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Recollections of a War Veteran

Col. George Juskalian of Virginia Run recalls a life of valor.

The World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., was built in tribute to that war's veterans, and Col. George Juskalian is certainly worthy of the honor.

Juskalian, who celebrated his 90th birthday Monday, June 7, and lives in Centreville's Virginia Run community, is a veteran of three wars and a lifetime of history-making events. And he was impressed with the new memorial.

"It's a magnificent and grand memorial — all embracing, with the statements of Pres. Roosevelt and Pres. Truman, the names of the major battles and the 4,000 stars representing the 400,000 dead," he said. "And the major separation of the Atlantic and Pacific is so nicely done in the design."

The memorial also made Juskalian recall fallen friends — three whom were in the ROTC with him at Boston University and the fourth who was a fellow Armenian-American that he knew from the 1st Division. Their names are engraved in the 1st Division monument. Overall, he said, "I was really exhilarated because of the beauty and grandeur of the memorial."

"It was very courageous of all the soldiers," said his wife Lucine. "They gave their lives and died."

Juskalian served in the Army for 30 years, retiring in 1967 at age 52 as a full colonel. Along the way, he fought in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, was a POW and received a whole slew of medals and ribbons for distinguished service — including two silver medals, four bronze stars, the Legion of Merit and the Army Commendation Medal.

But it's his wife and daughter who show them to Centre View. "My father is very modest," said daughter Elissa, 30. "But we're very proud of him."

His story begins in Fitchburg, Mass., where he was born and raised. He graduated from Boston University in 1936 with a journalism degree and, since he'd been in the ROTC there, he was also commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves to serve one year active duty.

Juskalian was the administrative officer of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at Brewster, Mass., where he and others built a national park. He then took a government exam and, in 1938, became a fingerprint classifier for the FBI, searching for prints that matched those of criminals — especially the 10 Most Wanted, such as the notorious John Dillinger.

"I PLANNED to go to law school at American University," said Juskalian. "But my father died, and my elderly mother was alone. So I went back to Fitchburg in 1939, just before the war started, to be with her and to help my brother-in-law in his dry-cleaning business."

But Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and Juskalian realized "it was inevitable that the U.S. would get involved in the war." So he arranged for his sister to look after their mother and volunteered for active duty.

By this time, he was a first lieutenant and, in November 1940 at age 25, he was called to active duty at Fort Devens, Mass. His salary then was $120/month. By late spring 1941, the famous 1st Infantry Division was assembled there, and Juskalian was given command of a 200-man company.

That fall, the division participated in the Carolina Maneuvers — the largest, peacetime maneuvers the Army had ever done — readying for war. The Sunday after the men returned home, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

"About a week before, we came back in a truck convoy," said Juskalian. "I was in a Jeep going through Roanoke, and people lined the streets, cheering for us. As we were passing, a kid yelled out, 'Next stop, Tokyo,' and I couldn't figure out what he was talking about because we'd been in the woods on maneuvers. But I found out, that next Sunday, Dec. 7."

There was also an earlier indication that America was heading to battle. That summer, Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. — Teddy Roosevelt's oldest son — became commander of Juskalian's regiment, the 26th Infantry Regiment. "He was a WWI veteran, highly decorated, and had been a battalion commander in France," said Juskalian. "So when he came, we knew we were going to be committed soon."

In February 1942, Juskalian was promoted to captain. A few months later, at Fort Benning, Ga., his group was tested for combat readiness and observed by Gen. George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff. In August, the whole division — some 20,000 soldiers — boarded the Queen Mary and headed overseas.

"THERE WEREN'T enough beds, so we took turns sleeping," recalled Juskalian. "It was a little frightening because we had no air cover. The submarines could only go so far out. We landed close to Glasgow, Scotland, boarded trains and went to a British army base south of London and continued our rigorous training there."

He was now the assistant Plans and Operations officer on the regimental staff. In October, his unit went to Inverrary, Scotland, to train for the landing in North Africa. Juskalian, now 28, worked on the invasion plans.

"We set sail, about Oct. 20, and the convoy moved west on the Atlantic as a diversion," he said. "We'd even put winter clothing on board ship so spies would think we were going to Norway."

But on Nov. 7, in dark of night, they turned back east and sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. "We invaded North Africa at Oran, simultaneously with other divisions going into Casablanca and Algiers," said Juskalian. "Col. Roosevelt was now a brigadier general and the assistant 1st Infantry Division commander."

The Americans met resistance at Oran as they began climbing Mount Djebel there. "But we scaled it within 24 hours and achieved our objective," said Juskalian. "Oran had fallen. The fighting in North Africa lasted from Nov. 8-11, and then the French joined us to fight against the Germans."

By this time, the U.S. had taken French Morocco and Algeria, but Tunisia was still in German/Italian hands. "So right after Christmas, we left Oran and moved eastward toward Tunisia," said Juskalian. "We got to the border of Algeria and Tunisia about Jan. 15, 1943 and began fighting the Germans and Italians there."

Some 10 days later, the battle continued in the Makthar Valley in central Tunisia and, on Jan. 28, Juskalian was captured by the enemy. He was in regimental headquarters, but knew the Americans had gotten into a heavy fight, the day before.

"One of our intelligence officers had gone out to check on the situation, and word came back that he'd been wounded and was out there somewhere," he said. "So another officer and I went out in a Jeep and found him, but he was dead. Then we came under fire, so we couldn't drag him out of there."

JUSKALIAN THEN told the driver to return to the command post, and he set out on foot to see how the other U.S. troops were doing. "I thought they were all right because we hadn't heard anything from them," he said. "But they'd been overrun by the Germans."

Earlier, Juskalian had lost his glasses so, when he came upon the Germans, he couldn't distinguish who they were from 50 feet away. Emerging from the bushes, they pointed rifles at Juskalian and took him prisoner. "I was irritated with myself for being so foolhardy," he said. "I shouldn't have been there."

He and other American prisoners were interrogated in Kairouan, trucked to Tunis and flown to Naples, Italy. Said Juskalian: "They flew about 100 feet above the Mediterranean because they were afraid that, if they flew higher, the American fighter planes — not knowing POWs were inside — would see us and shoot us down."

The soldiers were later placed in a British POW camp in central Germany, in Rotenburg am Fulda, where they remained until June 1943. The British POWs had been there a long time and told the U.S. soldiers how to handle the German guards. They also asked them to help with a tunnel they were building.

Although Juskalian had claustrophobia, he volunteered. "It didn't bother me until I went home," he said. "I'd go into a cold sweat, [thinking about it]." The camp was a former girls school, and the tunnel went under a road.

"It was ingenious," said Juskalian. "Instead of going under the floor, it started at a panel in a wooden wall, went down about three feet, horizontal about 10 feet and then down about eight feet. It went out under the street, beyond the barbed wire. The intention was to go 100 feet more to come out on the bank of the Fulda River. Then the guard couldn't see it because it wouldn't be eye level."

The POWs dug with scoops fashioned out of British biscuit cans with handles created from their wooden bed slats. They even made a pipe out of these cans, carrying fresh air to the tunnel's end from a hand-cranked fan at its beginning. But before they finished it, the Americans were moved to a camp in Poland.

"Two of our members feigned illness so they could stay there and help with the tunnel," said Juskalian. "But the Germans knew about the tunnel. We found out later that a British POW had told them."

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Next week: Life in the new POW camp, liberation after 19 1/2 months there and serving in the Korean and Vietnam wars.