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Interview with Walter B. Stevens [9/8/2001]

Paul Stevens:

Recording for the Veteran's History Project with my dad, Walter B. Stevens, a veteran of World War II in the U.S. Army. We're conducting this in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on August 8th, 2001. Dad was born October 10th, 1916, and currently lives at 1618 11th Avenue North, Fort Dodge, Iowa, 50501. He served in the army and reached the rank of captain before his discharge. Dad, we're going to keep this informal, so let's talk a little bit about what things were like at the time World War II broke out and your involvement began. You were living in Nebraska, or first lived in Nebraska, then Minnesota, right?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, I was born and raised in Nebraska, but I was living in Brainerd, Minnesota, at the time of World War II. I went to Brainerd in 1938, and I was editor of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch at the time of World War II and was involved in much of the publicity concerning our entry into the war. I went into service then on February 11th, 1942.

Paul Stevens:

You went in after Pearl Harbor, obviously. Did you know that the army was probably going to be -- what was going to happen because of all that was going on and that, after Pearl Harbor?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, even before Pearl Harbor, it looked very much like we were going to get into the war. And, of course, Pearl Harbor brought it to a head. And from that time on, Pearl Harbor being December 7th, 1941, it was obvious that I would be in service soon. I was, I had a fairly low number in the draft and expected to be called up most any time.

Paul Stevens:

So you enlisted or were drafted?

Walter B. Stevens:

I was drafted. I went in with the draft group on February 11th, 1942, went to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, to be inducted.

Paul Stevens:

Okay. Now, there were other members of the Stevens family from Bow Valley, Nebraska, that also served in World War II? Were some of them already in, or did they join later?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, I had one older brother who was in the National Guard, the 34th Division of the National Guard. That was Guard composed of Iowa and Minnesota troops. He went in a year before Pearl Harbor when the National Guard was called up. Subsequently, two other brothers went into service, one in the Finance Corps and one in the infantry. So, at one time, we had five members of our family in the military service during World War II. That'd be the four brothers: Ed, the oldest; Al; Fritz; and myself; and our sister, Esther, who was an army nurse. So five of our ten members of the family served in World War II.

Paul Stevens:

What did your parents think of that? I imagine that had to be pretty scary for them, to have half of their family in the service.

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, you're right. It was a very trying time for parents, especially when they had that many members of their family on military duty.

Paul Stevens:

Was your dad in the service?

Walter B. Stevens:

No, he was not. He was born in Germany, but he was, and he was about two years old when he came over here, but he was not called into service during World War I.

Paul Stevens:

So, you went to Fort Snelling?

Walter B. Stevens:

Fort Snelling for my induction. I was sworn into the service there, and from there, after about two weeks of getting used to the army and getting supplied and so forth, I got, I was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for my basic training.

Paul Stevens:

Did you know anyone going in or were you -- anyone from Minnesota or Nebraska that was with you through that?

Walter B. Stevens:

I went in with the group from Brainerd, but we were separated at the time we went into basic training. So I really didn't know anyone at the time I left for Fort -- in the group that left for Fort Snelling -- or for Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Paul Stevens:

So, after you went on through basic, which was six, eight weeks?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yeah. Basic training at Fort Sill was in an unusual outfit. It was in what we called the mule pack artillery. If you were five foot, ten inches tall, and you weighed 160 pounds, and there was a need to fill a mule pack training unit, you automatically had a "P" put on the back of your uniform, "P" standing for pack, and you were a pack artilleryman. You took care of mules, and you marched with them into the mountains, and loaded the 75-pack Howitzer onto the backs of six of those mules, and that's how we got the major part of our basic training.

Paul Stevens:

Did you become closely acquainted with any of the mules?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, more than I wanted to be, really. So, but we took care of mules better than we took care of men back then. They were a precious commodity, and you had to take care, take good care of them. But I escaped from that by getting into a group that went into Officer Candidate School, OCS as it was called then.

Walter B. Stevens:

And where was that?

