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DON’T LET THEIR MILITARY MEMORIES FADE AWAY!
Too often, the stories of service and sacrifice of our Veterans are never told and when they finally leave us, some faded photos, a few medals, and perhaps an old uniform are all that are left to remember what they did serving our country.
Together We Served’s mission is to provide the opportunity for every family member to sit down with their Veteran and record their military service and memories, in their own words and photographs, so that their story may live on for their children, grandchildren, and future generations.
1st Sgt Leonidas M Crooks
Shadow Box: http://army.togetherweserved.com/profile/359095
(Veterans – record and share your own service story with friends and family by joining www.togetherweserved.com. This is a free service)
This edition of “Voices” was written by 1st Sgt Crooks son Brad to honor and remember his Dad’s service.
PLEASE DESCRIBE WHO OR WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR DECISION TO JOIN THE ARMY?
The morning after Pearl Harbor was bombed, my father and his friend went to the recruiting office in his small hometown of Parsons Kansas. They were turned away and were told it was the recruiters day off, and nothing was going to make him come in; war or no war.
Rather than waiting, my father and his friend drove 50 miles to Ft Scott, KS, where they enlisted into the service. My father’s intention was to become a flying cadet in the Army Air Corps, but a fast talking recruiter saw that he had been to college, and had studied chemical engineering. My father was talked into the Chemical Warfare Service, thinking he would be in some sort of laboratory job.
Of course, the unit to which he was assigned was part of the Chemical Warfare Service and the 4.2 mortar he was to be introduced to was far from a laboratory. Mostly using high explosive, white phosphorus, tear gas and smoke, they were positioned throughout the war zone just behind the infantry. They were equipped with Phosgene, Mustard, and Chlorine gasses, should the war have escalated to Chemical warfare.
But a couple weeks later his ideas of flying were quashed as he boarded a Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad train bound for Ft Leavenworth, Kansas. Here, he was inducted and took the Military Oath. Soon after he and four others left the Kansas City Union Station on Jan. 2, 1942 for basic training at Edgewood Arsenal, MD.
His older brother, Dale, had enlisted the summer before Pearl Harbor, and was in the Army Air Corps. That, and a sense of patriotism and anger, were the forces that compelled my father to enlist.
WHETHER YOU WERE IN THE SERVICE FOR SEVERAL YEARS OR AS A CAREER, PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DIRECTION OR PATH YOU TOOK.
After completing basic training at Edgewood, the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion was moved to Ft Bragg where they completed Intensive Combat Training. During this time, they visited Camp Pickett for mountain exercises, as well as Camp Carrabelle, Florida to practice amphibious landings and scaling down rope ladders from ships.
My dad returned to Edgewood Arsenal for NCO school, was promoted to corporal, and was selected to be the new B company clerk. He held that title until Salerno, at which time his First Sgt., George Bell, took a battlefield commission.
They could not promote him from corporal to First Sgt. so he was made Sgt. for a matter of days and then sewed on the stripes as First Sgt. of B Company. After only one and a half years in the U.S. Army, he was suddenly in charge of nearly 200 men and four platoons. He remained First Sergeant until his discharge on October 31, 1945.
At some point in Italy after his promotion, his former First Sgt. George Bell came up to him and said, “Crooks, whatever you do, don’t let them make you become an officer.” Lieutenants, of course, had to do Forward Observation, out in front of the infantry, calling in targets and directing fire.
The train that took B Company to Newport News, Hampton, VA pulled right up to a loading dock. The doors closed behind, and there was nowhere to go, but up the gangplank and onto the ship. The men didn’t know where they were heading, Europe or the Pacific.
They boarded the USS Harry Lee; a banana freighter converted to a troop transport. The same ship would later transport the men on the invasion of Sicily. Days later they were passing through the Straits of Gibraltar headed to Oran, Algeria.
