When Leland Anderson was asked about his time spent serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, he didn't say much about it.
Yet on one summer day, he agreed to sit down and tell his life story to me. Maybe it was because I was a journalist and did this sort of thing for a living. Maybe it was because I happened to marry one of his granddaughters. Maybe the mood just caught him right, but I wanted to preserve this humble man's life story, which included growing up during the hardscrabble days of the Great Depression and raising two young daughters alone on a farm in Howard, S.D., after his wife died in 1960.
Anderson seemed to be loved for his warm, easygoing personality by just about everyone who knew him.
Yet, his family didn't know much of his wartime experiences. So I asked, much for the benefit of my wife, Angela Wagenaar Ehrlick, who wondered about it, too.
I recorded the interview on a summer afternoon in South Dakota, and promptly left the tape in the recorder for several years. When Anderson died in March 2010, I found the tape, transcribed the interview, and gave copies to the family. In our home, the small white binder has sat on a bookshelf since.
As I began collecting material for "World at War," I thought I remembered some interesting stories from Leland's past — surprising stories about what he'd seen and done. So, I literally dusted off the binder. And I discovered a man who had been, "at the Bulge," who saw a concentration camp, and who rarely spoke of these experiences.
The following excerpts were recording in 2007 during an interview of Leland Anderson:
Anderson: "I registered for the draft around 1940 ... and in the meantime, my folks had moved to Minnesota and my brother had registered for the draft there. So, if I hadn't have come home, we would have both had to go into the Army. I came home and then I volunteered for the Army so that my brother wouldn't have to go, my older brother Harold."
Ehrlick: "But it was (1941), we were still neutral, so nothing was official yet."
Anderson: "Yeah, but you could see it. Hitler was over there raising heck and he was going into those other countries like Poland and went into France, and he was getting pretty dangerous."
Ehrlick: "Were you afraid of signing up?"
Anderson: "When I was inducted and went into the Army, we were called in for a year's service. A one-year service. I got inducted into the Army on Dec. 4, 1941. They bombed Pearl Harbor on the seventh, so that meant I was in for the duration plus."
Ehrlick: "So what happened when Pearl Harbor happened?"
Anderson: "You were in until the war was over — you knew that. You knew it was going to be a long stretch."
Ehrlick: "It all changed from that point on. What was your reaction?"
Anderson: "I realized I wasn't going to go home for awhile. But there was a funny thing. We had a little first sergeant up there (in Fort Snelling, Minn.) and for the first three days we were there he said, 'Alright you guys, you're walking around and looking down on the ground and you see a cigarette butt, pick it up.' And then they bombed Pearl Harbor and then he said, 'Alright you guys, you're walking around, look up in the sky and see an airplane, try to identify it.' Yeah, it changed pretty quickly."
Ehrlick: "Once we were in an active war, did that cause you any more worry?"
Anderson: "We knew eventually. It didn't really bother us that much. We got ready and there were certain guys — I remember there was this one guy and he thought he was quite a wheel, but by the time we got ready to go overseas, he got terrible stomach pains. He just walked around and he could hardly stand. He just had such bad stomach pains. He got cold feet. I don't know if they took him home or not."
Ehrlick: "Tell me about D-Day."
Anderson: "We sat and listened to a lot of radio and the officers would come and tell us what was actually going on . We didn't go right on D-Day; we went two days after D-Day. You got on a landing ship tank. They were the boats that you got on with your vehicles and then you drove on and drove off. You see we were a heavy armored division and you had to have a beach-head established. A heavy armored division couldn't go in on the first wave."
Ehrlick: "What was the scene several days after D-Day?"
Anderson: "There was a lot of bombing and fighting going on. There was still a lot when we go there. The thing is Omaha Beach was devastated. It had been shelled. A lot of our own shells. They had ships setting out in the channel. It was devastating."
Ehrlick: "That was the first combat you had seen coming into Omaha?"
Anderson: "That's right."
Ehrlick: "Was that a nervous thing for a lot of troops going in?"
Anderson: "Well, I think it was for a lot of them, but it didn't bother me that much, really. The thing is once we got there, they had went through and pushed the Germans back. Over there, we were in Normandy. We were in what they called Normandy. And Normandy was all divided by hedge rows, they had a field in between -- a lot of apple orchards and a lot of hedge rows and the Germans were still in there."
Ehrlick: "And they could snipe you off?"
Anderson: "And they did. We had a lot of sniping and that was one of the jobs we had to do -- clean out the hedge rows."
Ehrlick: "As you were cleaning out the hedge rows, were you a radio operator or more in combat mode."