Paul Stevens:

That was also at Fort Sill. Fort Sill is the field artillery center of the army, or one of the major ones, anyway. And the OCS, Officer Candidate School, is at Fort Sill. So I went in there in the summer of 1942, got my commission after 90 days in September of 1942, became a second lieutenant. And then I was assigned to Camp Bowie, Texas, for my first duty as an officer.

Paul Stevens:

What did that entail?

Walter B. Stevens:

I joined an old army outfit there, 77th Field Artillery Regiment at that time. And it was in training there. It had been in training for about a year when we -- when five of us, who were OCS graduates -- they were good friends of mine, several of them, most of them were -- joined it as brand new second lieutenant.

Paul Stevens:

So how long were you there?

Walter B. Stevens:

We were there, we were there then until we were called up to -- for overseas duty, which was the latter part of 1942. We were alerted for overseas duty, and we were then sent over to the East Coast to get ready for boarding a transport to go overseas.

Paul Stevens:

You took a train, I imagine, or what?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yep. Yes, we did. We took a train, took a train to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and that's where we got ready for embarkation.

Paul Stevens:

What was your feeling about the war? And I suppose you had to be apprehensive of the thought of going into combat for the first time, and was the country in a mood, pretty united that this is where we needed to be in terms of going to war?

Walter B. Stevens:

Most certainly so, because of Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor solidified the country. And one of the best things about the servicemen in World War II was that there was a united front, united backing for troops. Anywhere you went, you got the best treatment. People went out of their way to be cordial, friendly, helpful in any way they could. And we all realized, too, that there was absolutely no way out of getting into war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So that made you -- put us in the proper frame of mind. We knew that this was essential to our country's future, to our country's -- that we needed to win this war or we all would be living under terrible conditions.

Paul Stevens:

So you reached the East Coast and that was about when?

Walter B. Stevens:

In February of 1943, just about a year after I'd entered the army.

Paul Stevens:

Okay, what happened then?

Walter B. Stevens:

Well, we boarded -- there were 5 -- we were among 5,000 troops who boarded the transport, Uruguay, and began what we later learned was a convoy to North Africa where the World War was then in progress. We boarded the Uruguay on February -- in early February, and four days later, we had one of the most memorable experiences of our entire war experience, of our entire time in combat. Our transport, the Uruguay, it was hit by one of our own tankers in the -- during the zigging and zagging, which was necessary in the black-out, which accompanied all transport movements. We were traveling in a pitch dark area -- conditions, of course, with no lights at all.

Paul Stevens:

This was because of German submarines?

Walter B. Stevens:

The possibility of German submarines, which were definitely in that area. And somehow or other, the steering mechanism on one of the tankers became either faulty or the operator miscalculated and rammed into the starboard side of our transport, gouging a huge whole in the, in our ship. That resulted in the first loss of life of troops that we were, that we had anything to do with. There were six missing and seven known dead as a result of that accident. There was a sergeant, Sergeant Cecil Davis, who was one of our artillery unit members who was in sick bay at the time, had a most unusual experience. He fell from sick bay onto the deck of the tanker and survived, was rescued later and suffered no, really no injuries at all. It was kind of a miracle experience. Several other men who had fallen onto the deck of that tanker then slid into the ocean and drowned. But Davis was, as we referred to him afterwards, Lucky Davis, because he survived without injury and then rejoined us when we limped into Bermuda for -- three days after that accident. Our transport was dropped out of this huge convoy and accompanied by several destroyers for protection, went into Bermuda, which was 800 miles away. We joined -- we doubled the garrison on the island of Bermuda at that time. And we were there for three weeks while we awaited another convoy for North Africa.

Paul Stevens:

How many of you were there?

Walter B. Stevens:

There were about 4,500 to 5,000 troops on board the Uruguay that were involved, and that we learned later created quite a terrible condition for the troops of Bermuda, because they weren't equipped from the standpoint of supplies or food, handling that many more men. But it was a wonderful deal for us, because we enjoyed three weeks on a beautiful island, and there wasn't much duty to do. So we were able to ride the trolley across the island and have a Bermudan education in the middle of the war.

