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June 07, 2006
Gerald Williamson wouldn't take a milion, but once was enough
Remembering war time
|THESE DAYS Gerald Williamson is far removed from the two years, three months and 12 days he spent in Europe during World War Two. Retired from his job as manager of the Fleming Farmers Coop Elevator, Williamson now volunteers as a town council member. When at home, expecially in winter, he enjoys this fire place he constructed from bricks obtained from an old railroad depot. The fireplace is in his favorite room in his Fleming home.|
|Jean Gray photo|
HAXTUN, Colorado (STPNS) -- Twenty-year-old Gerald Williamson left the United States on June 8, 1943, headed for Africa. Two years, three months and 12 days later he returned to his homeland from a campaign that included three amphibious landings and battles that snaked there way from the North African shore, through the mountainous terrain of Italy, into France and finally to Germany.
Williamson said his first act upon sitting foot on the American shore again was to look for a spot of land to kiss. ?When we landed in Newport News (Virginia), I was walking down the gang plank with my barracks bag over my shoulder. I was looking for some bare ground so I could get on my hands and knees and kiss the ground. I couldn't find anything but a lot of asphalt. So I got down and kissed that.
?There was a tap on my shoulder so I got up to look around and there was a second lieutenant. He was all dressed up and he said, ?Soldier get up. Don't you know there is a war going on?' He left and I thought if this is the Army, I want no part of it.? He said before that encounter he had intended to re-enlist and later regretted that he didn't. ?They were giving you $500 to re-enlist, which at the time was a considerable amount,? said Williamson. ?We were only getting paid $50 per month.?
A native of Yetter, Iowa, Williamson joined the Army on Aug. 10, 1942, just eight months after the Japanese bombed the United State's Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. A day later, on Dec. 8, 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, joining the Allied forces against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.
Williamson, who continues to carry little weight on his tall frame, took his basic training at Camp Walters, Texas, near Mineral Wells. He said the camp is no longer there. ?All that is there now is sagebrush and the cement pillars that the barracks sat on.?
From Texas, Williamson went to Camp Pickett, Virginia, where he joined the 157th Regiment of the 45th Division. It was a "right face" that put Williamson in Europe instead of the South Pacific. ?In basic training, I became acquainted with a young man from Leavenworth, Kansas. Every morning they lined us up side-by-side for inspection. This particular morning, they told us to count off one, two. They told the ones to right face, those went to Europe; and the twos to left face, and those went to the South Pacific. He went to the South Pacific and was killed over there.?
Williamson said he had his buddy's address and wrote to the man's folks after he returned from the war. That was when he discovered his friend did not make it back.
According to Eager For Duty, a book about the 157th Regiment in World War II, troops sat in the harbor at Hampton Roads, Virginia on five ships for four days before the ships set sail for North Africa. On June 22, the 157th arrived at Oran, Africa, where Williamson made his first amphibious landing. ?We relieved the English, limeys we called them, on the front line,? said Williamson. ?As soon as we showed up, they (the English) turned on their driving lights and pulled out. Up on the front, you don't use lights at all.?
Williamson drove a half-track. He explained that a half-track is an armored vehicle with rear driving tracks. The front passenger side carried a 50-caliber machine gun. It also hauled eight gun troopers in the back with armor-piercing explosives, and pulled a 57-millimeter anti-tank gun. His job entailed setting up roadblocks for enemy tanks and sometimes delivering supplies.
Once they landed at Oran, the troops unloaded the ship and performed cleanup maneuvers, said Williamson. The war then took the 157th to Sicily, Italy, where, said Williamson, they had their toughest battle. ?The weather was miserable and Sicily was rough terrain, but I think Sicily was the hardest because we were getting broke in.? He added, however, that the Italians did not put up much of a fight. ?It was pretty scary to have 100 to 200 soldiers walk up on you with their hands in the air giving up. Our old saying was, they weren't fighters, they were lovers.? He laughs as he recalls the cliché.
According to historical accounts, once the Allies invaded Sicily and mainland Italy (the soft underbelly of Europe), the Italians rejected their Fascist dictator, Benito Mussline, and joined the Allies.
