Odessa's Corbit-Calloway Memorial Library honored veterans by inviting one of them to speak to its patrons Nov. 13. World War II vet Jerry Unruh regaled listeners with stories from his time as a paratrooper with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
Residents with a passion for history or an interest in the World Wars filled Odessa’s Corbit-Calloway Memorial Library Nov. 13 to hear a veteran’s gripping firsthand accounts of life in the trenches during World War II.
As part of the library’s Two O’clock Sunday Series, longtime Odessa resident Jerry Unruh took listeners back to the early 1940s during The Battle of the Bulge, Central Europe and the Rhineland campaigns, where he served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
Unruh, a paratrooper for the division, saw battle in France, Belgium and Germany.
As a paratrooper, Unruh said his job was to go beyond enemy lines to disturb and destroy anything he could.
He recalled a time while on duty during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 when he and five other soldiers were sent to blow up a bridge in Belgium.
“The Germans were so close coming up the road toward that bridge, we could hear the motors and clanking of the tracks and the human sound,” he said. “As we got closer to the bridge, I heard [a sound], turned around and our Jeep driver took off and left six of us down there.”
Unruh said as soon the bridge exploded, he and his fellow soldiers were caught in the line of fire.
“If someone had leaned up against the barrel of one of their tanks, moved it a whisker and dropped them shells down the road, we’d all six been killed,” he said. “Fortunately we all got out of there without one hole in our clothes. … I tell you, if [Olympic runner] Jesse Owens had been down there that night, he would have been eating my dust. I was pedaling.”
Unruh said battles were brutal and conditions were harsh, especially during the winter months when rain, sleet and snow came through.
“We walked 17 miles through snow one night,” he said. “It was crotch-deep and in some places it was even armpit deep. We were in single-file in 20 below zero, but guys were sweating.”
Unruh said since that night, the 504 Parachute Infantry Regiment has sent soldiers to that spot to make the same march in honor of those who originally walked it in 1944.
Unruh said he lost friends during the war and escaped death more than a few times himself, but there is one sight that still haunts him.
“I was walking down the road [in Hirschbach, Germany], and I ran into some snow,” he said. “It looked like someone had pushed a fence over. It was German soldiers, and on closer inspection, they were Hitler’s youth corps. Some of them didn’t even have peach fuzz. They were 12, 13 and 14 years old.”
Unruh took his audience back to April 7, 1945, when he was part of a recon patrol ordered to cross the Rhine River in Germany, a site where many American soldiers lost their lives. His patrol was ordered to go beyond enemy lines, pick up a few German Prisoners of War and get any information on what the enemy was planning.
“I knew the minute we got out on the water, nobody had ever crossed that river undetected, because you could see pieces of driftwood the size of fireplace wood drifting in the water,” he said. “What made it obvious was the Germans were using searchlights that were hitting the clouds and reflecting back on the water.”
Unruh’s boat got approximately 30 feet from shore before the enemy opened fire with machine guns. His friend, Fred, was the first to be hit and killed.
Unruh said he went overboard and when he came to the surface, a bullet grazed his head.
“I still have the groove to this day,” he said. “It cut through my scalp but didn’t hit the bone.”
Unruh said he swam through the frigid water until he came to a barge, where he took shelter.
“The next morning, I looked like Frosty the Snowman,” he said.
Unruh said after his experience on the Rhine River, he went missing in action near Cologne, Germany. He walked the streets of the small town, and was eventually taken in by a German couple he called Mother and Father Wellman, who fed and shaved him and provided him shelter.
“They knew they would’ve been killed along with me if they were found hiding me in there,” he said.
Unruh said Mother Wellman told him later that if she had not pulled him in the home, and he kept walking and turned left, he would have ended up in Nazi headquarters.
“There’s no truer friendship than someone who restores your life like that,” he said.
After spending a few days with the family, Unruh was reunited with an American unit and returned to active duty. He remained close friends with the Wellmans until they passed away, and to this day, still stays in touch with their granddaughter.
Unruh said he remained in the war until its end, and then was honorably discharged from the Army in February 1946 after suffering a broken leg.
Like many veterans, Unruh said he still gets pulled back into the war every now and then, which has allowed him the opportunity to tell his story.
“There’s not a day in my life, when I’ll be taking a shower, cutting the grass or watching television and some of these memories just boom, come through,” he said.
Jennifer Hayes is a staff writer for the Middletown Transcript, a sister paper to the Dover Post.