Paul Stevens:

So the vacation finally ended, though.

Walter B. Stevens:

Right. After three weeks we rejoined another convoy which went to North Africa. This time we made it. And we were -- by that time we were, had to be completely outfitted, re-outfitted, because we'd lost a lot of our equipment, a lot of our personal belongings as a result of that, being rammed by the tanker. So we had to wait for getting re-outfitted, get our firing, our Howitzers in better shape again, and getting ready for our part in what we thought would be the end of the fighting in the North African war. Actually we -- by the time we had moved up, we were alerted, we were ready to move into action in North Africa, but just as we moved up to the front, the war there ended with our victory and we were -- never did fire a shot in North Africa.

Paul Stevens:

I thought we would go through your service during the war and then maybe come back for some highlights. So from North Africa, where did your contingent go?

Walter B. Stevens:

We were pulled back from the, what was the front in North Africa into the Bizerte area, and we were then ready for the invasion of Sicily. And we took -- I should mention, too, our weapon was the 155 Howitzer, which has a range of six or seven miles, and we have in our outfit, we had, we had -- at the time, we had two battalions in the 77th Field Artillery Regiment. Ours was the first battalion. Each battalion has three firing batteries, a service battery, and a headquarters battery. Most of my service was with Battery C, Charlie, and as the firing executive was my position through much of the combat. After North Africa, we prepared for the July 1943 invasion of Sicily, and we were involved in action in Sicily. That's where we did our first firing, but that was a short-lived war.

Paul Stevens:

Who was the general that led that?

Walter B. Stevens:

General Patton was -- George S. Patton was one of the -- was the leader in that action, yeah, in Sicily. And we did see Patton several times during the course of that Sicilian war. As I said, that war only lasted, or that Sicilian action only lasted about three months. And then we were pulled back to the Palermo area in Sicily and awaited our next orders. Up in Sicily, we moved into southern Italy to join the forces that were in action there. My memories of southern Italy revolve mainly around the terrible mud and rains, which were just incessant. They were a mixed blessing, however. We had, we had a lot of difficulty in getting our guns into position because of the rain and the quagmires that they caused, but they did lessen the impact of the shelling that we had, that we absorbed there. The mud would absorb the shell, and there wasn't quite as much of a shattering of the spilling off from the fragments, and a lot of wounds were and fatalities were avoided because of that, because of the mud. So it did bring us -- the mud -- it was, as I say, a mixed blessing. It was terrible to move weapons and guns and --

Paul Stevens:

Were you using --

Walter B. Stevens:

Trucks through all that mud.

Paul Stevens:

You weren't using mules. Trucks were --

Walter B. Stevens:

No, no. No, it was strictly motorized. But the trucks would get stuck and the guns were hard to put into position wherever we went. And we had -- there was considerably fire -- a considerable amount of firing, too, in southern Italy. And it was kind of a stalemated operation there at that time. That would have been the latter part of 1943. And toward the end, we had our Christmas Day turkey dinner, and it was raining most of the time prior to that, but sunshine, there was sunshine at noon, seemed to be a very good time for it on Christmas day. The latter part of 1943, we were preparing for another invasion then. That turned out to be the invasion of Anzio. That was the end run around the coast of Italy, a maneuver that has drawn a lot of criticism in the post-war studies. Many critics think that it was an unnecessary and ill-advised military operation. But we were right in the thick of it anyway. And we did land on Anzio in January of 1944. The landing itself was without incident. There was very little defense, very little German defense. But soon after, the Germans moved troops in. They had the high ground. They had the beachhead pretty well under their eyes and under the attack by their weapons, by their long-range artillery pieces. And there was real danger for a while that the Anzio beachhead would be a total disaster and really a fear that the area would have to be evacuated and troops would have to be pulled out. We were in one field artillery position on the brink of the Mussolini Canal for 111 days. When we were at Fort Sill and getting our field artillery training, we were advised a that a field artillery battery, firing battery, never stays in one position over six or seven days, because by that time if you're in any kind of action at all, the enemy has you zeroed in. But there was just no other place to go in the Anzio beachhead. If we had moved, all we would be doing would be replacing or changing position with some other firing battery. So there was no point in it. We just stayed in that one position 111 days.