Anderson: "You're in combat then. You're out there trying to clean out the Germans in the hedge rows. I'll tell you once incident that happened: We were in Normandy and we had been there a week, maybe two, and we were standing there visiting one morning and the guy I was talking to dropped over. Then another bullet came by and missed me. But it hit him. His name was Harry O'Keefe, and it hit him right in the back of the head and took out some teeth, but it never killed him. But he had to to the hospital for a long time and he had false teeth, of course. But this is the sort of thing that happened. You never knew where they were. Snipers were up in the hedge rows and stuff. They hit Harry but they missed me."
Ehrlick: "You were going through France and clearing out villages, right?"
Anderson: "We did that through June and July and then we went into Belgium that was in the summertime. We went through Belgium and went to the Siegfried Line. They called it "Dragon's teeth" because of the cement cones that were about this high. They had it staggered so that you couldn't drive a vehicle through. Artillery would come along and blow them out of the way and go on through. We had to stop awhile to let supplies catch up to us...Then, the Germans started shelling us. We'd be in our area and they start shelling us. Just maybe several rounds would come in and they'd quit. Then they would let up awhile and then we got kind of brave and we put up a tent right on top of the ground. Some of our tank guys would dig down so that they could get under the tank from protection. Well, they shelled us one night and I don't know how many shells came in, but this one came in ... and it was a dud. If that thing would have blew up, it would have blew us all to kingdom come.
"The fact is that our tanks were off in the west side. I guess it doesn't make any difference, but the tank operators were dug down about this far and they have what they call bogey wheels, you know the wheels that the little tracks run on. A piece of shrapnel came through one of those, came through those hit a guy in the back and killed him. I was sleeping right on top of the ground and nothing happened and he was dug in, and you'd think he was safe as all get out. But the shrapnel came through and hit him and killed him. And that is just the way it goes."
Ehrlick: "What do you remember about the Bulge and how long were you there?"
Anderson: "Three weeks and I know we we got done just before New Year's Day. We got there before Christmas."
Ehrlick: "The Germans seemed to be gaining in numbers and you had been called back. Did it ever enter your mind that they might put up more of a fight or that you might lose?"
Anderson: "We weren't afraid of losing because we knew they didn't have the men. We knew that this was going to be the last big push. (German General Gerd von) Rundstedt had finally got enough troops together and he was going to make this one. We had enough in our outfit and we knew that. We knew they didn't have enough and we knew they didn't have any air support. They had very few planes.
...It was winter and cold. We'd come along and we knew we ran over a lot of dead Germans. But the ground was covered with snow. The fact is over in Belgium, now this was during the Bulge, we came into a little town and we thought the resistance had pretty well been taken care of and we wanted a place to sleep that night so there was a little church there. It had been kind of bombed out and stuff and it had snowed there. We went in and laid our sleeping bags down there and come to find out in the morning there were five dead people there. We didn't realize that we had slept right on top of them. We didn't know it and it was dark and it was covered up with snow. There were goofy things like that."
Ehrlick: "At the time how did you feel about the Germans?"
Anderson: "Well, I didn't like Nazis. As far as just the Germans, we'd joke with them. We weren't mad at them. They had nothing to do with it. Funny thing is that if you'd talk to a German you'd ask, "Are you a Nazi?" And they'd all say, "No, I am not but watch out for that guy over there." He probably was himself, too, but wouldn't say anything."
...We went up and we freed one of the concentration camps. It wasn't the worst one, but it was Nordhausen."
Ehrlick: "What did you think when you freed Nordhausen?"
Anderson: "You wonder how any human being could put another human being through some of the stuff they did. People were skeletons, skinny. They were just terrible."
Ehrlick: "So everything you'd expect to see?"
Anderson: "And worse."
Ehrlick: "Do those images still stay with you?"
Anderson: "You bet they do. You just don't forget that."
Ehrlick: "It must have been awful."
Anderson: "It was. It is humiliating what they would do. Like they would take people and strip them naked and then make them stand in line. I can remember women standing there, naked, trying to cover themselves. Well, you can't do it. Now why put people through that? This is where you could just take a machine gun and start mowing the Nazis down. That the dirty bastards could do that. Why in the world could one human being do that to another?"
Ehrlick: "It must have been a good feeling liberating them?"
Anderon: "You bet. That wasn't really the worst one either. Buchewald really — I guess that was the worst."
Ehrlick: "Do those images still haunt you?"
Anderson: "Not anymore. I've put it out of my mind pretty much. You know, you think about it once in awhile. But no, it's gone."
Ehrlick: "Is it right when people call your generation "The Greatest Generation?"
Anderson: "I don't think that's right. I don't think it's greater than any other. We done what we had to do at the time, that's all. We done what was necessary."