News: 45th Infantry Division Association holds 68th annual reunion
Story by Darren Heusel
OKLAHOMA CITY – When soldiers of the famed 45th Infantry Division “Thunderbirds” returned home from skirmishes in faraway places like Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and southern France, they did their best to reintegrate back into society with the same level of dedication and commitment that made them an overwhelming success on the battlefield.
While some struggled understandably with what today is referred to as “post-traumatic stress disorder,” the majority went on to pick up the pieces of the normal lives they left behind before they had enlisted or were drafted.
Some went back to college, while others returned to the workforce as educators, doctors, lawyers, business owners, politicians or blue-collar workers. Some even went on to become authors, penning their memories on paper to preserve the legacy of the “Fighting Forty-Fifth,” as they were also known.
Two of those authors were among the nearly 180 registered veterans and their spouses on hand Sept. 27-28 at the Biltmore Hotel in Oklahoma City for the 68th annual reunion of the 45th Infantry Division Association.
Robert “Rudy” Rudolph and Neil Kahn attended the reunion to get reacquainted with old friends, but both were also there to promote the release of their new books – “An Average American Combat Infantry Soldier” and “Fight On – A GI’s Odyssey Back to Nazi Germany,” respectively.
Rudolph, 88, of Lee’s Summit, Mo., attended the reunion along with his wife, Peggy, while Kahn, a resident of Stone Mountain, Ga., was there to reminisce with old friends and promote the book he had recently finished for his father, Bernard L. Kahn.
The Rudolph’s have been coming to these reunions for about the past 10 years or so and said they enjoy the companionship and reconnecting with old friends.
“When you see these people, it’s like seeing members of your family,” Peggy said.
Rudy was more blunt in explaining why he attends the reunions.
“We enjoy coming to these reunions. Otherwise, we wouldn’t come,” Rudy said. “Nobody’s paying me to come.”
While the title of Rudy’s book suggests the pages therein go on to detail the personal story of an “average” combat infantry Soldier during World War II, his true life and death account is far from average!
Staff Sgt. Robert “Rudy” Rudolph survived four major military campaigns between Feb. 10, 1944 and Jan. 20, 1945, the day he was captured by the Germans.
These campaigns meant the day-in and day-out manning of his machine gun, days and nights spent in a foxhole, an almost constant barrage of enemy fire and the never-ending threat of imminent death.
Add in a life of C and K rations, exposure to the elements 24 hours a day, wearing the same clothes for weeks at a time, one or two showers a month, if he was lucky, watching as his buddies died or were wounded, and constant fear – that was the life of this average American Soldier and he lived to tell about it.
Rudy, a machine-gunner with M Company, 157th Infantry Regiment, would end up spending 105 days and nights in a wet foxhole on the Anzio, Italy beachhead; 158 days and nights in a foxhole in southern France; 99 days as a prisoner of war in Germany; and nearly four months in hospitals.
All this happened during his 17 months as a combat infantry Soldier in Europe.
Rudy was injured on May 24, 1944 when an 88-mm tank round landed about 20 feet from his position while manning a foxhole on the Anzio beachhead. The round killed his foxhole buddy instantly.
“I don’t know exactly what happened because I was wounded during the attack from shrapnel and rock fragments,” Rudy said. “I was bleeding from my nose, ears and mouth from the concussion and a contusion to the left side of my head and knee.
“I tried to walk to an aid station, but the next thing I remember I was on a stretcher being evacuated to a hospital in Naples, Italy, for treatment.”
He returned to action on June 9, 1944 and served in France and Germany before being captured by the Germans on Jan. 20, 1945 near Reipertswiller, France.
As a prisoner of war, Rudy was taken to Stalag XII-A, where he experienced very little food or anything else to support life conditions.
His book is written from personal accounts, from his boots being on the ground, walking or running over many open fields, rivers and forests in all types of weather, while the Germans tried to shoot or kill him with rifles, machine guns and an array of artillery rounds and rockets, or anything else they could use.