It was a Sunday morning and very quiet when they passed through the narrow strait. Fear of becoming victims of a German U-Boats attack was on everyone’s mind. My dad said he will never forget the passage the chaplain read…it was the Sheppard’s Psalm…”And yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death……”
It was the largest trans-Atlantic naval convoy to ever cross the ocean. While passing through the straits, two ships were destroyed by the German U-Boats. Throughout the oceanic voyage, the ships changed course every thirty minutes in a crisscross pattern, to avoid detection.
IF YOU PARTICIPATED IN COMBAT, PEACEKEEPING OR HUMANITARIAN OPERATIONS, PLEASE DESCRIBE THOSE WHICH WERE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT TO YOU AND, IF LIFE-CHANGING, IN WHAT WAY.
The liberation of Prison of War camps always had a profound and lasting effect on my father.
During the advance on Germany, he participated in the liberation of a Stalag Luft, a POW camp for allied airmen located near Nuremberg and later, the final stage of the liberation of Dachau.
The military prisoners at Stalag Luft were completely famished. “The officers and airmen were overjoyed to see us. They were just skin and bones; near starvation. There was a Chicken farm, nearby. I will never forget the looks on their faces, when we brought eggs to them,” said my dad with a bit of emotion.
But this did not prepare them for what lay ahead at Dachau. They had heard the rumors that a camp had been liberated by regiments of the 45th and 42nd Divisions, earlier that day. There is some ongoing argument as to who got there first, but suffice it to say, both were involved. Dachau was two things: A concentration camp, as well as a whole section that was dedicated as a school for the SS. Both divisions laying claim as first to enter, were probably correct, as the compound was huge, and entrances were made from different areas. My dad drove into Dachau with Lt. Holzworth and his best friend, Sgt. Marion “Andy” Andrew.
Here is the horror my father related during my interview: “We could smell it from the town of Dachau, which was probably a mile from the actual camp. We were used to smelling the dead and decomposition of animals and such, but this was different. When we reached the gates, we were simply appalled by what we saw. There were bodies piled everywhere, rail cars full of bodies. It was horrific. Bodies were stacked in large mounds, stripped naked with that terrible odor so pungent in the air.
“Every once in a while, you would see one of the bodies move, slightly. There were a few still alive, but just barely. We couldn’t do anything for them, and even if we could, how can you justify helping one and not another; there were hundreds of them. Besides, they were so far gone.
“The infantry guys made the trustees pick up the decaying and dead bodies and put them on carts for burial. The trustees were hated by the prisoners more than the SS, I think. Traitors to their own people. The 45th guys rounded up people in from the town and marched them through the camp, so there could be no deniability. They were all saying they had no idea, but that was a load of crap. There was no question what was going on out there. The smell was awful.
“I saw a private telling a local woman to drag a body over to a pile. The Army made the trustees and locals pick up the bodies and I suppose bury them. This old German lady stomped her foot and folded her arms and refused. The soldier chambered a bullet and pointed his Tommy at her, and her arrogance went away, and she did as she was told.”
My dad’s friend and counterpart, John “Durk” Durkovitz, 1st Sgt. of D Company, said he saw a prisoner come out of a compound, and through the gate. Walter Eldredge quotes John, in his book “Finding My Father’s War”: “He looked like a skeleton. His eyes were sunk way back in his head, and his skin was stretched tight over his bones. He saw me, and lit up with a big grin, and started towards me. About halfway, he stumbled. He was still smiling, but then he looked kind of blank and just folded up. I went over to where he was laying on the ground, and he was dead.”
My dad carried four or five billfold sized pictures with him in his wallet for years after the war. People would comment that the holocaust never happened and my dad would say, “I was there” and pull out his photos. I used to wonder why those original pictures had gotten so crumbled on the edges. A few years ago, my father told me this to be the reason.
Eisenhower, he said, had issued a mandate that any GI with a camera, who entered these concentration camps, was to take as many photos as possible. He wanted it documented like nothing ever before.