PDT Staff Writer
WHEELERSBURG — A hernia kept Everett Williams from taking part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944), but he caught up with World War II in early 1945 just west of the Roer River.
Williams, now 90, was a timber worker, horse trader and muleskinner in the Pine Creek Valley northwest of Wheelersburg when his call came from the draft board.
He took basic training in Missouri as a part of the Army’s 102nd Infantry Division, “The Ozarks,” which played a big role in pushing the German Army back across the Roer, Rhine and Elbe rivers.
The pursuing troops and tanks and trucks of the U.S. and its Allies crossed on pontoon bridges he helped to build.
After completing training, Williams and others in his company were moved to Maryland to embark on the Queen Mary for Scotland and the buildup of forces that would make the Normandy invasion.
But they left without Williams. An Army doctor discovered the hernia and told him he couldn’t go into combat until he had surgery to repair it.
“I was in a pretty bad Jeep wreck in basic training. The driver was killed and I was left with a bad hernia,” Williams said.
After several weeks of recovery, he found himself back taking additional training, including small arms training in Texas.
His trainer was a colonel who had lost a leg in World War I. Williams shot well, earning a medal as a marksman. Then one day the colonel invited him out to a range for some long-range shooting with the M-1 rifles.
“He set up 8-inch bulls eyes at 800 yards. I hit it six out of 10, he hit it seven times. ‘Never stop practicing,’ he told me as we walked away.”
Since Williams had been through basic training once, the Army put him to helping train raw, new recruits.
“I told them when the 13 weeks were up, I was going overseas,” he said.
And so he did. By that time though, instead of having to fight his way across France, he took a troop train, all the way to the edge of Germany. Hitler’s forces continued to try to protect the homeland, but for the most part his armies were on the run.
“There was a big replacement center there. I was part of the replacement troops sent there to fill the spots left by those who had been killed, wounded or captured. They called my name right off. They said I was being placed in an engineering battalion and I was going to the front line, where road workers and bridge builders were needed to keep our boys moving east.”
He would place his M-1 in a rowboat to move the lead lines of a pontoon bridge across the river. He was protected by fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns; sometimes by a smoke screen laid down by a plane.
It was a two-man job, and one time the soldier with him sensed suspicious activity on the opposite shore of a river they were starting a pontoon bridge on.
“He said he was going to jump out of the boat and swim back to our side of the river. I told him, ‘You jump out here and I’m going to shoot you myself.’ He stayed with me and we got the job done.”
EXCHANGE WITH IKE
It was on a road east of the Elbe that Williams came face to face with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commanding general of American forces in the European Theater of Operations.
“Ike” had set up headquarters in London in June 1942 and began the planning to bring 2 million American soldiers across the Atlantic to Britain to prepare for the D-Day invasion. Now, near the close of winter 1945, he was in Germany, spurring the troops on. Allied forces had cleared the west bank of the Roer, west of the Rhine, and moved on to capture Cologne. First Army units had raced across the Rhine when they found Ludendorff Bridge still intact. German soldiers had tried to destroy it, but some of their explosives did not go off.
“I was along side the road repairing tires on one of our supply trucks that had had two blowouts on one side,” Williams remembered. “Ike comes along in his Jeep and stops to see what the trouble is. I told him the cheap tires the Army was using just wouldn’t hold up the load when they heated up. We were all the time fixing flats.”
He said Eisenhower cursed and told him, “Well, hurry up! Get it fixed and get that truck back on the road. We’ve got a war to win!”
By April, Allied armies closed in on Berlin from all directions. Russia had assembled more than 4 million men for the final assault on the eastern front.
Maj. Gen. Frank A. Keating’s Ozark doughboys, who now had a reputation for river crossings, paced the Ninth Army’s whirlwind push to the Rhine and crossed it on April 4. They took more than 4,000 German soldiers prisoner.
“I didn’t have to shoot at anybody,” Williams said. “I’d just throw the bolt on my rifle shut and they’d yell, ‘Comrade! Comrade!’ and lay down their arms.”
The Ozarks were forbidden to cross the Elbe, and the shooting war for them ended on the first day of spring, 1945.
Williams was 35 miles from Berlin when Germany surrendered on May 7, 11 months after American soldiers first came ashore at Normandy.
“I was patching potholes when the whistles and bells went off in all the towns and countryside around us and the German people came into the streets celebrating,” he said.
He didn’t have the points necessary for an “early out,” and it was early 1946 before he was discharged.
He and his wife, Martha Gleim Williams, will celebrate 62 years of marriage on Jan. 2.
They have three daughters, Patty Poole, Jane Jones and Tracy Riehl; two sons, Rick and John; and 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Those are all some of the reasons, he said, that made it worthwhile for him to leave his peaceful valley to put himself in harm’s way.
“It was a hard job, and a lot of our young men died over there,” he said. “We had given Hitler more of a head start than we ever should have. Soldiers on the ground was the only way to stop him. We did that.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.