While he spent much of the war on land, Williamson points out that the 157th was an amphibious outfit, meaning that they were the first to go onto a beachhead. Williamson made three amphibious landings while he was in Europe. In addition to Africa and Italy, the 157th also made a beach landing in Southern France a day after the Normandy Invasion. He said that was their easiest landing because the Germans had two fronts to take care of, Southern France and Normandy. ?There wasn't a shot fired when we landed, but three days later we caught the devil.?
The 157th spent the winter of 1944 in Anzio, Italy, and it was during that time that Williamson made a near fatal mistake, but also earned a bronze medal. ?We were sitting in our half-track waiting to go in when I seen some tracers (airplane machine guns) along the line. It was night and I told the gun squad, ?get the hell out of here.' I thought I had my half-track in neutral, but it moved ahead and rammed the gun barrel on the other anti-tank into my radiator.? He said they plugged the hole with a cloth to keep the water from draining out and he was able to get back to the service company.
At the same time, said Williamson, the Germans counter attacked. ?The next morning we learned about the attack, and also that there were a lot of wounded.? That night, Williamson volunteered to take a six by six truck in to haul the wounded out. ?They (the wounded) should have gotten it (the medal), not me," he said.
Williamson also earned the European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with one silver and one bronze battle star, a bronze service arrowhead, four overseas service bars, a service stripe and a good conduct medal.
While he drove the half-track most of the time, there were places in the mountains of Italy where a vehicle could not venture. ?Then we became like old mule skinners,? he said, speaking of the times when mules delivered supplies and ammunition.
The Allies entered Rome on June 4, 1944, the 157th among them. Williamson said he spent seven days on pass in Rome. ?You carried your firearm, but there was no fighting.? They visited the Vatican while their rifles were stacked outside along a wall. ?One guy stayed outside to watch the rifles,? he said.
The last stop for Williamson in the war was Munich, Germany. It was an anticipated stop, and not just because he expected to go home from there. ?We came across a German warehouse that was filled with Champaign and all kinds of cheese and liquors,? Williamson recalled. ?The captain, Captain Cappes, was with us and he radioed back for the company to bring a German truck that we had captured.
?We loaded that up with everything you could want, a whole truck load. He (Cappes) put an order out that when the war was over we were going to have a party. He also put out an order out that anyone who stole any of it before the war was over was going to be court marshalled and discharged from the Army.? Williamson laughed as he related that the first one to get into the goodies was the supply sergeant. ?Cause he was in charge of it. And he did. He court marshalled him and shipped him out of the Army.?
The war ended in Europe on May 7, 1945 with the surrender of Germany, and Williamson said they did celebrate. ?We was a week in Munich, and I was beginning to wonder if I was going to turn into an alcoholic.? He said he could still remember that they were living in a nice apartment with a chandelier with bulbs, and the soldiers tried to break out the bulbs by aiming the metal tops of the Champaign bottles at them. ?What guys won't do when they get to drinking, but we knew it was over and we could celebrate.?
It was over for Williamson because he had enough points in to end his time overseas. However, others from the 157th were not so lucky. They took a short break before heading to the South Pacific. Williams, however, came home. It was Sept. 11, 1945 when he walked off the ship at Newport News, Virginia and kissed the asphalt.
Williamson married his wife Donna in 1950, and the couple raised one son, Jerry, who teaches art in Holyoke, Colorado. Gerald and Donna moved to Fleming, Colorado in 1976, when he took a job at the Fleming Farmers Coop Elevator as manager. Donna died on June 5, 1997.
Jerry and his wife Deb have two daughters, and Williamson speaks of them with pride. Nicole, 20, is a student at the University of Wyoming. Kristin, 18, will be a senior at Holyoke High School next year. Williamson recently took a cruise with his family to celebrate Jerry and Deb's 25th anniversary ? at the request of Kristin.
Now retired, Williamson, who has served on the Fleming Town Council for the past six years, lives in his comfortable home in Fleming. His favorite room is a cozy addition that contains a brick fireplace that he built of bricks from an old depot and a floor to ceiling bookcase. The room was once a porch and it looks out to a backyard also lined with brick. He got the bricks from an old railroad depot.
Of his experience in the war, Williamson said once was enough. ?You prayed a lot and hoped you'd make it back,? he said. ?You lived from day to day. You were scared and anyone who says he wasn't is a liar. I wouldn't take a million for what I've done and seen, but I sure wouldn't want to do it again.?
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