda, came under the command of General Omar Bradley. “We never saw the brass. The highest ranking officer I ever came across was a 1st Lieutenant.” Paul chuckled. “What you see in Hollywood films are hogwash.”
Having earned the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and 2 major campaigns ribbons, he continues to serve as a volunteer. “Everyone in my family is gone, and my wife passed away recently. What else am I to do?” While vintage WWII aircraft flew overhead during the Memorial Day event we were attending, tears welled up from his eyes as he thought about the people he had lost in his life.
Taking a moment to regain his composure, he spoke to me about his experience when he was with the 39th Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division in the 1st Army from 1944 to 1946. “You grew up real fast in WWII. And I lost a lot of buddies. My biggest regret is not knowing their real names.” He started his journey by being sent to Scotland, then bused to England, and on to La Havre.
“When I got to La Havre, all they said was ‘Here’s your outfit.’ Our officer, a 1st Lieutenant, was responsible for our platoon. His name was Zeek. I never got his real name -no idea. He bawled me out when I first reported to him for saluting. I got blasted for that! He said, ‘You’re in the front now. You don’t salute me, you don’t call me sir!’ He didn’t even have an insignia, but he was a fantastic leader. He really was.”
Paul’s Division went from France to Belgium and Germany fighting Hitler’s forces. “We were in a forest, and we heard the Tiger tanks in the distance, so we waited for first light in the morning to take the village. Zeek called in for artillery and gave them approximate coordinates -range, distance, height. They hit them on the first round! He got a Silver Star for it. He deserved it.”
As any good soldier would do, they continued following orders, marching from town to town. “Most of the time we didn’t even know where we were until we looked at the signs once we entered a town. At one place, we came across a couple of concentration camps. We thought they were factories!” His Regiment freed and assisted Nordhausen and Dachau concentration camps in Germany.
Used as a holding area for those too weak to work in labor camps, Nordhausen was described as ‘The hell for other concentration camps’ -here prisoners were starved and given no medical treatments. And Dachau was among the first concentration camps to be opened in Germany by Heinrich Himmler. Prisoners there were in constant fear of being tortured by one form or another.
Despite the good Paul’s platoon had done, not all missions went well for them. At 19 years old, Paul earned his Purple Heart when a mine exploded nearby killing 11 of his buddies. “We were marching through a grassy area when a buddy tripped a bouncing betty.” A bouncing betty is a type of mine that jumps into the air a few feet before exploding. “Well, that set off another one and both exploded. We lost a lot of men that day. In war, you lose friends you don’t even know their names.” He put his head down as his eyes began tearing up again.
We took a moment enjoying the air show and armored vehicle parade. He leaned in and in a low voice asked, “You want to know a secret? During war, the hardest part was basic training. In combat, anything goes. Basic training was much more difficult. Very stressful and strenuous. After the end of the war, when they discharged us, it took only 8 minutes. Getting in was a long arduous process, but discharge, 8 minutes and you’re out. They gave me my $3.50 in Trenton and said, ‘You can go home now.'”
Before the war, Paul lived in Brooklyn with his parents. After being discharged at the age of 20 in 1946, he didn’t go back home. Instead, he rented a place in Deer Park, Long Island, becoming a pharmacist, then a teacher, and finally a technician at Grumman Aerospace where he stayed until retirement. These days, you’ll find him enjoying his time sharing what he knows while volunteering at the American Airpower and the Cradle of Aviation museums, as well as helping wherever he can at the very nursing home where his wife passed away recently.
To learn more about his division during WWII, and the concentration camps he helped free, as well as the museums he volunteers at, you can find historical information on the following links:
My review of Memorial Day Weekend at the American Airpower Museum: http://wp.me/p41X97-yt
American Airpower Museum: http://americanairpowermuseum.com/
Cradle of Aviation Museum: https://www.cradleofaviation.org/
The 1st Army: http://www.first.army.mil/content.aspx?ContentID=200
39th Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division: http://9thinfantrydivision.net/39th-infantry-regiment/
39th Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division: http://www.easy39th.com/history.php
Nordhausen concentration camp: http://www.jewishgen.org/ForgottenCamps/Camps/NordhausenEng.html
Dachau concentration camp: http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/