Paul Stevens:

Were you zeroed in?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, we were. But we did have, we did have the benefit of the canal right in front of us, and so it was difficult for the Germans to get any direct hits. We did lose personnel. We lost, I believe, about half of our -- half of the men that we lost in the entire war were victims, were received their injuries or were killed in the Anzio portion of our action.

Paul Stevens:

Any real close friends?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes. I was firing battery, Battery C, at that time. We were the officers that direct the fire of the four artillery pieces, as we called them, in each battery. On Battery B, firing exec was a very -- my best friend in the army, Randy Matson of Ames, Iowa. And he did suffer -- as he was what we call "laying the battery," giving instructions in the direction that each of those four Howitzers would be pointed in order to fire the area that we had assigned to us -- as he was doing that, he was hit by a round of German artillery and seriously injured. He ultimately lost his -- lost a leg, and he had lost much of the use of his right arm, and was evacuated, of course. His life was really saved by his battery commander, another good friend of mine named Bob Lang, and he came to his rescue immediately. And of course, the medics were there, and he was evacuated and sent back to the States. And he was actually in an army hospital for some time, even after World War II before he returned to Ames. So that was quite a loss to all of us.

Paul Stevens:

Had to be a very chilling experience for just sitting there, right?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, it was. And knowing that just a few hundred yards more in a different direction, it could very well have been me that would have been hit. And of course, the fact that someone who was your best friend did receive an injury like that, we were afraid for some time that he would, he would have lost his life, too. It brought the war home very closely, very sharply to us.

Paul Stevens:

So where did -- what happened after that?

Walter B. Stevens:

Well, after, we were on the beachhead for -- from January through May. In the latter part of May, we had built up our troops on the beachhead sufficiently to make a move out of that area. So we moved out the latter part of May, late in May, and there was not too much opposition then. We moved ahead, and we went through Rome as triumphal troops just about the time of the Normandy invasion, which got most of the publicity, of course. So, we were taking Rome and being greeted by overjoyed Italian people there at just about the time that the big news occurred in Normandy, and the Normandy invasion was occurring.

Paul Stevens:

Did you hear immediately about Normandy, or was this something that was communicated?

Walter B. Stevens:

Well, yeah. We heard about it the same day that it happened, of course. And we went through Rome and went about a mile north of Rome and went into positions there. And we were in a lull there for a couple of weeks, so during that period, we heard quite a bit about the invasion.

Paul Stevens:

Okay, so we're into Italy. Where did the war take you next?

Walter B. Stevens:

Well, we, we were in that area for several more weeks, and then -- or months, rather -- and then we were pulled out of Italy and we went to our, still another invasion, and we went into southern France. And we were, we went there in August of 1944. And there wasn't a whole lot of opposition there either. We fought on our way north from southern France, and then on into Germany, and we were in Germany at the time the war ended in May of 1945. The war in Europe ended at that time. I was transferred shortly after, shortly after we left Anzio -- or, I was transferred from firing battery to service battery, and I was battery commander there for a time, and that's when I got my captaincy, promotion to captaincy. Later, I was a battalion motor officer. I served in that position, which also calls for a captain, for some time. I knew little at all, and still know little at all, about mortars, but I had some excellent NCO's, staff sergeants, who were skilled mechanics and pulled me out of a lot of problems during that time.

Paul Stevens:

So you're -- so the war with Germany ended in May of 1945, and you were where at the time, Dad?

