When World War II ended in Europe 70 years ago this week, Kansas City stayed at its work station.
At one war plant, operators transmitted three quick bursts of the work whistle, followed by a longer blast — telegraph code for V, as in victory. Then production resumed.
It was louder in London, where a Platte City high school graduate helped lead an escape from a U.S. Army hospital with other wounded soldiers to join in the revelry. Other combat veterans fired their guns in celebration, or celebrated liberation from prison camps, or boarded ocean liners for home.
But all wondered what would come next.
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When President Harry Truman announced on May 8, 1945, that the war in Europe officially had ended that morning, he reminded America that the war was only half won. Victory over Japan remained to be achieved.
Kansas City took him at his word. The muted reaction prompted police captains to send home extra officers scheduled in anticipation of an unruly celebration. Although the three years, four months and seven days of Americans fighting the Axis powers on the European and Mediterranean fronts had ended, just about everyone knew a solider, sailor or Marine in the Pacific.
And, since more than 135,000 American service members had died in the European theater, and approximately 550,000 more had been wounded, few families had been untouched by tragedy.
Today, dwindling numbers of WWII veterans remain alive to tell their stories of the historic moment. Of the approximately 16.1 million Americans in uniform during World War II, nearly 90 percent have died.
Editor’s note: These veterans’ recollections, as told to Kansas City Star reporter Brian Burnes, have been edited for length and clarity.
DON BOYER, 89, of Shawnee. Back then: corporal, infantryman, 42nd Infantry Division.
Born in Kansas City, Boyer enlisted in January 1944 after graduating from high school in Platte City the previous year. That December, he landed in southern France. On May 8, 1945, after being liberated from a prisoner-of-war camp, he helped lead an escape from a U.S. Army hospital in London, determined to celebrate with the rest of the city.
A few days before Germany surrendered, the British military had flown me to London from Stalag XI-B in Germany, which Britain had liberated in April. The English began treating me for a wound caused when a bullet grazed the back of my head in January.
We heard British citizens singing in celebration. Some brought a piano into the street. But the hospital orderlies and nurses wouldn’t give us passes.
We went outside and walked along the fence surrounding the hospital grounds until we found a water drain large enough for us to stand up inside. We walked through this drain for a couple of blocks, and then we were on the streets. All we had on were our skivvies and robes. The British gave us potato wine. Later that night, the MPs (military police) picked us up and took us back to the hospital. Nobody got in any trouble.
I had been taken prisoner on Jan. 17. We had been defending a town close to the Rhine River. But the Germans came across the Rhine with tanks, and we only had small arms fire as we huddled in a house. The Germans sent somebody who could speak English up to the house carrying a white flag. He said if we didn’t surrender, they would blow the house down on top of us.
They marched us into a field. A tank crew watched us, along with some armed guards. We’d heard that the German army was massacring prisoners, and some people broke and ran. The Germans started firing. That’s when the bullet grazed my head. Some of the prisoners were killed.
The Germans then took us across the Rhine and forced us to march 18 miles. I was unable to complete the last several miles. Other prisoners carried me.
They put us in a boxcar without food or water. Our own Allied aircraft strafed us. More prisoners died.
We went north on that train for a week before we got to Fallingbostel, near Hamburg, where the camps were. Some members of the camp medical staff treated my wound with a kind of oil, and it actually started to heal.
We had no advance warning about the liberation. About two days after we heard guns in the distance, tanks with the 2nd British army knocked down the prison camp fences. By then, the Germans had disappeared.
In London, it took a month for them to find a ship to take us home. I arrived in Camp Kilmer, an Army port in New Jersey, in June 1945. From there they took me to a hospital in Hot Springs, Ark., for more recuperation, but then they sent me to Fort Warren in Wyoming.
The Japanese did not officially surrender until September. When I was discharged in November, the Army gave me bus fare to Kansas City.
Back in Kansas City, Boyer served as a real estate manager for the Chrysler Realty Corp. for 30 years, helping build and manage automobile dealerships. He retired in 1990.
HARLEY SPRAGUE, 91, Gladstone. Back then: staff sergeant, mechanic, 10th Repair Squadron, 10th Air Depot Group.
Born in Kansas City, Kan., Sprague graduated from Wyandotte High School in 1942. After helping out in his parents’ coal yard, he enlisted in the Army air corps that October.
My unit was in Kassel, in central Germany.
Kassel had fallen to the Allies about April 1. The air corps had reduced the city of about 300,000 to rubble. About 10,000 dead remained in the wreckage, and the stench was horrible.
A notice appeared on a bulletin board that said hostilities would cease at midnight. About 30 or 40 of us went out into the street at midnight and fired our carbines into the air. It’s a wonder that nobody got hurt. The officers quieted us down and ordered the squadron to fall out with our weapons in 10 minutes.
We knew what was coming, and quite a few of the guys hurriedly cleaned their rifles. Some of us didn’t. The officers went down the line sniffing gun barrels and taking names. I told the one about to sniff my gun barrel that there was no need, that it had been fired.
