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All American: Merrifield veteran paradropped into Sicily, liberated concentration camp

Ralph Yeager is pictured during his days in the 82nd Airborne. 2 / 3
WWII veteran Ralph Yeager sits inside the kitchen at his home in Merrifield. Yeager was part of the famous 82nd Airborne Division, which fought in some of the war's most pivotal battles. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

MERRIFIELD - Ralph Yeager is fiercely proud of his time as a member of the famed 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, even though it took him near the darkest parts of human existence.

He was born near Wadena, to a farm family hit hard by the Great Depression. To earn money to send back home, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, and later, the Minnesota National Guard. When war broke out, he found his yearlong hitch with the guard had been extended to include the duration of the war, so he thought he might as well join the paratroopers.

The 93-year-old Yeager is an avid student of the history of the war he fought in. He knows the context for his own actions, and the actions of his unit. He was a mess sergeant with a field artillery battery in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment - later the 505th Regimental Combat Team - in the 82nd Airborne Division, the "All Americans." There's a large 82nd Airborne division patch sign on the side of his house, and he can rattle off facts about their part in the campaign to save the world.

"The 82nd Division was in combat in World War II for 395 days, and they had over 100 percent casualties," he said. "I was told that my battalion fired 18,000 (artillery) rounds."

Although it seems like a statistical impossibility, American units in World War II could have more than 100 percent casualties because of the replacement system. "Replacements" were soldiers that joined a unit long after it had been initially trained and sent into battle. They were intended to replace men who had been killed in combat, but the inexperienced newcomers often were killed themselves, so the casualty totals exceeded the number of men the unit started with initially.

Many soldiers joined the paratroopers because pay was significantly higher than the regular infantry. As Yeager would soon learn, however, they earned every penny by risking their lives.

During a training jump in North Africa, one of the engines of the plane Yeager was riding in caught fire. The pilots shut the flaming right engine off, and ran the left engine at full speed to keep the plane in the air. Although the paratroopers were all geared up with parachutes already, they were ordered not to jump from the crippled aircraft. The jump door was on the left side of the plane, and they feared the force of the red-lined engine would knock the paratroopers against the tail. The pilot skillfully landed the plane on one wheel without further incident, but it got Yeager acquainted with the danger he had signed up for.

Sicily

Yeager jumped with the 505th during its part in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of the large island of Sicily off the Italian coast.

He remembers the paratroopers jumped extremely low - 700 or 800 feet off the ground. He guided his parachute to what he thought was a ditch. As he plummeted toward the earth, though, he realized it was a stone wall.

Luckily, Yeager hit the wall rear-end-first, slid off, then crawled over.

He was equipped with a "cricket," a crude toy that made a clacking noise, which the Americans used to identify each other in the dark. It wasn't until the morning that paratroopers were organized after the initial chaos of the landing, he recalled.

Once he was on the ground, Yeager had several close calls as Americans struggled to take over the island.

At one point, he was part of a bazooka team sent out on patrol near the coast. The GIs saw a telltale cloud of dust just like those German tanks kicked up, and Yeager prepared to take a shot at the panzer as it approached.

As the vehicle came into view, however, Yeager saw it was actually American - but that didn't stop him.

"We 'captured' it anyway," Yeager said.

Getting their hands on an intact DUKW or "duck" was a godsend to the lightly equipped paratroopers, who otherwise would have had to get around on foot. Yeager proudly turned it over to his superiors.

His battery also helped repel an Axis counterattack.

"We had 12 howitzers, plus bazookas," he said. "They stopped them. The gun crews, most of them got the Silver Star for it."

Yeager helped man a .50-caliber machine gun, guarding the battery's command post. The crew was trying to escape the scorching summer heat by resting in the shade of an olive tree near where the gun was set up, when they suddenly saw a pair of German Me-109 fighter planes. The planes were flying low, just above the treetops, and the Americans hadn't heard them as they approached.

The crew leapt up and ran to the machine gun, too late to fire at the Germans as they flew by.

"I could almost see the colors of their eyes," Yeager said of the German pilots. "That's the only chance I had in Sicily to shoot one of them buggers."

After Sicily was liberated, the danger wasn't over. At one point, Yeager watched as a lieutenant was killed while trying to disarm an antitank mine in his lap.

"The darn thing blew up, blew him all to pieces," he said.

The officer was blown apart, and Yeager heard shrapnel whiz by him, hitting a clerk that was standing nearby. When Yeager looked back, he saw the grisly remains of the lieutenant that tried to disarm the mine.

"His head was separate, laying there with a helmet on," he said.

Normandy

The 82nd jumped again during the D-Day invasion, but since Yeager was with the field artillery, he went ashore the next day on the newly established beachhead rather than parachuting in. He remembered disembarking from a troopship on Utah Beach and seeing the forest of barrage balloons hanging from the Allied ships gathered in the English Channel. The balloons were designed to suspend cables that could ensnare any low-flying German planes trying to strafe the landing.