Walter B. Stevens:

We were at the site of the former Olympics, the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area, and that's where our service battery at that time was bivouacked. And we had been out of action for some time. We had a beautiful set up at that time, in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen. It's a city. It's the center of German winter sports and had been the scene of the 1936 Winter Olympics. And our other troops were at -- our other units of our battalion were located nearby. The battalion after the, after the end of the war in Europe was in the vicinity of Altenau, Germany, which was not too far from the border. And that's where most of us were in bivouac at the time we heard news of the end of the war.

Paul Stevens:

What happened with you then?

Walter B. Stevens:

After the fighting ended, troops were returned on the basis of the number of points they had. Points were assigned for time in combat, time overseas, and also for whether you were married and had children, number of dependents you might have. I had many points -- I had quite a few points on the basis of time overseas, but I was single at the time, so my point total kept me over there longer than some of the other married men, and men with fathers -- men with children, who were, who came back shortly after the war ended. I didn't come back until the middle of November of '45 because of my low point total. And we spent that time, and many of us got leaves to go here and there around the country, around the country of Europe, or we organized softball games. There was an attempt to bring entertainment to the area. I saw some major league ball players in action in Munich, I remember, and various other things like that. They tried to keep us -- the army tried to keep us amused and entertained --

Paul Stevens:

Out of trouble?

Walter B. Stevens:

While you were there. And out of trouble, which was not easy, because it was a time for relaxation and people were, the troops were anxious to get back home.

Paul Stevens:

Was there resentment among the German people, that you were kind of the occupying force right then and there, or what?

Walter B. Stevens:

No, there was nothing like that shown. There was, I think, a feeling of relief that the war had ended on their part as well as ours. And we got good treatment. In fact, while we were in action, we bivouacked with some of the troops, but these weren't German families, but French people on the German border. We got, all my experience with natives over there was a positive one. We got good relations. We had good support from them.

Paul Stevens:

So, when you went back home to Hartington, Nebraska, that was about when?

Walter B. Stevens:

I came back -- yeah, I came back to the States, to the States in mid November of '45, and I was separated from service at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. And because I had quite a bit of terminal leave, as it was called, my actual discharge was not until February of 1946. I had that much terminal leave built up. But for all intents and purposes, I was out of the army by the time I left Leavenworth. And by then, came back to Hartington, Nebraska, where my family lived.

Paul Stevens:

How was the Walter Stevens that went into the service different from the Walter Stevens that came out of the service? What did it do to you? What did it bring to you, that experience?

Walter B. Stevens:

Well, for one thing it brought me 30 more pounds. I weighed 160 pounds when I went into the service, and I weighed 190 when I left.

Paul Stevens:

So army food wasn't all that bad?

Walter B. Stevens:

No, and I think the training, the rigorous physical discipline, physical training and exercising helped me physically. I think I was in better shape. I know I was in better shape than when I went into the service.

Paul Stevens:

What about mentally?

Walter B. Stevens:

Mentally, it was certainly a maturing experience. You can't help but have memories, bad memories. But you also have some wonderful memories too. Like most ex-servicemen, particularly servicemen who've seen combat, been overseas any length of time, you appreciate the camaraderie that existed during that time and the lasting friendships that you make with men that you would never otherwise have known, and they came from all, all walks of life and all parts of the country. It's a real melting pot. And it isn't just meeting casually, either, like you do in business and the professional world. In the army and overseas, particularly, you live with these people and they're part of your family. They really are family. And that extends over. I didn't realize that so much until we started having annual reunions in 1985. That odd that we waited that long. But we were in correspondence with some of my good friends during that time, or before that time. But, you, like I say, you make lasting friendships, and you can see the better side of a lot of people who your first impression might be, might not be good, but then you see them under trying conditions, see how they react, and you admire them. You see the best side of people. You also see the worst side of some. We had, and I'm sure every unit has an old army officer who was the prime example of the worst side of a person. He was, fancied himself as being quite a military genius, and he lorded it over a little too much, we thought, the enlisted men. When he got into action, he was, he immediately became a basket case and really had to be evacuated. He couldn't stand the pressure that was involved. So you never know what type of person is going to react bravely under trying conditions. Those that are, a lot of them put up a great front, they risk, they lord it over other men because of their position, sometimes turn out to be the lesser in many respects when the chips are down, when the trying conditions really occur.

