WW II Veterans Reflect on Service, New Memorial

WW II Veterans Reflect on Service, New Memorial

Veterans from Reston and Herndon share their stories on eve of Memorial Day and the opening of World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Six decades after World War II, Joseph Haney is still plagued by nightmares of the grim sights and sounds and smells of warfare, the fallen comrades, the untold number of Nazi soldiers he killed with his machine gun, the German artillery shell that left him blind and hard of hearing.

"What we saw and did over there compares to nothing," Haney recalled the other day sitting in his Herndon living room, dark glasses covering his eyes and hearing aides turned all the way up. "It was terrible."

Haney is one of a dwindling number of surviving World War II veterans living in the Reston and Herndon area. On the eve of Memorial Day and the opening of the World War II Memorial and Washington, D.C., a handful of these former soldiers and airmen shared their stories.

Haney was, as he says, "unfortunately drafted into the Army" when he was 18-years-old. He was trained at a Georgia Army camp to man a massive 90 mm anti-aircraft gun, but as the war progressed and the need for boots on the ground grew, his superiors sent him to advanced infantry training in Texas.

NOT LONG AFTER, he found himself on an ocean liner crossing the North Atlantic with 1,800 fellow grunts heading to fight the Germans. The trip over still seems vivid to Haney, he said, because he became violently seasick, only able to keep down water and wafers.

Upon arriving in England, Haney and the rest of the Army’s 3rd Company enjoyed a brief lull before crossing the English Channel on a "Liberty Boat" to join the combat.

Gen. George Patton’s 94th Infantry, B Company, of which Haney was a machine-gunner, quickly linked up with the Allies fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.

The most memorable fighting, Haney said, was a fierce battle on the mountains along the Saar River, which runs through eastern France and western Germany.

"That’s where it got really bad," he said. "We lost a lot of men on Saar Mountain."

It was during this battle that Haney’s foxhole was struck by a German artillery shell, permanently damaging his eyesight and hearing.

"I got blown out of my foxhole with my buddy," he said. Because the fighting was so intense, Haney only received field medical attention and then continued to push on.

It was also during fighting in the Saar River region that Haney saw a drunken German officer stumble in the American camp. The officer was questioned by Haney’s commanding officer, but the German only stuck out his tongue in a defiant response.

"My CO emptied his entire clip right into him," Haney said. "I stepped back and just threw up. It set him wild. I’ll never forget that."

After the Battle of the Bulge, Haney served in Czechoslovakia to hold the Allies’ position against the Russians. There were a few minor skirmishes in which the Americans or Russians would taken drunken potshots at one another, but the worst of the war was over for Haney.

However, he still carries the memories of the killing and the wounds to his body.

"You have to depend on everybody," he said. "You can’t see again. I can’t see a movie. I can’t see the TV. I can only listen to the radio. It’s discouraging. But I’m not bitter. I’ve paid my sacrifice. I sacrificed my body."

CLAUDE WATKINS, a Reston resident who lives near Lake Anne, flew missions over Europe in 1943 and 1944 as a gunner in the 8th Air Force.

In February of 1944, his B-23 plane was shot down and he and six others were captured by the Germans. They were taken by train to the Nazi’s Stalag Luft VI prisoner of war camp in Lithuania.

"I consider myself to be very lucky," Watkins said. "There was no problem. They treated us pretty well."

Things took a turn for the worse, however, when Watkins and the other 6,000 prisoners were transferred to a camp north of Berlin. Upon arriving, the Germans handcuffed the Americans in pairs and made them run a gauntlet, with dog bites and bayonet stabbings for those who fell.

But still, Watkins said, the conditions were tolerable until they were moved in groups of 200 out of the camp. The Germans forced the prisoners to march for 57 days and an estimated 470 miles through Germany.

Because they could hear American artillery explosions in the distance, Watkins and his fellow POWs knew the Allies were winning the war. So when Germans would ask an American prisoner a question, they would often be met with a response like: "Ask Eisenhower, he will be here soon."

Watkins and the other POWs were liberated in April, 1945.

In the years after the war, Watkins taught survival training to various branches of the military and to American intelligence agencies. He is still an occasional consultant to the State Department.

ANOTHER WORLD WAR II prisoner of war, George Idlett, who lives in Herndon, was captured by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines.

Idlett, who served in the Army Air Corps and temporarily as an infantryman, walked 70 to 80 miles on the Bataan Death March in April, 1942. Of the 220 men who marched alongside Idlett on the grueling forced march for nine days straight with no food or water, only 30 men survived.

"It took us nine days of walking," he said. "We were never fed. Anyone who couldn’t make it was shot or stabbed and left beside the road."

At the end of the march through Filipino rice paddies, the POWs were given a cup of rice and a bit of water.

"A man sitting beside me was killed because he wouldn’t put out a fire to cook his rice," Idlett said. "It was pretty rough."

Idlett and the other survivors were taken to Japan on a "Hell Ship" in the middle of a typhoon. Upon arriving in Japan, the POWs were incarcerated at a prison camp and were forced to work in a coal yard for two years.

During his time there, the camp was strafed a few times by American fighter planes. The prisoners learned of the war’s progress by catching snippets of radio broadcasts, using the Japanese language skills they’d picked up.

After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an American airplane flew over Idlett’s prison camp and dropped a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a note that said the war is over.

JAMES HAAHR, a Reston veteran who also served in Patton’s 3rd Army as an infantryman, was drafted at the age of 18 and sent to France in August, 1944.

Haahr and his regiment crossed France by truck to meet up with Patton’s forces. In October, 1944, they began to see combat, hunkered down in foxholes along the front lines. Haahr can still see and hear the artillery exploding in the distance and the terror of the German shelling.

"It looked like lightning and it sounded like thunder," he said.

A month later, Haahr fought in a devastating battle for "Hill 310," in which the Allies lost 500 men in four days of fighting.

During this battle, Haahr was shot for the first time. He’s still not sure if it was a bullet or shrapnel, but it hit his hand and exploded his rifle.

An image that has stuck with Haahr for 60 years since the battle, was of the church on Hill 310.

"I remember the floor of the church was stacked with dead and wounded guys," he said.’

On Nov. 9, 1944, Haahr was seriously wounded by a German mortar, causing him to be evacuated to England.

"I got punctured up the left side and arm," he said.

Haahr missed the most serious fighting of the Battle of the Bulge because of his wounds.

"I’m happy to say that I missed it because we lost a lot of good people," he said.

THE VETERANS have mixed feelings about the World War II Memorial, which officially opens on Saturday in Washington, D.C. For the past month, the memorial has been unofficially open because World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,100 a day.

"This was the most significant event of my generation," Haahr said. "I went down and I was very impressed. I was impressed with its openness and its fountains and the granite. I was impressed by its simplicity."

The memorial stirred memories of the war and fallen friends, Haahr said.

"I sat down at one particular point, all by myself, and looked out, thinking about how much this memorial means to so many people," he said.

Idlett and Watkins said they too were impressed with the memorial, but its vague symbols of freedom and justice do not adequately reflect the horrors of war.

"The only sad thing is that they waited so long to put it up," Haney said. "A lot of fellas who have long since passed away would have liked to see it."