Rudy spent 63 days in a hospital in Paris, where he was treated for malnutrition and yellow jaundice. They fed him baby food for a few days and gradually increased his food diet every day. He came home in July 1945.
This all happened during the coldest winter on record, “and believe me, it was cold,” Rudy said.
Rudy and Peggy have been married for nearly 20 years, but the longtime friends have known each other for more than 40 years.
He was married to his first wife, Lois McAllister, for 43 years and the couple had four children, Bill, Mike, Cindy and Trisha. But, he said, he hardly ever spoke to his first wife about his wartime experiences. In fact, he said, “she didn’t even know I was a prisoner of war.”
Rudy said he decided to write his book because he wanted his children to know what he went through. He said he would write notes about his experiences and hide them in his garage.
“I just wanted to record my memories and let my kids know what I went through,” he said.
The first part of the book is not a “story,” he said, emphatically. Rather, it is his personal account of his life and death experiences.
He said he actually wrote most of the notes by hand. But because of the cerebral hemorrhage he suffered from the tank round, he would forget what he had written and often ended up repeating himself. So, his daughter Trisha helped him scribe his notes from that point on.
Rudy said in the process of going to POW meetings, he and Peggy met a couple, Bill and Jene Benton, and shared his notes with them. Jene was an ex-POW service officer with the Veteran’s Administration and she helped Rudy file a claim for disability.
He said the first person he filed a claim with at the VA didn’t happen to notice he was an ex-POW, so his original claim was denied.
Among his many awards for service, Rudy received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge.
Rudy was awarded his Purple Heart while in the hospital in Naples, after receiving some “good care for a couple of weeks.” He rejoined his unit, but missed the days and times the 45th Division succeeded in getting to Rome. The Allies officially recaptured Rome on June 4, 1944.
Rudy returned to the United States on July 18, 1945. He was taken to the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Ark., a place that had been turned into a POW recuperation center. He served a total of two years, six months and 27 days. He was later sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and issued his discharge papers on Oct. 13, 1945.
“I thank God I survived,” he said. “It was a lot like the trench warfare I had read about in the First World War.”
In the book “Fight On – A GI’s Odyssey Back to Nazi Germany,” Bernard Kahn relates the day-to-day struggles endured by the Thunderbirds as they, with seemingly agonizing slowness, forced the Nazi Soldiers back to their homeland, thereby playing a vital role in the Third Reich’s destruction.
Unfortunately, Bernard Kahn died suddenly and unexpectedly in August 2006 before his memoir was finalized. However, he left a completed draft, which serves as the core of the book, supplemented by Neil Kahn’s own research and recollections as well as information from an interview he gave for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah organization, which is collecting videotaped testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust.
Neil Kahn also collaborated with Flint Whitlock, a military historian and author of several works on the Holocaust, hoping he could suggest some young historian who might be interested in helping him complete the book.
However, Neil Kahn was delighted when Whitlock, who also authored “The Rock of Anzio: From Sicily to Dachau – A History of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division,” agreed to review the manuscript himself, and subsequently agreed to assist in bringing the book to fruition.
The book details the story of a boy who fled persecution in Nazi Germany and returned as a conqueror. In it, Bernard Kahn provides a riveting, perceptive account of his family’s early days, his school days in Germany, immigration to the U.S.A., and ultimate return to the ruins of his hometown as a machine-gunner with the 45th Division’s M Company, 157th Infantry Regiment, the same unit in which Rudy served.
“My father was a stoic survivor blessed with steely determination,” Neil Kahn said. “I recall on one occasion, when I was feeling sorry for myself over something which, in retrospect, seems relatively trivial, he took me by the shoulder and advised, ‘Fight on.’ Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“He said this had been his mantra as he was enduring the events of his childhood and the hellish experiences as a front-line infantryman. His reward, in the end, was to participate in the destruction of Nazi Germany, and to gain retribution against those who had tormented him as a child.”