They took the rifles from the entire squadron, about 200 people, and put them in a supply room. We were disarmed in a war zone.
They told the guilty ones to clean all the weapons. My buddy and I reported late, after the cleaning was done, so we had to inspect them all.
I said, “They look all right to me.” My buddy said, “Me, too.” The supply clerk said to take our guns and take off.
We weren’t supposed to fraternize with the Germans, but I felt sympathy for some of them. At one point, our advance party had moved into a two-story apartment house, and the residents had been given one hour to vacate the premises.
We watched people get their possessions out as best they could. They were mostly female — old, young, sick and infirm. An old woman had managed to get her beloved kitchen stove down to the street. Our lieutenant told me and another GI to get that stove down to the street corner. It was very heavy and we couldn’t lift it, and so we started to drag it. It clattered horribly along the pavement. The old lady shouted, “Nein! Nein!” and rushed through a line of armed soldiers to pick up one end of the stove while my buddy and I carried the other end.
The end of the war was kind of a letdown. We knew our lives were going to change. Many of us had become acclimated to the Army after two or three years. It was our life. We didn’t know what civilian life was going to be like. So it was sort of a downer.
Discharged in December 1945, Sprague spent several years “finding my way.” After the 1951 Kansas City flood, he received a temporary work permit from an area electricians union. Two years later, he became a member of Local Union 124 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He retired in 1987.
ROBERT GARRETT, 90, North Kansas City. Back then: sergeant, radar operator, 142nd anti-aircraft artillery gun battalion.
Garrett, who grew up on an Iowa farm, received his draft notice during the summer of 1943. In the fall of 1944, his unit arrived in France and later entered Germany.
On May 8, we were in Veckerhagen, in Germany, when the news of the war’s end came over the military radio.
There was no big fanfare. We were thrilled, of course. Some of the guys fired their rifles into the air, but I didn’t. I had never fired a gun until I went into the service. I don’t like guns.
At the time, they were using us as security guards, which was fine after all that we had been through. By then, the German air forces practically were nonexistent. The people had been friendly in Veckerhagen. About the only exciting thing happened one sunny afternoon, just before the war ended, when a plane flew over that was not ours. It landed in a field outside of town. We rushed out there, but the pilot had hid in the woods.
That night, I was on guard duty, and since the war wasn’t over yet, everything was still blacked out in Veckerhagen. All of a sudden, I heard this “clomp clomp” coming down the cobblestone street and, of course, it was that pilot. I took him prisoner. He told our interpreter that he had flown over from near Sweden because his girlfriend had lived in Veckerhagen before the war. That was the only German taken prisoner in our battalion. Two days later, the war was over.
After the war, we would sometimes go to Stuttgart to see the USO shows. One of the shows had the Rockettes. They selected a soldier — me — to get up on stage. So there I was, quote, dancing, unquote, with the Rockettes. I’m sure I didn’t look very Rockette-ish.
Garrett returned to the United States the following March. After working for a St. Joseph commercial photographer, he began a 31-year career with the Insurance Services Offices, calculating fire insurance ratings for commercial buildings across southwestern and central Missouri. He retired in 1983.
G. TAYLOR HESS, 89, Leawood. Back then: surgical technician, 670th Field Artillery Battalion, medical detachment.
Hess, who grew up in Uniontown, Pa., had been drafted out of Harvard University in January 1944. After landing in France in early 1945, his unit traveled to Germany by way of Belgium.
By early May, we were in Czechoslovakia, stationed just across the border from Cham, Germany.
It still could be dangerous near the end. Some casualties had been accidents. While we were pursuing the Germans, civilians would sometimes bury things that they didn’t want the occupying troops to have — guns, pistols, knives. One day while we were camped below a hospital, one fellow found a pistol in a flower bed. He was showing somebody how it worked when he accidentally shot himself in the finger.
Then an officer who was showing somebody else what had happened did the same thing. I took them both to the medical detachment headquarters.
Of course we were delighted when we heard the war was over. But we were also wondering what was next and whether we would be sent to the Pacific. Some soldiers already had been sent over to the Pacific, especially if they had a specialty that was needed. But a heavy artillery unit apparently was not something they needed on a Pacific island — they used the Navy’s guns. So we became an army of occupation.
Me and some other fellows who had sung in glee clubs in college formed a chorus and went around Bavaria singing for other military units. Then I spent one term, from September through November at the University of London School of Economics and Political Science. Then I had to go back to my unit.
My father had been a doctor, and I had been pre-med at Harvard. But after being a medic during the war, I decided I would rather lose people’s money than lose people’s lives.
Hess left the Army in May 1946 at Fort Dix, N.J. He graduated from Harvard in 1949 and received his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania four years later. He came to Kansas City in 1969 to serve as an attorney for United Utilities, which eventually became Sprint. He retired in 1988.
