As Americans, we have celebrated Veteran's Day, in various forms and with different names, for nearly a century. Perhaps the greatest sacrifices for our nation and for our liberty were made by more than 16 million men and women who, during WW2, fought for our freedom, our way of life, our beliefs, and our survival as a nation. Well over 400,000 of this "Greatest Generation" died in that war.
Today I want to honor one of the living WW2 vets. Since these men and women are all in their late 80s or in their 90s, they are a rapidly dying breed. John Wegley, one of 13 siblings, is in his mid 90s.
If you ask him, he will tell you, matter of factly, what the war was like. He will just say, "I did what I had to do." Before we recount his war experiences, it is important to know his roots. His father was a Volga-River German. When the Bolshevik revolution was in its infancy, these early, ruthless communists killed John's grandfather by starvation, because he wouldn't give them his crops--crops his family needed to survive. John's father fled with his family to Germany and from there took a ship to New York. They became legal immigrants on Ellis Island. John's mother kissed the ground when they stepped off the ship. They traveled across the US, settling in California's central valley. Nine years later, John was born.
John was a young man, mid twenties, when the war broke out. He entered the army and was sent to Europe. His most memorable stories came from later in the war, before and during the Battle of the Bulge.
John was a rather small man, about five foot five. But he had a strong arm, good hand-eye coordination, and a lot of courage. Numerous times his squad would find themselves pinned down by a German machine-gun nest on a hill above them. His buddies looked to John in these situations. Accepting it as his job, he would, under whatever cover his comrades could provide, crawl as near the nest as he dared. His strong arm could toss a grenade an incredible distance, and when he threw one ... nothing but net! He and his buddies could safely advance.
John had another ability that saved his squad's life. He was raised in a German-speaking home. He spoke German, with the accent of a German, and flawless West-Coast English.
During the Battle of the Bulge, the front changed rapidly from day to day. The Allies would surge forward at one point while the Nazis gained ground in another location. John's squad dug in for the night, several miles from the front. When they awoke in the morning, it became apparent they were many miles behind enemy lines.
John developed their strategy for escaping. By hiding during the day and traveling only under the cover of darkness, they moved toward what they believed was allied-held ground. Encountering German squads and encampments was inevitable. In each case, John spoofed the Germans by his wits and languages skills. He either elicited the required passwords or talked his way through without giving them. After several days, he brought his entire squad safely to Allied territory.
John Wegley is my uncle. He is the last son among his living siblings. His baby brother, my dad, died four years ago. Dad was a WW2 veteran also, but young enough that he was deployed with the occupation troops after Japan surrendered.
I'm sure there are many other WW2 vets like my Uncle John. However, I know his story, and wanted to share part of it with you as we remember the Greatest Generation on this Veteran's Day.
H. L. Wegley