Bernard Kahn was born on March 23, 1923 in Munich, Germany, about 20 kilometers southeast of Dachau, where the famed Dachau Concentration Camp would open on March 22, the day before Bernard’s tenth birthday.
Bernard Kahn’s father, Eugen Kahn, was a non-practicing Jew, while his mother, Hildegard Matilde Julia Hauff, was a Christian. Therefore, Bernard Kahn was considered a Jew in 1933 – the year Adolph Hitler grabbed power.
Bernard Kahn was the third child; he also had twin sisters, Ella and Elsbeth, born two years earlier.
His best friend while growing up was Erno Schmid. The two used to jump to each other’s defense, regardless of how futile the effort. That was until Schmid found another all-powerful friend, the Nazi Regime. Suddenly, Schmid had become a Nazi.
Neil Kahn said one day when his father and Erno Schmid were walking home from school, Erno Schmid told him, “You are the son of a Jew. You will never wear a uniform except the striped one in Dachau.”
Growing up in Germany, Bernard was ostracized and bullied by his German classmates because of his heritage. When Bernard Kahn was 14, he and his sisters followed their father to the United States, narrowly escaping the full weight of Hitler’s Final Solution to what he termed as the “Jewish Problem.”
Neil Kahn said his father and sisters would ride bicycles to the Dachau Concentration Camp on more than one occasion, with morbid curiosity. He said they were invariably shooed away by the guards, and Bernard didn’t recall seeing much during those early visits as the prisoners were often used in work gangs outside of the camp.
Neil Kahn did say, however, his father would tell him when ash drifted into the community from the direction of Dachau, it was jokingly referred to as “Jewish Snow.”
In July 1937, a German liner of the North German Lloyd company brought Bernard Kahn and his sisters to Hoboken, N.J., and into the custody of their father, who had immigrated to the U.S. in 1929 and became a citizen in 1935.
Eugen Kahn practiced psychiatry in Germany and would end up assuming the position of Sterling Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University.
Hildegard Kahn suffered with depression and opiate addiction and would end up committing suicide not long after her closest friend, Ella von Kahr, daughter of the former Prime Minister of Bavaria, was murdered by Nazi thugs on June 30, 1934.
Bernard Kahn finished high school at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn., and Neil Kahn said there was a lot of resentment toward Jews in the northeastern part of the United States at the time. He said his father wanted to get as far away from that anti-Jewish sentiment as possible, so he moved to the south and enrolled at the University of Texas.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Bernard Kahn enlisted in the Army. Little did he know he would become part of the 45th Infantry Division, which would end up being part of the American force that liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945.
Life for Bernard Kahn had indeed come full circle.
Neil Kahn said when his father rolled into Dachau, he was out in front of the conquering Army and daring anyone to come at him. Yet, all he saw were white flags. The Nazi steamroller, which had spread through Europe like a cancer, had been totally pulverized.
It was quite obvious that Munich had not fared well and the only way to spare the city from destruction would have been a total surrender. But, that had been out of the question until the very end.
The street where Bernard Kahn had once lived was totally destroyed. Above an archway, Neil Kahn said his father spotted a blue shield with the white numbers – 23 – on it. That marked his house number and was all that was left of the four-story building he grew up in.
He said his father and the other Soldiers passed the location of the last school he attended before fleeing Hitler’s Germany. He said he half expected to see some of his old classmates, but that day there was only rubble…and silence.
Neil Kahn said his father did see someone he recognized, though. Erno Schmid’s mother recognized him and came running up to him, shouting, “I always knew you would come back someday and bring an Army with you to pay back those Germans who caused you so much grief while growing up.”
Neil Kahn said the war was tough on his father, but his family life was just as tough, if not tougher.
“My father was very forgiving of the German people,” he said. “But it would make him angry when he would go back to visit and they would say they regretted losing the war more than the way they treated the Jewish people.”