Paul Stevens:

Was it a difficult adjustment to come back to civilian life after what, four years was it, overseas? Or something close to that? Was it almost, not boring, but to be in such a different state of your life and then come back to pick up where you left off? How was that to adjust do?

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, it did take quite a bit of adjustment, as it did for everyone who had been in the service for any length of time. I was actually in service four years, and overseas 33 months of that time. That's an unusual -- most World War II veterans haven't been, hadn't been overseas that long. Some had, some had been over there longer than that. So it did require quite an adjustment. But it went well.

Paul Stevens:

What were some of the adjustments?

Walter B. Stevens:

Just getting used to an entirely different way of life. Getting back into the civilian mode of living. And adjusting, first of all, to being back in the United States after 33 months of traveling around Europe as a G.I.

Paul Stevens:

Did you notice that anything had changed?

Walter B. Stevens:

One of the best things about returning as a World War II veteran was that, the reaction you got from the public. It was the war that everyone knew was necessary, and if you had been a participant, you got a very cordial and friendly greeting and welcome back, and so that was a boon for World War II veterans as opposed the Vietnam, and maybe to a lesser extent, the Korean War veterans, too. But there were some noticeable changes, but some very welcome changes in coming back and seeing your family, getting ready to go back into civilian life.

Paul Stevens:

Now, you were a newspaper man before you went in and never wavered in that being what you wanted to do when you came out, right?

Walter B. Stevens:

No, I've always, I knew I still, I knew I wanted to go back into newspapering. I had toyed a little with the idea of getting a college education because of the G.I. bill, which helped so many veterans get their college degree. But the fact that I quite early decided to be married to and I proposed to the girl that I married not too long after returning from overseas. I had known her for quite a few years before that. That influenced me to do, get right back to work and go back into newspapering. I could have returned to Brainerd, Minnesota, where I had been editor, because your job is, awaits you after you're called into service. But the owners of that paper, the owners of the chain that owned that paper, asked me to go to Excelsior Springs, Missouri, as editor there. They needed somebody there more than they did at Brainerd. So I agreed to do that, and I spent about six or seven weeks without a job, or without -- before going back to work. And I then went to Excelsior Springs, Missouri, as editor of The Standard.

Paul Stevens:

You mentioned reunions, and you've had them fairly regularly since 1985 --

Walter B. Stevens:

1985.

Paul Stevens:

Is it a difficult thing to see your friends, including Randy? Obviously it's a difficult thing to see them passing away, and more and more veterans dying, of old age, hopefully. Is that --

Walter B. Stevens:

Yes, that is difficult. And we first met at Fort Sill at a general reunion. And we, the officers in our group would live together more, pretty much during our entire time overseas, decided to have these reunions at some city each year. That was a smaller group and we knew each other very well, and we thought that our wives might enjoy having those meetings, too, and it worked out very well for about 12, 13 years. But as you say, each year, one or two more, one or two of them would be missing, either serious illness or they passed away. And we got to the point two years ago where only about five of us, five or six out of the 23 or 4 who started these annual reunions were able to make it. So we had to discontinue the meetings.

Paul Stevens:

Randy, your best friend, died when?

Walter B. Stevens:

He died about two years ago. It was a bad loss that I was really sorry to have to experience. He had been ill, or seriously ill, for a couple years before that and didn't make the reunions.

Paul Stevens:

There's been so much revival since, in the last few years in the media about World War II, and now the current push to build a World War II monument in Washington. Do you ever feel the significance of what happened then had been forgotten? Or do you think what's happening now is a good thing?

Walter B. Stevens:

Oh, I think what's happening now is a good thing. I think there certainly should be a World War II monument, and I -- [End of Interview]

 
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