He took photos of the devastation in the town of Sainte-Mère-Église, liberated by his comrades in the 82nd just days before. The streets were so clogged with rubble that bulldozers had to clear the way for traffic to get through, Yeager said.

Nevertheless, French citizens streamed out to greet the Americans, giving them wine and kisses from the girls. In return, the GIs gave them gum and chocolate bars, Yeager remembered.

During a suspected gas attack, Yeager saw one of his comrades start to writhe around on the ground. Everyone assumed that something had malfunctioned on the man's gas mask, and he was suffering from the effects of the poison - but that was only half right. In reality, there was no gas being dropped, and the man simply didn't remove a tab on the mask that allowed to wearer to breathe.

"We kept tightening his gas mask, we thought he was getting gassed," Yeager remembered.

Having made two of the 82nd's stints in combat, he was able to stay behind when they jumped a third time. Yeager stayed in England while the 82nd took part in Operation Market-Garden, the Allied attempt to liberate Holland and open a corridor into Germany. He was probably lucky, as the campaign turned out to be a famously costly failure.

The Battle of the Bulge

However, he was there when the 82nd was hastily scrambled to help plug the gap opened up during the German counteroffensive that began the Battle of the Bulge. As a member of the field artillery, Yeager was behind the front lines, but by no means was he out of danger. Both in Normandy and in the Bulge, the Germans frequently rained artillery fire down on Yeager and his comrades. The enemy rounds combined with the nearby American howitzer fire to create a near-constant din.

"It was booming pretty near all the time, it didn't hardly let up," he said.

The GIs were careful to cover their dugouts in Belgium with logs and dirt to help protect against "tree bursts." The deadly phenomenon happened when one of the countless trees in the Ardennes Forest was hit by a shell, so that thousands of splinters became organic shrapnel.

"It wasn't very pleasant, I tell you," he said. "We hunted cover in a hurry."

Yeager also had an encounter with the most terrible of all the German bombs: the V1 and V2 rocket. He heard one of these "vengeance weapons" as it passed over his position to its target at Liege, Belgium.

"It sounded like a four-cylinder engine, like the Model T," he said.

Evil in black and white

Although the rockets were no doubt terrifying, Yeager encountered a much more sinister Nazi idea near the war's end.

In early May of 1945, Yeager and the 82nd liberated the Wöbbelin concentration camp near the city of Ludwigslust, Germany.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wöbbelin had only been in operation for several months before the Allies found it. The Nazis had created it as a fall-back camp, a place to put prisoners that had been evacuated from larger, more substantial camps as the Germans retreated from the Allied advance. Nevertheless, the conditions quickly became hellish as the Germans left the inmates - Yeager remembers them as Poles doing forced labor - to starve.

Yeager remembers being already familiar with the stench of rotting bodies when he came to Wöbbelin - he had been near clusters of dead Italian soldiers in Sicily. But still, the odor was remarkable.

"If you got within a block of the place, you could smell it," Yeager said. "They starved them to death, that's what it was. These people are nothing but skin and bones. But, it was part of the war to us."

Yeager still holds on to evidence of the starvation. He took pictures at the camp, including a photo of one of the estimated 1,000 bodies the Allies found.

The photo appears to be of a man, although the corpse is so skeletal from hunger it's difficult to be certain. Although it doesn't show up in the photo, Yeager distinctly remembers the body had a gold tooth.

Yeager also keeps another set of remarkable photos, taken under much different circumstances. While he was helping to process the thousands of captured German soldiers who surrendered to the U.S. at war's end, he took a Carl Zeiss camera from one of them. It was a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that had a timed shutter to allow people to take pictures of themselves. It caught Yeager's eye because of how fancy it was, but arguably the images on film it held are much more valuable now.

Yeager traded the camera itself to another GI for an ornate hunting shotgun, a Luger pistol and $10, but he kept the German soldier's film and had it developed.

Therefore, just a few album pages away from the photo of the dead man from Wöbbelin, there are pictures the German likely took of himself and his friends. A soldier in his uniform, leaning casually and looking dapper. A group photo of what could be a picnic outing - the Germans paired off with dates, men and women smiling and sitting on the grass.

Yeager said he didn't harbor resentment toward the German soldiers he encountered, who he said were "just like us." In fact, he actually commanded a work detail of German POWs in the mess hall for a time, and he praised their work ethic. Rather, it was the Nazi high command that drew his ire.

"I didn't hate all the German soldiers," he said. "I just hated Hitler and (Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph) Goebbels and a few of them that were behind it."

His voice cracked and tears filled his eyes as he talked about George Washington and Nathan Hale. All of America's patriots would have died for nothing had the Nazis won.

"If that Nazi flag flew over our capital, we wouldn't have any freedoms, he said. "We'd all be gone."

"I wasn't no hero, but I'll tell you this: we knew what we was fighting for," he said.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.

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