Neil Kahn said he added some things in the book that his father probably wouldn’t have added, like his mother committing suicide. But to him, he said it made the book more compelling.
“Just about everyone in his family suffered in some way or was suicidal,” he said.
He said his father began writing the book in the 1950s, but would stop and start over again. He said what inspired him to finish it was reading Whitlock’s book on the 45th Infantry Division during World War II.
“He came here to Oklahoma in 2006 to visit the 45th Infantry Division Museum after reading Flint’s book, ‘The Rock of Anzio,’” Neil Kahn said. “He was going to join the [45th Infantry Division] Association and come to the next reunion, but he later died that same year.”
In all, the 45th Infantry Division spent 511 days in combat during World War II, participating in eight campaigns. The Thunderbirds also spent 429 days in combat during the Korean War, participating in four campaigns.
The Division has had nine Medal of Honor winners, including eight during World War II and one in Korea.
Other books published by veterans of the 45th Infantry Division include:
• “A Son’s Journey: Uncovering My Father’s Life as a Thunderbird” by Michael E. Reyka, son of Steve Reyka, a member of the 180th Infantry during World War II.
• “Jack’s 45th” by Drew Neville, an Oklahoma City attorney, who wrote about his father Jack L. Neville, who served with the 45th Infantry Division during World War II. The book presents a unique blend of family, Oklahoma, and World War II history that follows the footsteps of Jack Neville from Adair, Okla., through the beginnings and battles of the 45th Infantry Division. It also tells of the life and times of Jack Neville’s wife, Leota, and others who worked and waited in Oklahoma City for the end of the war.
• “Citizen Soldiers…Oklahoma’s National Guard” by Kenny Franks, illustrated by Bill Mauldin, who himself served with the 45th Infantry Division during World War II. Mauldin is the creator of the famous “Willie & Joe” cartoon series. His works include “Bill Mauldin’s Army…Bill Mauldin’s Greatest World War II Cartoons,” “Willie & Joe Back Home,” and “Up Front.”
• Another book, “The Liberator,” by Alex Kershaw, depicts the service of Brig. Gen. Felix Sparks, former commander of the 157th Infantry Regiment. It details “one World War II Soldier’s 500-day odyssey from the beaches of Sicily to the gates of Dachau.” It is an intensely human and dramatic account of one of history’s greatest warriors and his unheralded role in America’s finest achievement – the defeat of Nazi Germany.
• “Communications from the Front…an Ohio Soldier in World War II” by Edgar C. Forsberg, who served with the 45th Division Headquarters Signal Corp. It’s based on letters Forsberg would send home from the front, on places he visited and things he saw.
• “Remembrances of a Redleg” by Denzil D. Garrison. It’s the story of a Korean War artilleryman with the 45th Thunderbird Division. Garrison served as battery executive officer and later battery commander of B Battery, 171st Field Artillery Battalion, 45th Division Artillery. The Korean War lasted three years and cost approximately 53,000 American and many more Korean, Allied and Chinese lives. The book is the bittersweet story of a light artillery battery of the 45th Infantry Division, and the service and sacrifices of its young men in a harsh and hard-fought war.
• “Tomahawk and Peace Pipe – the 179th Infantry Regiment” by Penn Rabb, a member of the 179th Infantry, 45th Infantry Division. Rabb is a 1956 University of Oklahoma graduate, who was born in Marlow, Okla., and currently hails from Lawton, Okla. On the cover of the book is a photo of Sgt. 1st Class Dan Blocker, a 6-4, 285-pound Texan, who would later go onto stardom as Hoss Cartwright in the hit television series “Bonanza.” Blocker’s feet were in proportion to his massive body, requiring a size 14 ½ shoe. Also on the cover with Blocker, a Shakespearean actor, who served with F Company, 2nd Battalion, 179th Infantry, were Sgt. Roy Worley, an 8mm mortar observer, and Frank Garrison, who would go on to retire as a lieutenant colonel.