LEE LAMAR, 94, Overland Park. Back then: B-24 bomber co-pilot, 460th Bomb Group (Heavy), 760th Bomb Squadron.
On Nov. 18, 1944, Lamar — who grew up on a farm near Faucett, Mo., near St. Joseph — and nine other members of the Bottoms Up, a B-24 bomber, rode parachutes to the ground after anti-aircraft fire disabled two of their aircraft’s four engines. Taken prisoner in what is now Croatia, Lamar spent about five months in the Stalag Luft I prison camp near Barth, Germany, on the Baltic Sea. When the Germans surrendered, Lamar still was reveling in his camp’s liberation on April 30 by Russian troops.
We had tuned the camp radio to the BBC and were piping the broadcast into the camp barracks. The BBC announcers counted down the top songs of the week, interrupted now and then by announcements by POW camp leaders.
The hallway in the barracks felt like a theater.
It was so crowded you almost couldn’t get through it because everybody wanted to hear the BBC. There was the No. 3 song, and the No. 2 song. Then there was an announcement that an advance party of Russian soldiers had just arrived at the main gate. Everybody cheered. Then the BBC played the No. 1 song.
We’d just had a new prisoner come in who had not been long out of the states. He had told us we might be interested in a new song on “Hit Parade” called “Don’t Fence Me In.”
It was that day when we heard that song for the first time. That was the No. 1 song.
It was a great day. I got to the camp fence and helped tear down one of the fence posts. I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity. I simply knew that the war was over and I was happy
Before then, we had been getting reports over our secret hidden radio from the BBC saying that the Russians were getting close. At appointed times, one prisoner would set up the radio and somebody would stand next to him taking notes.
Those reports were typed up on four pieces of onionskin paper, one for each compound. The copy that would be brought into our compound would be folded up and put into a wristwatch that didn’t have any works inside it. So the person wearing the watch had to be very careful to have the correct time displayed on it, so the prison guard who escorted him to our compound didn’t get suspicious.
On May 13, Lamar rode a B-17 out of Stalag Luft I. He returned to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he had been enrolled before the war. After graduation in 1947, he worked as an airport engineer for the Missouri Division of Resources and Development. In 2007, he accepted an invitation from a Croatian archeologist for him and his family to travel to Pula, Croatia, where they examined the remnants of the Bottoms Up, which had been discovered during a land survey in preparation for a gas pipeline installation.
MARVIN SNYDER, 89, Overland Park. Back then: rifleman, 99th Infantry Division.
Snyder, a native of Topeka, reported to Fort Leavenworth in February 1944. He’d received his draft notice one day after graduating from Topeka High School. On Dec. 18, two days after the start of the Battle of the Bulge, Snyder and 24 other soldiers were taken prisoner close to the German-Belgium line. For much of the following four months, they were marched to various prison camps, dodging bombings by Allied forces. U.S. soldiers liberated Snyder’s unit in Steinbach, Germany, on April 28. By early May, Snyder had arrived at an American camp near the French port of Le Havre.
On May 8, we boarded the ship Brazil to go home. We had just learned that the war was over.
I had carried a silver dollar in the waistband of my pants for the entire war. The Germans had never found it, even though they had taken everything from us, including our galoshes. Right after we had been taken prisoner, passing German troops would help themselves to anything we had that they wanted. When we had arrived at one camp in December, the guards relieved us of our money and valuables and gave us all receipts.
It was kind of a joke. I think it had something to do with the Geneva Convention and the rules of war.
In the later days of the war, our guards had been mostly nice older fellows, as opposed to the younger guys who had kicked us around earlier. The older guys could tell that the war’s end was approaching. At one point, our guards began marching us east, about 250 miles. Sometimes we would hear the American artillery and, every now and then, our aircraft would fly over at tree-top level, and you could see our guards get nervous. A lot of these older guys had been prisoners of war themselves during World War I.
On April 23, we arrived at Steinbach, north of Munich, and on April 28, we put white flags on all the houses. The civilians did, too. Soon a rear echelon of the 86th Black Hawk Division came through, and some of our guards were almost as happy to see them as we were.
On May 3, we flew to Camp Lucky Strike, near Le Havre, France, where we were deloused and given new clothes.
Everyone was anxious to get rid of his lice-ridden clothes — and I mean lice-ridden. I remember how, when we would sit down on breaks during our long marches, we would take off our shirts and try to pick the lice out of the shirt seams.
So at Camp Lucky Strike, I threw off my clothes and threw them into the bonfire, including my pants.
I didn’t even think of the silver dollar.
Back in the states, Snyder reported to an Army post in Arkansas. After learning he had enjoyed drafting in high school, camp officers sent him to the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where he drew topographical maps for the Army. Later Snyder earned architecture and architectural engineering degrees at Kansas State University, graduating in 1949. Today, he has been associated with Butler Manufacturing, as either an employee or consultant, for 66 years.